London, December 1974
The young woman hurried along the street. It was the fourth time she’d passed through Eaton Square in the last hour. She knew that because she’d kept count, and she had a nagging suspicion that the policeman on the corner had, too. She tossed her head back, trying to look as though she belonged here, among the elegant rows of stucco townhouses that characterised Belgravia. But she had no hope. In her cheap coat and threadbare mittens, it was clear Katie O’Dwyer had no business in a place like this.
As she reached the middle of the street, her pace slowed until she came to a halt outside one of the grand Georgian residences. A clone of its neighbours, it stood six storeys high and was painted virgin white. Wrought-iron railings separated the neat front garden from the pavement. At the top of five marble steps there was a formidable black door with a heavy brass knocker, which the housemaid polished every Wednesday without fail. Katie knew the routine well, even though she had never lived in the house – never officially been a visitor there, if she was honest.
She saw straight away that he still wasn’t home. The only light came from the basement, the staff quarters, where a television could be seen flickering through the net curtains. Upstairs, where he lived, remained in darkness. Part of her wanted to knock and ask if she could wait in the warmth, but she knew her presence would raise questions, and she wouldn’t risk doing that to him. Instead she crossed to the park bench opposite. The wooden seat was cold and hard, but with a clear view of the house, it was as good a place as any to wait.
A light drizzle began to fall. Despite herself, Katie smiled. It had been raining the night she’d arrived in England, a little over a year ago. She remembered stepping off the boat at Holyhead, her stomach still churning from the journey, and feeling the first droplets on her skin. She had thought of it as a cleansing rain, washing away the memories of her life in Ireland and opening the way to the future.
Not that life back home had been bad – it was simply dull. She had grown up in a small village in County Mayo, the conservative west of the country, the only child of overprotective parents. Having spent fifteen years trying to conceive, they had pretty much given up hope of ever having a baby when little Katie came along, just after her mother’s fortieth birthday. Their Miracle Child, they’d treated her as though she was liable to break at any moment. By the time Katie turned eighteen, she craved freedom and excitement; longed to go to London, to see Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. Telling her parents wasn’t easy. But after weeks of pleading and shouting, they finally bade her a tearful farewell at Dún Laoghaire docks.
Katie arrived at the Catholic hostel in Kilburn full of excitement. But finding work proved more difficult than she’d imagined. The optimism of the early seventies had faded. Inflation and unemployment were on the rise; the IRA’s terror campaign was in full swing, making it even harder to find a job if you were Irish. She was on the verge of giving up and going home, when Nuala, one of the girls in her dorm, mentioned hearing about a vacancy where she worked.
‘The hours are long and the pay’s shite,’ Nuala said cheerfully. ‘But it’s a job, right?’
In fact, Katie thought it sounded terribly glamorous, working as a sales assistant at Melville. The exclusive English fashion house was internationally renowned for its handmade leather shoes, exquisite bags and delightful scarves, its name synonymous with taste and breeding. Katie’s heroines, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis, had both recently been photographed clutching Melville handbags sporting the signature m-shaped clasp.
The following morning, Katie put on her smartest clothes and headed over to Old Bond Street, home to the most elegant and exclusive shops in London. Wide-eyed, she passed art galleries and fine jewellers, designer shops like Gucci and Chanel ... until she finally found Melville. Even from the outside it was intimidating. Darkened glass and huge velvet curtains at the windows made it impossible to see inside. A liveried porter held the gold-crested doors open for her. Taking a deep breath, Katie walked inside.
That was her first mistake.
‘Salesgals must use the rear entrance,’ Anne Harper, the Store Manager, told Katie later that morning as she gave her a brief tour of the store. Nuala had put in a good word for her and, after a cursory interview, Mrs Harper had agreed to take Katie on for a trial period. It was said in a way that suggested she didn’t expect Katie’s employment to last any longer than that.
‘If I catch you coming in through the front entrance again, you will be dismissed,’ Mrs Harper went on. ‘You will also be immediately dismissed if you are late or if a customer complains about you.’
Katie was quickly cured of the notion that working at Melville would be glamorous. Nuala had been right: the hours were long, the pay poor, and the people unfriendly – customers and colleagues alike. She hardly ever saw Nuala, who worked as a secretary in the adjoining Head Office building, and the other shop girls were for the most part from wealthy families, the job merely a diversion until they were married off. Katie knew they looked down on her, the simple Irish country girl. When they made plans to go out at the weekend – plans that never included her – Katie pretended not to hear.
In the face of such open hostility, Katie probably would have looked around for a position elsewhere. But then something unexpected happened. She fell in love.
It began with a spate of thefts. Five handbags disappeared from the stockroom, followed by a dozen silk scarves. But when twenty pounds went missing from the till, Management finally decided to crack down. Mrs Harper called a staff meeting as soon as the store closed, warning that a spot check would be carried out on all bags as employees left that night.
Katie joined the queue with everyone else. As she waited, someone jostled her arm. She looked round to see Fiona Clifton, a horse-faced country-set type, who was always especially unpleasant to her. Fiona’s narrow face split into a toothy grin. ‘Sorry, darling,’ she brayed.
Katie was about to tell her not to worry. But just then she was called forward to open up her bag. Katie looked on as Melville’s Head of Security removed her umbrella, Max Factor lipstick and hankie. Finally, he went through her coat pockets. With Mrs Harper and the other staff looking on, he pulled out a twenty-pound note. He turned it over to reveal an orange highlighter mark slashed across it, identifying it as the float from the till.
‘That isn’t mine,’ Katie protested.
But no one believed her story. After all, why would any of the well-to-do young ladies who worked in the store steal money and then plant the evidence on her ...
Mrs Harper hauled Katie up by her arm. ‘You’ll have to come with me. Mr Melville wants to deal with this himself.’
Katie’s heart sank. She had heard whispers about William Melville, the great-grandson of the founder. Rumoured to be a formidable man, he never made time to visit the shop floor, and the store staff only ever saw him at the Christmas party, at which he made the briefest of appearances. Katie had never even laid eyes on him before, but she couldn’t imagine he was the type to give her a fair hearing.
Melville’s Head Office was located directly behind the store. Katie had never had any reason to venture over there before, but she had expected it to resemble the stark, soulless backrooms of the store. Instead, it was like stepping into a stately home. She followed Mrs Harper along dimly-lit corridors, complete with deep-pile carpets and original oil paintings adorning the walls. Finally, they reached a heavy door at the top of the building. A gold-lettered nameplate announced that it belonged to ‘William Melville, Chief Executive’. Mrs Harper rapped loudly, and a gruff voice invited them inside.
The room was every bit as imposing as the hallway. Walnut wainscoting, polished floorboards and a bookcase crammed with first editions gave a grand, impersonal feel. In the centre stood a handsome Louis XIV desk, made of solid dark oak, the top covered in burgundy leather. Katie guessed correctly that the man sitting behind it was William Melville. Tall and well-built; strong, serious and uncompromising: the kind of man born to run a company like this. He didn’t look up as they entered.
‘One moment,’ he murmured.
Katie shifted uneasily. Mrs Harper still had a firm grip on her arm and it was beginning to hurt, but she didn’t dare twist away. It felt like forever before Mr Melville closed the file in front of him and deigned to look up. ‘So what can I do for you, Anne?’ His voice was strong and clear and, to Katie’s ears, terrifyingly posh.
She stared straight ahead as Mrs Harper ran through the events of the evening. William Melville didn’t glance in her direction once. She couldn’t help feeling despondent. He would undoubtedly believe everything Mrs Harper said, and probably call the police. The thought of being sent back to Ireland in disgrace, of her parents’ shame ... She felt tears welling in her eyes, but blinked them away. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
Mrs Harper finished speaking. William’s eyes flicked to Katie. She made sure to meet his gaze – after all, she had no reason to be ashamed. He was only in his early thirties, but his sober face, bespoke Savile Row suit and greying temples made him seem older. He stared at her for a long moment, as though getting the measure of her. Finally his eyes dropped to where Mrs Harper still had hold of Katie’s arm. He frowned. ‘I think you can let go of the young lady, Anne,’ he said mildly. ‘I doubt she’s going to run off.’
The Store Manager did as she was told. Then William turned to Katie, and what he said next took her completely by surprise.
‘Now, Katie,’ he addressed her as though they were old acquaintances, ‘why on earth did you put Mrs Harper to all this trouble?’ His tone was filled with mild reproof.
He waited for a moment, as if expecting her to answer. Katie stayed silent. She had no idea what he was talking about. When she didn’t speak up, he shook his head and turned to Mrs Harper.
‘I’m so sorry about all this, Anne. But I know for certain that Katie didn’t steal this money. You see, I gave it to her from the petty cash box myself so that she could pick up my dry cleaning on her way into work tomorrow morning. My secretary would usually do it, but she’s been away.’
Katie looked on in disbelief as he forced a reluctant Mrs Harper to apologise to her. She had no idea why he would lie for her, but if it meant she got to keep her job then she was happy to keep quiet.
Mrs Harper didn’t stay around for very long after that. Clearly humiliated, she bade William a brisk goodnight, and then hurried off. Katie waited until the other woman’s footsteps had faded, before turning to the Chief Executive. ‘Why did you do that?’ she asked.
William shrugged with the nonchalance of a man who is used to having his orders obeyed without question. ‘You looked as though you could use someone on your side.’
She took a moment to digest what he’d said.
‘Thank you,’ she said finally.
‘You’re welcome.’ His eyes hardened. ‘Just make sure nothing like this happens again. I won’t be so lenient next time.’
It dawned on her then that he still thought she was guilty.
‘I didn’t—’ she began to explain. But he cut her off.
‘All I ask is that it doesn’t happen again,’ he repeated crisply.
He turned back to his file, signalling that as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over. Katie wanted to say more but knew there was no point. Instead, she slipped from the room.
As she hurried down the stairs and out into the brisk winter night, she knew she should feel relieved – she’d had a lucky escape. But for some reason the incident depressed her. She hated to think that this kind man, who had taken a chance on her, still believed that she was a thief.
A month later, the real culprit was caught. Security discovered Fiona Clifton in the stockroom sneaking five pairs of shoes into a backpack. Apparently, Daddy’s monthly allowance wasn’t enough to fund her burgeoning cocaine habit. She was sacked on the spot.
With her name fully cleared now, Katie received a second, somewhat stilted apology from Mrs Harper ... and a handwritten note from William Melville inviting her to dinner that night.
He hadn’t asked her to keep their rendezvous quiet. But Katie didn’t share her news with the other girls, not wanting them to gossip. Instead, she stuck to her routine, leaving the shop at seven, then whiling away the next hour in a nearby café.
Katie couldn’t help feeling nervous as she waited. She had little experience with men. She’d had her share of admirers, drawn to her striking Gaelic looks – glossy blue-black hair and snow-white skin – as much as her full figure, but she’d never had a proper boyfriend. Back home, her father’s fierce stare had kept suitors away. London had brought more freedom, but her strict Catholic upbringing meant any dates always ended the same – with Katie pushing away eager hands and then being walked home in sullen silence. She had already decided that if William acted in any way forward she would head straight home – even if it meant losing her job. After all, she wasn’t that type of girl.
She was back outside the shop entrance by five to eight. William was already there. Early, she noted, and looking fabulously affluent in a navy cashmere coat. She glanced down at her own attire. Dressed in her polyester bow blouse and calf-length cord skirt, she wasn’t exactly an ideal dinner companion for him. She waited, uncertain how to greet him.
‘I’m glad you came, Katie,’ he said, in his deep, cultured voice that made her so aware of her own Irish lilt.
‘It was nice of you to invite me, Mr Melville.’
He smiled down at her. ‘If we’re going to have dinner together, then I must insist you call me William.’
She hesitated for the briefest of moments before smiling back at him.
‘Thank you ... William,’ she said.
It was a magical evening for Katie. William whisked her off to the Ritz. Given its proximity to the office, he dined there often, apparently. At first, when they entered the hotel’s rather formal dining room, Katie felt a moment of dread. She was bound to do something stupid, commit some awful social gaffe. But William, seeming to sense her fears, went out of his was to put her at ease. He direced the maitre d’ to seat them at a table tucked into a discreet corner, away from the prying eyes of other guests. And he must have seen her look of horror, upon realizing the menu was in French, because he offered to order for her. ‘I’m here so often that I know what’s good,’ he said smoothly, clearly wanting to spare her any embarrassment.
After that, she began to relax. She devoured every bit of the delicious food – lobster bisque followed by Boeuf Bourguignon – and even allowed him to pour her a small glass of the Bordeaux he’d carefully selected. Talking to him was easier than she’d expected, too, since he seemed so genuinely interested in what she had to say. She found herself telling him about her upbringing, how stifled she’d felt at home; he reciprocated by opening up to her about the pressure he had always felt to go into the family business. It was strange to find they had more in common than she could have ever imagined.
At the end of the evening he insisted on having his chauffeur drop her home. As they leaned back against the smooth leather seats of the Rolls-Royce, watching the bright lights of the West End fade into the less salubrious surroundings of North London, Katie was certain that she would remember this as one of the best nights of her life.
When they reached the hostel, he got out of the car to open the door for her, like a real gentleman should.
‘Goodnight, Katie,’ he said.
He bent to kiss her hand. She felt his lips brush against her skin and shivered. Without another word, she turned and ran into the house, carrying her memories with her.
They made no plans to meet again. But the following Thursday Katie received another note from William in her staff pigeonhole, asking whether she was free for dinner that night.
This time, she hesitated. She knew he was married. She also knew he had an eighteen-month-old daughter. He had told her all about his wife and child last week. They resided at his country estate in Somerset. During the week he stayed in his Belgravia residence, and at weekends he travelled down to be with them. Katie had no idea what this invitation meant to him, but she knew what it meant to her. And that was enough to make her consider turning it down.
But, despite her good intentions, she found herself standing outside the shop entrance at ten to eight that evening. Once again, he was already there, and he smiled when he saw her.
‘I thought we could go somewhere else tonight,’ he said, as they walked along the street. ‘Somewhere ... less formal.’
She guessed he meant somewhere that they were less likely to be spotted.
The little French bistro was, as he had promised, less formal. And, whatever his reason for choosing it, Katie found she felt more at ease.
When another invitation arrived the following week, she wasn’t remotely surprised.
They ate dinner together every Thursday for the next two months. On the surface, they had nothing in common. But they found each other mutually fascinating. William never mentioned his wife again, and Katie saw no reason to bring her up, either. In fact, she was surprised at how easy it was to forget who he was. She would find herself telling him about her day, about the other girls being horrible to her, as though he was a friend.
‘I could do something,’ he said once. ‘Have you moved to another section ...’
‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘No. I don’t want you to do anything.’ What she meant was that she didn’t want him to do anything that would draw attention to them.
Katie had no idea what he saw in her, or where he thought they were headed. Other than kissing her hand, he never made any move to touch her. The only person she had confided in about their meetings was Nuala. Her friend made no secret of her disapproval.
‘There’s only one thing he’ll be wanting from you, Katie,’ she told her time and again.
‘No,’ Katie insisted. ‘It’s not like that.’
Nuala gave a sceptical sniff. She was in the midst of planning her wedding to a young chap she’d met at one of London’s many Irish clubs, and didn’t like hearing about a married man wining and dining a pretty single girl. ‘Ah, Katie, you eejit. You don’t really believe that now, do you?’
In fact, Katie had almost convinced herself that she and William were friends, nothing more. Then one bitter January night they were walking back to his car when she slipped over on the icy pavement. He helped her up, but when she looked down to check the damage, she found her tights were torn and her knees skinned. Tears filled her eyes.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked, concerned.
‘I’m fine,’ she sniffed.
‘No, you’re not.’
As if to prove her wrong, he reached out to brush a tear from her wet cheek. That only made it worse. Suddenly she couldn’t stop crying.
William didn’t say anything. He simply put his arms around her and drew her to him. She knew she ought to resist, but for some reason she couldn’t pull away. Instead, she closed her eyes and relaxed against his chest.
‘Oh, Katie, Katie,’ he murmured into her hair. ‘What are we going to do?’
That night, instead of having his driver drop her home, William brought her back to his place.
Katie knew it was wrong. She knew that she was likely to burn in hell for eternity, but she couldn’t stop herself. That night, Katie O’Dwyer, who had sworn to the nuns that she would save herself for her wedding night, gave herself entirely to another woman’s husband. On the embossed silk sheets of a strange bed, with his wife and child gazing down at her from the photos on the wall, she opened herself up to William.
The blood and pain disappeared after the first time. And from then on they stopped meeting in restaurants. He rented a little flat for her in Clapham and every Thursday – and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, too – they would skip dinner and head straight back there to spend the evening in each other’s arms.
They had eight months together. Eight blissful months pretending the world didn’t exist.
Then one night he told her about his forthcoming trip to Italy – the annual family holiday. He couldn’t get out of the two weeks at Lake Como, somewhere she hadn’t even heard of. The thought of not seeing William for fourteen days bothered Katie more than knowing he would be with his wife. Kissing away her tears, he promised to come and see her the night that he returned.
That was Katie’s first experience of men’s duplicity. Two days after William left, she was summoned into Anne Harper’s office and told that she was being let go.
‘But that can’t be right!’ she burst out. ‘You can’t do that. Just ask—’ She was about to say ‘William’, but caught herself in time.
The Store Manager smiled unpleasantly. ‘Ask Mr Melville, is that what you were going to say?’ Katie could see that she was enjoying herself. ‘I don’t think that’s going to do you any good, Miss O’Dwyer. After all, he was the one who instructed me to get rid of you.’
Katie listened in a daze as the woman told her that, along with losing her job, she would also be expected to vacate her flat by the end of the week. The manageress then slid an envelope across the desk. ‘This should compensate you for any undue distress,’ she said coolly. ‘And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to keep this conversation to yourself?’
Katie heard the warning note in Anne’s voice. Somehow she managed to mumble something about not wanting to cause any trouble, and then, still in a daze, she got to her feet and stumbled to the door.
Upstairs, alone in the staffroom, she opened the heavy cream envelope. Some part of her had hoped it would contain a letter from William, with some explanation for what he had done. But there was only a brisk, formal note on company headed paper from Personnel, outlining the terms of her termination, and pointing her towards the enclosed redundancy cheque for one thousand pounds. It was clearly such a ridiculous sum relative to her pay and duration of employment that she nearly laughed. Instead, she tucked the envelope, letter and cheque into her pocket, and cleared out her locker. Then, without speaking to another soul, she left Melville for good.
That night, Katie did what William wanted – she got out of his life. He was right, she decided, as she packed her belongings. A clean break was the best way. If she wished he’d had the courage to tell her face-to-face, she consoled herself with the thought that he had feared his resolve would weaken. It was easier than thinking the alternative: that he had never cared.
She never went back to Melville. She found cheaper lodgings and convinced the owner of a small café to take her on. And William was right, she told herself every night as she cried herself to sleep. It had had to end between them. She needed to forget him so that he could forget her, and be with his wife. However much it hurt, it was the right thing to do.
That had been three months ago. And now here she was, waiting outside his house, where they had spent that first night together.
The familiar purr of a car engine broke into Katie’s thoughts. She looked up from her place on the park bench. Sure enough, it was William’s Rolls. Her heartbeat quickened. Despite everything that had happened, she was longing to see him again.
The car slowed, pulling up in front of his house. The chauffeur got out first, putting on his peaked cap before going round to open the rear door for William.
Then William stepped out onto the pavement. In the shadowy light from the streetlamp, Katie could still make out his broad shoulders and solemn expression. She stood up, shivering with cold and anticipation. She was about to call his name – but then he turned back to the car and held out his hand. Katie watched as slender fingers gripped his strong wrist.
She recognised the elegant blonde in the fox fur straight away: it was his wife, Isabelle. Katie wondered idly where they had been tonight. The opera? Dinner with friends? Not that it was her business.
She watched as they walked up the steps together and disappeared into the house. A moment later, the Christmas-tree lights flickered on in the front window. In the half-light, she saw William draw Isabelle into his arms. He pointed up at the mistletoe above them and she giggled. He brushed her fair hair back and bent his head.
Katie couldn’t watch any longer. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the image of them together. Then she reached down to touch the gentle swell of her belly. She could never tell him now. She had been foolish to come here tonight; just as she had been foolish to get involved with a married man. Now she would have to deal with the consequences alone.
Katie O’Dwyer died on a Tuesday. She was buried three days later, on a warm June morning, Valleymount’s first glimpse of summer. The whole village turned out for the funeral, testament to her popularity with everyone who’d ever met her.
Her fifteen-year-old daughter, Caitlin, stood by the graveside, watching the pallbearers lower her mother’s coffin into the ground. She’d made it through the Mass without crying but now, as the priest began the Rite of Committal, it finally hit her. Mam was gone and, for the first time in her life, she was all alone.
For as long as Caitlin could remember, it had just been the two of them, her and Mammy. She never realised how close her mother had come to giving her up.
Alone and pregnant in London, Katie’s options were slim. She knew girls who had got themselves ‘fixed up’, but her Catholic beliefs forbade it. Telling her parents wasn’t an option, so she resolved to have the baby in London, put it up for adoption and then go home. No one would ever have to know ...
When it came time for the birth, she went into a home for unmarried mothers in the East End. There was little kindness or sympathy among the staff. They encouraged the young mothers to give up their babies and then sent them off, warning them not to sin again.
After a surprisingly easy five-hour labour, Katie took one look at her daughter’s wide blue eyes and knew exactly what she should be called.
‘You look like a Caitlin to me,’ she murmured to her newborn.
A nurse overheard her and sniffed disparagingly. ‘Don’t matter what you call her. Her new mother will decide that.’
But I’m her mother, Katie thought.
Two days later, after a huge argument with Matron, she left the hospital with Caitlin in her arms. It was a brave decision. One that meant she had no choice: when she was recovered from the birth, she would have to return to Ireland.
Caitlin couldn’t remember her grandparents, which was probably just as well. When Katie turned up on the doorstep of the little house in County Mayo with her two-month-old baby, her mam and dad did nothing to disguise their dismay. They gave Katie and her child a place to sleep, but little else. Caitlin was treated like their dirty little secret. It was just as well they never knew that the father was married, Katie often thought.
When they died two years later – her father first, after a stroke, followed by her mother, whose heart gave out just a few weeks later – Katie decided she needed a fresh start. The thin gold band on her left hand hadn’t fooled the neighbours, and she didn’t want Caitlin growing up in a place where everyone called her a bastard child. Katie had kept in touch with Nuala over the years. She’d moved back to Ireland, too, with the man she’d met in London, and they were now raising their young family in a picturesque village called Valleymount, in County Wicklow. Known as ‘the garden of Ireland’, with its lush hills, cascading waterfalls and glassy lakes, Katie had thought on the two occasions that she’d been to visit that it would be the ideal place to raise Caitlin. So she sold her parents’ property, and used the proceeds to buy a tiny cottage near her friend.
It turned out to be a good move. Caitlin’s early years were spent with a pack of other village kids, running barefoot through the pretty glens and swimming in the nearby Blessington Lakes. Work was hard to come by in eighties Ireland, but Katie managed to find a job as a cleaner in one of the upmarket hotels nearby. Each day, after school, the little girl would help Katie dust the bedrooms and restock the toiletries. And, even though there might not be much money, mother and daughter were happy. Twice a year, they would make the hour’s bus ride into Dublin, and spend the day shopping on Grafton Street before taking afternoon tea in Bewley’s. But the rest of the time, they were content with Valleymount – and each other.
‘You’re so lucky, Katie,’ Nuala would remark enviously. ‘Caitlin’s an angel.’ Her own daughter, Róisín, was anything but.
When Caitlin turned twelve, it was time for her to go to the local secondary school, Holy Cross. With less than twenty pupils per class, most of whom she’d grown up with, it was like spending each day with a large extended family. She was bright, but not especially academic. Her real talent and interest was art. She spent hours drawing, and could capture a likeness with a few brief pencil strokes.
Of course, her adolescence brought more changes. With her Snow White looks – jet-black hair and milk-white skin – she was rapidly becoming a beauty, much like her mother. And as the puppy fat melted away, leaving behind womanly curves, the boys she had once played easily with turned shy around her. Tongue-tied, they took it in turns to ask her to the pictures, but she always refused. Boys were the one area forbidden to her.
She had no idea why she wasn’t allowed out on dates. All her friends were. Saturday nights, they would head into town to go bowling with their latest boyfriends.
‘Sneak out after yer mam’s asleep and join us,’ Róisín said. Like their mothers, the two girls were best friends.
But Caitlin never did. As always, she obeyed her mother. It was because it was just the two of them. They had to pull together, couldn’t live in a permanent state of war like Róisín and Nuala. Róisín never understood. But that’s because she had a father, Caitlin reasoned, while hers had died before she was born, leaving her mother to raise her singlehandedly. Financially, it had always been tough. Caitlin wasn’t about to add to her mother’s worries.
Sometimes Caitlin wondered why Katie hadn’t ever remarried. There were plenty of men around the village who seemed interested. But her mother would always clam up whenever she asked, and Caitlin guessed that she still hadn’t gotten over her father’s death. She never pressed the subject, and mother and daughter lived happily and effortlessly together. That was, until six months ago.
Caitlin first realised her mother was ill one night after dinner. As she emptied the leftovers into the bin, she noticed that her mam had barely touched the shepherd’s pie she’d made that day in Home Economics. It might not be a fantastic effort, but her mother was the type to clear her plate, if only to save her child’s feelings.
Over the next few days Caitlin monitored what went into the bin. Sure enough, each night Katie barely touched her meal. When Caitlin asked if anything was wrong, she dismissed it as a spot of indigestion. Caitlin said no more – but she couldn’t help noticing how, instead of insisting that she went to do her homework, these days Katie was happy to let her daughter wash up while she dozed in front of the television.
As the weeks went on, her mother’s appetite didn’t improve. It was getting increasingly hard to ignore her sunken eyes, dull hair and the way her once-plump cheeks were now almost concave. But whenever Caitlin suggested going to the doctor, Katie dismissed her with increasing irritation.
‘Give over, Caitlin,’ she snapped one Thursday night. ‘I’m fine – it’s just—’
But she never finished the sentence. Instead, she ran for the bathroom. Caitlin waited outside, listening to her bring up the supper that she’d managed to swallow earlier. Finally, when everything went quiet, Caitlin pushed open the door. Her mother had collapsed, exhausted, on the floor. Caitlin went over to the basin and started to wash it out. This time she couldn’t ignore the blood. She didn’t say a word until she’d helped her mother upstairs and into her nightdress. Then, once her mam was settled in bed, she said: ‘Please go to the doctor. You’re not well.’
For the first time, her mother didn’t argue back. And that was what worried Caitlin most.
Dr Hannon smiled at them both and said there was probably nothing to worry about, but he’d like to send Katie for tests. His smile couldn’t hide the worry in his eyes.
A few weeks later they sat down with a specialist. He told them that, although the pancreatic cancer had been diagnosed at a late stage, there was still hope. Like Dr Hannon, he couldn’t fool the O’Dwyer women. He said they would use chemotherapy to shrink the tumour and then operate. What he actually meant was that at the moment, there was no point operating and they would have to pray for a miracle.
When Caitlin wasn’t holding the bowl for her mother to be sick in or helping her wrap the scarf to cover her bald head, she was on her knees in the hospital chapel praying for that miracle. It never came. When they finally opened her up, it was too late. The cancer had spread. There was nothing to do but wait.
Caitlin tried not to show her shock when she walked into the ward. Even though she saw her mother every day, was accustomed to the smell of antiseptic and death, she still couldn’t get over how quickly she had gone downhill. Unable to eat for weeks now, Katie had shrunk to a skeletal figure, hardly taking up any room in the tiny single bed. Only her distended belly, full of cancer cells, gave her any shape under the stark white sheets. Her eyes were closed and she was so pale that if it hadn’t been for the gentle rise and fall of her rib cage, Caitlin would have assumed her mother was gone rather than simply asleep.
Caitlin busied herself by looking for a space to put the vase of bluebells which she’d picked that morning. It was no easy task. The bedside cabinet was already filled with half-dead flowers, futile Get Well Soon cards and grapes that would never be eaten. She was halfway through clearing away the faded blooms when she heard her mother calling for her.
‘I’m here, Mammy,’ she said. ‘Can I get you something? Some water perhaps?’
‘No ... No ... Nothing like that.’
Katie paused. The only sound was her laboured breathing. She reached out and took Caitlin’s hand. Her fingers were thin and cold as death.
‘I don’t have long now, Cat,’ she began. Caitlin opened her mouth to deny this truth, but a look from her mother stopped her. ‘Don’t be contradicting me. I need to tell you something.’
‘What is it, Mam?’
‘It’s about your father. I never told you much about him. I should have.’
‘Let’s not be worrying about that. He’s gone. There’s nothing more to say.’
Her mother closed her eyes, and when she opened them again Caitlin saw they were glistening with tears. ‘But that’s it, my child,’ she said. ‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you. He isn’t dead.’
For the next half an hour, Katie explained to her daughter how she had met William Melville and fallen in love. She told her about his wife and daughter. And how even though they had both known the affair was wrong, they could do nothing to stop their feelings for each other. She spoke with a clear determination to get it all off her chest. As others before her had found, the deathbed made a good confessional.
‘He ended it before I found out I was pregnant,’ she said, avoiding the precise details of the break-up. ‘And we were happy, weren’t we?’ she continued when Caitlin still hadn’t said anything. ‘Just the two of us. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.’
Caitlin managed to nod in answer. She knew she should say something, offer some comfort to her mother. But she was still too stunned.
‘I’ve written to him, love.’
Caitlin’s head snapped up. ‘You’ve what?’
‘I wrote to tell him that he has a daughter. A beautiful, fifteen-year-old daughter.’
Caitlin pulled her hand away and stood up.
‘He’s been in touch, too,’ Katie said quickly. ‘He left a message to say he’s coming to see us.’
Caitlin saw her mam’s eyes dart over to the door, as though she expected him to appear at any moment. She realised then why her mother had never married. She still loved him. Even after all these years. Hurt and confused, Caitlin turned away.
‘Cat?’ She heard her mother’s voice, weak and pleading. She could feel her reaching out. ‘Please don’t be angry, pet. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about him. I should have said something sooner.’
She stopped, and Caitlin knew that she was waiting for her to say something. But she couldn’t. Not yet.
‘Forgive me, my darling. Say that you forgive me.’
Caitlin closed her eyes and swallowed back the tears. All she could think about was how her mother had been lying to her for fifteen years. It was too much for her to process. But she knew she had to.
‘It’s OK, Mam,’ she said finally, opening her eyes. ‘I understand.’ She took a deep breath, turned around. ‘I forgive you.’
The final word died in her throat. She stared down at her mother. Katie’s lips were parted, as though she was just about to say something, but her eyes stared ahead unseeing. It was too late for forgiveness.
Caitlin sat with the body as long as she could. Finally the Staff Nurse persuaded her to get a cup of tea. She was on her way back to the ward when she spotted him – a tall, well-dressed man, talking to the Matron. He must have sensed her presence, because he looked up. For a moment his expression faltered.
‘Katie?’ he said.
The refined English voice left her in no doubt as to who he was.
‘No. It’s Caitlin.’
Caitlin nodded. She had seen enough pictures of her mother as a young girl to know that it was an easy mistake to make. He hadn’t seen her mother for sixteen years. To him, she hadn’t aged a day since then.
‘She’s already gone,’ she told him.
William Melville booked into the Grand, the hotel where her mother had worked, and took charge of organising the funeral. The more Caitlin saw of him that week, the harder it was to believe that he was her father. It was harder still to understand how her mother had ever got entangled with him. She’d insisted that they had loved each other. So far, in the few days Caitlin had known him, William had been far more reticent about their relationship.
On the day of the funeral, he maintained a dignified distance, standing discreetly to one side during the service and burial. Caitlin half-expected him to leave straight afterwards, but to her surprise, he came to the Clover Leaf for the reception. The pub was packed by the time they got there, everyone tucking into plates of sausage rolls and ham sandwiches. All the men were getting stuck in, having a good drink at someone else’s expense. William – Caitlin couldn’t yet bring herself to call him ‘Father’ and he hadn’t invited her to – looked stiff and uncomfortable throughout the increasingly raucous proceedings.
By five, everyone began drifting home.
Róisín came over to Caitlin. ‘We’re off outside. Are you coming?’
Caitlin saw a group of girls lurking by the door. They’d been let off school for the occasion and were aching to get away from the adults. Caitlin longed to go with them, to forget everything for a little while. But she saw William standing nearby, and guessed he was waiting to talk to her.
‘I’ll be out in a bit,’ she said reluctantly.
Róisín went to join the others. The girls had been staring unashamedly at William all afternoon. His identity was meant to be a secret, but Caitlin guessed that Róisín had told everyone. Best friend or not, she never could keep anything to herself. William didn’t seem bothered by the interest, though. He didn’t even mention it when he took Caitlin over to one side, away from curious eavesdroppers.
‘I have to get back to England now,’ he informed Caitlin, ‘but I’ll be in touch with Nuala in a few days to arrange your flight.’
‘Yes,’ he said briskly. ‘I presumed you’d want a few weeks here, to finish off the school term and say goodbye to your friends. Then you’ll come to England – to live with me and my family.’
This was the first Caitlin had heard of it. ‘But I don’t want to leave Valleymount.’ She noticed Nuala hovering in the background. When her mother had gone into hospital, Nuala had kindly taken her in. Caitlin had assumed that now her mam was gone, she would continue to live there.
‘You can’t stay here alone, Caitlin,’ William told her.
‘But Aunty Nuala—’
‘Nuala isn’t family,’ he interrupted. ‘I am.’
Caitlin glanced over at Nuala, who tried to give her a reassuring smile. But Caitlin could tell that the older woman was as unhappy about the arrangements as she was. Unfortunately, neither of them seemed to have any choice in the matter. If William Melville wanted her to come and live with his family, then she would have to.
Later that night, Caitlin lay awake in bed. Across the room, Róisín snored gently. It was a sound she’d got used to these past few weeks, when sleep had stopped being easy to come by. Watching her mother grow weaker, being in constant pain, the morphine no longer working ... those images were hard to forget. But none of that could compare with today. Seeing her mother in the open casket, looking the same as she always had, but knowing that she wasn’t the same. Knowing that the body was simply an empty shell and that however much it resembled her mam, it wasn’t her.
The memory set off her tears again. Rolling over to face the wall, Caitlin covered her mouth with her hand to muffle the sobs, so she didn’t wake Róisín. Her friend had been brilliant these past weeks. She couldn’t count the number of times Róisín had sat up with her, had held her while she cried. Nuala, too.
And now she was going to have to leave them, and the village which she had grown up in, the people that she thought of as her family and the house that had become her home – she was going to have to leave everything that connected her to her mam. And instead go to live with a father she didn’t know, who hadn’t even known that she existed until a fortnight ago, in a place she knew nothing about.
‘Mam, why did you have to tell him about me?’ she whispered into the darkness.
The thoughts brought a fresh wave of angry tears, and the guilt and confusion that came with them. Sleep was a long time in coming that night.