‘It’s not him.’ Her sister and co-owner of Phelan’s Corner Store was equally loud in her denial.
‘I’m telling you, it is.’
‘Be the hokey, you could be right.’
I couldn’t be blamed for turning around, half expecting to see Bono or at the very least Gay Byrne behind me. But the man pushing open the door was just an ordinary middle-aged man, who had a vague air of familiarity about him but who definitely was not Bono.
‘Good afternoon – weather’s picked up, thank god!’ Mrs. Phelan called out to where he now lurked at the bread display.
He looked at her with neither annoyance nor amusement, and taking a Brennan’s sliced pan made his way to the cold meats, clearly aware of the fact that three pairs of eyes were on him.
I turned back to where I was trying to decide between Ok or Hello magazine, knowing that to buy both would be something I’d regret within seconds of flicking through the first. Years of writing copy for the The Sunday Post had educated me on exactly how much truth to expect in anything that appeared in newsprint. In the end I chose Hello as being the lesser of two evils and went to the counter with it and Donal’s usual daily paper.
I reached the counter at the same time as the controversial stranger but gestured for him to go ahead. I could tell he didn’t want to be a second longer in front of Nan’s beady eyes than he had to.
As usual the trays of chocolate caught my eye. I put my reading material down on the counter and reached for an Aero.
‘Jesus Christ, Kate Dempsey! Could you be more sensitive!’ Nan grabbed my paper and flung it face side down on top of my magazine.
It took me a second to realize that she was talking to me and my cheeks flared red with embarrassment.
‘So sorry about that, Mr. Devlin,’ she continued, ‘some folk can be dreadful insensitive. Especially them as should know better.’
Devlin? Should that mean something to me? No. I still had no idea what I was after doing wrong. The object of my curiosity wasn’t giving away any clues either. He just kept counting out his change slowly onto the counter, giving it one hundred per cent of his concentration.
Realising that I too was now staring, I turned away.
‘Are you staying long, Mr. Devlin?’ asked Nan.
‘Four eighty isn’t it?’The man spoke for the first time, his accent definitely not that of a local. ‘I think you have it there.’
‘Oh. Right. Thanks. Well you know where we are if you need anything. A dreadful business, god help -’
But he had turned from the counter and was already walking to the exit. He paused momentarily at the stack of papers inside the door of the shop but didn’t look at them. Just paused, seemed to inhale slightly, then pushed the door and went out.
‘Well I’m surprised at you, Kate.’
The door of the shop was barely closed behind him when she turned on me.
‘What are you talking about?’ I was annoyed now.
She flung my paper back over and prodded the headline with a gnarled, arthritic finger. I turned it around so that the words were no longer upside down.
‘STABBED THROUGH THE HEART IN JEALOUS RAGE’
‘I mean, I know you’ve shut yourself away,’ she continued to lecture me as I read on, ‘but surely you know this case. Jennifer Dawson – formerly Devlin? Daughter of Dermot Devlin – him what just left the shop?’
I didn’t have to read much further before I realized what she was talking about. Of course I’d heard. The young woman was only 28 and had been brutally murdered while at a medical conference in Dubai. It had happened almost a year ago but the trial of the American doctor charged with her murder had only just started. The case had attracted huge media attention, so much so that even I’d heard about it.
‘Oh my god, that’s who it was.’ I was speaking half to myself.
‘Yes! Sure didn’t I tell yiz. Maisie Duggan says he’s staying out in one of the cottages at the Head. His poor wife, facing that trial alone…’
She muttered on but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking back to the last time I’d seen Dermot Devlin, probably the time I’d covered one of the tribunals. But gosh he’d changed. He’d been one of the most high profile men in Ireland once. Had owned the Evening Standard, two radio stations and a raft of hotels. Even more famous by the fact that he’d managed to keep his wealth, avoiding the NAMA stigma until the brutal death of his daughter had meant his rapid disappearance on the Dublin social and business circuits. My cheeks reddened again and I felt queasy as I remembered how I’d slapped my newspaper right down in front of him.
‘I can’t believe you didn’t recognize him. Sure his picture has been on the front page of every paper since the trial started.’
‘Well I didn’t, and anyway, Mrs. Phelan,’ I said, ‘I try to stay away from the misery in the papers that other people seem to revel in. I’ve enough to be worrying about.’
‘Aye, I suppose.’
They were looking at me now, with the same mixture of sympathy and curiosity that they’d recently viewed poor Mr. Devlin, so I just paid my money and left.
Donal could get his bloody paper somewhere else tomorrow.
I was barely three feet from the shop when my mobile went. Looking at the display I almost chuckled.
‘Gerry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – they hired you for your psychic powers, didn’t they?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about – I just rang to see how you are.’
‘No, you didn’t. But thanks. I’m fine.’
‘Just get to the point, Gerry.’
‘Jesus you’re an awful woman. No wonder I let you go.’
‘You didn’t let me go. I left. And I’m still left. So whatever it is, I doubt I can help you much from down here.’
‘Dermot Devlin. I’ve been hearing rumours…’
I burst out laughing.
‘I knew it. You’re uncanny, Gerry, you know that?’
‘You’ve heard them too?’
‘Heard them? I just bumped into him in my corner shop.’
‘Very funny, now seriously, there’s talk he’s down your neck of the woods, now if you hear – wait – you were kidding, weren’t you?’
‘I don’t kid anymore Gerry, you know that.’
‘You really saw him? He’s in Kilma – Killy – whatever-the-fuck that backwater you live in is called?’
‘Yes, Gerry. It would appear so.’
I could hear a rustle and I knew from eight years of working for Gerry Sandeman, editor of The Sunday Post, that he was punching the air whilst trying to pretend not to.
‘Right Gerry, well anyway, now you know. I’ve got to go here, I’ll chat to you some other time.’
‘Eh – no you don’t! I need you to find him. Get a interview – fuck it, a quote will do – but make sure you get a picture.’
‘Kate Dempsey don’t you dare. You owe me.’
‘I do in my arse!’
‘You do. I gave you the biggest break of your career. I nurtured you, I dragged you by the pigtails through that newsroom, and then, when you needed time -’
‘Easy now, Gerry.’ I wasn’t smiling anymore, he was on thin ice with the direction his argument was taking.
‘Find where he is. We have 24 hours to file this. I’ll pay you anything you want. Sure Jesus, no one would have a better understanding than -’
I hung up.
Donal was in front of the TV when I got back. I handed him his paper and wordlessly went and filled the kettle.
‘She’s asleep,’ he said.
‘I was thinking I might go out for a while. Some of the lads are meeting to watch the match.’
‘What about mass?’
‘It’s okay, I went this morning.’
‘Oh right. Well that’s good. Are you sure now? Will you be -’
‘Jesus, Donal, I’ll be fine. She’s asleep. I’ve loads to be doing. Just go if you’re going.’
God love him. He did what he was told and just went.
I finished making my coffee rolling my eyes at the neat row of medication that he’d left lined up for me. It was all in order, labeled clearly. But that just made me even more annoyed. Then I instantly felt bad for my ungraciousness, he could do nothing right really.
Trouble was he clearly thought the same about me.
There was nothing left for me to do. But instead of replacing Donal in the dip in the couch, I opened my old laptop which was now permanently situated on the kitchen island. The screen flashed open on the page he had obviously been reading earlier but I switched quickly to the home screen.
I was too tired to read more of his research, more findings on forums.
I typed a name into Google and pressed search.
I parked the car at the top of the Cliff Road and waited for just a minute. Gerry was right, this was the kind of job I’d have fought for eighteen months ago. “Human Suffering” used to be my thing.
He’d tried ringing me again the previous night but I’d ignored the call then turned the phone off. I’d needed time to think.
The wind whipped down the Coast Road and the sharp tang of salt on my tongue jolted me for a second. Like as if I needed reminding that just over the brow of the hill, lay the sea. The giant rolling sea, easing its way in and out over the flat expanse of sand. I knew if I listened closely enough I’d hear the roar of the waves through the screeching of the gulls overhead.
So I didn’t.
I dipped my head to swing the strap of my leather satchel across my body, the familiarity of the action reminding me how long it had been. And whilst one part of me was excited to be on a job again, to be packing notes, a camera, another bigger part hoped that this was a dead end. A wild goose chase.
But rounding the final bend in the lane the sight of a Mercedes jeep parked along the ditch outside the last cottage meant this was no wild goose chase. It had to be his, no one else would be bothered staying down here at this time of the year. Just the locals in the village who had to live here, and the blow-ins who, despite everything, couldn’t face leaving.
I walked up the path, looking for signs of life in the windows facing me. There was no doorbell so I knocked and waited. This had always been the worst bit of every job. You had mere seconds to make your pitch, to convince them that talking to you was better than talking to anyone else, and infinitely better than not talking at all.
I studied the house as I waited, already planning what I’d do if there was no answer. The location didn’t lend itself to hanging around inconspicuously.
‘What can I do for you?’
I spun around at the sound of Dermot Devlin’s voice in the driveway behind me.
Attempting to regain some composure, I held out my hand.
‘Kate Dempsey, Mr. Devlin.’
‘I know. I saw you in the shop yesterday.’
I reddened at the memory of slapping that horrific headline down on the counter in front of him.
‘I’m so sorry about that, I didn’t realise at the time…’
‘Something tells me that’s all changed now though.’
‘Look, Mr Devlin. I understand that you’ve come here to be alone.’
‘So why are you standing at my front door then?’
God I hated this bit.
‘Because they know you’re here now. And it’s only a matter of hours before there’s more than just me here.’
‘But you’d like first scoop. Who are you with?’
‘The Sunday Post, or at least I used to be. They rang me when they heard you were here. I told them no. I don’t do this kind of thing anymore.’
‘But yet, here you are.’
‘I think – I think I could handle your story sensitively. The others will just-’
‘I know how it works, Ms. Dempsey. But that doesn’t mean I’ve anything to say to you.’
‘Right, well that’s that then. I’m sorry to have disturbed you. But you should know; Gerry Sandeman will just send someone else. Actually they’re probably on their way, because I hung up on him without agreeing to try to talk to you. So you’ve a few hours at best,’ I paused before finishing, ‘and Mr. Devlin, I’m – I’m very sorry for your troubles. I really am.’
I went to walk past him down the driveway but just as I drew level with him, he spoke.
‘I don’t have anything to say.’
I turned to face him.
‘Trust me. I know the feeling,’
The inside of the cottage was sparse as I’d expected. Clean though, fresh. I sat at the tiny kitchen table and took out my phone. I looked at him before setting it to record and he nodded.
‘So what do you do all day here?’ I asked, looking around me, noticing the lack of television or reading material.
‘Well I spend very little time in here for starters. I usually go down to the water. I find it easier to think down there.’
I must have shuddered involuntarily as he stopped and said ‘You don’t agree?’
I shrugged. ‘We moved here to be near the sea.’
I shrugged again, then remembered it was meant to be me asking the questions. ‘So you decided not to travel to Dubai?’
‘I was never going to Dubai.’
‘Can I ask why not?’
‘Of course you can. After all that’s why you’re here. Tea or coffee?’
There was a flicker of a smile as he said this and I felt a bit stupid.
‘Tea, thank you. But your wife went?’
‘She did. As did my son Mathew, and Ben, Jennifer’s husband.’
‘But not you.’
‘No. I don’t see the point.’
‘But surely you want to see justice done?’
I watched him as he went to the press over the sink and started to take out some mugs, trying to put my finger on what was different about him. The Dermot Devlin I remembered was slightly heavier, more jowly, and despite everything, definitely older looking. The only hint of this man’s age was in the greying stubble on his chin and the shadows of his sunken cheekbones, but his body was leaner, fitter looking,
Less of the good life, I supposed.
‘Of course I do,’ he said, his back still to me. ‘But my being there will not have any effect on that outcome.’
‘But surely you can see how people view it as strange that you’re not there?’
He turned to face me. ‘Do you have any children Ms. Dempsey?’
‘Kate, please. Yes. Yes, I’ve one child.’
‘Boy or girl?’
‘We’re not here to talk about me, Mr. Devlin.’
‘I don’t remember inviting you here to talk about me either, Kate.’ The slightly amused curl on his lip was back. There was nothing for it but to answer.
‘It’s a girl. I’ve a girl.’
‘Well then it might have occurred to you that I have no interest in hearing the minute details of my daughter’s rape and then death? Of watching a team of high paid defense attorneys attempt to say it was her fault.’
‘I can see how that would be part of it. But surely your wife needs your support, that you’d want to be there with her?’
‘My wife gets her support from elsewhere.’
‘Are you religious, Kate?’
I opened my mouth to say that that was none of his business but then remembered how previous attempts to avoid answering his questions had turned out.
‘It depends on what you call religious, Mr. Devlin.’
‘Well, believing in God is a good indication.’
‘Well then yes, of course.’
‘You say ‘of course’ like there is no other option. Sorry, I have nothing to give you with your tea, I got slightly distracted whilst doing my shopping yesterday, but then, I wasn’t exactly expecting visitors either.’
‘Just tea is fine. Your wife has a strong faith then?’
‘I knew Jennifer would be a doctor or a scientist from when she was very young. It wasn’t that she was intelligent, though she was of course, but she had an inquisitive mind, she always wanted to know the whys and the hows; the facts. Does that answer your question?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Best we move on so.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Slightly thrown, I looked down at my notes. ‘So how has your life changed, you know since– they say you’ve literally vanished-’ I tried again, ‘I mean, do you still work?’
‘Not to the same extent, no. My money is long made. As for vanishing – I travel a lot. I’ve travelled so much since- since it happened. I want to see as much of the world as possible.’
‘But you’d travelled before surely.’
‘I had, but five star hotels are the same the world over. I wanted to see the real world, the rain forests, the rivers, the mountains, the plains of Africa. It was something I’d promised Jennifer we’d do together someday.’
‘And you went on your own?’
‘I do a lot on my own these days, it’s so much easier.’
‘So how did you choose down here, for this – for now – you could have gone anywhere for these few weeks and not been disturbed?’
‘I love this part of the world, Kate, we holidayed not far from here when the children were small, back when we could afford to go no further. How long are you here, you don’t strike me as a local?’
‘A few years. We moved down when – when we had our daughter. I was going to write a book.’
‘But you haven’t?’
‘No. I haven’t.’
‘But you will. God willing.’ The smile was back.
‘You find that amusing?’
‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. Ask me something else.’
‘Well,’ I said, getting cross, ‘You clearly don’t share your wife’s religious views, so let’s talk about that. It’s quite obvious you want to.’
‘I make no secret of the fact that I don’t share my wife’s views.’
‘So you don’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t. Because there is no such thing, Kate.’
‘Well, everybody is entitled to their opinion, Mr. Devlin,’ I said, his smugness really annoying me now, ‘You are entitled to yours and your wife – and I – are entitled to ours. I especially think you are unfair to your wife – faith can be a great comfort to people at a time like this.’
‘Is that what you use it for, Kate?’
‘Amongst other things.’
‘An intelligent girl like you, it never ceases to amaze me. You see, I think faith, or belief in something that’s so uncertain, so unproven, is like leaning on a pillar of sand. My daughter is dead, Kate. I have accepted that I will never see her again. My wife hasn’t and I don’t think that’s a good thing.’
‘Well I can only hope you’re wrong. And that your wife is right.’
‘I’m not wrong. There isn’t a shred of scientific proof to say I’m wrong.’
‘Well maybe it goes beyond science, Mr. Devlin. Maybe science can only do so much and we have to trust in God to do the rest.’
‘Oh right. The same God that let a man, a stranger that my daughter had just met that day, follow her to her room, rape her then stab her through the heart with a letter opener. They think it took over an hour for her to bleed slowly to death, but by then he’d tied her up. So answer me this, Kate. At the very least why would God not have sent someone to her room in that hour?’
‘We don’t know the answer to those kinds of questions now.’ There was a slight shake in my voice. ‘We just have to trust that there’s a reason for everything.’
‘Or I could just believe what I know to be true. That had Jennifer not gone to Dubai, not met that man in the lobby on her way in, not gone back to her room at that exact time, that she would be still alive.’
‘But you can’t think like that. You’ll drive yourself crazy.’
‘On the contrary, I believe it is my wife driving herself crazy. Wondering what she did to offend this “God” to bring such horror on our idyllic family.’
I stood up with such force that my cup clattered to its side, and I quickly shoved my phone away from the puddle of lukewarm tea that poured towards it.
‘I think I’ve everything I need. Thank you so much for your time. I hope that the trial ends soon and you can try to get on with your lives.’
‘I’ve upset you now. I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.’
‘I’m not upset. My husband is – I need to get home.’
I gathered up my notes and stuffed them back in my bag. I knew I had only seconds before the panic attack that was rising in my chest spilled out into the room. Muttering my goodbyes, I stumbled from the cottage.
I made it back up the lane by taking deep gulping breaths with every single step. By the time I opened the driver’s door the terror had abated slightly but I knew of old that driving was not the best idea. I leaned my forehead against the cool metal of the car door and whispered the prayers I always used asking for this to pass, but all I could hear in my ear were the words
‘an intelligent girl like you’
It was no use. I needed a walk. It was only as I put my satchel back in the car I remembered I’d forgotton Gerry’s bloody photo.
The sight of the vast expanse of ocean hit me like a kick to my chest as I reached the brow of the hill. It was all exactly as I’d remembered; the stony sand crunching underfoot and the shards of spikey grass that stabbed my calves even through my jeans.
But most of all the waves. In and out they rolled, crashing in with a roar but dying to a whimper as they trickled across the wet sand before retreating as quickly as they’d attacked…
I walked along the top of the hill until I came to the flat rock that formed a natural seat.
Sitting down I traced the worn veins that ran along its surface with my finger. Now that I was finally here, my ragged breathing had at last started to subside.
And just as I wondered if facing the reality had turned out to be easier than I’d expected, the tears came. My head cradled in my hands, my mouth grimaced in a silent wail. Stuffing my fingers in my ears to block out the sound of the waves, I rocked as the sobs rose in my throat.
And so I sat, until I felt a hand on the small of my back, moving in small circles. I pulled my sleeves down over my clenched fists and wiped the snots and tears from my face like a grubby child before looking sideways through my hair to see who it was.
‘You forgot this, ’ Dermot Devlin said as he handed me my phone.
‘Oh. Right, thanks.’
‘Do you know, I’ve been all over the world and this view of the ocean is still my favourite.’
I lowered my head as the tears came again.
‘What age is she?’
‘Four,’ I managed between breaths.
‘Cancer?’ he asked.
‘I’m so sorry.’
We sat again in silence while I tried yet again to pull myself together.
‘I was sitting here with her when the doctor phoned for us to come in,’ I eventually managed. ‘And I knew, from his voice… I just knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again.’
‘And yet here it all is, eh?’
‘Yep. Those fucking waves, like nothing has ever happened.’
‘Inconsiderate bastards,’ he said gravely and I actually nearly smiled.
‘That’s why I need all that,’ I looked out at the sea, ‘I need to believe I’ll see her again.’
‘I see, and what about your husband, how does he cope?’
‘Donal?’ I sniffed, ‘He’s all about the science, never ending research, trials and statistics.’
‘And you’re not?’
‘I was at the start. As you say, I’m an intelligent girl. But they weren’t telling me what I wanted to hear. So I’ve had to go elsewhere for help.’
‘To God?’ he said.
‘To God,’ I answered, ‘And don’t – just don’t.’
‘Don’t ask me why he’d riddle my gorgeous girl with those horrible tumours, stripping more life from her week by week. I was doing fine until you made me ask myself that question. So don’t you ask me it now.’
‘But you must have asked yourself that before?’
‘I did actually,’ I answered, ‘And do you know what my theory was? I reckoned that for years I’d written about other people going through this exact type of nightmare. Not always with their consent either. So why not? Why not test me with a tragedy of my own? It certainly put a halt to my gallop I can tell you.’
‘This wasn’t sent to test you, Kate.’
‘You don’t know that. You don’t know how smug I was until that phonecall. I used to actually feel bad about how good we had it. I used to come away from interviewing those poor people and say a little prayer of thanks that nothing bad had ever, ever happened to us. Talk about tempting him, eh?’
‘Then why not allow yourself the break of knowing that this was not your fault. That cancer is a special case of bad things happening. Cells that have become parasitic, that have turned against their own body – not because that body’s mother was a journalist, or had too good a life. But because sometimes these things happen, and your daughter’s body was the one it happened to. Come on Kate, this situation is bad enough without you wondering what you could have done in your life differently to avoid it happening.’
‘That’s your opinion.’
‘No, Kate, it’s the truth. It’s the reality. You say you get comfort from your faith, as does my wife, but where’s the comfort in torturing yourself about something that just isn’t fact. Geraldine has herself murdered – if you’ll pardon the pun – with going to masses and the cemetery. There was talk of a medium before the trial but I downright forbade her. The reality is our daughter was murdered, it happened, there was no reason for it, it wasn’t sent to test us, it wasn’t a punishment. It’s just a fact.’
‘They think Caoimhe has a month, maybe two at the most. There’s a fact for you.’
‘Again, I’m so sorry. I’m not sure which is worse. Getting a phonecall from Dubai that your beautiful, talented, full of life daughter is dead on a hotel room floor, or the slow agony of a situation like yours.’
‘But yet you’re saying that what? She dies and that’s it? She’s gone forever? You might be able to live with that, but I sure as hell need to believe that I’ll see her again.’
‘But I see my daughter everyday, Kate.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘When I got my phonecall, I went to pieces. But unlike you, I didn’t turn to God because I just couldn’t believe that a God would do this to us. So I tried to think of what Jennifer would have done. She’d have looked for facts. She’d have gotten her comfort from what she knew to be true.
‘And this was the truth; Jennifer was so full of energy. She was the type that would spring out of bed at dawn and be lucky to make it back before the sun rose again. She loved sport, she loved her studies, she loved life. And that energy isn’t gone, Kate. It’s the first law of physics. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. When the last bit of life drained from my Jennifer’s body, her soul didn’t go to heaven, but her energy exploded back into the universe and not only is it all around us, but it will go on forever. That’s a fact, Kate. That’s not something I’m hoping will happen, or praying that will happen. It’s a fact. A big beautiful fact.’
‘Man, am I sorry that I knocked on your door this morning.’
‘Ha! I can tell you are. But you won’t be. You’ll go away from here today and you’ll call me every name under the sun, and you’ll divert all your negative energy towards proving me wrong. But then, do you know what will happen? Despite all your protestations you’ll think a bit about what I’ve said. And then you’ll think some more, and some more, and maybe Google some stuff and someday you’ll start to grudgingly agree with me.’
‘I mightn’t you know.’
‘You mightn’t. But I hope you do. I hope that some day you sit here and look out on that beautiful ocean and the fact that those waves are still rolling in and out gives you some comfort. I hope, like me, that you look at the way the light hits the water, or the way the gulls wheel in the sky above us, and wonder if a bit of your daughter’s energy is driving them on. That’s why I’m never really alone on those travels, Kate, she’s always with me. I see her every day in the beauty of the world around me. And that’s why I’m not going back to Dubai, there will be no beauty in that courtroom, there will be nothing but negativity and I just don’t invite that into my life anymore.’
‘I need to go home.’ I stood up.
‘I understand. Don’t forget your phone.’
‘And risk you coming after me a second time? Hardly…’
‘Take care, Kate. I’m going to leave here today, before your story comes out tomorrow. But I’ll be back. Same place, another time?’
I didn’t answer but as I reached the brow of the hill, I remembered that I still had no photograph. Taking out my phone I took a picture of an ordinary man, sitting on a rock, looking out at the beauty of the ocean. Then turning once again, I walked back to my car.
– Margaret Scott