Elizabeth's heart hammered loudly against her chest. She banged the front door behind her and paced the hallway in uneven strides. With the phone pressed hard between her ear and shoulder, she balanced herself against the hall table and pulled off her broken-heeled shoe. Another bit of chaos to thank her sister for.
She stopped pacing long enough to stare at her reflection in the mirror. Her brown eyes widened with horror. Rarely did she allow herself to look so bedraggled. So out of control. Strands of her chocolate-brown hair were fleeing from the tight French plait and mascara nestled in the lines under her eyes. Her lipstick had faded, leaving only her plum-colored lip-liner as a frame, and her foundation clung to the dry patches of her olive skin. Gone was her usually pristine look. This caused her heart to beat faster, the panic to accelerate.
Breathe, Elizabeth, just breathe, she told herself. She ran a trembling hand over her tousled hair, forcing down the strays. She wiped the mascara away with a wet finger, pursed her lips together, smoothed down her suit jacket, and cleared her throat. It was merely a momentary lapse of concentration on her part, that was all. Not to happen again. She transferred the phone to her left ear and noticed the impression of her Claddagh earring against her neck; such was the pressure of her shoulder's grip on the phone against her skin.
Finally someone answered and Elizabeth turned her back on the mirror to stand to attention. Back to business.
"Hello, Baile na Cro'the Garda Station."
Elizabeth winced as she recognized the voice on the phone. "Hi, Marie, Elizabeth here again. Saoirse's gone off with the car," she paused, "again."
There was a gentle sigh on the other end of the phone. "How long ago, Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth sat down on the bottom stair and settled down for the usual line of questioning. She closed her eyes, only meaning to rest them briefly, but at the relief of blocking everything she kept them closed. "Just five minutes ago."
"Right. Did she say where she was going?"
"The moon," she replied matter-of-factly.
"Excuse me?" Marie asked.
"You heard me. She said she was going to the moon," Elizabeth said firmly. "Apparently people will understand her there."
"The moon," Marie repeated.
"Yes," Elizabeth replied, feeling irritated. "You could perhaps start looking for her on the motorway. I would imagine that if you were heading to the moon that would be the quickest way to get there, wouldn't you? Although I'm not entirely sure which exit she would take. Either way, I'd check the motor-"
"Relax, Elizabeth; you know I have to ask."
"I know." Elizabeth tried to calm herself again. She was missing an important meeting right now. Her nephew Luke's fill-in babysitter had fled. Elizabeth could hardly blame the girl. Her nephew's mother, Elizabeth's younger sister Saoirse, was unmanageable and the frantic young babysitter had called Elizabeth in a panic. Elizabeth had to drop everything and come home. Luke's nanny, Edith, had left for the three months of traveling she had threatened Elizabeth with for the past six years. She was, however, surprised that Edith, apart from the current trip to Australia, was still turning up to work every day. Six years she had been helping Elizabeth to raise Luke, six years of drama, and still after all her years of loyalty, Elizabeth expected a phone call or her letter of resignation practically every day. Being Luke's nanny came with a lot of baggage. Then again, so did being Luke's adoptive parent.
"Elizabeth, are you still there?"
"Yes." Her eyes shot open. She was losing concentration. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"I asked you what car she took."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and made a face at the phone. "The same one, Marie. The same bloody car as last week, and the week before and the week before that," she snapped.
Marie remained firm. "Which is the-?"
"BMW," she interrupted. "The same damn 330 black BMW Cabriolet. Four wheels, two doors, one steering wheel, two wing mirrors, lights, and-"
"A partridge in a pear tree," Marie interrupted. "What condition was she in?"
"Very shiny. I'd just washed her," Elizabeth replied cheekily.
"Great, and what condition was Saoirse in?"
"The usual one."
"That's the one." Elizabeth stood up and walked down the hall to the kitchen. Her sun trap. Her one heel against the marble floor echoed in the empty high-ceilinged room. Everything was in its place. The room was hot from the sun's glare through the glass of the conservatory. Elizabeth's tired eyes squinted in the brightness. The spotless kitchen gleamed, the black granite countertops sparkled, the chrome fittings mirrored the bright day. A stainless-steel and walnut heaven. She headed straight to the espresso machine. Her savior. Needing an injection of life into her exhausted body, she opened the kitchen cabinet and took out a small beige coffee cup. Before closing the press, she turned a cup 'round so that the handle was on the right side like all the others. She slid open the long steel cutlery drawer, noticed a knife in the fork compartment, put it back in its rightful place, retrieved a spoon, and slid it shut.
From the corner of her eye she saw the hand towel messily strewn over the handle of the cooker. She threw the crumpled cloth into the utility room, retrieved a fresh towel from the neat pile in the press, folded it exactly in half, and draped it over the cooker handle. Everything had its place.
She placed the steaming espresso cup on a marble coaster to protect the glass kitchen table. She smoothed out her trousers, removed a piece of fluff from her jacket, sat down in the conservatory, and looked out at her long swath of garden and the rolling green hills beyond which seemed to stretch on forever. Forty shades of green, gold, and brown.
She breathed in the rich aroma of her steaming espresso and immediately felt revived. She pictured her sister racing over the hills with the top down on Elizabeth's convertible, arms in the air, eyes closed, flame-red hair blowing in the wind, believing she was free. Saoirse meant freedom in Irish. The name had been chosen by their mother in her last desperate attempt to make the duties of motherhood she despised so much seem less like a punishment. She felt by naming her this, her second daughter could some way bring her freedom from the shackles of marriage, motherhood, responsibility, reality.
Elizabeth and Saoirse's mother, Grainne, had met their father when Grainne was just sixteen. She was traveling through the town with a group of poets, musicians, and dreamers and got talking to Brendan Egan, a farmer in the local pub. He was twelve years her senior and was enthralled by her wild, mysterious ways and carefree nature. She was flattered. And so they married. At eighteen Grainne had their first child, Elizabeth. As it turned out, her mother couldn't be tamed and found it increasingly frustrating being held in the sleepy town nestled in the hills she had only ever intended to pass through. A crying baby and sleepless nights drove her further and further away in her head. Dreams of her own personal freedom became confused with her reality and she started to go missing for days at a time. She went exploring, discovering places and other people.
For as long as Elizabeth could remember, she looked after herself and her silent, brooding father and didn't ask when her mother would be home. She knew in her heart that her mother would eventually return, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, and speaking breathlessly of the world and all it had to offer. She would waft into their lives like a fresh summer breeze bringing excitement and hope. The feel of their bungalow farmhouse always changed when she returned; the four walls absorbed her enthusiasm. Elizabeth would sit at the end of her mother's bed, listening to stories, giddy with delight. This ambience would last for only a few days until her mother quickly tired of sharing stories rather than making new ones.
Often she brought back mementos such as shells, stones, leaves. Elizabeth could recall a vase of long fresh grasses that sat in the center of the dining room table as though they were the most exotic plants ever created. When asked about the field they were pulled from, her mother just winked and tipped her nose, promising Elizabeth that she would understand some day. Her father would sit silently in his chair by the fireplace, reading his paper but never turning the page as he got lost in his wife's world of words.
When Elizabeth was twelve years old her mother became pregnant again and, despite the newborn baby being named Saoirse, this child didn't offer the freedom her mother craved, and so she set off on another expedition. And didn't return. Her father, Brendan, had no interest in the new baby and waited in silence by the fire for his wife to return. Reading his paper but never turning the page. For years. Forever. Soon Elizabeth's heart grew weary of awaiting her mother's return and Saoirse became Elizabeth's responsibility.
Saoirse had inherited her father's Celtic looks of strawberry-blond hair and fair skin, while Elizabeth was the image of her mother. Olive skin, chocolate hair, almost black eyes; in their blood from the Spanish influence thousands of years before. As she grew from adolescence, Elizabeth resembled her mother more and more, and she knew her father found it difficult. She grew to hate herself for it, and along with making the effort of trying to have conversations with her father she tried even harder to prove, to her father and to herself, that she was nothing like her mother, that she was capable of loyalty.
When Elizabeth finished school at eighteen she was faced with the choice of moving to Cork to attend university, a decision that took all her courage to make. Her father regarded her acceptance of the course as abandonment; he saw any friendship she created with anyone as abandonment. He craved attention, always demanding to be the only person in his daughters' lives, as though that would prevent them from moving away from him. Well, he almost succeeded and certainly was part of the reason for Elizabeth's lack of a social life or circle of friends. She had been conditioned to walk away when polite conversation was started, knowing she would pay for any unnecessary time spent away from the farm with sullen words and disapproving glares. In any case, looking after Saoirse as well as going to school was a full-time job. Nevertheless, Brendan accused her of being like her mother, of thinking she was above him and superior to Baile na Cro'the.
She had begun to understand how her mother must have felt living in such a suffocating home where she felt bored and trapped by marriage and motherhood. Like her mother, she found the small town claustrophobic. It was a place where every action of every person was monitored, frowned upon, commented on, kept, and stored for gossip. A place that managed to attract the tourists but repel the women of the Egan family. Elizabeth felt the dull farmhouse was dipped in darkness, with no sense of time. It was as though even the grandfather clock in the hall was waiting for her mother to return.
"And, Luke, where is he?" Marie asked over the phone, bringing Elizabeth swiftly back to the present.
Elizabeth replied bitterly, "Do you really think Saoirse would take him with her?"
Elizabeth sighed. "He's here."
Saoirse was more than just a name to call Elizabeth's sister. To her sister it was an identity, a way of life. Everything the name represented was passed into her blood. She was fiery, independent, wild, and free. Saorise followed the pattern of the mother she could not remember, to such a degree that Elizabeth found herself watching Saoirse to keep her from disappearing like their mother. But Elizabeth kept losing sight of her. Saoirse became pregnant at sixteen and no one knew who the father was, not even Saoirse. Once she had the baby she didn't care much for naming him but, when pressed, she gave her baby boy a name that was like a wish. Lucky. So Elizabeth named him Luke. And at the age of twenty-eight, Elizabeth found herself once again responsible for a child who wasn't her own.
There was never as much as a flicker of recognition in Saoirse's eyes when she looked at Luke. It startled Elizabeth to see that there was no bond, no connection at all. Granted, Elizabeth had made a pact with herself never to have children. She had raised herself and raised her sister; she had no desire to raise anybody else. It was time to look after herself. After having slaved away at school and college she had been successful in starting up her own interior design business. She had reached her goals by being in control, maintaining order, not losing sight of herself, always being realistic, believing in fact and not dreams, and above all, applying herself and working hard. Her mother's and sister's example had taught her that she wouldn't get anywhere by following wistful dreams.
Despite that pact with herself, there was no one else in the family capable of providing Luke with a good life, so Elizabeth found herself thirty-four years old and living alone with a six-year-old in a house she had made her haven, the place she could retreat to and feel safe. Alone because love was one of those feelings that you could never have control of. And she needed to be in control. She had loved before, had been loved, had tasted what it was to dream, and had felt what it was to dance on air. She had also learned what it was to cruelly land back on the earth with a thud. Having to take care of her sister's child had sent her love away and there had been no one since. She had learned not to lose control of her feelings again.
The front door banged shut and she heard the patter of little feet running down the hall.
"Luke!" she called, putting her hand over the receiver.
"Yeah?" he asked innocently, blue eyes and blond hair appearing from around the doorway.
"Yes, not yeah," she corrected him sternly. Her voice was full of the authority she had become a pro at over the years.
"Yes," he repeated.
"What are you doing?"
Luke stepped out of the doorway into the hall and Elizabeth's eyes immediately went to his grass-stained knees.
"Me and Ivan are just going to play on the computer," he explained.
"Ivan and I," she corrected him and continued listening to Marie at the other end of the phone arranging to send a Garda car out. Luke looked at his aunt and returned to the playroom.
"Hold on a minute," Elizabeth shouted down the phone, finally registering what Luke had just told her. She jumped up from her chair, bumping the table leg and spilling her espresso onto the glass. She swore. The black wrought-iron legs of the chair screeched against the marble. Holding the phone to her chest, she raced down the long hall to the playroom. She tucked her head around the corner and saw Luke sitting on the floor, eyes glued to the TV screen. Here and his bedroom were the only rooms in the house she allowed his toys. Taking care of a child had not succeeded in changing her as many thought it would; he hadn't softened her views in any way. She had visited many of Luke's friends' houses, picking him up or dropping him off, so full of toys lying around they tripped up everyone who dared walk in their path. She reluctantly had cups of coffee with the mothers while sitting on teddies, surrounded by bottles, formula, and nappies. But not in her home. Edith had been told the rules at the beginning of their working relationship and she had followed them. As Luke grew up and understood Elizabeth's ways, he obediently respected her wishes and contained his playing to the one room she had dedicated to his needs.
"Luke, who's Ivan?" Elizabeth asked, eyes darting around the room. "You know you can't be bringing strangers home," she said, worried.
"He's my new friend," Luke replied, zombie-like, not moving his eyes from the beefed-up wrestler body-slamming his opponent on the screen.
"You know I insist on meeting your friends first before you bring them home. Where is he?" she questioned, pushing open the door and stepping into Luke's space. She hoped to god that this friend would be better than the last little terror, who had decided to draw a picture of his happy family in Magic Marker on her wall, which had since been painted over.
"Over there." Luke nodded his head in the direction of the window, still not budging his eyes.
Elizabeth walked toward the window and looked out at the front garden. She crossed her arms. "Is he hiding?"
Luke pressed pause on his computer keypad and finally moved his eyes away from the two wrestlers on the screen. His face crinkled in confusion. "He's right there!" He pointed toward the beanbag at Elizabeth's feet.
Elizabeth's eyes widened as she stared at the beanbag. "Where?"
"Right there," he repeated.
Elizabeth blinked back at him. She raised her arms questioningly.
"Beside you, on the beanbag." Luke's voice became louder with his anxiety. He stared at the yellow corduroy beanbag with intensity, as though willing his friend to appear.
Elizabeth followed his gaze.
"See him?" He dropped the control pad and got quickly to his feet.
This was followed by a tense silence and Elizabeth could feel Luke's hatred for her emanating from his body. She could tell what he was thinking: Why couldn't she just see him, why couldn't she just play along just this once, why couldn't she ever pretend? She swallowed the lump in her throat and looked around the room to see if she really was missing his friend in some way. Nothing.
She leaned down to be on an even level with Luke and her knees cracked loudly in the silent room. "There's no one else but you and me in this room," she whispered softly. Somehow saying it quietly made it easier. Easier for herself or Luke, she didn't know.
Luke's cheeks flushed and his chest heaved faster. He stood in the center of the room, surrounded by computer keypad wires, with his little hands down by his sides, looking helpless. Elizabeth's heart hammered in her chest. Please do not be like your mother, please do not be like your mother. She knew only too well how the world of fantasy could steal you away.
Finally Luke exploded and stared into space. "Ivan, say something to her!"
There was a silence as Luke looked into space and then giggled hysterically. He looked back at Elizabeth and his smile quickly faded when he noticed her lack of response. "Do you not see him?" he squealed nervously, then more angrily repeated, "Why don't you see him?"
"OK, OK!" Elizabeth tried not to panic. She stood up back to her own level. A level where she had control. She couldn't see him and her brain refused to let her pretend. She wanted to get out of the room quickly. She lifted her leg to step over the beanbag and stopped herself, instead choosing to walk around it. Once at the door, she glanced around one last time to see if she could spot the mystery Ivan. No sign.
Luke shrugged back into space, sat down, and continued playing his wrestling game.
"I'm putting some pizza on now, Luke."
Silence. What else should she say? It was at moments like this she realized that reading all the parenting manuals in the world never helped. Good parenting came from the heart, was instinctive, and not for the first time she worried she was letting Luke down.
"It will be ready in twenty minutes," she finished awkwardly.
"What?" Luke pressed pause and faced the window.
"I said it will be ready in twen-"
"No, not you," Luke said, once again being sucked into the world of video games. "Ivan would like some too. He said pizza is his favorite."
"Oh." Elizabeth swallowed helplessly.
"With olives," Luke continued.
"But Luke, you hate olives."
"Yeah, but Ivan loves them. He says they're his favorite."
"Oh . . ."
"Thanks," Luke said to his aunt, looked to the beanbag, gave the thumbs-up, smiled, then looked away again.
Elizabeth slowly backed out of the playroom. She realized she was still holding the phone to her chest. "Marie, are you still there?" She chewed on her nail and stared at the closed playroom door, wondering what to do.
"I thought you'd gone off to the moon as well," Marie chuckled.
Marie mistook Elizabeth's silence for anger and apologized quickly. "Anyway, you were right, Saoirse was headed to the moon but luckily she decided to stop off on the way to refuel. Refueling herself, more like. Your car was found blocking the main street with the engine still running and the driver's door wide open. You're lucky Paddy found it when he did before someone took off with it."
"Let me guess, the car was outside the pub." Elizabeth already knew the answer.
"Correct." She paused. "Do you want to press charges?"
Elizabeth sighed, "No. Thanks, Marie."
"Not a problem. We'll have someone bring the car around to you."
"What about Saoirse?" Elizabeth paced the hall. "Where is she?"
"We'll just keep her here for a while, Elizabeth."
"I'll come get her," Elizabeth said quickly.
"No," Marie said firmly. "Let me get back to you about that. She needs to calm down before she goes anywhere yet."
Inside the playroom, she heard Luke laughing and talking away to himself.
"Actually, Marie," Elizabeth added with a weak smile, "while we're on the phone, tell whoever's bringing the car to bring a shrink with them. It seems Luke is imagining friends now."
Inside the playroom, Ivan rolled his eyes and wiggled his body down further into the beanbag. He had heard her on the phone. Ever since he had started this job, parents had been calling him that and it was really beginning to bother him. There was nothing imaginary about him whatsoever.
They just couldn't see him.
Excerpted from IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW by Cecelia Ahern. Published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2011 Cecelia Ahern. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
If You Could See Me Now