‘I’m not sure I stand a chance,’ I said, grabbing orange juice from the fridge and pouring a glass. ‘There were over twenty applicants. But I put on my best nerdy smile at the interview.’
‘Time will tell,’ Mum said. She seemed preoccupied somehow – jittery, her hand shaking as she put a lasagne in the oven.
The front door opened, and she startled, burning her hand.
‘Are you OK?’ I said.
‘Of course, yes.’ She slammed the oven door, and ran her hand under the cold tap.
‘G’day, all,’ said Cillian, coming into the kitchen, looking cheerful. ‘You’re now looking at the new sandwich maker at Sandwich City.’ He sounded far too happy about getting a job way below his abilities.
Mum threw us a serious look. ‘Can I talk to you both?’ she said, tucking her hair behind her ears as she headed into the lounge. We followed, my mind scanning the things that could possibly be wrong. Something I’d done a lot since dad died.
‘Sit down, please,’ Mum said, perching on the edge of the sofa. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
Once we were seated, she explained in great detail how she thought she’d found Cillian’s mother living next door.
As she came to an end, I looked at Cillian. His elbows were resting on his knees, his fingers entwined. He’d been stunned into silence.
‘Wow!’ I said, knowing my eyes had doubled in size. I loosened my tie – something I should have done hours ago. ‘This is bloody huge.’
‘Yeah, and there’s not a chance in hell it’s true,’ Cillian blurted. ‘I mean, what’s the likelihood of ending up next door to my long lost mother?’
‘Statistically,’ I began, ‘not especially high.’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘Give that boy a banana.’
‘The saying, it’s ‘give that man a coconut’’
‘And I care because?’
Mum made a growling sound I’d never heard before. ‘But you both came to Inala around the same time,’ she said. ‘In the late sixties.’
‘Like thousands of others,’ Cillian said. ‘I’ve searched all this time and nothing, and suddenly she appears next door to you. I’m sorry, Kate. This is ridiculous.’
‘It may seem so, but,’ I said, raising my finger. ‘It is possible. In fact, I remember Dad saying that although Great Expectations had a rather coincidental plot, it was possible and, therefore, plausible.’
‘What the dickens has that got to do with anything?’ Cillian said.
‘Ha – that was clever,’ I said, with a smile.
‘What was clever?’
‘You remember Dad saying that?’ Mum cut in, her eyes brightening as they met mine.
I nodded proudly. ‘I’ve read the whole book now, too.’
‘Good,’ Mum said. ‘Your dad would have been pleased.’
I smiled. ‘So, where was I?’
‘Coincidences,’ Mum obliged.
Cillian covered his face with his hands and made a loud tutting sound.
‘Ah yes,’ I went on. ‘Coincidences may seem impossible, but they happen anyway. There’s the theory of six degrees of separation, for one thing. And I read on the internet, that it’s possible to bump into a friend when on holiday in New York, even though you weren’t aware he was there at the same time as you.’
‘I’ve never been to America.’ Cillian scratched his head. ‘And I have no idea what you’re talking about, son.’
‘What Isaac is trying to say,’ Mum said, ‘is it can happen. There was a case not so long ago where a woman found her abducted son living round the corner from her. If it could happen to her, it could happen to you, Cillian, and I really believe it has.’
‘Plus, wasn’t it you who said Phototime can cause coincidences?’ I gave him a long look.
He nodded. ‘OK,’ he said, his expression morphing from disbelief to some kind of acceptance. ‘So this is for real?’ He looked from my mum, to me, and back again, his eyes watery. ‘You’re not bull-shitting me?’
‘Why would we do that?’ Mum said.
‘Have you really no idea how much we care about you?’ I added, patting his arm.
He smiled. ‘But what if she’s disappointed in me?’
‘Cillian, she’ll be proud. You’re her son. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met,’ I said.
‘Thanks, Isaac.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m in shock, to be honest - not sure how to feel exactly.’ His voice trailed away, and I gave him a playful punch.
‘Ahh,’ he said, holding his ribs.
‘Christ. Sorry. I forgot.’
His eyes filled up. ‘I’ve waited so long, you know.’
‘Don’t go all soppy on me, big guy.’
I was too late. Suddenly he was weeping. Loud sobs mixed with laughs and snorts.
‘Are you OK, Cillian?’ I said, but I’d seen this kind of outburst from him on the plane. He was happy. He was truly happy.
‘Never been better, son,’ he confirmed. ‘Never been better.’
I rose and drifted into the kitchen and picked up my fully charged phone, my heart still doing all kinds of dance movements - far better than Michael Jackson ever could have. I felt sheer delight for Cillian, and was anticipating more texts from Tilly.
There was only one, and as I read it my heart stopped dancing.
Have to go to New York. Not sure if or when I’ll be back, as my mum’s ill. Tilly XXX
Mum insisted we took Cillian round to see Gertie without warning her first. She seemed on a high somehow; chuffed that something was going right. Personally I thought it was a bloody daft idea. I mean, the shock could have killed the old dear. But I kept quiet; especially as my head was full of Tilly. I’d tried to call her as soon as I got her text, but her mobile had gone straight to voicemail, so I’d sent her a text, saying I hoped her mother would be OK. I imagined her flying away from me, above the clouds, never to return, and I hadn’t got a clue how to stop her.
We stood on Gus’s doorstep, ringing his doorbell, the sun on our backs, a distant curlew wailing like a baby. The sound of water splashing, and children laughing hysterically in a nearby garden, reminding me how much fun Tilly and I had as kids, whenever she came to my house.
‘I wish my parents were as happy as yours, Isaac,’ I remember her saying, as my dad playfully sprayed us and Mum with a hose.
Now, Cillian shuffled from foot to foot, his hands deep in his shorts pockets. I had to stay focused. The moments that would follow were all about Cillian, not about me and the way I couldn’t hang onto anything good in my life. This was huge. My desire to be with Tilly would have to wait.
Gus smiled as he opened the door. ‘G’day neighbours. Did you smell June’s baking?’
‘Hi Gus. This is Cillian,’ Mum said, seeming not to hear the cake reference. ‘He’s staying with us.’
I wasn’t sure what to say, or indeed whether I should say anything at all. In fact, I still wasn’t convinced we were handling things right. Cillian was a victim of a tragic past. Would bringing him together with his mother at this late stage make everything right? After all, this wasn’t a Disney film where everyone gets to live happily ever after. This was real life, real emotions.
I felt overwhelmed, so God knows how Cillian felt. I looked at my mum, and as though sensing my concern, she took my hand and squeezed.
‘Good to meet you, Cillian,’ Gus said, lunging forward and hugging him - knocking off his hat. ‘Any friend of Kate and Isaac’s is a friend of mine.’
Cillian picked up his hat, with a look on his face that suggested he might run for the hills if we didn’t nudge him through the door. So I gave him a push to help him on his way.
As we entered, his dark eyes darted around the room as though searching out his mother.
‘Is Gertie here, Gus?’ Mum asked, putting on an I’m-just-curious voice that I was sure he could see through.
‘She’s in the garden with June, why?’
At that moment, the two women came in through the back door chatting. Gertie, who looked so small next to June in her yellow T-shirt with a Minion on the front claiming ‘life is for living’, was wearing a floral dress and a wicker sunhat with a pink flower attached.
‘She looks like Miss Marple,’ Cillian whispered, his eyes shimmering as they met mine.
Gertie stopped and stared, her hands coming together under her chin, as though she was praying. It was as if she already knew who he was, which I found decidedly spooky.
Cillian dashed the back of his hand over each eye and sniffed into the silence. The years of searching, and the pain of repeated visits to the moment when the woman in green shattered his life, appeared to be washing away. His eyes shone, and I wondered if he was back on the beach with his brother, waving to his mum standing on the cliff edge.
Nothing was said as we graduated towards the dining room table and sat down. June brought over a jug of lemonade, ice bobbing on the surface.
‘So Cillian,’ she said, pouring the drink into glasses, completely oblivious. ‘Are you from Brisbane?’
‘Originally from England,’ he said, looking at Gertie. ‘I used to holiday in Northumberland, it seems.’
Gertie gasped. If she’d had any doubts when we entered, she had none now. Without a word, she rose and approached Cillian. She touched his cheek, her eyes watery as she smiled. ‘Cillian,’ she said. ‘What an unusual name.’
I could suddenly picture those moments in the photographs after the camera had flashed. The woman at the convent – Bryony - devastated by the loss of her child, and, four years later, taking Cillian’s small hand as she walked him away from the family he knew, convincing the child, and herself, he was her son.
How Cillian had found the photograph of him and his brother under the floorboards, all those years later, and innocently reminded her she’d stolen him - that he hadn’t been hers to take.
How Bryony had finally seen the reality of it all, and condemned herself as cruel and heartless, before taking her own life.
And then there was the man on the bench at Rosses Point in Sligo - Michael Murphy - who’d talked about regretting the person he used to be – a man who could have prevented misery, had times been different, had he been different.
Gertie’s eyes never left Cillian’s.
‘I’m guessing you’re a bit long in the tooth to change your name to Gary now,’ she said with a smile, her hand still on his face, as if he was a child.
Cillian smiled and placed his hand over hers, sandwiching it against his cheek. ‘So, you’re Gertie.’
‘Please – when you’re ready,’ she said, a tear rolling down her cheek, ‘call me Mum.’
‘What’s going on?’ said June, lemonade now overflowing the glass and splashing the table like a waterfall.
Gertie slipped her hand free and headed for the candle on the windowsill. With a single puff, she blew it out and turned to her daughter.
‘Let’s just say, we have no more use for this,’ she said with a smile. ‘Your brother is finally home.’