My Husband's Wives

Faith Hogan

 

Prologue

2016

‘Mum, there’s a funny old lady at the door who says she’s married to dad?’ Delilah wore an expression that sat somewhere between amused and unsettled. Grace supposed anything was better than bored and indifferent. It seemed that had been the permanent expression since she turned twelve a few months earlier.

‘She’s at the wrong house,’ Grace said absently. They were going for a picnic. The sun was shining and Grace hoped a day at the seaside might recapture some of the closeness she’d shared with her daughter before it was just the two of them here.

‘No, she’s sure. She says her name is Evie…’ her usually ambivalent voice held a note of perplexity. ‘Evie Considine Starr – but Mum, I think, she’s a generation out.’ She stuck a finger to the side of her head and wound it around. It was her shorthand language for mental health issues. Grace tried to discourage it, but still never mentioned the antidepressants deep in her own handbag.

‘Oh. Evie?’ the name registered deep in her brain, still it sounded strange on her daughter’s lips. ‘Evie is here?’ Grace’s hand shot up to smooth her hair back, an involuntary movement, hated herself for it.  Why did she care what Evie Considine thought of her?  ‘At the front door, now?’

‘Well, yes,’ Delilah stumbled over her words, for once thrown by her mother’s reaction. ‘You know her? She’s actually…’ the words petered out, same as Paul’s – Evie Considine it seemed was still an unfinished chapter in Paul’s life.

Grace stood straight, imagined herself being pulled by an invisible central rope, lengthening her out, just as the nuns had taught her. She threw her shoulders back, with more confidence than she really felt, and made her way to the front door.

‘Hello Evie,’ she stuck out a hand. ‘It’s nice to meet you at last…’ It was a lie, but only a white one.

 

 

1

Grace Kennedy

Paul Starr was tall – well, anyone was tall to Grace – he might have been gangly, but his thick dark flop of hair and chestnut eyes distracted her from noticing. His smile was easy, his voice low so it made her lean closer; she was charmed instantly. He was the most successful surgeon in Ireland. He was confident, sophisticated and, rumour had it, married. Grace knew who he was. Everyone in Ireland knew who he was. It was said that he was responsible for keeping a former U.S. President alive, as well as half the royal family over sixty.

‘You don’t want to believe everything you read,’ he said, and she realized that she’d never felt so equal to anyone who towered over her so much. She was used to being the short one; five foot just, before she put on her heels. She fingered the amulet that hung always at her neck. It was her father’s; a token to enhance the artist within. Its green gemstone brought out the emerald of her eyes and it made her feel safe, as though her father was still near.

‘Who said I’d be reading about you?’ She couldn’t help fidgeting with her long dark hair any more than he could stop his eyes drinking in every moment of her.

‘This is impressive.’ He waved a hand about the exhibition. It was her second in a year. She felt she’d rushed it, but maybe some things were meant to be. They stood for a few minutes, making small talk. He wasn’t a collector – she could spot them a mile off – not of art anyway. She was about to move away, but he reached out, touched her lightly on the arm. The silver stacking bracelets that she wore jangled, the only sound between them that mattered in the crowded room. The effect was electrifying. ‘I’m just looking at this one…’ He walked towards a watercolour she’d painted two winters earlier, a stark white lighthouse against the rocks and grey waves of the western coastline. ‘It’s breathtaking.’ He caught her eye as he murmured the words. The look sent ripples of what she supposed was desire through her; she’d never felt anything like it before in her life. ‘I’m making changes,’ he said, moving closer to her so his voice was little over a whisper. ‘Making changes and it might suit; do you think anyone has their eye on it, yet?’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ she smiled at him, flirting in some strange subconscious way, couldn’t stop herself, even though she’d spotted his wedding ring immediately. ‘You’d need to talk to Patrick.’ Her eyes skimmed the room for Patrick Marshall. Usually she could find him easily – he was never far away. His languid easy pose tended to dominate whatever space he was in, and she spotted him now surrounded by a coterie of enchanted hangers-on, regaling them with one of the funny stories he always had to hand. He was all she had here; Patrick knew this without ever having to mention it. ‘Oh, he looks busy. Anyway, you can always leave your name with the gallery.’

‘Perhaps I could commission a piece for my rooms,’ he smiled, catching her by surprise, ‘…at the clinic.’ His voice was light, she guessed they were a similar age, but she had a feeling he knew much more of life than she. He reached into his pocket; he wore an elegant off-the-peg navy jacket that moved fluidly. ‘Take my card. Maybe you could drop by, if you’re passing. We could…’ his eyes held an unmistakeable promise, ‘…have coffee.’

Grace wasn’t sure how she managed to walk away from him, but she made it to the other side of the room, her legs like jelly, her stomach a wasp’s nest of restless commotion. She silently cursed herself. The last thing she needed was to fall for a married man. She’d stay well clear of him, or so she told herself. She sipped sparkling wine gently – there were still speeches to be made, people to talk to, sales to close. Even if there weren’t, she’d had enough of being attached to people. She’d spent a lifetime taking care of her sisters and her mother. Her father had taken the easy way out – a double barrel, kept for foxes, in the end. She’d been the one who found him in his studio. He’d probably wanted it to be her. ‘You’re the strong one, Grace,’ he’d said it so many times.

In the end, it was all she could remember of him. She’d spent almost ten years being the one who had to hold it together. All the time, her mother descended further into a bleak haze, clouded by prescription drugs for a series of spurious health problems, one of which would surely stick, someday. Grace got out at twenty-three. It took almost two years to make the break completely. For them to understand that they were on their own; she did what she could. It was either get away or die slowly, as her mother seemed intent on doing.

Painting saved her. It made no demands, beyond those she was prepared to sacrifice and it gave her solace when she had nowhere else to turn. It kept her world together, and now it was her life.

This was her biggest exhibition yet and she’d been nervous when Patrick suggested it. It made good sense, he said last time round, the paintings were picking up a minimum of ten thousand a canvas; of course it made sense. Once she had said yes, Patrick came up with the venue. She had a feeling he’d had it up his sleeve for a while, what she couldn’t understand was why he’d decided to let her have it rather than some of the bigger names he represented. The Dublin City Library and Archive had only reopened months earlier after a total revamp. She had to concede as she had stood beneath its imposing façade – it was overwhelming. The exhibition room seemed vast when she’d come here first. A daunting space filled with echoes of great Dubliners lingering within the repointed stone and polished timbers. How would she fill it? Could she really be good enough to sit with collections like Yeats and Stoker and Swift? Somehow, the building made her nervy and calm all at once. A strange mix of expectation and complete confidence ran through her and propelled her from the moment she set foot in the great hall. She’d pulled out some of the work that she’d started years ago, it added poignancy to the exhibition, she thought. True, it was darker than her more recent work, but it held the loneliness of her past, something that seemed to draw people. The first exhibition had been an unexpected success; it was the reason Patrick suggested a second.

‘What do you expect when all you do is work?’ Patrick had said when they’d met a few months earlier. ‘Note to yourself, Grace Kennedy: get a life.’ He flapped his arms about in that theatrical way he had, so she only half took him seriously and never took his advice, unless it was professional. This was as close as Grace got to friendship. ‘What about family?’ Patrick asked her one bleary night after they’d been drinking wine in her little studio; she, feeling creatively stuck, he, depressed because he’d lost the love of his life. To be fair, every man he dated seemed to be the love of his life for the first six weeks, and then…

‘What do you expect,’ she fired back at him, ‘when all you do is work?’

‘Touché,’ and they clinked glasses. By virtue of common ground and both loners at heart, unwilling to let anyone else in, their friendship suited them both. It was lucrative too, and there were no real strings or obligations.

‘So, tell me, has he bought anything?’ she nodded in the direction of the heart surgeon. He was standing among a group of other men but seemed to dominate the crowd. Even then, she could see it was his way of listening that really marked him out. He had deep set brown eyes, clear skin and hair that buckled insolently across his forehead.

‘Not yet. I got the distinct impression when I saw you talking to him that he was more interested in the artist than the art.’ Patrick smiled at a heavily bejewelled woman who may have had her face frozen somewhere in her fifties, but her body and posture had traitorously kept on marching towards their eighth decade. ‘Don’t stare. If she starts collecting your stuff, the prices will rocket.’

‘Then tell me about Paul Starr,’ she said. She smiled at the strange-looking woman who was holding court among a group of youngsters who might have had artistic leanings or not, but they certainly had a bent towards free champagne.

‘I think they’re trying to lure him away from the public sector completely,’ Patrick gestured towards a group of middle-aged men in suits.

‘Ah,’ Grace said. ‘So… he could be interested in picking something up for new offices?’ Had she been imagining that fusion of electricity that had passed between them? ‘And he’s not gay?’ She knew intuitively from the way Paul Starr had looked at her that he was not gay.

‘Fair to say he’s not gay – he’s married,’ Patrick glanced at her over his low-slung reading glasses.

‘He could still be gay. This is Dublin after all – he could be gay and quiet about it.’

‘Well, he’s not, but if you have a shred of decency, you’ll leave the poor man alone. I’m all for you finding a man, preferably not one I find attractive, but you need to get one of your own, not one who’s already married to someone else.’

‘He’s quite safe. I’m not looking for anyone, just happy to paint and have you keep selling for me.’ She held her hands up, ‘Honest.’ It was true. She wanted to crack the American market. Patrick called her ambitious, and yes, she supposed, she was driven, and she didn’t want to be slowed down by kids or a husband – especially if he was someone else’s.

She lost sight of him then, for a while. Assumed he’d left like anyone who wasn’t there just for the champagne. It was in the foyer that she spotted him again. He was waiting, probably for a taxi.

‘You’re working late?’ His body skimmed hers too close; his expression was mischievous.

‘Work hard, play hard,’ she whispered, matching the challenge in his eyes. It must have been the champagne. In that moment, she left her normal sensible self behind, leant across and brushed her lips on his, for too long so it was not just friendly. The kiss, if you could call it that, a fleeting-lingering-caress, boiled a wanton question between them. His look of surprise matched the hysteria erupting in her heart, but she had a feeling that alcohol helped her hide it better. She turned on her high heels. She heard them clicking on the stone floor beneath her and slinked, tiger-like, away from him. She could feel him watch her, take in her every fibre as she moved, and she revelled in it. She’d never felt more in control; in that moment she had become all she’d wanted to be. Then the familiar fear threated to rise within her. Kissing someone she didn’t even know, and like that? Someone else’s husband? She never felt more… she couldn’t articulate it, and she was far too happy to try.

*

The following morning, nursing a thumping hangover, she walked across the city towards her studio, to the drumbeat of her headache. Alongside her, cars snaked through the worn-out city streets. The Liffey twisted tediously beneath the grey of the Ha’penny Bridge and anonymous footsteps rattled its surface like unrelenting raindrops. Dublin has its own way of reminding you that you were only passing through. Still, deep in her heart throbbed an excitement she’d never known before and even her hangover couldn’t dampen the glimmer of hope that had ignited within her.

She had bought the studio with the proceeds of her first exhibition – it was technically a lock-up garage in the Liberties. It snuggled between the Iveagh market and a raft of antique shops that she had a feeling started out as pawnbrokers long before vintage was fashionable. This was old Dublin, the valley of the Vikings, the birthplace of Walt Disney, a red-bricked ravine – the heart of the fair city. Grace loved it here. It was an odd mix of old buildings and new blood and, above it all, Christchurch pealed its three-hundred-year-old bells over her rooftop. In the beginning, the studio had been little more than a draughty shell with a rotting double garage door. That didn’t matter; it was hers, and once the builders left her to it, with a row of Velux windows and a small kitchenette and bathroom, it felt more like home than the dingy flat she rented on the far side of the river.

Patrick was an angel. A hair-gelled, smoking-jacketed, cravat-wearing angel. Even today, when Grace just about managed to crawl into a pair of paint-spattered leggings, Patrick looked immaculate.

‘So what’s she like?’

‘Who?’

‘His wife, of course, Paul Starr’s wife.’ She couldn’t get him out of her mind.

‘I don’t know, do I?’ Patrick was considering something on his fingernails as he held them up against the natural light. Getting information out of him was harder than winning the Eurovision. ‘Plain, I think, older, lives in a serious pile of real estate in Howth.’

‘Oh? Kids?’

‘What is this? Inquisition? Torture? Do you have any idea how much my head hurts?’ He took the phone from its cradle beside him. Why don’t you ring him up and ask him?’ Patrick put his hand to his forehead, pressing his palm hard to dispel the pounding headache, his breath was deep and slow – a sure sign of the hangover from hell.

‘I can’t do that, can I?’ Grace rolled her eyes at him. He replaced the phone on the cradle.

‘No, you definitely can’t.’ He grinned wryly.

‘He might actually want to buy something though? He mentioned a commission.’  She knew she was clutching at straws, but she wanted to see him again.

‘You don’t do commissions, not unless they have a hefty price tag – and we both know the only commission he’s thinking about is getting into your…’

‘Stop it,’ she pouted at him. ‘Those suits he was with last night, I bet they’d buy him the Mona Lisa if they thought it would entice him to work for them.’ What were the chances of a sale in it? ‘I won’t ring him. Maybe he’ll buy a whole load from one of the other auction houses and then you’ll be sorry that I didn’t.’

‘He knows where we are if he wants to get his hands on a painting.’ Patrick drained his coffee cup. ‘Must be off, sales to be made!’ He rubbed his fingers together playfully, ‘I can’t be discussing your non-love life all day.’ He flicked a paintbrush against her hand, splattering her arm with a dusting of bright blue powder.

‘Thanks,’ she said, staring into her coffee, still too busy remembering the flutter of her stomach when she kissed Paul Starr.

*

It took her almost two days, but she knew that if she didn’t ring Paul Starr he could not ring her; not if he was married. He answered on the second ring and if he was surprised to hear from her, he hid it well enough to make her question what she thought he felt.

At four o’clock, she walked into the modern white and steel foyer of Liffey Hospital. A young receptionist, efficient and friendly, led her into Paul’s office, an insipidly cream space crying out for adornment.  He had been waiting for her, and they sat for a while making small talk about art and business, but really, she could hardly concentrate. He was even more attractive than she remembered.

‘You really do need a few paintings around here,’ she said as they made their way to the café through a tunnel of endless naked walls and cream carpet designed to absorb bad news and good alike.

‘Well, maybe that’s something you can help me with.’ He held the door open for her. She couldn’t manage eye contact.

They sat at a small table on a mezzanine overlooking a courtyard decorated with colourful shrubs, wooden furniture and a privet maze. In the polished glass of the window, she could see their reflections. They made a striking couple. Her dark hair and clothes edgy compared to his clean cut good looks.

‘I’m glad you called.’ He ordered the coffees and leant across the table towards her. ‘I was afraid you wouldn’t. I thought I might crack and ring you first; then I realised, I didn’t have a number for you. You kissed me and then you ran away.’ He smiled through a lopsided generous mouth that was much more used to being set in serious mode in these surroundings. ‘Of course, I couldn’t.’

‘No?’ Was it her imagination or did his wedding ring constantly wink in the afternoon sunlight?

‘I’m married. You must know that?’ He broke their gaze, sadly looking down at the courtyard below. ‘Well,’ he scrutinized her with those astute eyes. ‘Marriage? What does it mean anymore? Eh?’

‘Probably means a lot to your wife,’ Grace sighed, sitting back a little in her seat.

‘It isn’t straightforward.’ He’d caught the fleeting look of resignation. ‘Seriously, it isn’t what you think. Evie is much older. We’ve never had… a…’ He took the milk jug, concentrated for a moment on pouring it. ‘We’ve never had a family, never had what you’d call a conventional marriage.’

‘She doesn’t understand you?’ Grace had dipped her voice, though she knew she shouldn’t make light of it. He caught her eye, and it felt as if she’d missed a heartbeat and everything in the world had just toppled slightly. This was not funny, not funny at all.

‘She understands me perfectly, as it turns out. She recognizes what we have, and, well, she wants more for me. She has her life, I have mine. She understands how I feel about… things.’

‘So, she’d be happy with you, say, taking a mistress?’

‘I’m not sure that those are the words she’d use, but yes. Look, I don’t expect you to understand this, but when you love someone, really love them, well, you want what will make them happy.’

‘And that’s me?’ Grace whispered the words. This was insane; they hardly knew each other.

‘You’re looking at me as though I might be an escaped lunatic.’ They both laughed at that. He shook his head, lowered his voice still further so it was little more than a whisper. ‘I told her that I met you.’

‘Excuse me?’ Grace moved forward. This was not what she was expecting – what had she been expecting? That they might discuss the merits of charcoal over pencil? No, she should be honest with herself at least. She’d been expecting more than that. ‘You told your wife? That you met me?’

‘I had to, I couldn’t move on without being honest with her. You don’t just stop loving someone, not altogether. It may have changed, as the years have gone on, but I wouldn’t hurt her for the world.’

‘And, meeting me, here, having this conversation, that wouldn’t hurt her?’

‘No, she’s ready for me to move on. She wants me to find happiness. She is very content with her life as it is. She has, if you’ll excuse the old-fashioned way of putting it, given me her blessing.’ He smiled at Grace, a winning smile, it was game, set and match to Paul Starr. ‘If you feel the same as I do.’

*

It didn’t take long; he asked her to dinner a few nights later. The Trocadero, in the city centre, a public place. When she got back to the safety of her little flat, she danced about the cramped space to whatever mindless tune played on the radio. The next day, she headed for Switzers, blew a huge hole in her credit card and walked out the door with a sexy half-price Valentino blouse that left less to the imagination than it left in her wallet. She was falling for him, regardless of marriage, blessings or any other stupid notions that might be playing in the back of her mind.

‘You look beautiful, even more so than the first time I noticed you.’ He all but fell inside her blouse as he was talking to her. It was a magical night. He was full of plans, dreams and ambitions. ‘And that,’ he told her was half the problem with his marriage to Evie. ‘We’re stuck, have been maybe since before we got married.’

‘My sisters are like that. They don’t understand why I’m…’ she inclined her head, knowing instinctively that he’d understand, ‘the way I am.’

Four hours later, they walked around Stephen’s Green. The city smelled of promise. Across the railings of the green, viola, stock and jasmine coasted on the night air. It seemed the moon shone orange and low in the silken empty sky, just for them, and the horses stood a little taller to attention as they passed. Somewhere down Grafton Street, a busker played his heart out for a love he had lost, or maybe never knew. And Paul looked at her with desire Grace had only ever expressed in her paintings. He’d leaned in to kiss her, and then stopped. She thought that she’d turn herself inside out with hunger for him. She managed to play it cool.

‘I have to see you again,’ he whispered into her hair, his body skimming hers so she could feel the length of him against her.

‘I suppose, we might manage that,’ she laughed at him then, enjoying the game. It was the same the next time and the time after that. If he wasn’t being unfaithful exactly to Evie, he looked at Grace with more longing than any other man she’d ever known. Then, after five whirlwind months, when Grace had hardly eaten a bite apart from when she’d been with him, her whole body a knot of pent-up nerves and sexual tension, he’d rung her at the studio one afternoon.

‘I’m off to Paris at the weekend. Fancy it?’ He said the words lightly, but they both knew what they implied.

‘What about…’ first rule of affairs – don’t mention the wife’s name.

‘I thought it’d be something special, memorable for us.’ She could swear she felt his breath warm and spicy on her hair.

‘Work or pleasure?’

‘I don’t see why it can’t be both,’ he chuckled in a way that made him seem much older, worldly-wise. Patrick had told her that she was trying to replace her lost father. He was joking, she hoped.

‘Maybe I can get a little business done while I’m there too.’

As it turned out, she never took the sketchpad out of her bag. Paris had been wonderful. It truly was the city of love. It was as intoxicating as the connection between them and that ran far deeper than Grace had expected. Cemented by their shared sense of humour; they were anchored by voracious desire. Paul begged off the conference with food poisoning. A hackneyed excuse but, surprisingly, they bought it. They flew back on Sunday night, exhausted, but exuberant. Things had changed in Paris, and they both knew it.

Grace got home before midnight, oddly bereft at being without him. She did not want to leave him at the airport, and then it hit her that he was not hers; he still belonged to Evie.  She climbed the four flights of stairs and cursed the Georgians for making people live in nests above the city. She lived alone. The only company she needed in the evenings were a remote control and a cat she called Moses that sometimes dropped by from the flat downstairs. She switched on the phone when she unpacked her weekend bag. One new message. She dialled the mailbox. It was her sister Anna – the middle one.

‘Grace, I’m sorry for leaving a message like this, but we’ve been looking for you since Friday night. It’s Sunday morning now and we’re getting really worried. Anyway, will you ring us the minute you get this message, it’s about Ma.’ Grace sat on the side of her cast-iron bed – a gift to herself. For once, its creaky welcome was lost on her. Hard to believe that only hours earlier she lay in his arms and all the world seemed right. She redialled the number on the call log.

‘Hi, everything all right?’ In her mind’s eye, she was back there. In that big cold farmhouse, the whitewash no longer white, ignored since long before her father died. She could smell the inescapable smell of damp, dust settled stubbornly in corners best avoided and the ceilings moved just a little closer to the floor with each passing year.

‘Oh Grace.’ It was Clair who answered and she never got upset. She was much too flaky for that, a small angular girl with deep blue eyes and a leaning towards bad men. ‘We’ve been trying to track you down for days, its Ma… she’s…’ Clair didn’t have to say the word. Grace could picture her, standing against the dripping kitchen sink, her drawn face chalky pale, and her hand shaking. She was eight again, the news of their father hitting home.

‘How? When?’ It was all Grace could manage; the last thing she expected, and yet, not unexpected after all. Mona had been intent on dying for almost twenty years. She’d taken to bed after their father was buried. Effectively, she’d abandoned them then, fallen into a ravine of mourning and left Grace to get on with running the house and raising the girls, although she was little more than a child herself.

 ‘You have to come and help us get things sorted. Ma would want you to take care of the funeral.’

‘Of course. I was away for…’ there was no point explaining. It would only be another thing for Anna to throw back at her. ‘I’m on my way, sorry you couldn’t get me. I’ll leave straight away.’

‘Well, get here as quickly as you can. There’s so much to be done.’ Clair put the phone down, in her usual absent-minded way.

Grace left a message for Paul, something insanely short about not being able to meet him because her mother had just died. She didn’t expect him to come, didn’t imagine that he would feel the need to get involved. Then, there he was, his car outside her flat, waiting to bring them both home and she wondered, for a minute if he’d even made it back to Evie.

‘You really don’t have to do this…’ she dreaded the uncomfortableness of having an outsider among their dysfunctional family.

‘I wouldn’t let you go through this alone, Grace. It hasn’t hit you yet,’ he smiled at her. Soon they were leaving Dublin behind, heading towards the open road. The flattened midland bogs swept by her, a maelstrom of brown, purple and tawny green patches toiled large across the central plains. Then the land began to narrow, centuries of subdivision where farmers cut their hands on stones to mark out their hard-won sod of turf, heralded their arrival in the west. Here the rocky land prevailed long after Boycott and the Leaguers fought their wars and lost so much along the way. Grace had a feeling that all you could do was capture it in the briefest moment, commit it to a painting and hope to match the meanness with the majesty. She murmured the thought aloud. ‘My father could have done justice to that; he could have painted it in his sleep.’ She believed she’d never be as good as him, never have his touch.

‘Your father was the artist? Everyone has heard of Louis Kennedy,’ he said as the car purred along the uneven westbound roads. ‘Tragic, is the word most people call to mind when they think of him, tragic and brilliant.’

‘He was an odd mix of both. He was a quiet man, who spent more time painting than he ever did with us, but my mother adored him. He made her existence worthwhile. Does that sound strange?’

‘No, I can imagine how you could fall beneath the shadow of someone so talented.’ He stared ahead, thoughtful, his silence as loaded with more clever comprehension than any words could convey.

‘She married above herself – that’s what she felt, and I suppose it’s what people made her feel, and when he died, well, it was as if she became a shell.’ Her mother’s response to her father’s death was one of the reasons Grace had long since decided she would not live in someone else’s shadow. Husbands and children were definitely off the radar. She was making an exception for Paul – but, after all, he wasn’t her husband.

In the end, Grace read the eulogy – a three-stanza set of lines, with unequal rhyming, clunking language. Mona wrote it, before she lost all hope, verses of autumn and moving on. She was a poet once, but that was long ago. Grace stood at the top of the small church, the only dry-eyed one among them. She wasn’t one for weeping at weddings or funerals, she’d leave that to Anna. She hadn’t cried for her father, and knew she wouldn’t cry for her mother. It wasn’t natural, was it?

They buried her mother next to her father in a small plot on the mountainside, gazing across the vast undulating countryside. The county spread in a hazel bog before them, purple heather punctuating the tawny land. Overhead, grey skies conspired to cap any more emotion on the day; it was a Louis Kennedy landscape begging to be captured. She hadn’t visited the grave in over a decade. She pulled her dark cloak closer to her and was glad of Paul’s steadying hand on her back.

The funeral was all her mother would have wanted. The house filled with tea drinkers and near-professional mourners. Grace sat amongst them, listening to their stories, looking at the house, a faded apparition of a place she once knew well. The dresser seemed smaller, the paintwork scruffier and the chintz more faded. On the mantelpiece, there was a family photograph – the last one taken. Happier times; when they were all together. She got up to make more tea. It was the only way to cope here. Keep moving. Stay busy. Paul poured tea or whiskey, depending on the request, then turned his hand to dishwashing after charming first her sisters and then the neighbours with his winning bedside manner. They would probably remember him more than her for the day.

*

For two more months, life breezed along for Grace. Painting consumed her and Paul was pleasingly attentive. Had it not been for the fact that he told her about Evie, she’d never have believed he was married. Mistresses were meant to feel they were second on the list, weren’t they? Then one night, as they clinked glasses on her little sofa, everything she’d eaten for a week threatened to come rushing back up her throat. She raced to the bathroom just in time to catch the nauseous feeling. It returned like an avalanche when she glimpsed in the cracked little mirror. She seemed different, peaky, bloated, yet she was in top health, her face flushed with what she thought was happiness. The sudden feeling of gaseousness had nothing to do with her stomach and everything to do with the tampons she held in her hand. She’d bought them before the funeral, before the trip to Paris. They lay on the shelf still unopened.

Next day, she bought a test, it took less than sixty seconds for her world to numb; spiking her completely, so she couldn’t paint, couldn’t think. She was aware that Paul called her sometime after most people had lunch. By five, he’d rung four times. She knew she’d have to answer him sooner or later. It turned out she didn’t need to; he was standing at the door of the studio, phone in hand waiting for her to let him in. He spotted the test before he managed to switch on the kettle. It had become a bit of a habit; he stopped by on his way home from the hospital, and they shared the day’s events over a pot of strong tea and biscuits.

‘Oh my God.’ His eyes danced, his voice was a little shriller than usual. ‘I can’t believe it, how long?’ He was trying to do the maths, but he couldn’t stop smiling, his hands an uncoordinated knot of giddy action. ‘I really can’t believe it – I’m so happy!’ He took her in his arms, and if he didn’t notice her own shocked response immediately, it didn’t take too long. ‘Are you okay?’ he said, holding her at arm’s length for a moment, searching deep in her green eyes for some kind of hint of how she felt.

‘I’m just a little…’ stunned was probably the best word, but she managed, ‘surprised…’ They’d never talked about children, well you didn’t did you? Not when he had Evie, and she wouldn’t dream of asking why it never happened years ago, before her.

‘But you’re happy, right?’

‘I don’t know, not yet, it’s too soon, it seems too soon.’ She heard her words faltering, she wasn’t going to ruin it for him. ‘It probably needs some getting used to.’ All sorts of things were flying through her brain. Funny, she’d often think as things went on, never once had she thought of getting rid of it. The nuns had done a good job on her, ingrained the Catholic guilt so well, she didn’t even realize it was there anymore.

‘Move in with me?’ he said.

‘And Evie?’

‘No, we can get a place together… she’ll understand.’ His eyes darkened for a second and she knew; it would be hard to tell Evie that he was moving on so quickly, so utterly, so finally.

‘I…’ perhaps it was shock, but something made her stop.

‘Isn’t it what you want?’ She wanted to kick herself for causing the hurt that lingered in his face.

‘It’s just, I suppose,’ she wasn’t sure what to say. She had planned things, but Paul had changed all that. ‘I can’t imagine life without you; it’s probably just the shock – the surprise.’

‘You haven’t answered me.’

‘No,’ she said simply. ‘No I haven’t answered you, have I?’ She needed time to think. ‘Let’s get through the next few days first, get used to the idea?’

*

The next days and weeks took on a surreal quality for Grace, as though she was living outside the action of her own life. Paul was great; he took it all on, seemed to be on hand whenever she needed him. He picked up brochures, narrowed down places they could live, ‘for a while, until we get settled and decide what we want,’ he told her reassuringly, as though there was a greater agreed plan. She still hadn’t settled on the idea of living together just yet – it was all too sudden. She hadn’t told her sisters about Evie, but now there seemed little point in holding back any of the finer details.

‘Well, he’s either in or out,’ Anna said with her usual no-nonsense attitude. ‘He can’t have his cake and eat it. He’s either with you or he’s not.’

‘It’s not like that. Besides, you know how I feel about getting married.’

‘Grace, don’t be such a dunce. You’re pregnant. In some ways, it doesn’t matter if he’s married to you or not. What matters is if he’s married to her. He has to choose.’ The words hung in the air long after Grace ended the call.

Once the thought was planted, like a seed in her brain, it took root and she couldn’t let it go. It was in a leafy suburb in Drumcondra that she broke the news to him. He took her to see a red-brick, four-bedroom house.

‘I can’t live with you, Paul, not like this.’

‘We can look at other houses,’ he said, clearly thinking the fault was with the property. ‘I can look at taking out a mortgage, if that’s what you want.’

‘No.’ Grace moved towards a bay window. ‘No, Paul. I can’t live with you while you’re married to Evie. It doesn’t seem right, not with a baby.’

‘But Evie won’t mind. She’ll be happy for me.’ He reminded her of a wounded Setter. ‘We can set up here, I’ll support you, Grace, you know I will. Nappies, bills, the lot. I’m ready for this, really up for it.’

‘You don’t understand, Paul. For me, for the baby, it has to be all or nothing. I love you, but you need to cut the ties with Evie before we can have a future together.’ This was harder than she thought. She knew she was taking an almighty gamble. What if he chose Evie? On the other hand, she had to know the spectre of his first wife could be in the past.

‘I see,’ he said.

‘You will have to tell her, anyway. That will be the worst. The rest, well, it’s probably not going to be so bad.’

‘Yes, of course. I’ll tell her tonight.’

‘And, then we’ll see…’ Grace bit her lip, didn’t want him to see how much it really meant to her.

‘Are you proposing to me?’ The sadness was replaced for just a moment by that lingering joke they shared since they first met.

‘I might do that some day, when you’re free to accept – or maybe you’ll propose to me? Properly.’ When he put his arms around her, she knew she had nothing to worry about.

*

Evie was sorted within the month; a quickie divorce, the upside of marrying abroad. Paul wasn’t even sure how legal their union had been all these years.

‘Why didn’t you ever tell me?’ Grace knew there was much he’d never get around to telling her. She had a feeling he knew what he was doing. There was a time when the mention of marriage, good or bad, would have scared her off. ‘You’re a very wise man; have I mentioned that before?’

‘No, but we have a lifetime ahead of us and I suppose it’s the kind of thing I’ll never tire of hearing.’ He pulled her close and they made plans for a simple ceremony. He didn’t want anything splashed across the celebrity magazines, it wouldn’t be fair to Evie. Grace agreed although it set her teeth on edge a little, the idea that Evie Considine might still dictate her future. ‘Don’t be like that, we have so much to look forward to and she…’ Would it always bother her that his sentences never ended when he spoke of Evie, as though there was still unfinished business between them?

*

Malta was perfect. If she’d been the kind of girl to think about a white dress and the man of her dreams, she couldn’t have come up with anything better. Paul booked the best hotel on the island. It was off-season; and the small church, which Grace couldn’t be sure was Catholic, was idyllic. ‘Does it really matter?’ he asked her, and in that moment, it hadn’t mattered. Whitewashed stone, aged timbers and soft tones from Debussy filled the air as they exchanged their handwritten vows. She hoped Paul forgot about Evie for the day. Maybe, a small sliver of guilt raised its head after he said, ‘I do.’ Grace wondered if the other woman realized that Paul was no longer hers. Had he felt for her what he now felt for Grace? She quickly cast aside the lingering whispers, drank in the clear blue skies, and lightly scented breeze. He was hers. Everything had subtly changed between them in a way she hadn’t imagined it would. Sure, that was just stupid, wasn’t it?

*

The weeks seemed to rush past her then.  They settled on a house, not too big, but close enough for Paul to get in and out of work easily. It was probably no more than a stone’s throw from where he lived with Evie, but they both liked the area and Grace never mentioned it. It wasn’t a permanent home. ‘Plenty of time for all that when we’re a family,’ he told her, so for now they rented and it felt temporary despite the paintings she hung about the rooms to make them feel like hers. Paul was only interested in one room. In her second trimester, the morning sickness got worse instead of better.

‘You might well be expecting an elephant calf,’ Patrick told her drily one morning. He dropped chocolate-covered Kimberley biscuits into his steaming mocha; even the smell of mocha made Grace feel wretched these days.

‘I’m certainly big enough.’ It was true; she had morphed into one of those enormous pregnant women you saw on seventies American TV series. She was, she knew, living proof that they actually existed.

Then, out of nowhere, it struck her. Had their childlessness been the cause of Paul and Evie’s break-up? He wouldn’t be drawn on any details. Nothing. She cast aside the thought quickly. Hormones? Within a few short weeks, Grace Kennedy-Starr had become a stranger to herself.

‘It’s easier to mind the little one now,’ one of the midwives told her on her final visit to the clinic. As though lumbering about with permanent heartburn could be better than having it all over with. Grace knew she was trying to comfort her, perhaps she knew what it was to feel so overwhelmed by pregnancy, ‘any day soon and it will all be worth it.’ She’d been trying to console her about being bigger than Meatloaf. She resolved on the journey back from the hospital that this was her first and last pregnancy; never again. Marriage and children had never been part of the plan anyway, but then, she hadn’t met Paul Starr when she promised herself that. Sometimes, she wondered if she’d change her mind so totally when the baby arrived too.

At about four the following morning, she ran out of time. Her labour pains came hard and fast. Luckily, Paul was home; he soothed and steadied her until they got to the hospital. There, it hit her, as immediately and forcibly as the smell of disinfectant and the squeak of rubber shoes on shined floors – panic. She was not ready for this, not for labour, motherhood, or any of it, and it didn’t matter if her body thought different.  The fear consumed her, seemed to swallow her whole. She felt her breath constrict in her chest and then those awful pains would blow it out of her. A marionette, scared and vulnerable, she kept her expression neutral while she could. ‘You won’t leave me, will you?’ she asked, her eyes pinned on him.

‘Of course not, darling,’ he gathered her hair back from her face and whispered, ‘never. I’ll never leave you or the baby.’ He drew her close and held her until she couldn’t breathe and needed to pull away. She had a feeling he didn’t understand her; this time she was on her own.

‘First one?’ the midwife said soothingly; she was nice, motherly, born to make babies. ‘You could be here a while. It takes time for everything to get up and running first time round. Second time’s a charm though.’ She left them in a private room with a TV and an uninspiring view of the car park.

‘So this is where it all happens,’ Paul smiled at Grace.

‘I guess so,’ she said weakly.

‘It’ll be all right, you’ll see.’

‘I suppose.’ Grace was terrified. It was all well and dandy for him to sit there and tell her she’d be fine. He just had to hold her hand while she did all the work.

‘When this is over, we’ll do something nice.’ He took her face in his hands. ‘Maybe go somewhere, just get away, the three of us together.’

‘The three of us?’ She felt a pulverizing contraction and cursed silently as he nodded at her, assuming she was confirming his plans. But of course, she hadn’t been counting the baby as one of them. Even with her body wracked with pain that felt as if it might tear her in two, she wasn’t thinking of the baby as real. He’d furnished the spare room – the nursery, as he insisted on calling it. It was the only room he’d taken any time over. She shivered every time he said it, as though there would be an endless stream of babies coming from her.

The baby, a little girl they agreed to call Delilah, arrived late the following afternoon. ‘A good length of time, for the first,’ according to the midwife. Grace took her in her arms and admired her, remotely, as though she was someone else’s. Paul slipped into the role of father with ease and suddenly seemed almost unfamiliar to Grace, so animated, alive, and content. They stole two days from her in that room. Two days, where they slept, washed and ate. She lay in a state of begrudging exhaustion as Paul expertly handled her daughter, and smiled and sang to the child as though they had already formed some kind of secret bond.

*

‘You’ll have to take her, I’m afraid.’ She dreaded those words for months. It didn’t take long to get a routine of sorts going. Most days, she tried to get Delilah out for long bracing walks, fed her, changed her and hoped she slept. Sometimes, when she cried, Grace would just sit there, watching her, not really hearing her at all. It was as though she was watching television, or someone else’s child, someone else’s life. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, sometimes she felt as if she couldn’t move, but she had to. Paul, on the other hand took to it like oil to canvas. ‘You’re just tired, darling, go and rest. It must be exhaustion, that’s all, let me,’ and he’d whip Delilah out of her crib and whirl her about the floor, singing Frank Sinatra songs she never heard him sing otherwise. Grace could swear that the baby actually knew the difference. She had a terrible feeling. What if Delilah wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, love her because she knew how Grace felt? Sometimes the grip of anxiousness tightened in her gut and her thoughts turned to a dark place that she knew she couldn’t go. She wondered if she should tell someone, but what could she say? That her thoughts had taken on the personality of a bystander or that her emotions seemed to be spilling over so they were more real than the baby was? Was this what her father felt before he took his life?

‘Post-natal depression. It’s just a touch of the baby blues,’ Paul said one morning when she could hardly look at the child. ‘You need to get it sorted.’ So he dropped her at the doctors and, sure enough, she returned with a prescription for antidepressants. ‘Ah well, there goes the breast-feeding, maybe it’s for luck,’ he said with a shrug. The breast-feeding had all but gone out the window weeks ago; Paul knew it, maybe it bothered him, but he hadn’t mentioned it before. She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear any of it. She hated the forced intimacy, the wretchedness of the baby’s cries because one way or another she was failing. Worst of all was the feeling that she was being slowly, purposefully trapped. There was no sign of her ever getting back to work, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure that she had anything left to put into paint. She felt emptied from the inside out. As though a vacuum had opened up deep inside her and she would never be a whole person again. This growing, living thing that was part of her and part of Paul had managed to steal a huge slice of her. She felt a bubbling resentment. Each day, it seemed to grow. A small shadow at first, it started as a tendril of smoke, just creeping into her life

‘I need to get back to the studio,’ she said it one morning while Paul ate his toast and cooed at the baby from behind his hands.

‘Not yet, surely not yet. We haven’t even talked about what we’re going to do,’ he soothed, but he wasn’t really speaking to her. It felt as though he never did anymore. He said the words all right, but his focus was the baby. Always the baby.

‘Well, then we need to start talking about it sooner rather than later.’ She dumped her plate and knife noisily into the sink and walked from the room. Behind her, she heard the baby begin to cry and Paul comforting her gently, just as he did if she woke in the night, or stirred in her pram.

That was the day when everything changed. The world, as Grace knew it, took one more peg on its axis to bring it just a little closer to where it was meant to be.

*

‘It’s a gift,’ Patrick said, but his voice was playful. ‘You know I can’t keep a secret, so I’m hanging up before you wheedle it out of me. Just meet me at the studio.’ She could almost imagine his bottom lip, curling petulantly. Damn it, she was intrigued. She peered at Delilah, sleeping soundly in her car seat. The midwife said she should be lying in her basket during the day, but it was impossible to get her to sleep, unless you sung or rocked her, as Paul had a habit of doing, until she drifted off. She checked her watch. One hour. That was all it would take. One hour and she’d be back. No-one would ever be any the wiser. Delilah slept most days until after four, why would today be any different? Grace grabbed the spare car keys from the hook, her own set were nowhere to be found. She threw a coat about her shoulders and pulled the door quietly behind her.

‘You took your time,’ Patrick said, but his eyes were laughing. ‘Have you got someone to mind Delilah?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘So?’ He squinted behind her, he had fallen under Delilah’s spell, instantly and irretrievably. She’d parked a bit away, the Liberties was bumper to bumper. Commuters were making their way from one side of the city to another. There was more chance of Picasso painting a mural here than there was of getting parking outside the door of the studio. ‘You can’t leave her in the car.’

‘She’s at home.’ She searched the set of keys for a door key to the studio, felt his eyes upon her. ‘Don’t look at me that way; you have no idea what it’s like, being cooped up there all day, with no sign of escape anywhere on the horizon.’ She hated that she sounded like a sullen adolescent. Delilah had done this. She’d twisted everything about disarmingly and imperceptibly, or so it seemed to Grace.

‘You left her at home on her own?’ He pulled long fingers through his carefully tousled hair, an anxious reaction.

‘It’s only for a short while, and she was fast asleep. She sleeps for hours every day. Seriously, I sit there looking at her sleeping.’ It was true, she would sit staring at her, as though she were a jigsaw puzzle she couldn’t figure out and then later feel guilty for not having worked when she had that small chance. ‘It’s not as if she knows she’s on her own. Not like she’s going to hit the drinks cabinet or take up smoking when I’m gone.’ She tried to laugh at her own attempt at humour, but there wasn’t much point, it wasn’t that funny. ‘Damn these keys.’

‘For God’s sake, Grace, what’s wrong with you?’ The surprise had gone flat for Patrick, whatever he’d been planning had lost its lustre.

‘These are the spare keys; I’ve no key for the studio on them.’ She shoved the keys into her pocket unable to meet his eyes. ‘So, tell me, you might as well, what’s this great surprise?’ She rarely got excited these days, must be the antidepressants.

‘I’m sorry I dragged you out, now. We should go back and check on Delilah. I just thought…’ an unfamiliar urgency stalked his words, his expression was anxious. ‘It’s that ultramarine paint you’ve been on about for years.’ He thrust a brown parcel at her. ‘Knock yourself out with it, when you get sorted. Come on, let’s get back to Delilah.’

‘Patrick. I’ll see to Delilah; I am her mother after all.’ She didn’t need Patrick making her feel worse. It felt as if she couldn’t do anything right these days. The paint was one of the best gifts ever. They’d talked about this so often, a colour her father used to give his paintings texture, he started with the base coat and then built it up from there. She’d tried to track it down for so long. This should have been a happy moment, a moment for two friends to share over their usual co-conspiratorial cup of coffee; instead, he’d made her feel terrible.

By the time she got back to her own driveway, she felt truly miserable. Then, the day got even worse than she could have imagined. She pulled the keys from the ignition, locked the car and realized there was no house key on this set. She walked futilely to the front door first, gave it a tentative shove, hoping she hadn’t fully closed it; it wouldn’t be the first time. When that didn’t work, she tried each of the keys contained on the set. Of course, they belonged to Paul – his spare work keys, held here in case he needed to pop into his consultancy rooms at odd hours. Each key stood stubbornly in the door before the next. She could break a window. But then she’d have to admit to Paul that she’d left the baby here alone. If only they’d left an extra set somewhere outside. She walked round the side of the house, thought she could hear Delilah. It had to be her imagination. Delilah rarely cried, and when she did, she sounded more like a small kitten, helpless, ineffective. To be fair, she never had to cry, not when Paul was around, and during the day Grace kept everything moving along, each day had its own busy but predictable routine, so she didn’t need to. At the back of the house, there was no mistaking it: a baby was crying and not just the little mewling sounds that Delilah normally made. This was full crescendo, rescue me, I need help.

Grace felt a rotten gnawing deep inside her. It was fear of what was in store for her. She leant her face against the damp kitchen window, squinted against the darkness within and terror gripped her hard. Where was Delilah? The kitchen seemed the same as it did when she left – there had been no fire, no flood, no break-in, no gas explosion – except one small detail. The carry chair was no longer on the table. Grace pushed closer to the window, cold and grimy against her face. Her breath held. She made out the familiar in what suddenly seemed strange. This was her kitchen, as seen through the eyes of a voyeur. Her life suddenly held up in clear view. Amazing, she thought, the clarity of a dirty window. The car seat was on the floor. The baby was no longer securely strapped in. She too was on the floor, a small pink bundle, scrabbling wildly. Her hands and legs flailed high in the air, fighting some invisible attacker, while her voice cut through not just the window, but Grace’s numb heart. She ran across to the back door. Shouldered it hard, once, twice; it was no good. She was not strong enough, at five foot and less than eight stone; she’d never do it, not like this. She searched wildly about the garden. A rake the previous owners left behind caught her eye. She moved to the small utility window, whacked it hard, just the once. It was all it took. The glass cracked. Then, after what seemed to take forever, it shattered, deliberately, a spider’s web creeping slowly across its surface, making her wait for spite. She pulled herself up, reached down far and opened out the panel. She slipped in easily. Once inside she ran to Delilah. The child was hysterical, her cries, breaking into hiccupping sobs. For a moment, just a moment, Grace held her close. She thought then that her heart might break in two with an unfamiliar cocktail of love, guilt and anguish. Thoughts of the window and the explanations obliterated. It didn’t matter. What was a broken window? What was anything compared to Delilah? She bundled the child into the offending car seat, secured her in the front of the car and sped to the nearest accident and emergency department.

By the time Paul arrived, mother and baby were being treated for shock. The enormity of what might have been crept up on Grace as that silent dread she’d been expecting. They kept Delilah overnight; Grace never left her side; and while the baby’s condition was thoroughly monitored, so too was Grace’s story. With each retelling, it sounded worse to her. The way they observed her was enough to dig a chasm deep inside her of something that she identified first as embarrassment, but later as guilt. Of course, she knew it then. This was the kind of guilt that would never leave her. When, eventually, they let her hold Delilah, she knew, she’d never let her daughter go again. And so it had been.

Paul found the aquamarine paint about a month later. Grace put it in the bin. Funny, but these days she didn’t particularly care if she never painted again. She could feel Paul watch her, this newfound obsession with the baby – the world began to turn again, and suddenly, Paul had slipped aside and he was looking in.

*

‘Hormones,’ Patrick said, although he was relieved when she arrived back to work on that first day after dropping Delilah at a nearby nursery. Grace had been surprised at how little motivation she had for the work that had consumed her so wholly before Delilah’s arrival. It had taken all her willpower not to ring or text the nursery, or pick her up early.

‘We’ll have to make a lot more money from here on in,’ she joked. ‘The nursery fees are through the roof.’ Her work took on a gentler feel. Perhaps some of the depth of her father’s hand was beginning to emerge. She viewed her new work with growing warmth, working steadily, allowing the brush to lead her where it would. Within the year, she had amassed a sizeable collection once more.

‘Enough for another show?’ Patrick asked when he called one day. He was in love again. ‘Maybe there’ll be wedding bells?’ he said, and she had a feeling he was only half-joking.

‘Another show,’ she turned the conversation back. It was what she needed, something to bring her back to where she was before, to who she was before. ‘You tell me. I have the quantity, there’s no doubt about that. It’s whether any of them are good enough; that’s what you’ll have to decide.’

‘I’m putting a show together for New York – would you be interested?’ He considered again the canvas before him. ‘They’re all good, by the way, every one of them. Of course, some I personally prefer more than others,’ he pointed towards a small portrait of Delilah. She was a cherub with dark curls that sat halo-like about her head, and skin so white it had taken Grace a week to get the colour right. But it was her eyes that manifested her delight upon the canvas. They held in their depths contagious pleasure that reaffirmed for Grace that everything had turned out exactly as it should. ‘You’ve easily got enough to fill an exhibition here, but, I think, if I took ten, maybe twenty, brought them to New York, well, it might be just the thing to launch you over there…’

‘God, Patrick, do you realize how long I’ve hoped for this chance,’ she bit her lip a little nervously.

‘It’s to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, a trade mission, highlighting the best we have. You’ll be packed in there with Bono and Waterford Crystal overflowing with shamrock and enough Newbridge Silverware to build a bridge from here to Hong Kong – in other words, don’t get too excited,’ he smiled, ‘you’ll be a very small fish in a big pond.’

Grace filled the next few weeks with framing and naming. In the end Patrick took thirty paintings to the States.

The phone call woke Delilah at almost three in the morning. Grace answered it groggily to the background sound of traffic and a lilting, elated Patrick. ‘They’ve taken the lot, they’ve bloody taken everything I brought over,’ he whooped.

‘Are you all right Patrick? Have you any idea what time it is… here?’ It began to register that he was still in New York.

‘They’re only the most reputable gallery in Manhattan,’ he sounded giddy with excitement. ‘Browne Holt have just taken thirty of your paintings, woman. You are the hot ticket over here this week.’

Suddenly she grasped the meaning of his words, the enormity. She shrieked with delight and danced a thrilled Delilah about the house. Good thing Paul was on night duty or she’d have woken him too.

It was the break she’d always craved and a little bit of her worried that you can’t have it all. Can you?

*

Paul’s reaction, when she mentioned going on the pill, just before Delilah’s first birthday, had surprised her. ‘Why?’ he sounded puzzled. ‘Why would you do that, when there are people who’d give everything they have for the chance to have children?’

‘I’m happy with how things are,’ she said, her eyes downcast. She didn’t want to see the pain she could hear in his voice. She loved Delilah more than life itself, they were complete as they were. ‘And there’s my work. My career is really taking off.’

‘Well, okay, but in a while, maybe next year?’ His voice petered out.

She never mentioned that she was still taking the pill on Delilah’s fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays. It was just after they’d taken a week off to go to Connemara, where they celebrated Delilah’s eight birthday, and she’d slept late on their last morning, that it came up again. Paul had set about packing up their bags, letting Grace enjoy the late morning lie-in. He gathered up their belongings from around the cottage they’d rented overlooking the Atlantic. She wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting on the side of her bed when she woke. She found herself wide awake after one glimpse of the dark expression on his face. In that first moment, she was sure something terrible had happened to Delilah.

‘What is it, Paul, tell me what is it?’ She pulled herself up in one movement from lying in a foetal ball to a full sitting position. ‘What’s wrong, what’s happened?’ His expression gave nothing away; countless unmasked but unreadable emotions flashed across his eyes. She put her hands on his shoulders; perhaps if she shook him, she could make the words tumble from his closed mouth. ‘Is Delilah okay?’

For an awful second, she considered not finding out what he had to tell her. She studied his long narrow hand, so familiar, yet it gave her no comfort. His eyes never left her face. The scrutiny was too much and she looked away, her eyes drawn to his outstretched hand. Her monthly prescription, the small pink tray of tablets cut carefully into groups of twos so she could fit them easily into the delicate powder box that never usually left her bag.

‘You’ve been taking them. All this time?’ He shook his head, as though it were the end of everything. Their years together came crumbling apart as easily as a badly built wall with rotten foundations. ‘I thought we were just unlucky, that perhaps, work, you know, the fact that there are times when we can’t be together, stress, whatever.’ A bitter movement curled his lips, as if he’d swallowed something foul. His voice, she’d remember later, never went above a whisper – he didn’t want Delilah to hear.

‘I…’ words deserted her. She was at a disadvantage. He knew she’d gone out of her way to make sure he didn’t know she was taking contraceptives. ‘It’s the twenty-first century, Paul. We women get to choose if we have children. I told you, a long time ago, I wanted to concentrate on my career…’

‘Your career? How much more do you want, Grace? You’re the most successful Irish painter alive. Your work is hanging in the most famous galleries in the world. It’s not the money. It doesn’t mean that much to you. So what is it? Art for art’s sake? Do you want to end up like your father?’ he wiped a stream of wet tears from his cheeks and she felt a swell of desperation deep inside her. Paul was much too strong to cry, she knew that this had cut him to the core and it only added to her despair. ‘I really want to understand you. Is this it? Is this all you want, when we could have so much more?’

‘Time, just a little more…’ she kept her voice even, but inside the only thought echoing about her head was ‘what have I done?’

‘Don’t you see? You don’t have time. Grace, you don’t need to be a doctor to work out that you’re heading straight towards the menopause. Hadn’t you noticed? Time isn’t on our side here; you’ve thrown away not only your chances, but mine too. Didn’t you think I might like to know you’d taken that choice from me?’

‘It’s my decision,’ she said. She’d made it before she met him. She hadn’t reckoned on the impact on Paul. What had gone on before with Evie? She hadn’t counted on his unfailing loyalty to the memory of their marriage, his inability to open up any further than to lay the blame of its demise on the doorstep of procreation. Did she have a self-destruction wish? Later, when it was far too late to make any difference, she’d think back to this time. To the rows, they should have had, if she’d given him the chance.

They returned to Dublin a subdued bunch after what had otherwise been a happy break away. Delilah seemed to sink into a matching melancholy, although Grace was sure she couldn’t have realized what had passed between them.

It was with even greater vigour that Grace plunged herself into work. She was producing a series of watercolours inspired by the fall of the Celtic tiger. She wanted to catalogue the small hopeful signs among the broken dreams. They were simple studies, a child at play, a group of teenagers on Grafton Street, two old men sharing a newspaper. Something about each of the subjects gave rise to optimism. A little hope was what she so desperately needed, and maybe, briefly, she found it in strangers’ eyes on the city streets. It seemed that, when Delilah was not the centre of their lives, what went on between Paul and Grace was as empty as her womb. She thought about giving up the pill, of course she did. Then she knew, she loved Delilah, but she did not want to go through it all again. She counted herself so lucky that Patrick’s blue paint had pulled her back from a deep empty hole and she couldn’t take that chance again. Paul threw himself as deeply into his work as Grace did into hers and on many nights she sat alone at their kitchen table finishing off a bottle of Chardonnay. Once Delilah fell asleep, there was just Grace, her glass of wine and the phone that never rang.

*

The end, when it came, came quickly. ‘No point beating about the bush,’ he said, though he hardly met her eyes. ‘I’ve met someone.’ He didn’t want to hurt her, she could see that. ‘It’s nothing like what we have, what we’ve shared.’ He walked towards the window, pulled the open bottle of wine from the fridge, poured a generous measure. ‘I don’t feel the same about her…’ He stopped, knew he’d have to give her a name; she was moving into all their lives after all. ‘Annalise. It just happened. I’m so sorry and well…’ he exhaled deeply, as though he could just breathe the whole thing away and everything would be all right. Of course, it wouldn’t; it would never be the same again. ‘She’s, I mean, we’re pregnant. She’s four months gone. We didn’t realize it until…’

‘I really don’t want to hear this.’ The words fell as dried autumn leaves from her mouth. Grace shook her head. If only… and for a minute she actually thought this, if only it was me. If only Grace was four months pregnant with his child. Amazing, the clarity that comes with hindsight.

‘I don’t want you to think that she could ever replace you. You still mean the world to me. Grace, she’s nothing like you. She needs me; I have to be there for her. It’s one of those stupid things that just happened. I wish…’

‘Please, don’t say it.’ The thought danced tantalizingly about her brain. This was all her doing; Grace felt she had no one to blame but herself.

‘I’ll always be here for you. You need only ask, and I’ll drop everything and come running for you. We still have Delilah of course, and I promise I’ll try to keep things easy for her too.’

When he walked out the door, maybe that was the worst part. She had the sense that he took her future with him. Suddenly she was the same as Evie. A mistake in the past, one he probably wouldn’t mention much. Maybe he’d be loyal and not tell the new one what had happened in the end. At least for that, she might be glad. They’d still see each other, not like Paul and Evie. He had to see Delilah – she was his; she was what he’d wanted. Grace prayed that it wasn’t all he’d wanted from her.

 

2012

Funny, they say that when one door closes another opens. That didn’t happen for Grace. She could blame it on the menopause, but she was still waiting for it to hit. She could blame the bottle of wine she had grown too fond of having every evening after Delilah went to bed. Or she could blame the antidepressants she stored in her little compact case instead of the contraceptive pill. There had been no need for the pill since Paul left. But along with losing Paul, the work had dried up too.

She’d produced nothing she was proud of since he left. Her work was all dark, stealthily carrying in it the silence of her soul. Patrick was still moving them on, a series of twelve she called ‘Anger’ sold for seven figures to a nightclub chain – they were hanging in millionaire boys’ clubs in Miami, Monte Carlo and the Bahamas. Delilah was her world and Grace knew, when she saw other mother’s, that she was lucky. They lived contented lives together, apart from Paul’s departure, and their home was happy. Delilah finished primary school and they managed to get on with things. Paul called to pick up Delilah every weekend. He was true to his word; he dropped by most days. He was either putting up shelves or checking the oil, still maintaining his role as the man about the house. When he called, he still wore the wedding ring Grace had given him all those years ago. They settled into a life that sometimes felt balanced on a tight wire. Annalise, it turned out, was only twenty-something. She was a Miss Ireland with ovaries just bursting to accommodate Paul’s wish for more children. Their first was born on its due date, a boy, bonny and bouncing, and that was all they heard of him. Paul never quite summoned up the courage to cross the divide and tell Delilah enough about his new life for her to become part of it. It was something Grace was thankful for and Delilah never spoke about. When Paul told her Annalise was pregnant with their second child it was as though he had opened up her wounds afresh.

‘I’m happy for you,’ Grace lied, but she knew it was a white lie. In time, it would be the truth. How can you not wish the man you love most in the whole world well; how can you not wish him all the happiness they deserve?

‘Are you, are you really?’

‘Of course,’ Grace nodded. ‘Of course I’m happy for you.’ She reached out and touched his hand, only for a second. She couldn’t trust herself for any longer than that. What had she expected? He and Annalise were living together after all. Mostly, when he was with Grace and Delilah, it was as if nothing had changed much. Grace could forget that he had another life somewhere with a young woman whom he still did not feel the need to marry. At odd moments, she found herself grateful for that at least.

‘I’m glad; I wouldn’t want to hurt you.’ His face broke into a beaming smile. ‘I’m so happy,’ he said just as Delilah walked into the room.

‘Why are you so pleased with yourself?’ she asked, and for a moment, emotion whipped Grace into silence. She wanted to cry for both of them. Of course, she couldn’t.

 

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