Authors: GRETTA MULROONEY
OUT OF THE BLUE
A gripping novel of love lost and found
Joffe Books Edition 2016
First published by Robert Hale 2007
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The spelling used is British English except where fidelity to the author’s rendering of accent or dialect supersedes this.
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PLEASE NOTE THERE IS A GLOSSARY OF UK AND IRISH WORDS IN THE BACK FOR US READERS
Also by Gretta Mulrooney
What happens when you take an orphaned child into your new family?
May has just started a new life with Nathan and his son from his first marriage. May meets a recently orphaned little girl, Elva, at the children’s home where May teaches. She develops a close relationship with Elva, and together with her husband, she draws the child into their loving family circle. The bereaved girl blossoms in the easy affection of the new family.
But there are clouds on the horizon: Nathan’s ex-wife is hell-bent on disrupting the situation and complex ties of obligation and guilt threaten to destroy May’s job, marriage, and everyone she loves.
This is a gripping, sometimes harrowing novel telling the story of a blended family fighting for survival. There may be no perfect happy endings, but with love there is always hope for the futur
THE LADY VANISHED
How can someone vanish without a trace?
Carmen Langborne is a woman who no one seems to like very much, and now she's gone missing. But there is no body, no leads and no real suspects. And the police have stopped investigating her disappearance.
Carmen's stepdaughter Florence hires private detective Tyrone Swift to find the missing woman. If the body is found, Florence will inherit half of a very valuable house. As Swift delves deeper into the family’s affairs, he discovers dark family secrets that threaten the reputations of powerful people. Will Swift get to the truth before those with much to hide stop him?
In memory of Paul Wilkins
The phone call comes as Liv is locking up the library, keying the security numbers into the alarm system. It is Thursday, late night opening and she is looking forward to a toasted sandwich, a hot bath and bed. Curious, what becomes a pleasure in your thirties.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, and I hope I’ve got the right person, but are you related to Dr Douglas Hood?’ It is a soft woman’s voice, hesitant, a Scottish accent.
‘I’m his wife, yes.’ She knows, she knows, doesn’t need to ask.
‘Oh, good. Nothing to worry about, it’s just that, well, you see, I’m ringing you from Brighton station. I found this number in your husband’s mobile phone; you know, ICE.’
In case of emergency. She’d made Douglas add it into his phone a couple of months previously, after he’d been poured off a plane at Gatwick, too plastered to remember his address.
‘The thing is, we found him asleep on the train. He’s a bit the worse for wear. We’ve got him here in the staffroom and we’ve given him coffee. We’re not sure what to do now.’ There is a pause. ‘He’s not quite himself, you see.’
‘It’s OK, you can say that he’s blind drunk. He must have slept right through from Bedford; he should have got off at London Bridge.’ She glances at her watch; nine o’clock. ‘I’ll come and fetch him, but it will take me an hour and a half from London. Can you keep him till then?’
‘I finish my shift at midnight, so that’s no problem. Is there anything else I should do or anything else I should know?’
‘No, he’s a quiet drunk, you don’t have to worry. Probably best to just let him sleep.’
‘OK. When you get here, ask for me. My name is Betsy, Betsy Duncan.’
She buys a sandwich and a carton of fruit juice at the corner shop, barely noticing contents or flavour and eats as she drives, tasting nothing. The letter she received from her father that morning is on the dashboard, in its padded envelope. She read it at lunchtime, learning of her unexpected inheritance in the fuggy warmth of Starbucks.
Nanna took herself off to a solicitor, some fellow in Cork,
her father had written on the yellowing paper that he keeps in a box on the sideboard.
Tim Crowley drove her in. She made a will after she’d seen a family argument on some soap opera on a neighbour’s telly. Says she didn’t want any falling out after she’d gone. So it’s all neat and tidy, I checked on things when I was over organising the headstone. Glenkeen is yours. You’ll need to see to the roof but that’s a story for another day. I’d give you a hand but Barbara’s not well with her leg. Two keys enclosed, front and back door. The front door’s a bit sticky and your grandmother was a stranger to WD40. You have to lift and push. You’ll get the hang of it.
She’s been wanting something,
to happen. Anything except this long, turgid punishment she and Douglas have been sentenced to. At night, when she lies awake listening to his stertorous breathing she dreams of running away to where no one can find her, imagines a hiding place. Once, when she was young, she had planned to run away from home after her mother told her off for dropping a crystal glass. Furious and righteous with indignation, she didn’t know where she was going to go, just away. Her parents would realise the injustice they had done and pace the floor, longing for her return. Her father found her in the kitchen making corned beef sandwiches for the journey and when she coolly told him her plan, he scratched his head, saying, ‘but if you run away I’ll have no one to help me with the map in the car — you know your mother’s a hopeless navigator.’
Her mother had come in then. Her father explained the reason for sandwich making and the reason why Liv couldn’t go. Her mother flicked a cigarette from its case and said, ‘well excuse me, but there’s no way that you can head off — who else is going to come and get the groceries with me? Your father goes into a coma in shops.’
She had looked sternly at the two of them, the sandwiches growing sweaty in her hand, grateful at being outmanoeuvred.
A kind of childish excitement at her grandmother’s unexpected gift had welled up over her Panini and coffee. All afternoon, her step was lighter, an unusual and welcome energy pulsing in her veins. She’d wanted to ring Douglas straightaway, but he was at a conference for the day and she didn’t like to interrupt him. Now he would be too insensible to discuss it. He’d been insensible at most of the major points in her life with him: when her mother died, when she received her Master’s degree, the night she’d broken her arm and he’d breathed terrible fumes over the nurses in casualty. When he’s drunk, he thinks he is invincible, that he can fly, walk on water. On that ghastly night he was in magician mode and he’d fumbled incompetently with a hanky and a fiver, blind to the medics’ contemptuous glances while she craved a real conjuror’s skill; if only she could count to three, snap her fingers and vanish.
She drives fast, just within the speed limit, listening to the radio and not dwelling on what she will find. The ten o’clock news comes on and she listens to the usual grim scenarios, finding no consolation in others’ troubles.
He is asleep in an armchair when she gets to Brighton station, snoring in a corner of the staffroom. He is pale and sweating, a bluish tint around his eyes. His straw coloured hair is sticking up at the back in disarray. The air around him smells of a distillery. There is a yellowish stain on the front of his suit jacket. One of his shoe laces is undone. Someone — probably Betsy Duncan, a slight woman with a ponytail — has put a cushion behind his head. It adds a bizarre, homely touch to the utilitarian room and the slumped man, his gaping mouth. Liv remembers how he appeared as he left the house this morning, running for his cab; if you didn’t look too closely at the skin and eyes, he was the picture of a mature professional man, briefcase clutched under his arm.
Betsy stands poised beside the chair with her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a dark blue uniform and a wedding ring. She seems a person with a contained, calm existence, unlike Liv, who experiences life as oozing, ragged and precarious. She is the woman with her finger in the dyke.
‘He had another black coffee so it should be working through his system.’ Betsy gives Liv that look she knows so well; curiosity mixed with pity and a strong dash of discomfort. ‘He’s lucky he was spotted and didn’t end up in the sidings. That happened to a chap a couple of months ago.’
Liv wonders if she will ever reach a place beyond embarrassment. She adopts her bright tone, shaking Douglas, waking him up. He blinks at her and smiles, the dreamy, swimming glaze of vodka in his eyes and around his lips.
‘Hallo my darling, what are you up to?’
‘I think that’s
question, isn’t it Douglas? Come on, let’s get home.’
He yawns, struggling to pull himself up. There are bubbly white flecks at the corners of his mouth.
Betsy walks beside them to the car. ‘We get all sorts,’ she says with a little laugh, as if to ameliorate the situation. ‘And you should hear the mouths on some of them. It would make you blush. Your husband seems a very nice man.’
Liv closes the car door on Douglas. She wants to get away from this kindly, pleasant woman who probably has a sober, responsible spouse at home. What does it say about her that she is partnered by this inebriate? She looks at Betsy. Please, she thinks, don’t be sympathetic, I can’t take sympathy. She forces a smile, feels her jaw contract. ‘Yes, he is a very nice man. Thank you for your help, you’ve been very good.’
Douglas snores deeply again on the way back, turning his head into the seat rest while she fights tiredness. His collar has turned up around his mouth like a comforter and there is a seep of dribble on his chin. She is envious of him, of the way he sleeps the sleep of oblivion whilst she navigates the swift currents of the grown-up world.
It starts to rain and the windscreen slicks with dirt. Douglas snuffles in time to the
of the wipers. To stay alert, she contemplates the numerous ways in which you can destroy love. You can fritter it away, through flirting and affairs. You can fail to pay it attention and watch it wither. You can poison it with arguments and bad blood. You can give up on it without even realising, preoccupied in your own corner. You can let it slip through your fingers as you scan the horizon, believing that there is someone, something better elsewhere. Her love for Douglas, their love for each other, is being slowly drowned in a quagmire of wine, vodka and lager. There is dark, marshy water all around them, sucking, pulling them down. She is clawing to escape, gasping for air.
She reaches for her father’s envelope and takes the brass keys to the cottage from it, holding them tightly in her left hand. They are large and heavy, more like the keys to a mansion than a cottage. They grow warm and solid in her grasp. She clings to them all the way home as Douglas twitches and snorts, rolling her fingers on their contours; her unexpected lifebelt and possibly her salvation.
* * *
Her father hasn’t been home long. He’s still wearing his heavy cotton work trousers, padding around the kitchen in his thick wool socks. The air in the house is close and laced with a mothball smell and something else medicinal and sharp. He’s making tea and a ham and tomato sandwich with gluten-free bread for her stepmother Barbara, who is, as she frequently is, unwell and upstairs in bed. He munches some bread and peanut butter while he layers the ham, cutting away the fat.
‘I’ve not had a morsel since breakfast, my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut,’ he explains. ‘There’s so much work out there and plumbers are thin on the ground — well, ones that aren’t cowboys and know one end of a pipe from another.’
Liv embraces him, smelling his familiar aroma of oil and rusty metal and the thick green soapy gel he uses to clean the grease from his hands. Her mother used to buy him aftershave but the scents of sandalwood and verbena never quite covered the bracing tang of the industrial strength cleanser that he works into his fingers every evening. Barbara isn’t an aftershave kind of woman; she likes cheap, plain soaps, bargain basement shampoos. She’s a difficult person to select gifts for; she doesn’t read and rarely leaves the house, except for medical appointments. Last Christmas, Liv had bought her a handsome pill box, white and blue china and with a spring clasp.
The marriage to Barbara took place two years after Liv’s mother died from a rapid cancer. Liv still expects to find her mother when she steps through the front door, sniff a trace of her cigarettes, catch a glimpse of her swift, neat feet in peep-toe mules, and hear her making a cheeky comment to a broadcaster on the radio.
The house is a curious mixture of austere and cluttered these days. Comfort has given way to utility. Her father does the housework and he’s a minimalist by nature, a terrific tidier up and putter away. The reassuring bits and pieces that her mother used to leave around are gone: the pink ceramic saucepan stand, the black cat tea cosy, the pile of easy listening CDs she liked to play when she cooked, the high stool she’d sit on, legs crossed, one mule dangling, while she waited for vegetables to come to the boil, doing the
crossword. When she was puzzling out a clue, she took deep puffs on her cigarette, holding her elbow in her free hand, joining in with Patsy Cline or Dean Martin:
sweet sweet, the memories you gave-a me.
She was a messy cook, easily distracted by a song or an anagram; ‘oh sugar!’ she’d yell when a saucepan boiled over, extinguishing the gas. The herbs she would sprinkle indiscriminatingly on all dishes, believing that they ‘zizzed everything along’ are still in their rack on the wall, dusty and stale. Liv bought her the wooden rack at the school jumble sale for eighty pence and polished it with lavender wax before presenting it.
Barbara’s aids and adaptations have consumed the living space, replaced plants, rugs and cosy chairs; there are a number of metal gadgets to assist with dressing and walking sticks dotted around. A ramp has been made to the front door and there is a folding wheelchair in the hallway. The downstairs loo has a raised toilet seat and grab rail. Wrapped bandages are stacked in a fruit bowl, a row of medicine bottles ranked alongside. The house now has an anonymous, institutional look. Liv visits every couple of months and always it feels like a hospital side ward or an occupational therapy storage cupboard. She wants to see her father but watches the clock each time. Her mother acted as a bridge between them and they haven’t found another crossing point for their affection. Always they end up talking about Barbara and her conditions. Her father enjoys his role as the paramedic in the marriage, speaking fluently of lipids, analgesics, bone density scans and mitral valve repairs. He makes frequent references to Barbara’s knee man, heart man and allergy man. His social life consists of chats with district nurses, dieticians and physiotherapists.
Her father and Barbara wear blue and grey His and Hers cotton track suits when they are at home, fleecy lined in winter. Although Liv rarely sees Barbara, because of her numerous ailments; she reminds Liv of one of those crucial characters in
sitcoms who is mentioned but never appears on-screen, a kind of
deus ex machina
‘She’s asleep at the moment,’ her father says fondly, ‘but I’ll wake her in a while. She doesn’t like missing Coronation Street
‘What’s up today?’
‘Ah, the old hip and knee, you know, and some kind of imbalance in the ear. She never complains, though, she’s one of life’s soldiers.’