About the book
About the author
from Chapter 1
My visit with Maggie hadn’t gone well. She’d been agitated and rambling on about the scarf again. Not even the little song she loved calmed her. The Matron dropped in on my visit, which was never a good thing. Either something had gone wrong with Maggie or fees were going up. This time it was the fees. To add to things, the long bus ride home from Dublin was ripe with the smell of wet woollen coats and rattled by coughs and sniffles. Maybe, I thought, I’d catch pneumonia and die and wouldn’t have to worry about Maggie, Ma and Da and the farm, and money ever again.
We jounced our way down the country in the wet dark so that by the time we neared Kiltilly I’d almost forgotten a world existed outside the bus’s confines. When we reached the village I was weary and loath to go home to the conversation I’d have to have with my mother and father about what to do about money and Maggie. My older sister Maggie had been up in St. Mary’s, a private home for the mentally ill in Dublin, for years and we’d mortgaged the farm to the hilt to pay for it. A new increase in fees and we would lose everything. Literally. A hard choice was coming: Maggie or the farm. And what would become of Ma and Da with the farm gone? We’d have to rent a house somewhere for the three of us. There was nothing suitable in the village, and anyway, it would break their hearts to move. It would break what was left of mine, no doubt about it. A rise in fees would come sooner or later, I’d known. I’d wrestled the questions the last few months when I couldn’t sleep, when my past folly was written in plain, luminous letters on the ceiling. Delia Buckley, I said to myself then, you are a madwoman. What were you thinking? So instead of walking out home right off the bus I stopped by Peggy O’Shea’s café and gnawed on the problem as I sat with my tea and apple crumble piled with fresh cream. The cup of tea was steaming hot, just the way I liked it. I tried to put my worries aside for the moment.
The door opened and Daniel Wolfe walked in. I didn’t welcome the sight of him. He stood in the doorway, the light catching the raindrops on his ankle-length dark grey coat, his trilby set low on his forehead. Peggy had risen to attention behind the glass cases displaying buns and pastries.
“How are you today, Mr. Wolfe?” she called across. “We don’t see you in here too often.”
“Fine, fine,” he called back.
He walked over to my table like I’d sat there waiting for him. He had changed. Of course he had. It was 1990, not 1968. He took off his hat, shook the rain off it, and held it three fingered at his side. His hair was grey, almost white. He carried a bit of extra weight now and deep lines that held his mouth in parentheses. He still had that air of entitlement he’d always had. Too bad I hadn’t been so quick to see that about him when I first met him. But then, I’d only been a girl, really, for all that I was twenty-three years old. Innocent.
“Good day, Delia,” he said, as if we’d spoken to each other on a regular basis, which we hadn’t. Even though we lived in the same small village we had gone years without meeting directly or speaking. He was often away on book tours or travelling. When he was in the village he didn’t exactly hang around. He had someone to shop and fetch for him. Besides, we didn’t travel in the same social circles, him being part of the gentry and me being a villager. “May I sit with you?”
He touched the back of the chair across the table. I was about to say no, but Peggy had her eyes out on sticks on us from behind the counter, so I nodded. He settled himself into the seat and Peggy was beside him in a flash taking his order for coffee and a scone. I stayed silent when she left, giving him nothing. He sat back in his chair, comfortable as if in his own living room. We stayed that way until Peggy delivered his cup of coffee to the table. She wiped away imaginary crumbs with a cloth that left wet streaks behind, but as neither of us said a word she had no option but to move off and take up her task of overseeing things from behind the counter.
“Delia,” he said again when we were alone. He stirred sugar into his coffee. After a long draw on his cup and a shift in his chair, he spoke again.
“Look, Delia, I’m sorry for the past, how it was. Believe me, I am.”
Not nearly as sorry as I am, I thought. I sipped my tea. It had cooled off and gone bitter.
“I’ve come to see you because I want to make amends. And to ask something of you.”
“You think you can make amends?”
It came out like the hiss of a scalded cat. I clamped my lips tightly around my teeth and sat back in the chair.
“No. Not really, but I can help you now. I know how things are with the farm.” The whole country probably knew how deeply in debt the farm was. I said nothing, though it embarrassed me that Daniel Wolfe would know about my family affairs. He sat for a moment, then continued. “And you can help me. I’m willing to pay you well, Delia, more than well. Please hear me out.”
He hadn’t changed, then. He still believed he could buy his way in and out of anything. I listened to his proposition all the same, too full of curiosity not to. I wondered how he knew where to find me. Mind you, it was my habit to go up to visit Maggie almost every week. Everyone in the village knew that. Nobody drove to Dublin because of the congestion on the carriageway and hassle of parking when they got there, but today I wished I had taken my car. Everyone knew, too, when the evening bus arrived. Still, it was unnerving to think he must have been waiting for me.
“I’ve got cancer, Delia. Riddled with it. There’s nothing to be done for me.”
“What cancer? How bad is it?”
The nurse in me couldn’t help but ask.
“Esophageal. Stage IV. I’ve six, maybe twelve months at best. Right now I’m deciding on what treatment, if any. I don’t want to spend the time I have sick from treatment that ultimately won’t work.”
Not many people opted for none. His decision surprised me, as I thought of him as a person who put himself first at all times. Maybe that’s what he was doing, opting for a possibly shorter but better-quality life.
“Maybe treatment will cure you,” I said.
“You’re a nurse, Delia. You know how unlikely that is.”
He was right. Still, you had to offer hope. He wanted me to care for him because he knew me, trusted me, he said. Please, he said. I wanted to tell him no, to walk away, turn my back on him the way he’d done to me those years ago. He offered a lot of money. I told him I’d think about it.
“That’s all I ask, Delia. That’s good enough,” he said.
I walked out of the village on the Limerick Road. It was a walk I loved in any weather. I had grown up in Kiltilly and lived in the same farmhouse just outside the village all my life except for the few months I spent in Wales years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I knew to within a week when the lilac in Mrs. Green’s garden would bloom each spring and how bountiful the conkers would be in autumn by the blossoms on the horse chestnut in May. I’d watched the martins gather on the electric wires for their migration every year since I was a little girl, their chattering drowning out the other birds, and the eerie silence when they’d left on their long migration and the cold descended on the land. I had celebrated my greatest joy, grieved my worst nightmare, and vented my most awful sufferings on this road. I’d come this way after a patient’s death, weary in my bones, and felt my spirit lighten at the sight of our modest farmhouse nestled below the rise of the meadow.
This night my heart did not lighten when, through the bare winter trees, I first saw the light from our farmhouse. I stopped at the side of the road as the rain pelted down with renewed force and filled my nose with the earthy smell of turf carried from chimney smoke. It was there in the dark, the light from my home showing me the way forward, that I came up with my scheme to keep Maggie where she was and save the farm. If Daniel agreed and it turned out to cost me sleep for a while, well, there was plenty to keep me awake anyway.