It’s six years since I was last home. It’s funny how quickly you can forget yourself. London is a long way from the village in Limerick where I spent one August as a teenager. We used to go a lot when I was a small boy, but I couldn’t remember it very well. But it wasn’t until I was fifteen that it became a part of me. Until then, I never wanted to visit family. It was summer after all, I should have been with friends, but my mother made me go. She said Aunt Nessa was always good to me and had already prepared everything. I would only be letting her down if I didn’t go along.
It had been getting warmer and warmer that year, the kind of heat you have to sleep out in. Instead, I had to get a stuffy train from Dublin, sitting on those old brown seats sipping hot tea that tasted like copper. The world was passing me by as the cows grazed outside. I think it was travelling through the fields and quaint villages that made me the writer I later became. Something happens when you travel through strange landscapes only to return and find how you have changed over time while everything else remained the same.
I remember a lot about that summer; the horses in the yard, the green fields and stonewalls, stumpy men carrying shovels. The smell of milk was everywhere.
That was then. I thought I had gotten on with my life when I moved to London and started writing book reviews. I couldn’t complain: I was earning good money and had good friends. But when Aunt Nessa said she needed help around the farm, I found hard it to believe. She had that superhuman strength common in all country women.
But I made quite a jump there, didn’t I. It seems there’s a chapter missing, the one that connects the past with the present. I will tell it to you now. The truth is, I only agreed to go back for one reason: Katie Bourke, the girl I fell in love with that summer when I was fifteen.
You think you are clever when you’re a teenager, at least I thought so, but then you meet someone who makes you think thoughts you never would have imagined.
It seemed unreal to both of us. The first time I saw her was through a cloud of dust; she was brushing a carpet from a window with her grandmother. She had long red hair, a small nose and eyes that were somewhere between blue and green. She saw me looking up at her. It seemed as though she was born to smile. I looked away but laughed. Something told me she laughed too. I saw her again later at the well behind the house. She must have thought I was following her. She said hello and asked if I was one of Nessa’s. She said Nessa never stopped talking about us.
After that, it just seemed casual, even the way she took my hand without saying anything. We walked everywhere, wandering through the fields, sitting on rock walls telling stories. I don’t remember day or night between us, just moments here and there, moments that when put together tell a complete story. After a few days, we were done with hellos and goodbyes.
It’s the simple things you remember, things that after time seem more complicated. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t return without a gentle smile, or the laughter accompanied by a playful shove as though you were breaking a rule in telling a joke. Her voice was soft and lilting like it was hiding between the winds. She brought out a different side in me, a side that I haven’t been able to turn over since. No other love stays with you like your first because it’s the kind of discovery that changes how you see yourself.
Her granny was out one day so we went inside the house for tea. Katie said she made the best tea in all of Munster. I wasn’t going to argue. We took it outside to the wall in front of the field. The more she talked the more I wanted to kiss her. She must have known.
‘Why are you making that face?’ She smiled.
‘What face?’ said I.
‘This face...’ she said, leaning in to kiss me.
I nearly dropped the cup. We heard the door out front. It was her grandmother. I jumped over the wall into the field. Katie hurried back inside. I waited there for an hour. When she returned, she said she would see me later. I looked forward to it. But that was twenty years ago.
Now, after all this time, I wanted to see her again.
I arrived at Nessa’s house after lunch.
‘There you are. If your mother could see you.’ She smiled.
It was as though she hadn’t moved from that spot at the door when she last waved me away. She was just as I remembered, still wearing that old blue apron, her hands dusty with flour. We sat in the kitchen drinking tea and eating soda bread. For her, London might as well have been on a different planet. Isn’t it the duty of an aunt to say the things a mother never would? She couldn’t see how a person would get around among so many people. I told her I still hadn’t learned. She talked at length about relatives who had moved away or died, many of whom I had never heard of. I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I wanted to ask her about the Bourkes, but I didn’t want her to think I was there for any other reason other than to help around.
It was strange being back again. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. She showed me to my room overlooking the same field with the same trees. She must have been reading my mind; how else could she have known. She said I could sort out my things and that dinner would be ready at five. I emptied out my suitcase. There was hardly anything in it; a few books, pens and paper. I didn’t need more.
I looked out over the fields; there was one horse grazing around. I remember Katie saying she loved horses. When you live long enough, every little thing reminds you of something more meaningful. I turned away from the window and went downstairs. I could smell dinner already; it must have been beef stew. Where else would you get it?
I sat at the table while Nessa fussed around me. She had something on her mind, I could tell. She was cute; it’s how Irish women have survived for centuries. She waited until I finished before asking me.
‘You know, I’m not going to be around much longer. I’d like the house and everything to stay in the family. You could look after it, it’d be no problem to you. It has everything you might need. And it’s quiet, you know.’
It was a lot to take in. I said I’d go for a walk. I went into the pub for a quick drink to think things through. I was afraid to ask about Katie. I was a stranger in these parts; I couldn’t just go around mentioning names. A few heads turned when I entered. I sat down and ordered a pint. It was still early. I noticed a man looking at me from across the bar. I nodded politely. He approached me. It looked as though everyone stopped to see what would happen next.
‘Hello there,’ he said, sitting next to me.
‘Hiya,’ I said.
He was stout with a red face and snowy hair.
‘I understand you’re Nessa Hartnett’s nephew,’ he said.
‘That’s right. Just stopping by for a few days,’ I said.
‘Good, good. A great woman, would do anything for anyone, would Nessa.’
He went on like that for a while. People returned to their drinks. It was apparent he was something of a local historian. It might have been the drink, but I worked up the courage to mention Katie. He straightened up and looked around when I said the name.
‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were one of them journalists,’ he said.
‘No, no. Katie was a friend. I was just wondering if she was still around. I haven’t seen her in years.’
He took a hearty gulp of his pint and spoke. Something in his face appeared to come undone.
‘I’m sorry to tell yah it’s not a happy story about Katie Bourke,’ he said.
‘Katie Bourke was murdered three years ago. It was that husband of hers, he shot her in the house. I always knew he was a dangerous fella. He had that look about him, like he was better than everyone. It was a shock to us all, I have to say. You wouldn’t normally see that kind of thing happening around here, no. That’s only what you might expect in Dublin or one of them places, you know.’
‘The police got hold of him anyway. We don’t really talk about it nowadays. The people didn’t know what to do. And the poor grandmother, Betty Dore, would have been sick. I knew her well. She only died there about ten years ago.’
‘Did Katie have any other family or...’
‘No, no children or nothing. But she was one of the community, you know. As I say, we were all shocked. The husband’s in jail, but sure what bit of difference does that make with the poor girl dead and buried anyway?’
‘...I had no idea.’
‘Sure what can yah do?’ he said.
I finished my pint. I didn’t know if I could stand up. Then he offered to buy me another one.
‘How did you know her, if you don’t mind me asking?’
I went back to Nessa’s and packed my things. There was a train at nine. She wouldn’t see me leave without tea. I couldn’t say no. I went out to the yard, filled a bucket from the tap and brought it inside.
I hadn’t decided on the house. She kept trying to sell it to me, showing me around the place. I felt like a stranger again, led around by the hand, being shown how the world works. I emptied my cup in the sink and went out for some fresh air. I think Nessa thought she was scaring me away.
‘You’re not running out, are yah?’ she joked.
What was I supposed to say? I couldn’t tell her, I couldn’t tell anyone. It was a secret, those two weeks. Katie and I kept it that way. It was as though the secrecy of the flame would solidify our feelings. But now the flame was snuffed out by one act of violence.
It’s hard to accept that the person you loved had a life you knew nothing about. Did I even know her at all?
I walked to the field where we sat under the trees. It was just the same as it was back then. But what I didn’t know was that my life had been carefully guiding me back to that spot. I had been denying it for years. You can’t get away with not being who you really are. In that field I became who I was at heart, and all the love I ever felt resided there.
I turned back to the house. Nessa would have been worried about me.