Seeing Cillian in Phototime brought back memories of Mum so helpless on the sofa at our old house in Adaminaby. It was the slowest five minutes of my life watching him barely moving, hardly breathing, and I was relieved when he came to, looking bewildered, as though what he’d witnessed had got to him.
‘So?’ I said, as he pulled himself up from the slump he’d found himself in.
‘It was harrowing,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘She had to give her child up, Isaac. She didn’t want to, but they made her.’
‘Who made her?’ I said, putting my arm round his shoulder.
‘She loved that baby. Her baby, not me. The baby wasn’t me.’ He faltered. ‘But a nun came and took him,’ he went on, looking dazed, as if part of him was still there inside the photo. ‘She took him from her and Bryony cried, sobbed her little heart out.’
‘Oh God, that’s awful.’
‘It was a convent in Ireland,’ Cillian went on. ‘One of those places where single mothers went if their families wouldn’t support them.’
‘I’m so sorry you had to see it,’ I said.
He shuddered. ‘I could feel her heart thumping, as if it was going to jump out of her chest, and she was shaking with fear. She shouted, “Cillian!” through the railings, but the car drove off.’
We sat in silence for some time, Cillian’s face buried in his hands. ‘She was just a kid, Isaac,’ he said eventually. ‘Seventeen at most.’
‘She must have searched for her child for four years, and mistook you for her son.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that,’ he said, ‘took me to replace him, more likely.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m confused. I mean lots of women lose babies, and it’s a terrible, terrible thing – truly awful - but they don’t go around stealing other people’s.’ He looked at me. ‘I’m trying to understand,’ he said, simply. ‘Really I am.’
An hour later, I headed into my room, leaving Cillian on the sofa dozing.
I picked up my phone, tempted to call Tilly, when a text message pinged through. It was from Ricky. He’d completely overdone the happy emoticons.
Back with Esme!!! Good one, bruv J J J
Life goes on. At least Ricky was happy. Though I still wasn’t sure I liked Esme.
I pulled Tilly’s number from my pocket and was suddenly dialling her number. Practicing what I would say when she answered - Hi, how are you? Hi, this is Isaac – remember me? Sorry I lost your number in the shower – well not in the shower exactly – just...
It went to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message.
I drifted into the kitchen and raided the fridge. And I was heading back to my room, munching on a sausage roll, when the front door opened. It was Mum.
‘It was like Piccadilly Circus at Gus and June’s,’ she said, nodding towards next door. ‘I ended up staying for ages. We were about to have a heart to heart, when their youngest daughter arrived with her children. Her baby is only two months old, dear little thing.’ She looked at me more closely. ‘When are you going to make me a grandma?’
‘What?’ I almost choked on my sausage roll.
She laughed. ‘I’m joking.’ She turned and spotted Cillian asleep on the sofa, snoring. ‘Oh my goodness, he’s back,’ she said. ‘Where was he? Is he OK?’
‘Well, he can stay here as long as he likes,’ she said, as the cats rushed to greet her. She sat down on the sofa next to Cillian, and lifted Byron onto her lap. He nibbled her chin, and as I explained everything that had happened, her eyes filled with tears.
‘You feel for Bryony, don’t you?’ I said.
‘In some ways, yes.’ She sniffed. ‘It’s a tragic story.’
‘It’s not a story.’ Cillian’s eyes, bloodshot and sore, sprung open. ‘It’s my life you’re talking about. My totally cocked up life.’
‘Oh, Cillian,’ Mum said, resting her hand on his arm, and Byron leapt from her lap. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…’
‘No, I’m sorry, Kate,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That was uncalled for.’ He smiled. ‘It’s good to see you again.’
‘You too,’ she said.
We sat for a while, talking, trying to make sense of it all.
‘I can’t get my head round why she took me from my family,’ Cillian said, eventually. ‘She must have seen I was happy with them. And to lie to me for years, then to take her own life without an explanation.’ He rose, straightening his hat. ‘I reckon I should probably be on my way; back to Yulara.’
‘Sit down before you fall down, Cillian Murphy.’ Mum’s tone was firm as she jumped up and ushered him back to the sofa. ‘If you won’t see a doctor, at least let me look after you - I am a nurse, after all.’
Cillian didn’t argue. In fact he looked relieved as he flopped back down.
‘Michael Murphy,’ I said in a whisper, as the old man on the bench at Rosses Point, came into my mind – the old man in the photograph of my parents, who’d talked of regrets about his daughter. How he wished things had been different. ‘He must have sent her to the convent,’ I blurted out.
Cillian’s eyes widened. ‘Who did?’
‘I’m sure I saw Bryony’s father when I went into the photo of my parents and Gran,’ I said, the words rushing out. ‘He told my gran his daughter believed her baby was still with her, and that she was never quite right when she returned. I think he must have been talking about the convent. It means she couldn’t help what she did.’ I couldn’t read his expression. ‘She wasn’t evil, Cillian. She thought you were her son.’ I wasn’t sure I had it completely worked out. After all, Murphy was a common name in Ireland, and the chances of Michael being Bryony’s father were a million to one, plus lots of young girls had ended up in convents. But it suddenly didn’t matter if it was Bryony’s father. Even if wasn’t, his daughter’s experience had been the same as Bryony’s, and thousands of other young women at the time.
‘She must have had a passport made,’ Cillian said slowly, his brow furrowed. ‘She’d planned to take me to Australia.’
‘Not necessarily,’ I said, thinking about what he’d told me. ‘She’d always thought her son was with her. Remember how you said she rocked him in her arms, even after he’d been taken?’
He nodded. ‘And in those days, children were added to the parent’s passport, so as long as she had his birth certificate, which she did.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I just wish she’d told me, that’s all,’ he said, face crumpling. ‘Instead of taking her life.’
I imagined Bryony seeing the photo for the first time in nineteen years, and how the truth must have hit her, breaking down the pretence. ‘She was unwell, Cillian,’ I said. ‘She must have felt like there was no other option.’
His eyes were watery as he stood up. He didn’t look at us. ‘Are you
sure it’s OK to stay a while, Kate?’ was all he said.
‘Of course.’ Mum patted his arm. ‘I’ll get some clean towels and show you your room.’
‘Thanks,’ he said. He looked more tired than I’d ever seen him. ‘I think I’ll get my head down for bit.’