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Skin Deep By Liz Nugent

Delia O'Flaherty is queen of Inishcrann, a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Or so her daddy tells her. But tragedy befalls her family and it looks like Delia will never see Inishcrann again. But Delia's obsession with the sea and the sense of her own power that her daddy instilled in her never abates. Scroll forward 40 years, and Delia is in a flat by a very different ocean, with only a dead body for company. But who is he – and, more to the point, who is she, and how did she get here? While the likes of Paula (The Girl On The Train) Hawkins have been getting all the plaudits in the ill-named domestic suspense genre, Liz Nugent has been quietly beavering away, producing dark, mythical thrillers of Shakespearean proportions. There are unreliable heroines, and then there's Delia. SB

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SKIN DEEP

Liz Nugent

£12.99, Penguin Ireland

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Delia O'Flaherty is queen of Inishcrann, a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Or so her daddy tells her. But tragedy befalls her family and it looks like Delia will never see Inishcrann again. But Delia's obsession with the sea and the sense of her own power that her daddy instilled in her never abates. Scroll forward 40 years, and Delia is in a flat by a very different ocean, with only a dead body for company. But who is he – and, more to the point, who is she, and how did she get here? While the likes of Paula (The Girl On The Train) Hawkins have been getting all the plaudits in the ill-named domestic suspense genre, Liz Nugent has been quietly beavering away, producing dark, mythical thrillers of Shakespearean proportions. There are unreliable heroines, and then there's Delia. SB

Chapter:

One

I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had.

Once I had cleared away the broken glass and washed the blood off the floor, I needed to get out. I inched my way past it, past him, and locked myself into the bathroom. I showered as quickly as I could. The cracked mirror above the sink reflected my bloodshot eyes and my puffy skin. I applied make‐up with shaking hands and dried my hair. I emerged from the bathroom but could not avoid looking at the huge corpse slumped on the floor. I forced myself to be calm. I grabbed the first thing in the wardrobe that came to hand. My silk cashmere dress had worn thin with use, but it was the best thing I had. I needed to leave. I couldn’t think straight with him lying there, a blood‐soaked monster.

I negotiated my way down the narrow, cobbled streets to my favourite café on the promenade, stopping off to buy cigarettes. I bought a demitasse and drank it with trembling hands, watching the tourists absorbed by their phones and their maps, ignoring the beauty of the Mediterranean just across the road.

I had twenty‐five euro in my bag, all I had left until my next maintenance payment. It wasn’t enough to run away.

Something will happen, I told myself, someone will be able to help. I needed to be calm. To pretend. I was good at pretending. It was midday already, and the October sunlight was strong. Too bright for me. The world was too bright for me. I decided to walk the promenade. I’m bound to meet somebody I know, I thought. Someone will turn up and keep me company. I don’t have to tell anybody. But a solution will reveal itself. It must. For the first time in decades, my thoughts turned to God. I wished that I believed. I needed some divine intervention.

My eyes were drawn, as always, to the sea. Blue, gently lapping the pebbles on the shore. So unlike the sea I recalled from my childhood. As I walked, the image of the corpse seared my vision. I pulled some of my hair out to make it stop.

As I approached the Negresco, I added a swing to my hips, held my head up and walked with confidence until the pretence began to feel real. I recalled my father sitting me on his knee. ‘You’re my own special girl, Delia O’Flaherty,’ he’d say, detangling my hair with the old tortoiseshell comb. Daddy was right. I am special. I entered the hotel.

In the bar, I positioned myself in a large armchair with a view of the corner entrance. I had not eaten a lot in the previous week. A tin of tuna and a baguette had lasted me three days, but I knew now that my money would have to be spent on escape. I was in the right place though. The Negresco was where my old moneyed friends liked to come occasionally for afternoon tea, though they liked to give out about the vulgarity of the tourists. Someone would surely be able to do an instant electronic transfer; it is so easy these days.

Sure enough, at about 4 p.m., my hands had steadied and while I was having my second coffee I spotted Harold and Rania Cross outside the entrance, dressed formally. I waved, but they did not appear to see me. Harold was carrying his cane and wearing his theatrical cape, so I knew they were headed for the opera. I waited for them to enter, but they stopped awkwardly and turned on their heels and walked away in a hurry as if they had forgotten something important.

I tried to remember when I had last seen them. It may have been at the British Consul’s party four years earlier. I think I tried to persuade Rania to buy some of the handmade jewellery I’d brought with me, but she said . . . no, maybe it wasn’t Rania . . . anyway, whoever it was said that my jewellery was tacky. It couldn’t have been Rania, she wouldn’t have said that. We were friends, for God’s sake. I’d helped her through her depression back in the day. It wasn’t Rania, was it? No matter. All water under the bridge now. Did she say the jewellery was tacky or that I was tacky, that woman who just couldn’t have been Rania? So much has been lost in the fog recently.

The expensive coffee came with some nuts, olives and biscotti but they fell short of constituting a meal. Nobody else I knew had come through the door. There was a man reading the New York Times in an armchair on the other side of the bar. I had not been paying too much attention to him, but by 5.30 I was starving so I watched furtively as steak and frites were delivered to his table. The warm aroma made my stomach flip and contract. The waiter suggested he would be more comfortable in the restaurant, but he said he was waiting for someone. His dealer, as it turned out. When a scruffy young man arrived, steak man drained his beer, jumped out of his armchair and rushed outside with him. I did not know then that a quick transaction was taking place. He had taken his newspaper and I thought he was gone for good. The food was mostly untouched. I hovered for five full minutes watching it cool down before slipping into his chair and taking up the knife and fork he had just abandoned. I was about to take my first mouthful when –

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

My face burned crimson. There was no way of explaining this. But I tried.

‘Sorry,’ I stammered, ‘I’m an environmentalist. I hate to see food go to waste.’

It was the best I could come up with.

‘That’s the greatest piece of horseshit I ever heard in my life.’ His voice was loud. American. Thank God there was nobody else within hearing distance.

He stood up and summoned the waiter with a wave of his hand. I feared I was about to be asked to leave, but instead:

‘I need the same meal again, a cold Budweiser, and’ – he glanced at me – ‘what are you drinking, honey?’

The waiter looked at me with a hint of disgust on his face.

‘I didn’t know my wife was going to join me,’ the American said.

The boy knew it was a lie. He had passed both of us several times. He must have known that we were not connected and that I had been trying to make my coffees last. Realizing his tip might be in jeopardy, he decided that the customer was always right. It gave me confidence. ‘A glass of rosé,’ I said, staring at him brazenly. We said nothing until he was out of earshot.

‘Go ahead, eat up.’

I picked up the knife and fork and began to eat more delicately than my appetite demanded. He had clearly ordered a well-done steak. What a shame.

‘So you want to tell me why I’m paying for your meal?’

‘I am so sorry, you must think I’m awful, but honestly, this is not something I do . . . I just have –’

‘A cash‐flow problem?’

‘No, it’s because . . . I left my purse . . .’

He pointed at my clutch bag. ‘Want to try again, honey?’

‘I can’t . . . I need . . . I am waiting for –’

‘Hell, I don’t give a damn. Want to go to a party?’

‘May I finish my dinner first?’

He laughed the way that only a man with a large stomach can.

‘You got balls, lady, I’ll give you that.’

I cringed inwardly at the vulgarity, but smiled. ‘It’s Cordelia.’

‘Sam.’ He stuck out a giant hand and I put mine in his and shook it. He grinned.

‘So, you’re on holiday, or you live here? You’re British, right?’

I wasn’t going to correct him. ‘I come here for the summer. London is too stifling. I hope to stay until the end of this month.’

‘And how’re you planning on getting by, if you don’t mind me asking? I mean, you don’t look like the kind of lady that should be going hungry. You got an accent like the goddamn Queen.’

‘It’s a temporary blip, that’s all. I make jewellery at home during the winter and a friend sells it here during the summer. I’m waiting on a cheque. Really, it is just a short-term embarrassment.’

We chatted amiably as his meal arrived, as if there were no corpse in my flat and everything were normal. We did not ask each other any personal questions about partners or children. There was already an understanding that we were going to be private about our circumstances. He was well dressed and well groomed. He was not, however, remotely attractive. I would be able to ditch him later when the time was right. I needed his money first.

Two

Two hours later, I was squeezed into a toilet cubicle with the American. The bald spot on the top of his head was smooth and tanned. White feathery hair surrounded it. A tonsure. His head snapped upwards and he sniffed and shouted ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the manner of an evangelist preacher. I was still a little nervous. ‘Sshhhhh. Do you want to get caught?’ I saw the irony of my question. Cocaine possession was the least of my crimes.

‘Caught?’ he said, grinning. We heard sniffing and laughter from the anteroom and I got his point.

He passed me the rolled-up banknote, and I bent towards the cistern and inhaled the thin line of tiny white crystals through my left nostril. He took the note back, to my disappointment. It was a fifty. I came up again, pinching my nose and checking the mirror over the toilet. My make-up was intact. A slick of cherry lipstick was all I needed. I smiled at Sam’s reflection. He hugged me to him quickly with surprising strength.

‘My God,’ he drawled, ‘we are way too old for this.’ He pulled the door open and was gone. I waited a moment before following him out to rejoin the throng. But his words were ringing in my ears. I estimated his age to be somewhere between sixty and sixty-five, at the very least ten years older than me.

What age was the dead man? He must be thirty-three. He was thirty-three. He had been thirty-three. Wasn’t that the same age that Jesus was crucified? Some of my school religion classes drifted back to me over the decades.

As I moved into the lounge area, I swiped a margarita from a passing tray, fumbling in my clutch for the cigarettes I needed badly. How could I use Sam? Might he help me? Or could I just lift his wallet? Where was the cloakroom here? There must be lots of wallets and handbags in there. I was about to light up, when a man in white-tie attire gestured that I should go outside to the terrace. I didn’t know whether he was staff or the host. So hard to tell these days. But I obeyed with a gracious smile.

The door was pulled closed behind me by an unseen hand and I was made to feel . . . no, I felt – it was I that made me feel it – excluded.

It was quiet out there. The autumn air carried a chill now that kept most people indoors. In my embarrassment, I had left my lighter inside on one of the gold-swathed plinths. I was forced to approach the two thin Russian girls at the other end of the terrace, huddled together against the light breeze that rolled in from the Med in their tiny silk dresses, teetering on their vertiginous heels. One of them handed over a diamanté-studded lighter without looking at my face. The heft of it in my hand made me realize that it was not diamanté but actual diamonds. I began to chat, smiling at them indulgently. The girl snatched it back, throwing her eyes to heaven, as if I might have stolen it. Bitch.

As I moved away, I heard them laugh rudely and I knew, I just knew, that they were laughing at me. We had come up in the elevator with them earlier to this penthouse apartment. They were draped around an ancient actor I recognized but could not name. He has been in lots of things. I’m sure he has been Oscar nominated. I beamed at him, pretended to know who he was. I used to know these details.

I could probably have been an actress. It is not difficult to pretend to be somebody else. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for most of my life? Maybe I could still try it. In LA, beside the Pacific Ocean. My teeth and bone structure are very Hollywood. A lover told me that just last year. There were film producers at this party. Sam will know, I thought. Sam was the Director of Photography of the film whose launch we were celebrating, or so he said, but he didn’t seem to know many people. He had not introduced me to anybody and only one man, good-looking, thirties, nodded in his direction. I could see him now through the window in conversation with the same man, but Sam wasn’t listening. I know coke addicts. The only thing he was interested in was the paper wrap tucked neatly into a slim silver case in his breast pocket. He was doing the maths in his head, calculating how soon he should do his next line. I bet if I asked now, he wouldn’t remember my name. While I have done cocaine occasionally over the years to be social, it is not my habit. Tonight though, I needed cocaine. I needed anything I could get my hands on, anything to help me forget.

A sudden gush of noise behind me, and the door closed again. A waitress had appeared on the terrace. She carried a tray burdened with only two full glasses. I wanted both. She was disappointed to find anybody out here. I pretended I was waiting for someone and gave her my empty cocktail glass. She set the two drinks on a small white iron table beside a matching chair.

‘Madame.’

Merci,’ I said, exhaling a plume of smoke deliberately away from her face. I waited for her to move away, but she stopped by the potted shrubbery to play with her phone. I hoped she wouldn’t stay long. I sat down and turned to face the promenade and the Mediterranean.

Lights twinkled from the port on my left all the way to Cap d’Antibes on my right. In the bay, some party yachts bobbed merrily about in the water on the way to their various harbours, festooned with bright-glowing bulbs from mast to mast. I could vaguely hear the echo of laughter reaching out across the water. I lit another cigarette from the first before I extinguished it in the crystal ashtray. I wondered if I could wrap the ashtray and fit it into my bag. Just a little memento. The cocktail glass was too big.

I was distracted again by the high-toned tinkling reaching me from the bay. It used to be me who laughed on yachts in the Med. It used to be me who wore tiny dresses in London nightclubs. It used to be me who could flash a diamond bracelet and a Sobranie cigarette. It used to be me who was young and beautiful.

Now I was a middle-aged murderer. I quickly put the thought out of my head.

I stretched my legs out in front of me. They were tanned and still shapely. I reached into the bodice of my dress and pulled my breasts up into a higher position in their moulded cups. I heard a smothered cough behind me. The waitress was still there. She had witnessed the ungainly heaving of my bust into place. She looked back to the tiny screen lighting her small face. She was smoking now too. I was sure it was against her rules to be out here smoking, on her mobile phone, in the presence of party guests, so I no longer cared that she saw me drink the second cocktail meant for my phantom companion.

I turned to her and tapped on the table to attract her attention. ‘Une autre, s’il vous plaît?’ I pointed towards my glass. She heaved a heavy sigh, stamped out her cigarette on the artificial grass and left the terrace with her silver tray under her arm. I watched her smouldering cigarette butt congeal the plastic emerald fronds into black floating commas in the air and waited.

I was trying to get my thoughts straight, away from the noise inside. When I arrived at this party, I had scanned the room for any sign of my old crowd, but this gang seemed younger, shinier and more confident than we had been in our day. I didn’t know anyone. They were mostly American. Americans are hard to gauge. One can’t tell if they are old money or new money and they mostly dress appallingly. Denim jeans and white sneakers for the men. Big hair and too much jewellery for the women. Last year, I dated a man from one of the Dakotas who forced us to walk half a mile along the beach to get a can of soda five cents cheaper than in the first beach club we’d hit. I dropped him when I found myself at the opera in the gods. The gods, for God’s sake.

The waitress had not reappeared, my lighter was inside and both glasses were now empty. I stood up, but stumbled slightly. I’d had three cocktails and the glass of rosé earlier. I would have one more drink before I attempted to get money out of Sam. Just one more. I opened the door and the music slapped me in the face, some drum and bass arrangement at an ear-bleeding volume. I would not be able to bear this for long. I looked for a waiter, but they were now confined to the bar area and it appeared that I must queue for a drink. I had to shout my order at the barman, but before he had poured the drink, Sam was behind me, yelling in my ear, his hand on my shoulder.

‘There you are! You want another bump, honey?’ He patted his breast pocket.

I turned to see that one of the Russians was clinging on to his other arm.

‘No, thank you.’

And now I was disappointed because I had assumed that Sam was interested in me, and even if I did not find him attractive, I resented the little Russian hooking her claws into him. They wandered off to powder their noses. I tried to make this drink last. I asked a pleasant-looking young girl which of the men in the corner was the film’s producer. ‘I am,’ she said icily in pure New York and turned her back on me. So touchy.

Sam hadn’t come back. Nobody had spoken to me, but I no longer minded. The trays were back in circulation. I had become immune to the sound level and gradually the techno music, if that is the term, was seeping into my bones. I glided sexily towards the dance floor and I lost myself there among the beautiful young people. I was remembering the days of Mayfair nightclubs. I closed my eyes and my arms reached for the sky. This was good. This was great.

I opened my eyes and a teenager beside me was laughing and pointing at me, yelling something in a language I didn’t understand. More people were laughing now, and it was louder than the music. I looked down to where they were pointing. The whole seam of my dress had split from under my armpit to my hip. My expensive but old beige corsetry was on display, the overspill of flesh visible under my armpit. I laughed too. I didn’t care enough to stop dancing.

At one stage later, I dimly recall Sam approaching, suggesting that we go back to my place. The Russian must have lost interest. ‘We need to get you home, honey.’

I asked aloud why we couldn’t go back to his room in the Negresco.

‘And wake my wife?’ he said, and it seemed right then like the funniest thing I had ever heard in my life. He offered to take me home, ‘no strings’, but I declined. I was happy, really happy.

***

Pain seared through my head as if the fluid protecting my brain from my skull had evaporated. I opened my eyes and saw daylight and a dirty parquet floor. The angle was all wrong. Somebody was prodding me. I realized I must have blacked out.

Madame.’ It was the smoking waitress from last night.

On doit partir, maintenant, s’il te plaît.

Te. All civility was dispensed with.

I fell upwards to a standing position, grabbing her shoulder to steady myself. She shrugged me away violently and handed me a barman’s yellow canvas jacket.

‘You must cover yourself,’ she said in English. Her look of disgust alerted me to the gaping side of my dress. I stumbled towards the elevator and then out on to the street.

The sun was rising on my left, shimmering across the expanse of blue.

I made my way slowly down the promenade. I did not want to go home.

I walked unsteadily, the horror returning. Nobody had helped me. There was nothing to be done. I scoured the faces of everyone who passed, but they were mostly immigrants in construction clothing or nannies’ uniforms, en route to the early shift. Only I was going home at this hour. Home, whatever that meant any more.

As I entered the flat, I could hear a low hum, and I could not ignore the smell.

It’s too soon, I thought.

I had not expected it to happen so quickly, but then I had never been able to afford an air-conditioning unit. The flies had begun to swarm already, feasting on the corpse.

Three

In our family, there were two sides, Mammy and the boys on one, and Daddy and me on the other. My brothers were loud and wild and rough. Brian was born two years after me, then Aidan a year later, and then five years after that, Conor. Conor was just two years old the last time I saw him, but he was already big for his age and could just about handle a bucket of turf. But Mammy looked after the boys and Daddy looked after me. I don’t know why that was. It was just the way of it.

I liked the boys when we were left to our own devices, walking to school, playing on the strand or collecting crabs from the rock pools below the harbour. In those times, we shouted and jumped and sang together, and you wouldn’t know to look at us that we were a divided family, but as soon as one or both of our parents appeared on the scene, we would immediately run to our champions, and Daddy claimed me. The boys were jealous, I told Daddy. ‘Never mind the boys,’ he’d say, ‘you are the future of this island, you’re the one that matters.’

We used to live beside the harbour until I was seven, but that all ended when Master ‘Spots’ McGrath made me stand outside the classroom for being violent. We were doing history, and Spots was teaching us about Helen of Troy and how her beauty had caused a war. I told Spots that Daddy had said I was the most beautiful girl alive. Fergal, Danny and Malachy and my brother Brian, who were the others in my school, all laughed at me and I threw the blackboard duster at them and told them all they should be on their knees to me because I was the queen of the island. Spots told me I shouldn’t mind the silly old stories that my daddy told me and that queens knew how to behave themselves, so I bit him on the arm and he put me outside to calm down. Daddy was passing up from the harbour and found me outside the school door on the low wall, crying. Then there was a big fight in the village. I was pleased because I’d started a war too, so I was like Helen of Troy.

Almost everyone took Spots’ side in our war, and nothing would do Daddy but he wanted us away off as far from them all as possible, so he built a house with his bare hands from the ruins of an abandoned cottage on the west side of the island. He wanted to go back to tradition, he said, and he thatched the roof and dug a well with the help of Tom the Crow. We had no electricity now and depended on batteries and oil lamps and a stove that was fed with dried driftwood and turf. The wind on this side of the island was so fierce that the first time Mammy put our clothes out on the line to dry, they blew away into the Atlantic. Mammy was furious, but Daddy said that she should stop complaining now because she was closer to America and that maybe America would get the use of our knickers and shirts.

It was wild and isolated on the western edge, and barren. The harbour side was fertile enough in the summer for grazing of goats and sheep, but nothing would grow out here. Daddy said we’d do better on our own without interfering busybodies who’d take the side of a sadist who’d put the island’s only daughter out in the cold. Mammy argued that I would now have to walk further in the cold to get to the school and that he hadn’t minded when Brian was put out three times in the previous term for messing. Daddy said maybe he’d take us out of the school altogether and teach us at home, and Mammy shut up after that.

Mammy had come to the island one summer when she was a young student, all the way from America. She had fallen in love with my father, who was an old bachelor of thirty-five.

In one of their arguments, he said Mammy wouldn’t leave him alone till he married her. He said she had him persecuted. She said he’d never find anyone better than her, and he shouted back that maybe he didn’t want anyone at all. She roared at him that he ‘sure as shit wanted Delia’, and that was true. Daddy wanted me.

I was the only one he wanted. I had always known it. The way he singled me out, took me out on the boat with him and Tom the Crow when Mam tried to say I was too small and it was too dangerous, the way he would take the food off my brothers’ plates and land it on mine.

‘I earned it,’ he’d snarl at my mother, ‘and I say who gets it.’ And she would turn away from us and tend to the boys, and Daddy would smile at me and put his big rough paw on top of my head. ‘Get that into you now, loveen, you’ll need the fuel!’

Mammy tried everything she could to make Daddy love her, but he wouldn’t even remark on the new hairdo, or the impractical high shoes that she couldn’t walk in, or the short skirt that made her legs goose-pimpled, unless it was to say a harsh word. She got her love from the boys, who would nestle around her by the fire as she read them stories from the library books Spots McGrath had given her, while Daddy told me the island stories in my room. As he blew out the storm lamp each night, he’d whisper, ‘Be who you want to be, my loveen.’

The boys shared another bedroom, and Mammy and Daddy had their own room too. I was the only one with a room of my own. When Conor was born, Mammy wanted to put him in with me, but Daddy said no, he could go in with the boys.

As I got older and too big to go on Daddy’s shoulders, we’d walk the roads hand in hand, and once when I asked him if he’d marry me when I grew up, he said, ‘Sure, I might join the queue,’ and the two of us danced home that day, and if anyone had seen us they’d have got some laugh at a grown man dancing with a little girl, but I guess that was the good thing about living out west. Nobody would see us, bar someone who’d made the special effort to cross the island.

The only ones who’d make the effort were Tom the Crow or Father Devlin. Tom shared the small trawler with Daddy and used to visit regularly with turf or groceries or deliveries from the mainland, and occasionally Father Devlin would come to bless the house, or before one of our first holy communions to make sure we knew the seriousness of the sacrament.

Father Devlin was always treated with suspicion by both my parents, but Daddy and Mammy both liked Tom the Crow and always gave him a great welcome. Tom was Daddy’s best and only friend and they’d known each other all their lives. He’d been in school with Daddy but was a few years younger. Everyone called him Tom the Crow because he’d killed a crow with a catapult when he was seven years old. His old mam, Biddy Farrelly, had the bar and grocery in the village.

Daddy said Tom made him marry Mammy. The two men would be out at sea together for days on end, and sometimes they’d finish each other’s sentences, they were that close. Mammy and Tom said they both had the patience of a saint to put up with Daddy. But Tom had stood by Daddy when everyone else had turned against him. He’d often stay for a bite to eat, and Mammy would take down the clear bottle from the top of the press and pour a dribble into each of their glasses and they’d knock it back and wheeze and cough afterwards, saying, ‘God, that’s powerful stuff.’ Mammy and Daddy would be on good terms and nice to each other in front of him. Pretending.

Mammy said she was afraid Tom would have to leave the island to find a wife because there were no women his own age who weren’t already married. Daddy said Tom would never leave the island because it was his home and leaving it would kill him. Tom said he didn’t have the same fierce attachment to the island as Daddy and that maybe some day he would leave, when his mother passed away. Daddy laughed at that and said that Biddy Farrelly would never die and that she’d outlive us all. Daddy said that us children were the future of the island and that I would be its queen.

I used to listen to these conversations, often falling asleep in Daddy’s lap. The next morning, I’d wake up in my bed, furious that I’d missed out on the end of the evening. The boys were always sent to bed, but Daddy said I could stay up because he wanted to show me off. Tom the Crow wouldn’t be in the way of admiring me, but he always said a few soft words to keep Daddy happy.

Sometimes Daddy would be off fishing alone and Tom would call in to wait for his return. They worried about each other out on the seas, and since we’d moved out west, Daddy had insisted on taking the trawler out of the harbour on the lee side of the island and tying it up in a tiny inlet below our cottage. Tom had advised against it and worried that the boat was more vulnerable over there, but he gave in to Daddy in the end, to avoid a row. On those occasions when Daddy was out on his own and Tom would come to the house to wait, I’d be sent to bed along with the boys and I’d sit at the door and listen and hear the gales of laughter coming from Mammy and Tom as they made inroads into the clear bottle. Mammy would complain to Tom about how Daddy doted on me. One night, I sat behind the door, wrapped in blankets, and heard a conversation between Tom and Mammy that I didn’t like one bit.

‘Oh my God, he follows her around all the time! He’s obsessed with her.’

‘Now, Loretta, is it not sweet that he pays so much attention to her?’

‘I just want him to pay attention to them all. He ignores the boys. Why do you think that is?’

‘Are you worried . . . like . . . do you think –’

‘No . . . NO, nothing like that, he would never, it’s just . . . it seems that sometimes . . . I don’t know –’

‘What? What is it? What has you so worried?’

‘It sounds weird, Tom, but he puts her on a pedestal. As if everything depended on her happiness. I don’t even know how to explain it. What was he like in school? Delia isn’t doing that well. McGrath says she’s slow on the uptake. Brian is streets ahead of her. Was Martin like her? When I met him, I thought he was the smartest man in the world.’

‘He was fine . . . grand, but maybe . . .’

‘What?’

‘He’s a few years older than me, like, but he didn’t hang around with us much in them days. Spent a lot of time on his own, but you know, this island, it sends us all mad in the end.’

‘In the beginning, he was so kind, and desperate to have children. When Delia was born, he was almost deranged with happiness, and he was so grateful to me. But then when Brian came along, he showed no interest and the same with Aidan. Since Conor was born, he can hardly bear to touch me –’

‘Loretta, you shouldn’t tell me these things. That’s between you and Martin.’

‘I want to go home, back to Minnesota, bring them all with me, but Martin won’t even talk about it. I’m going stir-crazy. I was too young –’

‘Loretta, don’t be saying this –’

‘Who else am I going to talk to, Tom? Martin’s made so many enemies in the village that I’m on my own out here! You’re the only goddamn person that comes to see us!’

I could hear tears in my mother’s voice.

‘I can’t even get off the island for a few days because he says we can’t afford it. It’s just me and the kids here, day in, day out. My mom warned me and I didn’t listen. She told me I was just like my deadbeat dad and that I was throwing away my career. I was too stubborn to write back to her after she refused to come to the wedding. She’s never met her own grandchildren. It’s all my fault, and now it’s too late.’

‘Why don’t you invite her over?’

‘And prove to her that she was right? That I’m living in poverty with four children and a husband who doesn’t give a damn?’

‘Loretta –’

‘Tom, come on! You know it’s true. The only thing he cares about is that girl. I’m jealous of my own goddamn daughter, can you believe it?’

‘It’s just a bad patch. Why don’t you come into the village more? On your own, talk to Nora and Mary? They’d welcome you, I’m sure.’

At that point, my head dropped forward on to the door and made a noise. ‘Hush,’ said Mammy, and I heard the scrape of her chair. I soundlessly moved on to the bed with the blankets tangled around my legs. Mammy opened the door and stood for a moment. My eyes were shut and mouth slightly open, and I managed to keep my breathing low and even. She gently lifted the blankets and rearranged them on top of me. She kissed my forehead before she left. Traitor.

Four

A few weeks later, on a June night, Tom came again to wait for Daddy as there was a storm forecast. Once again, I pressed my ear to the bedroom door.

‘He won’t let me leave the house unless I say where I’m going and when I’ll be back. When I return, he insists on knowing who I talked to. If I get friendly with any of them, he says I’m betraying him. I can’t stand it any more. I am going to write to my mother. I’m going to admit she was right and I’m going to beg her for the money to get me off this island and home with the kids.’

‘What? Now, seriously, you can’t go saying things like that, that’s mental talk. I agree that things are going to have to change, but don’t do anything for the time being. Let me talk to Martin. He’s not a bad man.’

‘Why do you always defend him, Tom? No matter what he says, or how he treats me, or the boys, you never say a word to him. I have no real friends here! Why should I stay? I’m taking the kids and I’m leaving.’

I was terrified. She sounded serious, as if, in the few weeks since their last conversation, she had made up her mind. Daddy said that America was a vast, ugly place jam-packed full of people, bigger than anyone could imagine, and that you’d get lost as soon as you set foot there and that we’d never find each other again if we went. Mammy said that was nonsense and Daddy couldn’t possibly know because he’d never been there. It sounded to me like Mammy was intending to take us all away from Daddy.

The conversation had died down in the kitchen, and all I could hear was gentle muffled sobbing from Mam and Tom the Crow saying soft words of comfort. I put my eye up to the keyhole and he had his arms around her and she had her head on his shoulder. It didn’t seem right. I’d never seen Mammy and Daddy holding each other like that. She turned her face to him and he tried to duck away, but she kissed him on the mouth and he hesitated before he kissed her back and then he did pull away sharply and wiped his mouth. I was shocked. I immediately crawled back into my bed, pulling the covers over my head. I heard the front door close quickly afterwards, but I knew now that my family was fractured for real. I heard Daddy coming in later and they did their usual growling at each other before they went to bed, as if nothing had happened.

Some days later, I found Mammy at the kitchen table, writing. I knew she was writing to her mother, and when she stuck the letter in an envelope, I deliberately spilled the kettle of boiling water over it. I’ve never seen Mammy so angry, and that made me even more furious with her. She didn’t know that I’d seen her kissing Tom the Crow. She sent me to my room. I refused to go.

‘Get into your room this second, you brat, or I’ll take the wooden spoon to you!’

The wooden spoon was the instrument of punishment in our house. The older boys got regular doses, but I’d only got lashed once or twice, and never when Daddy was home. On those occasions, there was an understanding between my mother and me that I wouldn’t tell him, because I’d always feared that the consequences for her would be bad. I loved my mother, though we didn’t like each other. Well, I had loved her, until now.

‘You won’t lift a hand to me or I’ll tell Daddy!’

‘Tell him what?’

‘About you kissing Tom the Crow!’

She dropped the wooden spoon where she stood, and looked wildly around her, but the boys were outside and there was only the two of us home.

‘Does he have you spying on me now, is that it?’ She whispered it, afraid that it was true. ‘What else did you see, or hear?’

I knew I’d gone too far. I ran and wrapped my thin arms around her waist. ‘Sorry, Mammy, I’m sorry! I won’t tell him. I swear! But you can’t take us to America. We’d get lost!’

She put her hand on the back of my head and held me close to her, and it was a long time since I’d felt her warmth, and I felt wet drops on my hair and could feel the shuddering of her body and I knew she was crying. I was scared. Mammy wasn’t the crying type.

She turned away from me to the sodden mess on the kitchen table and began to clean it up. The ink on her pages was smeared and the words unreadable. It’s only now that I wonder how hard it must have been for her to write that letter, a begging letter essentially, to a mother who had forsaken her for making what she saw as a bad decision. She lifted the clumps of paper and threw them on to the fire, where they smouldered before slowly burning into dark ash.

When the crying had subsided, she told me to sit down at the table and made us both a cup of coffee, strong and black for her, weak and milky for me.

‘Delia, your daddy is not well, you know that, don’t you?’

I was afraid. ‘What’s wrong with him? Is he going to die?’

She smiled to reassure me. ‘It’s hard to explain, he’s not well in his mind. You know the way he has us living out here on our own and he doesn’t talk to hardly anyone in the village? Well, that’s not normal, honey. Most people get on with their neighbours. Most people love all their children in the same way with the same love. Your daddy is different –’

‘You don’t love me in the same way!’ I accused her. I didn’t like the way she was talking about Daddy.

‘I do! Of course I do, but I have to pay more attention to the boys because Daddy ignores them.’

‘He doesn’t like boys.’

‘But, honey, that’s just not normal. You got to love your own kids! All of them, whether they’re boys or girls, no matter if they’re sick or well or anything, you got to love your own kids!’

‘I don’t want to go to America. I want to stay here with Daddy.’

She sighed heavily. ‘That’s the difference, you see? I wouldn’t leave you behind, but he wouldn’t care if he never saw the boys or me again. That’s not right. Wouldn’t you miss us?’

I thought about it. ‘No,’ I said. And before she had a chance to react, ‘Why did you kiss Tom?’

She put her head in her hands and looked at the floor. ‘Because I’m lonely, in a way that you are too young to understand.’

‘What if I told Daddy?’

She moved her chair abruptly back from the table and stood up.

‘Do what you want, but if I go to America, I’m taking you with me.’

***

For the next few weeks, Mammy and I watched each other like hawks. If I went walking with Daddy, she was a nervous wreck on our return. I hid the pens and ink so that no letter could be written. Mammy accused Daddy of stealing them and trying to control her. When Tom the Crow called, I fought my exhaustion and closely watched the interaction between the three of them. Daddy didn’t notice the tension that had crept in between Mammy and Tom.

‘Now, Martin, ’tis time you put that oul’ row to bed with the village. Come up to Biddy’s tonight and we’ll stand you a pint and I’ll make sure you get a welcome,’ said Tom.

‘Indeed, and I will not.’

‘Spots has forgotten all about it. It was near two years ago, and sure you are badly missed in the village, and Loretta too.’ He nodded at Mammy.

Daddy put his hands on my shoulders. ‘That man disrespected my daughter and everyone stood by and let him do it.’

‘Oh my God, let it go! Look at her! She’s fine,’ said my mother, pointing and glaring at me meaningfully, willing me to speak up. I nestled further into my father’s arms.

‘I’d say Delia is well able to stand up for herself, isn’t that right, girl?’ Tom said to me. ‘And she’s a big lass now, almost too big to be sitting in her daddy’s lap, isn’t that right?’

I didn’t like the way this was going. Mammy and Tom were trying to separate Daddy and me.

‘Why don’t the pair of you come up for a drink tonight? Delia can take care of the boys. They’ll not stir now, surely, it’s after ten.’ All the time, he kept nodding at me, and Mammy was trying to catch his eye.

Daddy looked at me. ‘What do you think, loveen? Should I go up and forgive them?’

Mammy jumped up. ‘Yes! Let’s go to Biddy’s! It’s been too long. I miss them all.’

Daddy stopped her with a look. ‘It’s up to Delia. What do you say, a stór?’

Mammy begged me: ‘We’ll only be gone for an hour or two, honey. You’ll be OK, won’t you? The boys are asleep, you won’t disturb them, will you?’ She was torn between leaving them with me and desperately wanting a night away. Mammy caught me pinching Aidan and Conor one time, to make them cry. I wanted to see which of them would cry the loudest. She walloped me with the back of her hand. Next time I did it, I made sure there wasn’t anyone to see me.

Our house was so remote that there was no chance of anyone coming to knock at the door on a bitter night. The worst that could happen was that the wind would wrench a straw bale from the roof, and the reality was that that would happen whether my parents were there or not. I nodded my permission. Daddy said he’d put me to bed first and tell me a story, and I could see my mother bristling with impatience.

‘I’d say she’s old enough to read her own stories, ha?’ said Tom with a laugh even though it wasn’t funny.

Daddy looked at him. ‘Our stories don’t be in books,’ he said.

Daddy had a contempt for storybooks. They were written by ‘outsiders’, he said. I fell asleep while he told me the one about the Druid of Inishcrann – a warlock who turned ugly girls to stone.

***

There was a strange peace in the house the next morning, as if a raging storm had passed, and I saw my mother touch my father’s hand in a way that was too intimate for my liking. He smiled at her and went back to mending the nets at the kitchen table. I sat on the floor, feeding the nets up to him. Spots McGrath had shaken my father’s hand in Biddy’s bar and they’d toasted each other, and Daddy was back in favour in the village.

Mammy of course ruined everything. ‘Do you think, Martin, do you think it would be time for us to move back over to the harbour, so that you’d be among your own people? It’s awfully lonely out here when you’re at sea. And the wind here, I can grow nothing in our patch. What do you say?’

‘No!’ I shouted it. ‘I want to stay here.’

Daddy looked at me and I could see he was trying to choose between Mammy and me. ‘Maybe we could –’

I couldn’t stand it. I was jealous. ‘Mammy’s only saying that so she can be near Tom the Crow, and kissing him again.’ My words had the effect of a lightning strike. The boys stopped what they were doing and stared at Mammy. I could see my father in side profile and I noted the side of his jaw tighten. Brian shouted at me, ‘Mammy never kissed Tom the Crow! You’re only a liar!’

‘She did so. I saw them! And she’s taking us all to live in

America and leaving Daddy behind. She says he’s sick in his mind.’

Brian breathed in heavily and I watched Daddy’s chair scrape backwards along the flagstone floor as he rose to his feet, dropping the heavy nets on my lap.

‘Don’t mind her, she’s confused. I don’t know where she gets these ideas!’ said Mammy in a hurry.

My father’s voice shook. ‘You kissed . . . Tom?’ He broke down on the name of his best friend. Aidan ran into their room and shut the door. Brian grabbed Mammy’s hand and glared at me.

‘What if I did? When last did you kiss me?’ My mother spat the words.

‘Put on your coat and wait outside,’ Daddy said to me, and his voice was ice-cold. Conor started to cry. Mammy scooped him up. I didn’t move.

‘Get outside!’ Daddy shouted at me, and I grabbed my coat off the hook and went to the door. I tried to catch Mammy’s eye as I opened it, but she was looking at Daddy over the top of Conor’s head, defiance in her demeanour. I waited for a moment, but she never looked at me. ‘Outside!’ Daddy roared the word again and I slammed the door behind me.

With the wind roaring, I couldn’t hear what was being said inside but I heard the crashing of furniture and the smashing of plates and I knew for sure that I wouldn’t be going to America with Mammy. After what seemed like hours, Daddy came out and grabbed my hand and pulled me along the road.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked.

‘Did he kiss her back? What happened after they kissed?’

I had made a mistake. I wanted our family to stay together more than anything in that moment. It was important now to make it all Tom’s fault.

‘He made her kiss him. It wasn’t her fault, Daddy, she tried to stop him, but he had his hands all over her. He said he’d go to America with her. She told him to get out.’

‘Did she? You wouldn’t tell me a lie now, would you? Think very hard before you answer me, Delia.’

I shook my head vehemently. ‘Tom the Crow grabbed her and kissed her mouth. I swear it.’ Lies poured out of me, easily.

Five

I was nine years old when I left the island in 1975, that day of the big argument. I knew there’d be trouble because of what I’d told Daddy, but nobody could have predicted what happened that night.

Daddy told me a secret. He said that he and I could live in peace only if Mammy took the boys to America with her, but that he and I had to play a trick on them first. He told me that we’d go on an adventure to the mainland. He said that we would pretend to run away together. Mammy, he said, would not stay on the island without us, so if we disappeared, before long she would take off to America with the boys, and Daddy and I could return to the island and live there happily ever after without them. When I asked how long we would hide, Daddy was sure that it would only take a few days. Daddy said we wouldn’t have to share the food with them any more and that I could be in charge of the cottage. We could tell each other stories all day long, and I wouldn’t have to go to school and could stay up as late as I wanted. Daddy said he would be the high king and I could be his queen. It was urgent, he said, and we must leave that very day.

I thought this was a fantastic game and I skipped all the way across the island to the harbour. I had only been to the village of Cregannagh on the mainland a handful of times and I was fiercely excited. When we got down to the ferry though, Daddy told me that I had to go on my own, and that he had some business to attend to and would follow on the next crossing. ‘When you get to Cregannagh,’ he said, ‘just keep running away from the village. I’ll catch up with you in a few hours.’ I fretted at the thought of arriving alone on the mainland, but Daddy said that nobody would bother me if I kept going. ‘Say nothing about running away,’ he said. ‘Tell anyone who asks that I’ll be over on the next sailing in two hours.’ He hugged me tightly as he said nice things to me, and then he said goodbye and smiled his most gentle happy smile. Then he waved until he was only a tiny speck in the distance.

I was found miles outside the village of Cregannagh that night, on the Ballina road. Daddy hadn’t given me any other instructions but to run when I got off the ferry, and I had run as far as I could, and then slowed down to walking. He had said that he would catch up with me, but I wasn’t sure how he would know which way I’d gone. The road went north and south out of the village. What if I had taken the wrong one? I continued along the same road, which carried few cars, and there were only occasional houses. Dogs barked. I was afraid to go too fast because the next ferry was only two hours later and I didn’t want to be too far ahead of Daddy. It was much warmer here than it was on the island, and I knotted my woollen jumper around my waist and took off my boots to walk in my bare feet. The soles of my feet were as good as the boots, as I was used to not wearing shoes. As the bright summer day began to fade to dusk, I was parched and hungry and I sat down on a drystone wall to rest my aching legs. I made a bundle of my jumper and leaned over and rested my head upon it.

It must have been hours later when I woke to see two car headlights blazing at me through the pitch-darkness. I was cold and disorientated. And then the car’s engine stalled and a man was looking down at me.

‘What in the name of God are you doing out at this hour, child? Where do you live?’

I told him I was waiting for my daddy.

‘And is he beyond in the pub in Cregannagh?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are you from, girl?’

I roused myself to say with pride, ‘Inishcrann.’

‘The island, is it? Well, get into the car and I’ll take you to the village. We’ll see if we can find your daddy.’

I told him I was Delia O’Flaherty and my father was Martin O’Flaherty and explained that my father would have taken the last ferry from the island, but the man did not understand what I’d been doing five miles outside the village and I couldn’t explain it myself, without admitting that Daddy and me were running away.

He led me across the road to his big car. There was a lady in the front seat, smoking a cigarette. She began to fuss and took her coat off and wrapped me up in it on the back seat. I was alert now, and though excited to be in a car, I was scared. Where had Daddy gone? He and I were going to run away together, and yet he had not caught up with me. Perhaps he was still on the island? Or maybe he had taken the other road that led from the harbour.

In the village, I waited in the car while the man went into the bar across the road from the harbour wall. Under the sound of the water lapping at the sea wall, I could hear singing and chatter and pint glasses being placed on the bar, and I knew that Daddy would not be in there because he would have come looking for me.

When the man came back to the car, he shrugged his shoulders. His wife got out and I could hear them chatting and then they got back into the car.

‘Now, love,’ the lady said, ‘you’re not to worry, but Dr Miller here,’ nodding at her husband, ‘spoke to Owen the ferryman, and he said your daddy wasn’t on the three o’clock ferry or on any of the later ones, and he hasn’t been seen in the village, so the best thing for you now is to come home with us and we’ll find your daddy tomorrow. It’s after midnight and the first ferry won’t go back to the island until ten in the morning. Our Clara is up in university in Dublin, but her room is all ready for her and she won’t mind you having a go of her bed, ha?’

I burst into tears. I’d never spent a night away from my family before, never mind away from the island. But I knew I had no control over whatever was going to happen to me next. We drove on up to the top of the village to a great big house overlooking the sea, and I climbed the stairs and crawled into Clara’s bed, ignoring Mrs Miller’s pleas to have a wash first: ‘God help us, when last did you have a bath? You’re filthy from head to toe. Do they even have soap on the island, ha?’

Dr Miller told her to leave me. ‘The child is worn out, she walked five miles, the poor craythur, leave her be. You can pretty her up in the morning.’

Later, I got out of bed and pulled the heavy curtains open, but I could only see tree shapes in the darkness. Fighting exhaustion, I listened to the strange noises in this cavernous house until all was quiet except the sound of the sea pounding the rocks below. I marvelled at the softness and comfort of the bed and the warmth of the room. I slept.

The next morning, Mrs Miller woke me and handed me a glass of milk. ‘I’ve run a bath for you, love.’ She led me to a large steamy bathroom. We didn’t have a bath in our cottage, or a room for it. There was a pipe that ran cold water beside the outside toilet, and we’d wash our hands and faces before Mass. Every other Saturday night, my mother would boil kettles and half-fill a galvanized steel tub, and we would all take turns in it until the water ran mud brown. Whoever got to go first was always the cleanest. When Daddy was home, that was me.

In this bathroom, there was a tap each for hot and cold water and a large mirror on the back of the door, and a towel thicker than any fabric I’d touched before. Mrs Miller helped to scrub me with a yellow sponge and washed and rinsed my hair using a jug full of clean water. Afterwards, she gave me a big bag of clothes, shoes and boots. ‘Clara won’t be needing them again. You might as well get the use of them.’ Out of the clothes I picked a pair of green tights and a full-length orange cotton smocked dress and red boots. ‘Good lord, that’s a party dress – over boots?’ said Mrs Miller, but I grinned at her in the long mirror on the back of the door.

On the island, we had no mirror in the cottage. In school, there was an old speckled mirror above the washbasin beside the toilet, but I wasn’t tall enough to see anything more than the top of my head and my eyes. Occasionally, if the wind died down, I could catch my murky reflection in a rock pool, but then a breeze would skitter across it and my image would close up like an accordion. Mammy used to have a hand mirror, but that got smashed in a fight a good while ago. Daddy had always said I was beautiful, but now I saw what he saw. Mammy was right to be jealous of me. I was prettier than Mammy, even though I looked a bit like her. My hair was long and silky like hers. Everyone else on the island had rough, coarse hair. And my skin was dark and clear too. Mammy had thin lines around her eyes and her mouth, but she said that some famous man once said she was elegant. Daddy mocked her for that. ‘Elegant!’ he said. ‘There’s no room for “elegant” on Inishcrann.’

I couldn’t wait for Daddy to see me in my new finery. My hair was shining, and my skin was rosy pink from the heat and the scrubbing, and I looked like a fairy maid from one of his old stories of the island.

Downstairs, I sat at a big table and ate two bananas and two hunks of a fresh white loaf slathered in butter and jam. Dr Miller had gone down to the harbour to send word to the island that my daddy was to come and collect me, as they would not allow me to go back over by myself. I felt safe in this house. In another big room with sofas and cushions with flowers on them and overflowing ashtrays, Mrs Miller found beautiful dolls with which I could amuse myself in between running to the window to see all the people walking up and down, and cars and vans pulling up to the shop opposite, collecting and delivering newspapers and tinned goods and sides of beef. They had a television, but Mrs Miller said there were no programmes on until three o’clock. She let me turn it on and off though to watch it light up, and she showed me how I could turn a dial so that I could hear a fuzzy sound getting louder and quieter. I didn’t tell her that I already knew about dials because we had a radio at home on the island.

I tried not to spill Mrs Miller’s never-ending supply of glasses of milk on my dress, but after she left me to do a jigsaw with Mickey Mouse in it, the milk resting on the arm of the chair, I moved suddenly and knocked the glass over. I felt the dampness on my lap as it soaked into my new underpants, and saw the fabric darken on the seat around me. I was immobilized in shock, because I knew punishment was coming. It surely did.

Moments later, I heard the front door bang and I thought it must be Dr Miller with Daddy. He had been gone a long time. I ran out into the hall and looked behind Dr Miller to see if Daddy was hiding to surprise me, but he wasn’t there.

‘Where’s Daddy?’

Dr Miller coughed and told me to go back into the sitting room, and that he’d be in to me in a minute to explain things. Mrs Miller took a deep drag of her cigarette and then spotted the damp patch on my dress and was about to exclaim when the doctor half-pulled his wife into the kitchen. I knew something was wrong by the look on his face. I went to the bathroom for a towel and tried to mop up the wet mess on the armchair and on my dress, and then I sat waiting for ages.

The doctor came in with Mrs Miller, whose eyes were red-rimmed from tears. She picked me up and put me on her lap, but I scrambled away and stood with my back to the door.

‘Oh, now, you poor girl. I have some bad news, I’m afraid. There was . . . an accident on the island last night –’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘That’s the thing, lovey, I’m afraid he . . . he died in an accident.’

I looked down at my lap, furious with myself. He wouldn’t be dead if I hadn’t spilled the milk.

‘You had . . . have three brothers, yes?’

I stared at him.

‘I’m so sorry, my dear, but none of them survived.’

‘Mammy?’

He shook his head. ‘They say a fire got out of control. A loose ember perhaps . . . A thatched roof these days and oil lamps, well, it doesn’t make sense any more –’

Mrs Miller glared at him and cut him off. ‘Look, lovey, I don’t . . . they won’t have felt anything. It happened last night apparently. They would have died in their sleep from the smoke. They wouldn’t have been in any pain.’

‘I want to go home.’

Dr Miller approached and kneeled on the floor in front of me. He put his two hands on my shoulders.

‘Delia, there is no home. The house burned down. There’s nothing left. They’re still putting the fire out now.’

‘Who says? How do you know?’

‘Owen came over earlier with the news. The guards and the priest are waiting to go back with him to Inishcrann, but there’s a storm brewing, and it’s not safe to sail yet. We’re waiting for it to clear up.’

I don’t know why Mrs Miller started to cry. She still had her cigarettes and her house and her doctor and her Clara in university in Dublin.

Dr Miller went out again. He said he’d have to go over to the island in order to certify the deaths as soon as the wind died down. He wouldn’t let me come with him. His wife sat with me and plied me with chocolate and different dolls. The chocolate was delicious, but I couldn’t swallow it. Its sweetness clashed with the bitter taste in my mouth, and I spat it out on to a plate. At three o’clock, I asked if I could turn on the television and it fizzed to life, but there were just tiny men in suits talking to each other behind the glass, and I couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Within an hour, Father Devlin and Dr Miller had returned. The storm was rising and they couldn’t get to the island. The forecast was not good.

Nobody on the island trusted Father Devlin. He came over to say Mass every week, weather permitting, and poked his nose in, wanting to know everyone’s business and making insinuations about people. ‘Tell him nothing’ was the mantra repeated by the islanders, who nevertheless flocked to the tumble-down church every Sunday at midday, like the faithful Catholic devotees they were. All except my mother. ‘Mumbo jumbo – a magic man in the sky is in charge?’ she would say sarcastically. And Daddy would bless himself and say, ‘God forgive me for marrying a heathen,’ and Mammy would laugh at him, but not in a nice way.

Father Devlin said prayers over me now, while holding my hand in his sweaty one, a Hail Mary and an Our Father, but he wanted to know why I’d left the island and where I was going when Dr Miller found me. He wanted to know why I thought my father would be joining me and why we hadn’t arranged a place to meet. He asked me if I was running away, and if so, what was I running from? I stared at him, at the dark mole under his eye, and said repeatedly ‘I don’t know’ until he became frustrated.

‘I think she’s a simpleton,’ he said to Mrs Miller. The stain on my dress had dried, but the smell of sour milk was nauseating.

I clung to my father’s last words to me, and played them over in my head. He had given me a five-pound note and told me to keep it safe. His eyes were glassy, but his grip on my shoulders was firm. ‘There was never a girl as wonderful as you are. You are the queen of Inishcrann. Go now, I’ll catch up with you.’ And he pulled me towards him and buried his head in my shoulder and then shoved me roughly away. I had run to catch the ferry with the five-pound note in my pocket and the clothes I stood up in.

Now, he was gone, and Mammy and Conor and Aidan and Brian were all gone. I was old enough to know that dead meant that I would never see them again. A pain in my stomach came and rippled through the top of my head. Daddy said I could be anything I wanted, but all I wanted to be was Daddy’s girl. How could I be that if I didn’t have a daddy? Who was I if I wasn’t Martin O’Flaherty’s daughter?

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