Charlotte's Way- Extract
Prologue- 1970 Sheila stepped into the middle of the convent parlour and looked around. The room was small and cold and even the smell of liberally applied furniture polish failed to banish the damp and musty unused odour. Instinctively, her eyes followed a beam of sunlight from a window high up in the wall to where it fell onto a wooden bench behind the door. Although she hadn’t been aware she was holding her breath, she let it escape when she saw the two girls. They were her daughters. Hers as truly as if she had given birth to them. She turned to her husband, daring him to stand in her way. She issued her challenge in grim silence even as she tried to stop her face from breaking into a joyous grin. But Robert seemed resigned now. He glanced briefly at the children, then turned to the nun waiting by the door. “Mr Riordan?” the nun seemed uncertain what he wanted of her. “The formalities,” he muttered. “Best get them over and done with. We’ve a boat to catch.” He took a well-used fountain-pen from his inside pocket and led the way out the door.
Sheila relaxed. She got to her knees in front of the girls, then sat back on her heels. It was a tiled floor and the cold seeped through her woollen tights, but as the only other place to sit was on another bench on the far side of the room, she stayed where she was. She smiled gently and resisted the urge to throw her arms about these two helpless mites, promising never to let them go. Because these two children already knew how easily promises could be broken. A moment of inattention, a busy main road, and all the certainty in their short lives swept away under the wheels of a London bus.
“You must be Charlotte,” she said to the older of the two girls, a pretty redheaded child, no more than three or four years old who clasped her sister’s hand protectively, and scowled at the world. “And you must be Emily,” Sheila said, turning to the toddler. A slight, blonde child, fighting sleep, whose free hand was clenched into a tight fist by her side. Her thumb was imprisoned within the tiny hand, as if freed it would fly of its own volition into her mouth and she had been warned once too often that this was not allowed. Then she addressed them both: “My name is Sheila. Would you like to come to Ireland and see where I live?”
1986 “I, Charlotte Riordan, take you …” Even as she repeated the words Charlotte realised, in a moment of sheer panic, that she had no idea what to say next. That she had no idea what she was doing here. The heavy door at the end of the aisle yielded briefly to the wind; it creaked, then slammed shut again, sending a blast of icy air around the congregation gathered in the Trinity College chapel. The baby inside her wriggled, reminding her impatiently to get on with things, and Charlotte remembered. She was getting married. Soon she and her child would take on a new name and abandon the name Riordan. A name Charlotte had never felt comfortable with because she never felt she really owned it. Like a handed-down school uniform which had served its purpose but had never quite fit. She smiled happily at the man standing beside her, and continued: “…take you Donal Moran to be my lawfully wedded husband…” She clutched his hand tighter and he gave her a gentle, reassuring squeeze in return. Emily sat on a small stool to the left of her sister, but none of the words registered. The ceremony was a distant background hum. She had only discovered that morning that Charlotte was pregnant, while she was helping her sister get ready. As Charlotte had raised her hands over her head to remove her loose sweatshirt, the slight swelling of her otherwise slender waist was unmistakable. Emily stared in amazement and wondered why she hadn’t guessed sooner. Although Charlotte and Donal’s whirlwind romance had surprised no one, Emily hadn’t understood why steady, clear-headed Donal had been so adamant that they didn’t want to wait before getting married, not even a few months for a spring wedding. “You’re not getting married just because…?” Emily blurted out before she had time to think. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this conversation. “Of course not.” Charlotte looked away. “You don’t have to get married just because you’re pregnant,” Emily babbled. “Not in this day and age.” Immediately she wished she could unsay what she had just said – it was hard to imagine a worse thing to say on the morning of your sister’s wedding. Charlotte’s sunny mood retreated. “What’s this day and age got to do with it?” Her green eyes glinted coldly. “Do you think it would be any easier for a child to grow up without its parents now, than it was in our day?” Emily knew that Charlotte, being the older of the two of them, had always tried to shield her little sister from the reality of being ‘parentless’, adopted by a mismatched couple in a small Irish country town. But she had been unable to prevent Emily hearing whispers about “bad blood”, and how Sheila and Robert Riordan had been “brave” to take in two fatherless girls. They both heard, in whispers that grew louder as they got older, that although one could understand how a girl (their mother) could fall once, you would have to be wary of a woman who made the same mistake twice. And of course, while you couldn’t blame the child for the sin of the parent… well, everyone had heard the saying “bad blood will out”. “You know that’s not what I meant.” Emily put her arms around Charlotte briefly to take the sting out of what she had said. “I wasn’t suggesting you should go it alone, leave Donal out of the equation but…” Emily wasn’t sure what she meant exactly. She had no doubt Donal would make a good father. Far better than Robert, their adopted father, ever had. Emily’s misgivings were nothing to do with Donal; it was more the whole marriage thing. Marriage was so final, so terminal. A life sentence. Even before she knew what she had learnt today, Emily had been unsure about the marriage but she had not voiced her feelings because she wasn’t sure she understood them. And she was afraid she might just be jealous. Up till now she had always been the most important person in Charlotte’s life.
Now that she knew about the baby, however, Emily couldn’t help feeling the marriage was a trap. A trap that Charlotte was walking into with her eyes wide open in some sort of self-sacrificial trance. But this was a hazy, wordless idea and Emily had no idea how to put her concern to Charlotte.
“It’s just… that, well… you haven’t been with Donal very long, and suddenly you’re getting married, and…” “You want to know, how can I be certain I love him?” Charlotte laughed that anyone could doubt she loved the man she was to marry. And to Emily’s relief it was a warm, bubbly, genuine laugh; she couldn’t help smiling herself in response to it. “I’ve loved Donal,” Charlotte continued, hugging herself, “for a lot longer than any one realises. Longer than I realised myself!” “But what about Marcus?” Emily felt she had to name Charlotte’s first boyfriend out loud, although no one close to Charlotte had summoned up the courage to use the word ‘rebound’, even out of her hearing. “You loved Marcus, didn’t you? And you told me only last Easter that you thought you had a chance of getting back with him.” “Well, I was wrong.” Charlotte placed her hands on her sister’s shoulders as she spoke, looked her straight in the face. “And Marcus was wrong for me,” she continued slowly. “You all thought that. Learning that he had someone else was the best thing that could have happened to me. It left me free to realise that I loved Donal, and that I always had loved him without realising it. It was like coming home. So don’t worry, Emily – everything’s going to be alright.” Charlotte’s face had an almost childlike joy to it. She hugged her sister, then catching sight of their reflection in the mirror, stopped and smoothed down the front of her dress with concern. Now Emily wished she’d found the courage to have that conversation in the weeks leading up to the wedding, and not when it was too late for Charlotte to back out. Not that Emily suspected for one moment that she would have. She didn’t doubt Charlotte’s sincerity when she spoke about Donal and their future together, but that didn’t mean she understood it. Personally, Emily didn’t have much time for all this happy families crap. In four months’ time Charlotte would be a mother. A few months before her twentieth birthday. Emily shuddered with distaste; she wouldn’t fall into a trap like that. She would graduate at the top of her law class and then forge a brilliant career for herself. She could see it now: Emily Riordan, Barrister at Law. Champion of the underdog, expert on human rights. Feared by the major corporations and moral guardian of the state. It was a delicious fantasy.
She pulled her shawl tighter about her shoulders as yet another draught swirled around the altar and she noticed Charlotte’s friend Anne-Marie doing the same. These filmy gold bridesmaids’ dresses had not been designed with November in mind.
Anne-Marie, Charlotte’s other bridesmaid, sat on her right side. The same place as she had taken throughout school, from the very first day that the new girl with the funny accent had joined her nursery class. She too shivered as the cold air swirled around her and she stole a glance at the bride in the hopes she wasn’t feeling uncomfortable. But her friend looked radiant. The simple ivory dress and the fresh flowers she wore in her hair were perfect on her. Charlotte carried a bouquet made up of creamy white lilies wrapped in dark green leaves and tied with sprigs of miniature ivy. It was the perfect foil for her translucent skin, scattered lightly with freckles, and for the dark red hair tumbling freely over her shoulders. She looked, Anne-Marie thought, like a wood nymph from a child’s book of fairytales. Charlotte wore flat shoes because she was only a couple of inches shorter than Donal who was nearly six foot tall. And Donal, with floppy light brown hair, a slightly crooked smile and piercing blue eyes, looked like every mother’s favourite boy next door. They made a handsome couple. Although Donal wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, stunning-looking, he was solid, reliable and he looked it. Just the kind of person Charlotte needed. And he adored her; anyone could see that. Anne-Marie smiled and felt her eyes fill with tears when she saw Donal’s expression as he began to recite his lines with a wobbly voice. Suzy sat in the congregation and reached into her bag for a tissue. The pews in the old college chapel faced each other, so she lowered her head to prevent guests on the other side of the aisle witnessing her tears. She was a catering student who had lived in the bedsit below Charlotte’s ever since her move to Dublin. The two girls became close friends.
So it was true, Suzy realised, as she watched her friend. Unlike the loose sweaters of the previous few weeks, Charlotte’s dress did nothing to hide her pregnancy. Suzy had suspected of course – there was very little Charlotte was able to keep from her. But she hadn’t known for certain.
And now she wondered if it would have made a difference to have known about the baby sooner. If she could have acted on the knowledge. But as Suzy listened while Donal was given permission to kiss his bride, she swallowed hard, blinking away unshed tears. No point thinking about it, Suze, she told herself sternly. It’s too late to do anything. It’s probably all for the best anyway. Donal stood with his bride on the steps of the chapel as they posed for photographs, and he felt his heart would burst with happiness. Until a few minutes ago, he hadn’t really believed it was going to happen, but then Charlotte said “I do” and Donal pitied every other man on Earth. He grinned at his father who was pointing an oversized camera lens at them. “Donal, Charlotte,” the official photographer called out to them, “if I could just have you over there, under the campanile…” Donal looked in the direction he was pointing, at the old stone monument, and nodded in agreement. But as he turned back to attract Charlotte’s attention, a movement, spotted out of the corner of his eye, made him look across Front Square. His heart stopped as he saw someone disappear around the corner of the Long Library and he clenched a fist in anger by his side.
It couldn’t be…
No, he told himself, and forced the calm smile back onto his face. There must be thousands of students with leather jackets like that. And that’s all Donal had seen. A black leather jacket, dark hair and a way of walking that reminded him of… No, it could have been anyone. Besides, even if Marcus had the nerve to turn up today, it was too late now; there was nothing he could do. “Let’s go,” Donal said, linking his arms through his wife’s. “Let’s go and have those photos taken before you freeze.”