Lay me down in the dark womb of your love
Mother, I sought the chosen people, but I found no one to comfort me
Lay me down in the dark womb of your love
Mother, I climbed the highest steeple, I found nothing to believe
Staying in Ireland had never been the plan, see. In those days, the place that really drew me was the continent—or “Europe,” as they’d called it back in Liverpool, because the UK was still independent, thank you very much. The new open borders there were a curse as well as a blessing, though; they made travel between countries laughably easy once you were in, but getting over to start with was harder now, and it had only got worse after every airport had locked down tighter than a bank vault that September last.
So the direct ferry from Dover was too much of a risk, and a flight was basically impossible, even from one of the smaller, less-travelled airports. No, if what you wanted was to get from northern England to the continent with dodgy documentation, passing through Ireland was your best option. Getting there from Liverpool had been simple: officially the Irish had refused to give up their border controls just as the UK had, but they weren’t being very strident about that independence. I’d kept Mags’ driving licence on me just in case some overzealous official had asked to see my ID, but in the end they’d just waved me through at the port.
Then there had been a couple of weeks of lying low in a Dublin bedsit just off Parnell Street—just enough time to fork over half my savings from Mags’ hat business for a forged passport from a guy with an office behind a chippy—and from there I’d hitched a ride down the coast to Rosslare with a couple of American tourists. I’d sat in the front seat, my elbow angling out the window and the wind salt-sharp against my face, the road opening up before us.
It was one of those endlessly drizzly, chilly Irish winter days, and the ferry port at Rosslare had turned out to be little more than a dock with a dingy building attached, with yellowing linoleum on the floors and wooden panels on the walls left over from the seventies. To me, though, it still felt like the gateway to some sort of promised land. There were no passport checks on the Irish end, and if I found the right border guard on the French side—not one of the friendly ones, but one who was bored, one whose mind was already on the supper getting cold in the office or a night out with some exotic beauty—he’d do nothing more than glance at my documents. A few steps later I’d be on the continent, ready to start again.
Back in Sydney I’d been Hazel, in the years when I’d still been choking on the dust of home, still looking for my dad or my uncle around every corner. Then I’d been whip-smart Naomi in Waikanae, a little town up the coast from Wellington in New Zealand, and carefree Alanna from San Francisco during my first few years in America. On the other coast I’d been May-Ruth with her Appalachian accent and her long black braid and her shy smile, and then quirky, self-reliant Mags after crossing the next ocean. This time my passport was a deep brick red with UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND stamped on it in embossed gold. Inside, right next to a picture of me with blonde hair and an appropriately serious expression, was the name Carol Root.
It was a stable name, a grounded one, and Carol herself was going to be grounded, too. I already had the shape of her in my mind: her mother was English, but her father had been French, and after a bad breakup she didn’t want to talk about, she was feeling ready to explore the other side of her family tree across the Channel. She was reliable, the sort of girl you could trust with your money or your secrets, but quick to anger if you crossed her. She loved to bake. Her French was already good, and with time it would get better. I could see the outline of the life I would make for her as it sharpened into view: as a pastry chef in some minor Parisian bistro, or kneading bread in a bakery somewhere out in the hilly countryside, her hair smelling of yeast and cassonade and freedom.
That ferry—that one last step—it was all that was supposed to be left after all the effort that had gone into getting there. It was supposed to be the easy part.
The Irish Ferries queue was as short as you’d imagine in the deepest, darkest off-season: a few stray Frenchmen heading home, a family with a little boy who kept asking mammy when they were going to get on the boat. In summer the hall would have been bustling with activity, but it was January, and the murmur of conversation was low enough not to drown it out when somebody at the desk carefully pronounced my name. My old name, the oldest one of all.
For a long moment my head whirled with disorientation—a coincidence, surely, they meant someone else—but no, the man’s accent was packed with broad Australian vowels, and when I looked up at him, he had my uncle’s face. His hair was thinner than I’d remembered, and greying at his temples, but it was still recognizably, unmistakably him.
I didn’t even consciously decide to run, I was just suddenly gone, as if shot from the barrel of a gun. I went straight for the toilets: threw the door open, darted past some lady and her startled kid, bolted myself inside a stall. My bag landed on the floor, my heart thudding around inside my ribs, and I spread my palms flat against both walls to steady myself. The Edge was too close this time, right there, inches from my feet.
No, I was already dangling over it. I squeezed my eyes shut, but the memories were looping their way through my mind like some forgotten film. Huddled in a lump against the house, my tiny fingers picking at the peeling paint on the wall, the hot northern sun beating down on my face. The smell of manure lodged into the back of my throat: sulfur and acid and decay. Dad’s voice through the open window, yelling himself hoarse for help that would never come, against a backdrop of sounds so inhuman they could hardly be called groans. Wind that whipped the dust into my eyes, dried my tears before they could form. Then, all at once, the metallic smell of death so strong I could taste it, and the hollow shape in the air where Mum had been.
The inevitable wave of nausea hit, and I spun around, knelt on the ground, leaned over the toilet. My throat made an awful retching sound, but nothing came out.
“Are you all right in there?” An Irish voice. The lady with the kid.
“I’m good,” I squeaked out. My stomach heaved again, and I spat a clot of bile into the toilet.
“You sure? Will I get someone for you?”
“No, no, I’m fine, I just...I think I ate something dodgy.” It came out in Mags’ voice: that Liverpudlian lilt.
“Yeah,” I said. I ran my tongue over my teeth, spat into the toilet again. “Thanks.”
“All right, then. Good luck to you.” The door squealed open, then closed again.
Eventually my stomach started to settle, and I pushed myself up from the ground and sat down on the toilet seat. My heart was slowing, and I held my hands out in front of me, spread my fingers. Still trembling, but only a bit.
I’d last seen my uncle tacking a row of HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL flyers to a lamppost back in Sydney, shoulder to shoulder with Dad. Since then there’d been no sign of either of them, not in all these years, and I’d figured they’d eventually given up. Looked like the postcards I’d sent Dad every year on his birthday had been a row of breadcrumbs leading them straight to my door.
My gut clenched again, but this time it was a flare of rage. Every year I told Dad I was fine, tried to ease his worry with the only thing I had on offer. Every single year I assured him I still didn’t want him coming looking for me. This sort of stunt would have been my uncle’s doing, but Dad still had to have helped him, given him the cards at least. I could just see the pair of them: a map spread flat against the big table at the homestead, the screen door shut to keep the mozzies out, Dad’s fingers tracing my steps, my uncle nodding and taking notes. They thought they were so noble, looking out for their long-lost girl, but for a couple of blokes who believed in nothing more than a fair go, they sure weren’t respecting my wish to be left in peace.
The bastards. I balled twin fists in my lap, my fingernails digging into the flesh of my palms.
I straightened my shoulders. If they’d found me, then I was just going to have to face them head-on. Hell, it had been ten years, and I’d been a legal adult for eight of those. They couldn’t exactly drag me back by my hair like a pair of Neanderthals.
I hitched my bag up onto my shoulder and unlatched the door to the stall. In front of the mirror I straightened my Carol Root collar, pressed the loose hairs into the wooden clip at my neck. The glint of determination in my eyes was so fierce I could barely see the anxiety lingering underneath: I was as ready for this as I was ever going to be.
Back out in the hall, I looked over at the Irish Ferries desk, only to find my uncle gone. I felt an irrational jolt of triumph—who’s running from who now?—but then further down the gangway I spotted him, gesturing to a cop, holding something up to the light that was about the right size to be a photo.
My heart jumped, but I gritted my teeth and walked slowly toward them. The uncle I remembered as barely grown up enough to train the jackaroos was old now, older even than Dad looked in the haze of my memory. He’d put on a good ten, fifteen kilos, and his signature stubble was shaved clean for what was probably his first-ever overseas trip. He was doing his best to look respectable, but he had on the kind of country jacket and tie you could buy used for a few bob in Halls Creek, and they weren’t doing him any favours. He still looked like the end of the road, the end of a life. The nausea flared again. I flinched.
His arm dropped, and he turned his head in my direction. I braced myself for the eye contact, but his gaze passed straight through me. He turned again, toward the cop.
He didn’t recognise me.
I felt a tugging at the corner of my mouth, the start of a grin. It was true, I did look different: my hair pulled back, the Carol Root clothes. I was older now, too, and of course his mind’s image of me would still have been of a little slip of a thing who could hardly pass as sixteen. Still, he’d tracked me across three continents, had me cornered, even, only to miss me as cleanly as he had a decade ago and half a world away. I smothered a giddy hiccup of a laugh.
He turned toward me again just then, as if in response, but his eyes swept past me without a second glance. Feeling suddenly bold, I picked up the pace to long, brazen strides, finally stopping on the other side of a row of luggage trolleys. It was electrifying: I was so close I could have reached across and touched him, and he had no idea. I turned my back to them, leaned against the trolleys, and pricked my ears.
“I’d just—I’d really appreciate any help you could give us,” my uncle was saying. His accent was muted, but only a bit: he was trying for something more respectable than battler from the bush, but missing it by a country mile. “It would give her poor old dad a sense of hope after all this time.”
“Right. Well, do you know what name she’d be booked under?” The cop sounded sceptical, bored.
“They reckon it’s probably Root. Carol Root?”
For the second time in fifteen minutes, a name on my uncle’s lips stole my breath. I traced the outline of my brand-new Carol Root passport through my jacket. Worthless now.
“Look here, there’s only so much we can do. Maybe if you can find somebody who wants to press charges on the identity theft, but otherwise—I mean, it’s been ten years. This girl’d be a grown woman now, sure.”
Identity theft. The bloody git who’d made the passport had ratted me out, that was the only way my uncle could have known both the name and which day I was hoping to head across to the continent. I clenched a fist around one of the trolleys, my blood galloping through me, red and hot.
“What I can do for you is pass that name on to the management,” the cop continued, a note of weariness creeping into his voice. “It shouldn’t be too hard to find her once she’s hanging about here somewhere, hoping to hop a ferry.”
There was definitely no way I could risk getting on a boat as Carol Root—obviously not today, and not anytime soon, either. I ransacked my mind for alternate possibilities: airports were out, but maybe if I resurrected the Mags driving licence and retraced my steps up the coast, put on some overalls to blend in, hopped a cargo boat in place of a ferry. I frowned. It would be a risk.
“Lexie?” A girl’s voice, right next to me. “Lexie Madison?”
I jerked my head up. She was about my age, maybe a little younger, though at least a head taller. She had ginger curls pulled into a stiff ponytail, little wire-framed glasses, and she was wearing several layers of brown eyeshadow that had clearly been chosen to complement a smart, pale lavender jacket. I’d never seen her before in my life.
The girl’s eyes widened. “Jaysus, it is you!” Then she threw her arms around me, wrapping me in a cloud of baby powder scent and hair spray. Over her shoulder, my uncle handed the cop a folder full of papers.
The girl pushed me back to arm’s length, squinted. “Come here till I get a good look at you. I almost didn’t recognise you, with the new hair.” She reached up and smoothed my fringe. “I just love the blonde, by the way.”
I had no idea who this girl was. Worse, I had no idea who she thought I was, but my choices were dwindling rapidly. “Aw, thanks,” I said, trying on my best approximation of the Dublin accent I’d been listening to for two weeks straight, giving her a smile. “You look brilliant, too.”
“Are you heading down to France, then?” She cocked her head at me. “I hope you get some sun. I’m telling you, we’re awful sick of this rain.”
I held up my bag. “Just got back, actually. I was just catching my breath a bit before I head over to the bus.” The cop motioned to my uncle, and the two of them headed over to the Irish Ferries desk. They still hadn’t seen me. “How long has it been?” I asked the girl, rolling with what suddenly felt like a real chance. Lexie Madison, she’d said—was it Alexa? Alexandra? “It feels like it’s been an age.”
The girl’s face pinched in concentration. “Last spring, it would have been? Something like that.”
Not even a year, then. “Is that all?” I said, injecting an airy note into my voice. The cop and my uncle were talking to a man in an Irish Ferries uniform now. “It feels like longer.”
“Feels like yesterday to me.” the ginger girl said, giving me a shrug. “But it’s UCD, nothing ever really changes.”
University College Dublin. This Lexie was a student. A jolt of energy shot through me: I could handle that. “I hear you,” I said with a laugh.
She peered down at me over her glasses. “You sound good. Have you—” she began, but then her mouth snapped shut. “All the other postgrads said you were...”
I tilted my head at her. “What?”
The girl’s face flushed, clashing with her hair. The embarrassment wasn’t for herself, though, it was for this Lexie. For me.
“It’s okay, you can go ahead and say it,” I prompted. “I’m not ashamed.”
“They said you had a—a breakdown,” she said carefully, like I might deflate if she didn't file the sharp corners off her words. “Ended up in America or somewhere, in a hospital, like.”
My heart constricted with hope. A breakdown was the perfect cover for the occasional memory lapse—this could work, at least for now. “The stress got to me a bit, is all,” I said with a nod and a vague wave of my hand. “Just—everything that was going on. I’m doing a lot better now, though.”
Her eyes filled with what looked like genuine relief. “I should have known. That sort of thing’d never keep Alexandra Madison down for long. Hey, can I give you a lift up into the city? I’ve got my car here. It would give us a chance to catch up.”
I mirrored the girl’s smile back at her. Dublin was as good a place to end up as any, at this point. “I’d love that.”
“I’m parked down in the village, though,” she said with an apologetic little grimace. “The fees for the port car park are murder.”
“I don’t mind a walk,” I said. I reached a hand up to my mouth and spat something invisible into it. “Just let me get rid of this stale chewing gum, yeah?”
I walked over to the rubbish bin, my back turned just enough that the girl couldn’t see. Then I unbuttoned my jacket and slid the Carol Root passport into the bin. It landed at the bottom with a metallic thud, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loss, like a sentence that was finished but I’d never get to hear it uttered.
I turned around and covered the pang with a grin. I splayed both palms wide. “All gone.”
The corner of the girl’s mouth turned up. “You know what’s funny? I think you might have picked up a bit of the accent while you were across the pond.”
For a split second I froze—I was improvising, and at this point my best attempt at an Irish Lexie voice still had a sprinkling of Mags and a good-sized dollop of May-Ruth—but I hid the jolt of nerves behind a sheepish smile. “Sorry.”
“Oh, stop, it’s grand!” the girl said with a wave of her hand. I took one last look at my uncle over my shoulder and followed the girl outside, shaking the dust from my shoes, my heart lightening with every step.
The girl turned out to be Aisling Browne, a real mother-hen type who’d studied psychology with this Lexie at UCD. She was so relieved to see her old friend relatively sane and healthy that she was more than delighted to chat my ear off all the way back to Dublin. I tried to make the right noises in the right places, but mostly I listened: to the bits of information she slipped in now and then, to the rhythms of her voice. It didn’t even take the whole drive for me to realise that I’d be a fool not to be Lexie Madison for as long as I could, though, what with an entire lived history to draw on, complete with genuine documentation and a face to match. There was a flexibility in that, a certainty that I hadn’t known in all these years.
But first I needed to know just how easy it was going to be to pass—did Aisling just need a new prescription, or did Lexie and I really look that much alike? And even if I was going to be able to grab hold of this life that had dropped into my lap like some gift from the universe, I was going to need to find out everything I could about this girl first. I couldn’t have come up with a better cover than a long trip abroad, and the embarrassment surrounding the reason why she’d been away meant no one would pry too much, too. But I would still need to be careful. This Lexie wasn’t like the others: my own creations, born of dead babies’ birth certificates and a few bits of sleight of hand. No, this was a real person, one who was presumably still out there somewhere. If I was going to slide into her skin, I was going to have to find a way to do it that didn’t send her barreling back into this life red-faced and outraged, demanding to know who in God’s name I was.
I started by finding a more permanent bedsit—out by the St James’ Hospital this time, in a flat full of girls with their first proper jobs. Then I spent those first few days walking, observing, memorising the city’s streetscapes well enough to come off as someone who had maybe been gone a while, but still knew the place, really. I got my hair chopped into a bob and let my roots start growing in jagged and black against the blonde. Then, after about a week, I got a job making coffee and sandwiches at a café in town called Caffeine—a homey place where the sweet smells of coffee and toasting bread twisted their way through the lingering cigarette smoke, and piano jazz poured out of the radio on the back shelf. Aisling stopped by every few days for a latte and a chat and a once-over to make sure I was still sane. As new beginnings went, I’d definitely had rougher ones.
Then one afternoon, Aisling popped in to the café between tutorials with a stack of pictures of the other Lexie’s old life. She was already on her second cigarette by the time she finally pulled them out, all feigned nonchalance and hey, look what I dug up, but her senses were heightened, like she was monitoring me for any sign that I might turn into a wibbling wreck. I gave the cream pitcher a wipe and set it on a towel to dry before going over for a look.
“Remember your one here?” she said, pushing one of the pictures toward me across the counter. “The Jamaican girl, with all the hats—what was her name? God, I wonder what happened to her. I haven’t seen her in ages.”
I followed Aisling’s finger to the upper right corner of the photo—a dark-skinned girl in a red cowboy hat—but my eye snagged immediately on the face of the girl next to her, and suddenly I couldn’t feel my feet. My own face, smiling my own smile up at me. Hair with soft black waves the exact colour of mine when it was fully natural. Pale skin with my own pronounced cheekbones. Identical brown eyes that looked straight into mine.
She pushed another picture at me. “This one was at the Porterhouse. It was Jack’s birthday, I think.”
It was me again—no, not me, this Lexie—pulling a face like she was trying to make me laugh. She had on a striped blue-and-white jumper that looked borrowed: it fell a little too loosely around her hips in a way that suggested it was someone else’s. It certainly wasn’t mine. My spine seized up. “Yeah, that was a good time,” I said vaguely, but my voice sounded far away.
There were six photos in all, and Aisling went through them one by one, narrating as she went, checking me carefully each time she laid one on the counter. Once again I was glad to have the breakdown to hide behind, because I was genuinely spooked. It wasn’t just the bizarre, déjà-vu sensation of seeing myself standing next to people I’d never met, in places where I’d never stood—it was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was an invisible thread stretching between me and this girl. As if at any moment, she was going to jump straight out of the pictures and tweak my nose: ha-ha, made ya look.
“I’d like two Americanos, please.” It was a guy’s voice, an English voice, with that perfect diction they taught in the boarding schools of the southeast. I tore my gaze away from the photos, looked up at him. He was young and pretty—no, more than pretty, he was the sort people compared to a Greek god without irony. But there was a sullen look about him, too, less 'lightning hurler' and more 'kicked puppy.' Aisling gave him an admiring once-over.
I reached over to the machine, pulled a shot of espresso. “Two Americanos for England, here, coming right up,” I said, my voice light and teasing. Aisling’s mouth stretched in approval.
The guy’s eyebrow arched, but he didn’t smile. “I’m as Irish as you are, technically.”
A little thrill of success shot through me. It was true, I was passing pretty well by that point—my boss at the café hadn’t even remarked on the accent. “Technically? Like, ‘the circuits of my brain were hand-crafted at Glen Dimplex’ kind of technically?” I gave him an enormous grin: broad and inviting and playful.
“By birthright.” His gaze was even, cool. “My father’s a Dubliner.”
Aisling’s gaze bounced between the two of us, pleased, and she took a drag on her cigarette. Egged on, I settled in to play make the narky git smile. “So what are you doing over—” I held up one hand while I pulled the second shot with the other. “No, wait, let me guess.”
A spark lit behind his eyes, and he pulled out a barstool, leaned against it. He gestured at me: go on. Over his shoulder, his girlfriend gave us the side-eye from their booth.
I grabbed the cups from the shelf behind me without taking my eyes off him. “Your da sent you over to work for the Irish branch of his company. Tame that Celtic Tiger.”
The spark went out. “No.”
That was the wrong track. I glanced at Aisling: she was frowning. “Too respectable? All right...then you’ve been busking outside Connolly Station, trying to find yourself.” I held up the pitcher of hot water, poured it into the cups. “No, wait, I know—” I waggled my eyebrows at the guy. “You’re a spy. MI-6. Am I right?”
The spark was back, and the corner of his mouth twitched. “Hardly. I’m studying English at Trinity.”
Studying, not taking. He’d acclimated, some. “Uh-huh. That’s just the sort of wussy cover story a real spy’d tell a stranger, you know.”
That coaxed the start of a smile out of him: a watery one, like he didn’t use it often, but genuine. “Quite,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
I grabbed two saucers from under the counter, set the cups on them, and slid them over to him. “All right, then, Trinity,” I said with an arch of a you-can’t fool me-eyebrow. “I promise I won’t blow your cover.”
He gave me a sniff of a laugh and a muttered thanks, gripped one saucer with each hand, and went back to sit down. His girlfriend peered over at us again as he slid one of the cups toward her across the table.
Aisling ashed her cigarette, took off her glasses, folded them in front of her. “You miss it, don’t you?” she said, her voice gentle.
For a sliver of a moment I thought she meant England, but of course this Lexie had never lived there. I shook my head. “How do you mean?”
“Just—the pictures.” She waved a hand over the lot of them, a sweep of a gesture. “They must bring back a lot of memories.”
Aisling’s intentions crystallised suddenly: she wanted me to cry on her shoulder, to let all the bad feelings out so this Lexie could start fresh. I suppose I could have done it, but I was starting to feel impatient with the breakdown story, ready to move on. “I do miss it,” I said finally. “I’ve been thinking about going back, finishing my postgrad.”
Aisling cupped a hand around mine, warm and moist. “That would be deadly. Long as you take it easy, like. It shouldn’t be too hard to get your student grants back if that’s what you decide.”
I planted an elbow on the counter and peered down at the photos. Most of them showed a girl who liked nothing more than she liked a party: her arm draped around the shoulders of the people who must have been her friends, her head tossed back in a laugh I could almost hear. But there was one closeup of her with a drink in her hand, her gaze penetrating, her expression cool, and it looked for all the world like it was aimed at me, like she was issuing me some unspoken challenge.
“What was I like back then?” It was a bold question, but Aisling wasn’t the type to take it as anything but a confidante asking about the days leading up to her own breakdown.
“You mean could I tell you were—” She cut herself off. She slid a hand around her glasses, gave them an uncomfortable squeeze.
I shrugged. “Yeah.”
“I couldn’t. I don’t think anybody else could, either.”
I grabbed hold of Aisling’s eyes with mine and let the silence stretch between us, making room for her to elaborate. There was a clink of a cup against a saucer in the background, a low rumble of a laugh.
“I mean, you seemed happy,” she finally continued, putting her glasses back on. “Maybe a bit too fond of a good time, if you know what I mean, but you were always cheerful, sure. That’s why I was so surprised when they told me what happened. You’d always seemed...resilient. Not really the type to land in hospital.”
I nodded, put on a wistful look, and picked up the closeup shot. This girl wasn’t a shadow, she was flesh-and-blood real. There was a wobble of unease in my stomach, followed by a little thrill.
“Ah, now, don’t be looking like that. You’ll be back in the swing of things soon enough.” She gave my hand a little squeeze. “It’s just gonna take some time. You’re already doing so much better, working a proper job, flirting with your man over there.”
“Thanks,” I said with a nod, and I meant it. The breakdown was a good cover, but without Aisling’s particular brand of hovering concern, those first few weeks would have been a lot bumpier. “I appreciate it,” I added, setting the photo down.
“Why don’t you hang on to these?” she said, gathering them all into a pile, pushing them toward me.
“What do I need a bunch of old photos for?” she said with a toss of her hand.
“Thanks,” I said again. I leaned across the counter and planted a kiss on her left cheek: a whiff of baby powder.
“I’d best be going, so. Stats lab.” Aisling tugged her bag up on her shoulder and gave me a wave. “Bye, now.”
“See you soon,” I said, mirroring her wave, and reached for the cream pitcher again. But as soon as she was out the door, I picked up the stack of pictures and rearranged them so that the closeup was right on top. You stole my face, the girl’s eyes said to me. And then you stole my life. So tell me, what are you planning on giving me in return?
I spent the next few weeks piecing together as many of the shards of the other Lexie’s life that I could find. At first it was just the occasional crumbs Aisling tossed me, but as January slid into February I ran into another girl from UCD and had a repeat of the conversation I’d had with Aisling at Rosslare: so great to see you, so sorry about that breakdown. The girl was self-centred enough that trying to get her to look beyond her latest shopping trip was a huge production, but eventually she let it slip that when she’d last seen me in the spring, I’d been saying something about transferring to Trinity for a change of scenery. It wasn’t a bad idea.
In the meantime I let Aisling’s Lexie photos drift to the bottom of a box on my bureau—I didn’t need her past, I had a hold of her present. I pulled Alexandra Madison’s birth cert and used it to open an account at the Bank of Ireland just off Grafton Street. I traced Lexie’s steps on the UCD campus: its own little coherent universe of cafés and pubs, restaurants and shops far from the heart of the city. From my bed at night I watched Irish telly, repeating the words and the melody of the sentences like a businessman with a Berlitz tape.
I also took a couple of days in the university library to speed through the psychology texts the other Lexie would have read for her various courses, but the more I read, the less I felt like pressing on. I thought about the sullen fellow from Caffeine who’d been studying English—now, that was something we could make work for us, the other Lexie and me. Alanna had been a feminist and a voracious reader of women writers back in San Francisco, and May-Ruth had always gobbled up everything she could get her hands on in her local library—history, literature, art—that her friends had kept telling her she really should have gone to college. Maybe my new Lexie could find a place for herself in that world.
“You had your think yet about maybe going back to UCD?” Aisling asked me one evening a few weeks later. We were standing against the wall of a beachside pub halfway between UCD and the city centre, one of those run-of-the-mill joints that’s all faux-leather booths and the sticky-sour smell of spilt beer and stale cigarette butts. The crowd was a discordant mix of studenty types and locals, and from the speakers Pink was imploring us to get this party started, just a shade too loud.
“I’ve actually been thinking it might be time for something different.” I exhaled a plume of smoke and gave her a knowing look. “I feel like I might have had enough of psychology for a while.”
She nodded, let that thought hang in the air between us for a moment. Then she gave me an encouraging gesture. “Off you go, so. What’s the plan?”
“I was thinking maybe English lit.” I cocked my head at her. “Not Shakespeare so much, though, something more modern.”
“Sounds gorgeous,” she said, her voice round with approval. She took a drag on her cigarette.
“I’ve been looking into Trinity.” I leaned across to the nearest table and tapped my ash into their ashtray. The two girls sitting there didn’t even look up. “They have a bunch of good lecturers. It’d be something new, just not too new, you know?”
“Right. A change, but nothing too radical.” Aisling’s face brightened. “Hey, isn’t that your man from Caffeine? The narky fellow—English, easy on the eyes?”
I followed Aisling’s outstretched finger to one of the booths against the long wall: it was that same shock of dark-blond hair, that same sullen look. The guy was sitting across the table from the girlfriend he’d been with in the café—a tiny thing with brown hair and a snub nose.
Just then he caught us looking and gave us a toss of his hand that could almost pass as a wave. In response, his whole table turned to face us in unison. They'd brought a couple of friends along, both of them guys: one who looked about fifteen, all angles and bones, and the other a big fellow with glossy dark hair and a square jaw and steel-rimmed glasses. They all gave us matching questioning stares. Aisling and I waved back.
Aisling pushed away from the wall, gave her jeans a brush with the back of her hand. “I’ve got to nip off to the jacks,” she said, the corner of her mouth quirking up. “You should go talk to him.”
I let my eyes travel over to the table along the wall again. The big guy laid an arm around the girl’s shoulders, and I realised I’d got it wrong: she wasn’t with the sullen guy at all. Then the younger fellow reached up and dabbed at the corner of the sullen guy’s mouth with a napkin, and the plot thickened.
“Hi.” A voice from right beside me, a guy’s. I glanced up at him: a green t-shirt with the name of one of those metal bands you can never quite make out, a couple days’ worth of beard growth, stringy brown hair that half-hung in his eyes. He was holding an overfull pint glass of beer. I didn’t know him.
“Hi,” I said, and looked back at the sullen fellow’s group. The girl gave the younger fellow’s arm a pat: casual, a bit too familiar for just-friends. Maybe everybody was with everybody. Out of nowhere, I was smiling.
I reached down for the ashtray again, ground out my cigarette. When I looked up, the metal guy was still standing next to me, leaning toward me, hovering. My smile disappeared.
“It’s been a while,” he said, and took a sip of beer out of the corner of his mouth. His expression was neutral, but carefully so, like he was waiting for me to make the first move.
He was expecting me to say something. I had no idea what. I let my eyes fall to the ground and travel slowly back up to meet his. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to remind me. I’ve been...away.”
I waited for the breakdown he’d heard about to snap into his mind, for the stricken look he’d inevitably give me in response. Instead he rolled his eyes. “Lexie—” he started, then let out a long, frustrated sigh. He leaned in close, keeping his voice so low I could barely hear it over the music. “Okay, maybe you genuinely don’t remember all the details, but you can at least stop pretending you don’t know I was there that night.”
I’m sure the look I gave him was blank—my mind certainly went blank right then, like the static-snow on a TV screen when the cable goes out. I’d been Lexie for well over a month by this point, and this was nothing like the reaction I’d got from everyone else.
He narrowed his eyes and kept going. “Jaysus, I saw you. You and your man—some scumbag of an underworld type, he was. That was some scary shit, Lexie. I amn’t gonna be forgetting that anytime soon.”
My brain was sizzling. “I—I don’t know what you think you saw, but—”
The guy snorted. “I know exactly what I saw,” he said, his voice rising. “You handed him an envelope that looked for all the world like a wad of cash, he handed you a package of God-knows-what. An awful enormous package. Big enough there was no way you were gonna be using it all yourself.”
My mouth fell open, but nothing came out. I suddenly had to struggle to breathe.
“Anyhow, I don’t know if you went to rehab or gaol or what. But I was hardly surprised when you went missing all of a sudden.”
My mouth snapped shut again. I was suddenly glad the music was so loud—at least it filled the silence.
He gave his hand a toss. “I mean, it’s grand. You’ve clearly got your head on straight now, so well done. There was nobody else there, and I’ve nobody to tell. I’m just saying there’s no need to pretend.” He leaned in toward me again, so close I could feel his hot beer-breath on my cheek. “The breakdown story’s a good one. You should stick with it.”
And then the guy’s back was turned, the conversation over. He walked over to the bar, half-turned toward me again, raised his glass, took a sip. Cheers, he mouthed, then looked away.
My mind started doing backflips. It’s a strange feeling, learning something new and shocking about a person: the puzzle pieces of all the various things you know start rearranging themselves in your mind, transforming into something else entirely. Unless this guy was some stone mentaller—and I had no reason to assume that—then sweet Aisling’s good friend Lexie had been mixed up in darker stuff than I’d ever been a part of, and I was certainly no saint. I glanced around for Aisling and found her talking to a couple of guys at the bar, wearing her best flirty smile. She’d never known, that was for certain. Whatever the other Lexie had been up to, she’d been good at it.
Then, all at once, a tension in my chest loosened, and the next breath I took felt like the fresh air of a wide-open plain, the Edge fading against the horizon. We had something in common, the other Lexie and me: we both had something we were running from. It was then that I knew with perfect, shining clarity that the Trinity plan was the right one. I had to get away from UCD, meet people who’d never known any version of Alexandra Madison. It was time to give not just myself a new start, but her as well.
Over in the booth the sullen fellow was smirking—somebody had said something funny, or maybe risqué—and the girl gave him a playful little slap across his face. The big fellow with the glasses took a sip of his drink and watched them with amusement, and the young guy laughed. A yearning flickered through me: something hidden, something powerful. Something old.
Back in the café I’d teased the sullen one, and it had almost made him smile.
In one long movement, I bounced across the pub to their table, grabbed an empty chair from the table next door, plopped myself down next to their booth. “Hey, Trinity,” I said to the sullen guy. I glanced around the table at the lot of them, giving them a toothy grin.
The young guy shrank back. The girl’s eyes widened, her mouth dipping in a frown. The sullen guy cocked an eyebrow at me, like a question. Then all three of them turned toward the big fellow, like they were asking him what to do next. Clearly no one had ever tried a move like this before.
I turned up the volume on the friendliness. “You gonna introduce me to your friends?”
“I don’t actually know your name,” the sullen guy said with a glance at the others.
“I’m Lexie.” I offered him my hand to shake. “Lexie Madison. And you are?”
He eyed my hand like it might bite him, but he let go of his whiskey glass long enough to reach for it. His own hand was warm, a bit sweaty. “I thought I was Trinity to you.”
“We’re all Trinity here, so we are,” the young guy piped up, in a voice that was one step shy of Scottish.
“And yet we’re not smart enough to stay in the city instead of trekking out here for crap music and flat beer.” The girl pulled a face at her glass, but drained it anyway.
The sullen guy picked up his glass and gave it a swirl. “The whiskey’s all right. You could always switch.”
“Sure, let’s do shots and then we can get out of here,” the girl said with a smirk.
“And then go where?” The young guy shook his head, nudged his rimless glasses up the bridge of his nose. “The library’s closed.”
“You live in a city full of world-class pubs, and the only place you can think to spend a Saturday night is the library?” The sullen guy smirked at him. “Has it ever occurred to you that this might be the reason why you can’t get a date to save your bloody soul?”
The young guy pursed his lips for a moment, injured, then relaxed. “I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking,” he quoted, lifting his glass in a toast.
On the surface it all sounded like moaning, but it was badinage pure and simple: the background chatter of a relationship with grooves already worn deep with the weight of time. They were a family, this lot, complete with a ready-made Dad in the fellow they kept looking to for approval and a healthy mistrust of outsiders. Something lifted from around my shoulders, and I suddenly felt kilos lighter. I pulled my jumper over my head, draped it over the chair-back, gave a little wiggle as I settled in.
The young guy threw a helpless look at the big guy, then looked at me again: resigned, a bit curious. “I’m Justin,” he said finally. “This is Abby,” he said, pointing at the girl, then indicated the sullen guy with an outstretched thumb, “—and this fellow you already seem to sort-of know is Rafe.” The big guy met my eyes through his glasses: his gaze intent and thoughtful, like he was trying to suss me out. I could almost see the thoughts whirring away behind his eyes like tiny gears. “And this is Daniel,” the young guy said.
“Fantastic,” I said with an airy toss of my head. “Now we can all quit saying we don’t know each other.”
Justin was clearly the friendliest, so I started with him. It turned out I’d hit the jackpot: the lot of them were in the English department together, and all planning to continue on for their PhDs. They had their respective terrains already mapped out: Abby had claimed Victorian class structure, lots of Pamela and chamber pots; Justin and Rafe had Shakespeare divided up between them, one with the sonnets and the other with the dramas; and Daniel hadn’t made up his mind, but he promised it would be fittingly stodgy and medieval. By the third round of drinks, when they were trading inside jokes about the relative advantages of their favourite historical periods, I put in a word for the postmodernists. They all looked at me with mock horror and promptly folded me into the debate.
By the end of the evening Rafe actually saw fit to slag me off, which I couldn’t help but regard as a triumph. I let out a delighted, bubbly laugh in response: a fitting Lexie-laugh, the laugh of a girl who’d had a long, hard year and was finally managing to find her feet. And it was then that Daniel smiled the sort of smile that looked out of place on such a big fellow: childlike and shy, like a little boy’s. There was a palpable shift in the air between all of them then, a relaxation of tension. From over by the bar Aisling looked over at us, visibly pleased with herself.
That spring I pounded out a 3000-word PhD proposal between shifts at Caffeine—women writers who hid their identities behind pseudonyms—and got admitted to Trinity’s School of English on the first go. Justin and I kept in touch by texting each other a few times a week for the rest of the summer, I made the lot of them free lattes once right before the term started, and then at the orientation in October we all sat together, like it had been planned that way all along.
I was nervous at first about this whole new world, but my thesis was nothing but fun, and when they let me in front of a tutorial group in my second year, the students turned out to be sweet, earnest kids who mostly did the readings and laughed whenever I said anything amusing. My real project, though, was my new friends. Over the course of two years I folded myself into their lives, so slowly and so silently that Rafe frequently remarked that he could hardly remember a time I hadn’t been there. There were changes: Justin came out as gay and filled out in the shoulders so that he didn’t look quite so impossibly young, Abby had a few stints of bad luck and had to switch bedsit three times. But there were some things that stayed the same, too: the way Daniel spoke like a textbook, Rafe’s narky exterior that served as a protective shell, Justin’s worrywart frown whenever one of us was upset, Abby’s quick wit. I learned to appreciate those things, grew accustomed to them.
We lived spread out like tree branches all over the city: me in my bedsit off the South Circular Road, Daniel and Justin in separate places over by the zoo, Rafe near Ringsend Park, Abby in the southwest by me for starters and then eventually in the northeast. It was only in the library that we could all be together, so we staked out our little corner straight away, and I came to rely on Justin’s head popping over the wall of the neighbouring corral to ask a question, Daniel’s hand on my shoulder to tell me it was time to break for lunch. They’d long been a family, and I let myself become that family’s new baby, coddled and teased. In fact, we were so close that it took the better part of a year before I consciously realised that none of them had ever told me a thing about their personal histories. It was as if their pasts had begun at the point where they’d all met as first-years. It was a curiosity, but also a relief; it made it easier not to bring up my own.
I hardly saw Aisling after that night at the beachside pub—once she’d fixed me to her satisfaction, it was time for her to move on like some latter-day Mary Poppins to another friend with problems for her to solve—but at night sometimes, alone in my bedsit, I’d take out her Lexie photos and look at them. In my mind’s eye I imagined this other me sipping cocktails on a beach somewhere, lying in the arms of some delectable semi-stranger, in any case far away from whatever unfunny business she’d fled Dublin over. Her expression in the closeup shot started to feel softer to me: less of a threat and more of a truce. She’d abandoned her nest of a life just in time for it to catch me when I’d almost fallen, and in return I would keep her secrets locked down tight. It seemed a fair trade.
Then, just before the start of our third year of postgrad, we met up at college and Daniel told us about Whitethorn House. He’d just inherited the property out of the clear blue sky from his great-uncle Simon, a man he hadn’t seen in twenty years. His cousin Ned had challenged the will in the hopes of selling the land to build some pet project of his, arguing that old Simon had been of unsound mind, but a judge had declared it valid, and the house was Daniel’s.
“It’s down in Wicklow, just outside the village of Glenskehy,” Daniel told us over lunch in the Buttery, once the lunch rush had died down and most of the overexcited new students had moved on. “Between the mountains and the coast, a bit closer to the former.”
“It’s gorgeous down there,” Justin said, between bites. “I’d a bit of a drive round that area a few years ago. The mountains are all kinds of green, and in the spring you can smell the gorse everywhere.”
“So let me guess.” Abby angled an eyebrow at Daniel and forced her mouth into a line, but there was a smile in her voice. “That’s what you were up to that week in July when we were all wondering where you’d disappeared to? The court case?”
“There was no sense mentioning it until everything was certain,” Daniel said, his voice matter-of-fact.
“That’s Daniel for you,” Rafe said, his mouth turning up at one corner. “Not only is his mind a steel trap, it’s the sort that shuts too tight to let out any information.”
Daniel skewered a lump of green beans with his fork. “It’s an old Georgian house. It’s more functional than impressive, to be honest, but there are three storeys, plenty of rooms. It’s in pretty terrible shape at the moment, but my uncle lived there for more than forty years, so it’s not as if it’s completely uninhabitable.”
Justin gave Daniel a thoughtful look. “How much do you think you’ll be able to get for it? Must be worth well over a million, a place like that. Maybe two.”
“Actually.” Daniel put his fork down, looked at each of us in turn, like he was about to say something profound. “I was hoping you might all consider living there with me.”
All my blood stopped running, and my head buzzed with shock. Everyone abandoned their food, stared at Daniel, and there was a long silence, like someone had pressed the pause button. “You’re not serious,” Rafe finally said, his eyes wide.
“I’ve never been more serious,” Daniel said without missing a beat. He looked around the circle at each of us again, letting his gaze linger just a little longer this time. When his eyes met mine, there was a fierceness there that made me think of an animal that had barely been tamed. “The transfer of ownership would likely take a few extra months, but there’s no reason we couldn’t start moving in straight away if we wanted to.”
Justin gave his head a shake, like a horse getting rid of a fly. “Transfer of—Daniel, what are you talking about?”
Daniel folded his hands against the table, steepled his fingers. “If we were all equal owners of our common home, then none of us would have the burden of rent to pay, which would mean that we would be able to invest what money we have in other, more meaningful things. Just think about that. We wouldn’t have to work just in order to have a place to live—Lexie, you could quit your job at that dreadful café—and that would give us all more time, not to mention more space to breathe. Justin, think about all the times you’ve complained that there’s been nowhere for us to just sit and talk in the evenings without going round some hideous pub none of us really enjoys—this would solve that problem, overnight.” He turned to Abby. “The house has a big garden, Abby—isn’t that something you’ve always wanted?”
Living rent-free, getting to see my friends all the time. It was hardly your conventional student living arrangement, but that only made it more appealing, and it wasn’t like I had to sign a mortgage or anything. A nervy excitement hummed through me: there was no downside to this. “Wow. That’s bloody fantastic,” I said. “I love the idea. Thank you, Daniel.”
He gave me a ghost of a smile—almost hidden, not quite—but the corner of his jaw was still clenched. He was braced for words of protest. He got them.
“Glenskehy—isn’t that past Wicklow town?” Abby asked. “How would we get up to Trinity every day? I mean, the holidays will be over soon, and I’m assuming you’re not actually saying we should all just quit working on our PhDs?”
Daniel swallowed. “Of course not. There’s no reason why our daily routine would have to change. During the day we would each continue to work in the library, meeting with our respective tutorial students and supervisors whenever that was required. And in the evenings we would drive home, together, to Whitethorn House.”
Abby pursed her lips. “But you and Justin are the only ones of us with cars. It’s at least an hour’s drive.”
“It’s forty-eight minutes in light traffic,” Daniel said, tipping his head back. “I timed it last week.”
Abby’s forehead creased. “That’s grand, but when is there ever light traffic in Dublin?”
“It’s not as if we’d just be sitting there,” I piped up. “We could get an awful lot of reading done in the car if we wanted to. And if Daniel and Justin are willing to drive...” I shrugged.
Rafe held up a finger. “All right, let me make sure I understand what you’re suggesting, here. You’re saying we would all be equal owners of this house, right?”
Daniel met his eyes. “That is what I’m hoping for, yes.”
“Which means we’d each officially own one-fifth,” Rafe added.
“Correct,” Daniel said with a nod.
“So what if one of us decided to sell?” Rafe narrowed his eyes. “Where would that leave the others? Out on the street?”
Daniel blinked, leaving his eyes lidded for a long moment, and I heard the breath leak out of him. When he opened them, he looked first at Abby, then at Rafe. “What I’m proposing here is an arrangement that would require an investment—not so much of money, but of time, energy, commitment.” He hesitated for a moment, swallowing. “If there were ever to come a time that one of us wanted to break that commitment—and while I certainly hope that doesn’t come to pass, you’re certainly correct in your assumption that it wouldn’t be impossible, Rafe—if that time were to come, then the rest of us would have no choice but to go along with it gracefully. In that circumstance, the likeliest scenario is that the rest of us would simply purchase that person’s share.”
“I don’t have the sort of money that could buy a share of a big Georgian house, Daniel,” Abby said, her voice sharp. “None of us has.”
“We’d all help,” I offered. “Between the five of us there are paycheques and trust funds galore. We’d manage.”
Daniel’s eyes were still on Abby. “You’re also forgetting that a single share wouldn’t be worth overly much in that circumstance. The simple fact is that it would be nearly impossible to find a potential buyer for only one share. Anyone outside of the five of us who wanted to purchase Whitethorn House would be hoping to do so for the same sorts of reasons that Ned wanted it: to raze it to the ground and build luxury apartments in its place, or perhaps a hotel.” He sucked in his cheeks in distaste. “For that, such a person would need us all to sell, or at the very least a total of three, and that’s much less likely. Any one of us who wanted to leave would therefore have no choice but to accept the price the rest of us were willing and able to pay.”
“So you’re saying that freedom always comes with a price.” Rafe said, his eyebrow arched. He was smirking, but his eyes were dark.
“Rafe,” Abby warned, her voice low.
“I’m saying that this arrangement would mean security: for the house itself, yes, but mostly for each of us.” There was a wounded look behind Daniel’s eyes, barely noticeable if you didn’t know him well. “Look, I’m not saying there are no sacrifices involved—there are, clearly. But it is my deepest hope that you will nonetheless all find them to be worth making.”
Justin slid his teacup around on its saucer. “But couldn’t you just rent to us?” He looked around at the rest of us, his eyebrows pressed into a confused crinkle. “Each of us knows at least half a dozen people who live with their friends in student flats, don’t we? Couldn’t it be just another take on that, just with you as landlord? I mean, we could always agree on some cracking good rate if you really wanted to be lovely, Daniel, but there’s no need for you to give us shares of your house.”
“I think—it seems I’m not making myself clear.” Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose with his finger and thumb, closing his eyes again, but when he looked up at Justin, his gaze was steady and strong. “If the house were to belong solely to me, then I would be the only one of us who would be able to find security in it. As Rafe has already suggested, I could decide to sell it at any moment, or toss all of you out in order to make a home there with someone else.”
Abby ran a nervous hand through her hair. “I don’t think either Rafe or Justin meant to accuse you of—”
“It’s not an accusation, it's simply realistic,” Daniel interrupted, his voice rising a bit before he caught himself. He pressed his lips together, then looked around the circle at us again, his eyes steady. “But I have no interest in a scenario in which some of us are dependent on the whims of a landlord, not even if that landlord is myself. This stroke of luck of mine is an opportunity for us to make a real home for ourselves. For all of us, equally.” His eyes lingered on Abby, whose face was the colour of freshly poured cement, and I thought about her thesis, all tripartite class system, all poverty and wealth. Then he looked back at Justin. “Isn’t that what you want, Justin—for us to be together, to stay together? Isn’t that what we all want?”
Abby’s mouth was trembling like she was about to burst into tears. Daniel reached across the table, cupped a hand over hers, gave her a smile of genuine tenderness. There was no romantic drama in it, the way boyfriends show off how chivalrous they can be with their girlfriends: it was just comfort. It was just family.
Something stirred in me, a long-dormant bud of longing yawning open. The base of my throat started burning, and then suddenly I was reaching out for the two of them, laying my hand across theirs, squeezing. Daniel’s smile stretched to include me, and then Justin’s hand was on top of mine: delicate, cautious. Rafe hesitated for a long moment, then leaned over to lay both hands over the top of all of ours, blanketing them in warmth. Abby’s barely-suppressed tears loosened, started trickling down her face.
Daniel’s smile dimmed, but it didn’t disappear. “I just have one thing I’d like us to consider.”
Rafe jerked his hands away. “I knew there would bloody well be conditions. How charming.” The dark look was back.
Daniel held up a hand: a reassurance. “It’s not a condition. It’s a proposition. But it is something we would all need to agree to.”
Abby withdrew her hand, slid a crumpled tissue out of her pocket, blew her nose. “What do you have in mind?”
“A simple rule,” Daniel said. “No pasts.”
Justin’s forehead creased. “No pasts...how?”
“If we were to live together,” Daniel elaborated, “we could undoubtedly look forward to a great many wonderful conversations. I propose that we agree that these conversations would not contain references to the past.”
Abby tilted his head at Daniel, intrigued. Justin and Rafe exchanged a sceptical look.
“Of course, none of us have ever displayed any sort of penchant for dwelling on the things that were or could have been, and that’s something for which I’ve always been profoundly grateful. But this would formalise that. If we were to simply agree together not to talk about our old lives, our families of origin, the many people we’ve known who are no longer present, then it would give us a chance to heal from those unfortunate periods in our lives, each in our own way. Furthermore, it would foster in us a collective focus on our present, and on our common future.”
There was a long, gentle silence. Abby was the first to break it. “Okay, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I for one would be relieved never to have to answer any questions about where I came from and who my parents were.”
I thought about what little I’d picked up about Abby from what the others had said in fleeting moments when she wasn’t around: foster families, a wreck of a mother still lingering in the background. I thought about the others, about the things they never talked about, even in private moments. I thought about my own secrets, and the other Lexie’s, locked away. “Dead right I’m in,” I said. “This whole thing is a terrififantastic idea, Daniel. You’re bloody brilliant for thinking of it.”
Rafe glanced at Justin again, then gave Daniel a smirk that was almost a smile. “I think you’re a nutter, personally, but it’s not as if we haven’t always known that. God help me, but count me in.”
Justin shrugged. “All right, then.”
Daniel leaned back in his chair, folded his hands. “I’m so glad you all want this, too.” His eyes were shining, and he gave us all this look of utter contentment, like nothing could ever trouble him again. “I’m so glad.”
I gave notice at Caffeine that same afternoon, and within three days we’d all moved in. There wasn’t much for me to pack—I’ve always travelled light no matter which name and which life I’ve worn—just a single suitcase full of clothes, some books, a few packets of smokes, a bottle of shampoo. I spread out Aisling’s old Lexie pictures to look at them one last time, then tossed them in the bin in my bedsit’s shared kitchen. They were hardly part of this new sort of Lexie-life, all gardens and walks in the countryside and abandoned rooms full of treasure.
It wasn’t until December that the paperwork went through to make each of us co-owners, but we all treated it as ours—all of ours—from day one. The house was the worst sort of tip for starters: we spent our first day there scouring the bockety fireplace to have some source of heat, and we followed it up with a supper of cold cocoa and toast burned in the fire for lack of a cooker. But with time and hard work we turned it, and us, into something none of us had ever quite let ourselves dream of. The relationship between the five of us had always been strong, but building a home together gave it form, and our routine solidified it. Each new day there was a cooked breakfast with toast and eggs and rashers, there were games of piquet or poker around the table on weekend afternoons after working in the herb garden. There were evenings with the lot of us huddled by the fire as the winter chill crept in through the windows, and starry-clear nights under a blanket on the patio’s swing seat, the sounds of Rafe at the piano pouring out through the open window.
For a long, long time I avoided doing anything about my own room: the horrible, lumpy bed that squeaked when you looked at it sideways, the wardrobe with the door that wouldn’t quite shut all the way. But one night the others showed up in pajamas with hobby knives and hot water for a wallpaper-stripping slumber party, and once I stopped laughing, I had to let it happen. That left me with scarred walls waiting for paint and the looming dread of inching ever closer to the Edge. Over the next few weeks, then, I worked myself up to trying out colours in broad streaks across one wall: dusty rose, yellow-orange, china blue. That wall froze me in my tracks whenever I caught sight of it, but sometimes I’d close my eyes and catch myself picturing the way the room could look in an imagined someday: a sturdy wooden bedframe, bookcases that reached from floor to ceiling, a fluffy duvet.
Then, on a rainy Saturday that felt like the last gasp of winter, we decided it was time to get rid of the ancient, scummy linoleum in the kitchen. We scraped and peeled all afternoon, leaving us all wrecked, but Daniel still insisted on going into town to pick up the flagstones for the new floor so that we could start installing them. Abby and Justin went along to help carry, leaving me and Rafe collapsed on the bare floor for a rest. I remember lying with my face pressed against the knotty wood, closing my eyes.
I remember, too, that all I wanted was a beer, and how funny it seemed to me in that moment that we never kept any around the house. “You know what would come in useful right about now?” I said, without bothering to open my eyes.
The floor next to me creaked as Rafe rolled over onto his side. “What’s that?”
I looked at him. “A Guinness. From the bloody tap,” I said, in a staccato rhythm, punctuating each word with a bang of my fist against the floor.
“There’s always Regan’s,” he said with a smirk.
“Ha-ha,” I said. I opened my eyes, gave his ribs a poke. We’d paid only one visit to our local, but we’d been silent-treatmented out of the place within half an hour. They hadn’t even been willing to take our drinks order. Uncle Simon hadn’t been popular in the village, and it turned out they weren’t mad about his family, either, or his family members’ friends, or presumably those family members’ pet goldfish.
“What? Don’t tell me you’re not up for a repeat dose of humiliation?” His eyebrow inched up.
“I suppose it’s easier dealing with them than dealing with Ned, or somebody else with a potential claim on the place. We can handle a couple of rude culchies when we need to. They don’t even know us.”
“We can handle Ned, if it comes to that.” He took a drag on his cigarette. “And it won’t come to that anyhow. The legal challenge to the will was the only real arrow in Ned’s quiver, and now it’s gone. He’ll hang about in the background for a while, maybe mope a bit, but eventually he’ll find some other spot of land to build his bloody hotel, and then we’ll never see him again.”
I thought about the rock that had been tossed through the sitting room window back in October, the graffiti that had appeared around Christmastime: FOREIGNERS FUCK OFF. I propped myself up by one elbow. “You think it was the guys round Regan’s, then—with the rock, and the graffiti? Not Ned?”
Rafe shrugged, extinguished his cigarette. “Seems likely. Ned’s a bloody moron, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience besides, but he’s far too up himself for tactics like those.” He flopped down again, flat on his back.
“Ah well, it’s just as well there’s no decent pub for miles—it’s not as if we have time to go anywhere, what with all we have left to do in this place.” I made a face.
“It’s looking better, though, isn’t it?” His voice was soft. “I mean, it could hardly look worse than it looked when we arrived, but this week I started feeling like it might actually look nice someday.”
“Abby’ll probably insist that we stop smoking in the house eventually, once the worst of the mess is gone. Make us go out on the patio.”
“We’d best enjoy this while we can, then.” Rafe dug his lighter out of the pocket of his jeans, tried unsuccessfully to light another cigarette without sitting up. A restless flicker of adrenalin spread through me, and I pawed the lighter out of his hand. It landed on his chest. I grinned.
He sat up, and the lighter bounced off his chest and onto the floor. I snagged it, jerked it away.
“Hey, give me that,” he said, lunging for it.
I leaned back, held it in the air, just out of his reach. “Make me.” I gave him my defiant Lexie-look, chin out.
He relaxed against the cupboards, rolled his eyes. I threw the lighter at him, grinning, and it bounced off his stomach and onto the floor. He grabbed it, lit his cigarette, took a puff.
I lowered myself against the floor. Rafe was peering over at me, studying me, and the corner of his mouth turned up. “Have I ever told you how much you remind me of this girl I knew from school? Heather, her name was. Heather Wyatt.” He pronounced her name like a word culled from some ancient language: carefully, lingering on each syllable.
I shook my head. “You’ve never even mentioned her.”
“No?” His eyes flicked over to me, then back away. “Well, you do. I’ve always thought that, from back before you even came to Trinity. That first afternoon in your café, even.”
We’d never talked like this—none of us had. The ‘no pasts’ rule made it forbidden, but it also made it exciting. I turned over onto my stomach, planted both elbows on the ground, looked up at him. There was a silence: full of question marks, but not uncomfortable.
“She wasn’t like anybody else I knew back then,” he said slowly, like he was stretching a muscle he never got a chance to use. “She liked to paint—landscapes, basically, but with these eerie, otherworldly colours. They were beautiful.”
I nodded. I swept my forearm across the floor between us, making space for him to continue.
“My father met her just the once—he hated her, of course. I’ve always wondered whether she was the real reason he pulled me out of Aldenham and enrolled me in Winchester College.” He tilted his head at me, and at the corner of his mouth was the start of a wry grin. “Which didn’t stop me sleeping with her before I left.”
“Did she deflower you?” I teased, reaching up to give his arm a poke. “Break your heart?”
His grin disappeared, and he shook his head. His eyes clouded over for a moment, like he was trapped inside a memory. “It wasn’t some great romance,” he said after a pause. “It was—we were friends. She was kind to me. I was...” His voice trailed off. He swallowed hard.
“What?” I prompted, very gently.
He shook his head. Whatever he’d been about to say wasn’t for sharing. He drew hard on his cigarette, then shrugged. “It was a bright spot in a pretty bleak year, and then it was over. Hertfordshire to Winchester’s an easy enough trip if you’ve got a car, but I was sixteen. I tried to keep in touch, but she wasn’t much of a letter writer. And that, as they say, was that.”
“Why did your father hate her? She sounds pretty fantastic.”
A shadow fell across his face. His shoulders stiffened, and he shrugged again, but this time it was more of a twitch. “Because he’s a wanker,” he said, his voice cold. “Because he’s a bloody bastard fuck. Haven’t you picked up on that by now?”
There it was again: that protective shell. My curiosity pricked. The silence returned, bigger and stronger, but this time I didn’t fill it. I held onto his eyes and slid a hand up onto his knee, gave it a squeeze.
His shoulders relaxed a bit, but not all the way. “She wasn’t going anywhere,” he said, his voice calmer. “College to do art, maybe, if she didn’t end up skipping higher education altogether and heading off to paint in some beach colony somewhere. But even the National College of Art and Design wouldn’t have been an option in my father’s world, not when there were pounds to be made and peasants to be trampled on his way up the ladder.”
I’d known Rafe for two years, and this was the most he’d ever said about his family. It was the house, it had to be—it was drawing us into its orbit with its spectre of permanence. Something flared inside me: a nerve, a warning. I couldn’t see the Edge from here, but it was always there. I let go of his knee, pulled my hand away.
“Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,” he quoted, and suddenly I could read in the droop of his face just how exhausted he was. “Anyhow. We probably shouldn’t be—you know what Daniel says. No pasts.” There was a flicker of annoyance on his face, then nothing. The silence swelled again.
I grinned at him, trying to lighten the mood, and gave him a little cuff on the arm with the back of my hand. “Is that what you are? A great man?”
He didn’t pick up the cue. “Most of the time I’m not sure what I am.”
There was something raw in his voice, something lost that tugged at me. Then there was a familiar catch in my own throat, and I knew if Abby and Justin and Daniel had been there, they'd have felt it, too. We were all lost, all five of us. We were lost together.
And then I was leaning over him, running the backs of my fingers down his cheek. His face was rough with weekend stubble, and he closed his eyes, his lips parted, drawing in a long breath I couldn’t hear. I moved down to his neck, traced circles around the tender hollow of his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as I felt him swallow. I took the cigarette out of his hand, ashed it against the floor, reached up to leave the butt on the counter.
Then I slid my hand lower, my pulse drumming in the base of my hips. I lingered at the button on his jeans, snaked a finger inside, slid it against soft hair. He sucked in a ragged gasp of a breath, and his eyes flew open, caught on mine. The air was thick with mould and sweat and the lingering traces of cigarette smoke. There was a quick burst of warmth in the air between us, like the strike of a match. He reached out, cupped both hands around the back of my head, and kissed me.
There was no smothering shadow of coupledom looming over it as there had been toward the end with Chad back in North Carolina, and it wasn’t playful and surprising like with the boy Mags had dallied with in Liverpool. It was just companionable and somehow inevitable: all tiny kisses along my jawline and laughter over balled-up socks and the tangle of work dungarees and ripped jeans at our feet.
The others came home a little over an hour later, and we all picked up where we’d left off: laying the stones, grouting, sealing. Rafe still called me a musical Philistine when I insisted on putting on an old Madonna tape to keep our energy up, and it was nothing but playful when I whipped a rag at his bum and let it snap, but there was still a new understanding between us: not a promise, just a secret.
Secrets shared always have consequences, though, and this was no exception. When my period didn’t come on the twenty-fourth of March, I suspected, and I spent three days holding my breath and crossing my fingers. Then, on one of those bright and sunny spring days that you hardly ever see in Ireland, with the others safely ensconced in their library stalls, I sneaked out and bought a pregnancy test.
I returned from the shop, locked myself in the library toilet. My hands shook as I ripped the packet open. I waited the requisite three minutes, held up the stick. Positive.
My fingers went red, then white around it. I thought of something inside me, growing into an unintended forever full of dust and decay and death, and it sent me skidding, out of control, toward the Edge. At the sink I turned the tap on hot as I could stand it, washed my hands, splashed some on my face. Then I crept back to our corner of the library. My mind was a frantic whirl, my heart going like hoofbeats: run run run.
Justin greeted me with a nod. “Daniel suggested we should all go eat lunch outside.” He slung his bag over his shoulder. “The others are already staking out some territory, it should be pretty crowded on a day like this.”
“Sure,” I said, forcing the tremor out of my voice. I followed him to the stairs and out the front door.
The lawn was already thick with students, but Abby had spread a patchwork blanket for us on the grass by the big tree, and she gave us a wave, summoning us over. Daniel had a sandwich balanced on a thin napkin, while Rafe was lying flat against the blanket, squinting against the sun, his right hand feeling around for the bag of crisps. It was warm for this early in spring, and the daffodils had sprung up overnight, dotting the lawn, but the sun was beating down on me like an interrogation light, making my eyes water.
“What a gorgeous day.” Justin said as he sat down, digging a pair of clip-on sunglasses out of his jacket pocket and nudging them into place with a click.
“You all right?” Abby asked me. “You look tired.”
I sat down next to her on one corner of the blanket. “I haven’t been sleeping,” I said, pushing out a sigh, letting my lower lip tremble a bit. “It’s this bloody thesis. I’ve been getting hassle for being behind.” That, at least, was true.
“Tell me about it.” Abby shook her head. “My supervisor’s never been anything but gorgeous to me, but all of a sudden he’s all tight-lipped and impatient. I think they must have all made a pact not to say anything nice to us in these last few months. They want us sufficiently scared that we’ll finish on time.”
Rafe snorted. “At least the two of you had your seminar presentations first thing in October, instead of procrastinating until December and ending up having to speak on the day after we spent all afternoon scrubbing FOREIGNERS FUCK OFF off our patio steps.”
Justin frowned. “Seriously. You should have been able to get a postponement for that.”
I observed them as they chattered away, thinking about Justin with his fretful protectiveness, Abby with her lists and her meticulousness, Rafe with his craving for love, Daniel with his distant but ferocious affection. I thought about how if it were up to them, they would want to keep it: simply add infant care to our common list of chores and carry on from there.
Then the thought bubbled up from inside of me, like a submarine coming to the surface: I could keep it.
I shrank away, but it was too late, the Edge was right there. I braced myself and waited for the adrenalin to start burning through me, for the shaking, the nausea, the film-loop of memory. That flash of sun so hot it burned the hairs on my skin, those shouts and groans from inside the house, that dark smell in the air, the smell of death.
It didn’t come.
The shock of it spread through me like a fire scorching dry land: quick and sharp and total. There was nothing there, nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d spent my whole life running away from the Edge, but now that I’d finally toppled all the way over it, it turned out there was nothing on the other side but smooth solid ground.
I took the thought out, sidled up to it, inspected it. I could tell Rafe, and we could tell the others together. They would be shocked, but it would be fine—no, it would be wonderful. I would finish my thesis before it came, and then we would all raise it together. Daniel would make a cradle for it, Abby would take it to the doctor, Justin would give it a bottle on the sofa while Rafe tickled its tiny tummy. And I would love it. I would love it like I’d loved nothing else, ever.
Something uncalcified from around my heart, and as the stray pieces fell away, I felt a rush of longing that would have brought me to my knees if I’d been standing. I could be more than just the bratty youngest in this makeshift family. I could be a mother.
I lay back against the grass halfway off the blanket, stretched my arms out, closed my eyes. I could see her: not a babe in arms, but a girl of two or three, stumble-running down a hill toward me in bare feet, with chubby, sun-bronzed arms and faded denim overalls with one of the straps undone. I could hear her ripple of a laugh, see her chiseled little face: not a mirror image, but still an echo of my own. I turned toward the sun, let it beat down on me in all its fierce certainty, sending the thought buzzing in my head: I could do this. And if I could do this, I could do anything, anything.
The four of them were joking about the time we’d gone to Regan’s, now, Rafe imitating the barman with a napkin in his hand, polishing his water bottle like it was a glass, pointedly ignoring us. Abby leaned over and put her head in his lap: helloooooo, can I please just have a driiiink? Justin was snorting with laughter, and Daniel was watching them contentedly, a light of amusement flickering behind his eyes. I sat up, my heart churning with a sudden, relentless emotion. It was these four people who had made me over into someone who could look across the Edge at permanence and still not fall off, it had to have been. I sat up and reached across to Justin, worked my hand into his. He smiled and gave it a little pat.
“Speaking of wankers who have bees in their bonnets about Whitethorn House.” Rafe set down the water bottle and tilted his head at Justin and me. “We forgot to mention that Ned stopped by yesterday when you two were at your late tutorial.”
Justin’s eyes flew open. “You’re joking.”
Rafe grabbed another crisp from the bag. “He stood at the front door with his hands in his pockets like a prat, asking whether any of us have reconsidered his generous offer.” He made air-quotes with his fingers, rolled his eyes. “He stormed off in a strop when we wouldn’t let him in.”
Abby’s eyes were flashing. “But not before saying that he didn’t know what our damage was, that we would choose to keep playing house together in some fantasy happily ever after instead of taking advantage of all this potential.”
It was then that it hit me with the strength of a speeding lorry, and my waist jackknifed, folding me forward into a twist. I couldn’t stay. This life was somebody else’s forever, not mine.
I pulled my hand away from Justin’s, my head spinning. As long as I was in Ireland as Lexie Madison, there would always be a chance that another girl with my chin and my eyes and my mouth would come back, and the jig would be up. I’d go to gaol for a dozen-odd crimes in five separate countries: identity theft, fraud, Chad’s stolen car. Or worse: the other Lexie would take advantage, leave me on the hook for her crimes—the drugs, and who knew what else. Either way I was a felon. And they didn’t let felons raise children.
“No matter how many times we think we’ve seen the back of him, he always keeps on turning up,” Abby said, making a face. “I hate it. That fellow needs a good arse-kicking.”
The jittery run, run, run feeling from earlier was there again, coursing through me, this time a thousand times stronger. I was going to need money, and not the kind of money that I could nick from Dad’s mattress or make by selling my flatmates’ TV set, either. Enough for two. Enough for forever.
And I owned one-fifth of a house worth two million euros.
Rafe was still talking. “It was his any of you that gave me the creeps. He looked around at each of us when he said it, too, as if that were a decision one of us could make on our own. The bloody cheek of it.”
Daniel looked thoughtful. “He did actually seem rather stunned that none of us went for it.”
My heart was punching at the base of my throat. Daniel had been right: an ordinary buyer would never be willing to buy just a single share. But Ned was no ordinary buyer. He was just determined enough—and just dumb enough—to make a go of this.
Rafe sniffed. “There was something kind of pathetic about it. He was so sure he’d be able to convince us with his superior persuasion techniques.”
Justin tossed a glance at the sky. “Oh, God.”
“I almost felt sorry for him,” Rafe said with a shrug.
“Don’t feel sorry for him.” Justin wrinkled his nose. “That man is disgusting.”
Abby elbowed me in the ribs. “You’re being awfully quiet.”
I looked over at her. My hands were clenched into fists in my lap, the muscles straining in my neck. She was staring at me. Then they all were.
“Because this sucks!” I yelled. I didn’t have to put the shake in my voice. “It sucks and it’s crap and it’s crapsuck! The house is Daniel’s—ours! Can’t people just accept that and leave us bloody well alone? For fuck’s sake!”
They looked so startled: four matching expressions of uncomprehending shock. Then they closed ranks around me, protecting, defending.
“Hey, hey, what’s this?” Rafe scooted over until he was right beside me, reached over, gave my ankle a squeeze. “Come on, it’s just Ned.”
“The judge gave the house to Daniel, fair and square,” Justin grabbed my hand again, squeezed it. “There’s nothing he can do now apart from show up at our front door now and again.”
“Is it the Glenskehy residents you’re concerned about?” Daniel asked, matter-of-factly. “Because there’s really no reason for us to work ourselves up about that. There have only been two incidents since we moved in, both minor. What happened at Regan’s aside, it seems likely at this point that their real grudge was against my uncle.”
A gut-punch of loss withered me, and I extricated my hand from Justin’s, flinched away from Rafe and Daniel and Abby. For the first time I wanted nothing more than to make someone my tether. These four people had weighted my world down at a single corner and tilted it all toward them, and I had let them: willingly, gladly, joyously. I hugged my legs to my chest, pressed my forehead against my knees, closed my eyes. It was all I could do not to toss my head back and let loose with a keening wail.
I’d left my old life behind all those years ago, wiped the canvas clean and fought the memories off with tooth and claw whenever they threatened. But right then, surrounded by the people who loved me most, I let them come: first in a slow trickle, like raindrops, then in a great rush of water. Craggy red rocks and deep blue sky and dust that worked its way into the seams of my clothes, and after sundown the bite of a chill so sharp my breath fogged the air. Dad and me on top of a chocolate-brown stallion, one of his hands cupped around my shoulder and the other holding onto the reins, my fingers woven through the horse’s mane. Mum, curls of dark hair coming loose from her pins, lifting me up to the pot by the stove, her voice rolling over me rich and familiar and alive: No, not that spoon, the big one, that’s right—now give it a stir—doesn’t that smell nice? Rich, hearty stew-smells and sweet soap-smells and indescribable Mum-smells, ones I’ve never smelled since.
Mum, oh, Mum.
Something hurt, a long way away. My mouth opened, but at first all that came out was a great rush of breath, like I’d been punched in the stomach. “It’s so cruel. It’s so unfair,” I heard myself say. It came out in my old voice, the oldest one of all, thick and broad and Australian. I lifted my head.
Rafe gave my ankle another squeeze. “Nice accent. Was that Henry Handel Richardson?”
Abby made a scoffing noise. “Isn’t it just typical that we still call her that now, even though we know perfectly well that it was just a pseudonym? Her name was Ethel, wasn’t it? Tell him, Lex.” She cocked her head at me and gave me an encouraging smile, like she was trying to coax a matching one out of me.
I snapped out of my daze, like a splash of cold water. I let go of my knees, sat up. “I’m sorry. God.” I gave my head a shake. “I’m just—it’s this thesis. It’s driving me off my bloody trolley.”
Rafe reached up, tousled my hair. “Good thing we like you a bit loony.”
His touch was soft and friendly, and it was scraping my insides raw. I scrambled to my feet. “It’s just—I’m behind. We’ve only got a few months left, and I’m scared I’m not going to finish in time.” I stood, brushing the grass from my jeans. “I think I need to get back to it.”
Justin stood, his forehead all worried creases. “I’ll go in with you.”
I was looking around, anywhere but at them. “No, I’m grand, really, I just need to get back to work. You finish your lunch.”
Justin hesitated, one foot off the blanket. “You sure? Because I can really—”
“I’m sure.” I started walking backward, toward the library. “I’ll see you all inside,” I yelled in their direction, and then I was gone before any of them could follow me.
Inside, I went back to the toilets, dug the pregnancy test out of the bin again, blinked at the little red plus-sign. I braced myself instinctively, my hand against the wall, but I already knew there would be no film-loop of memories, no wave of nausea. I swallowed, tossed it back in.
Then, when I turned around, I could see her in the mirror like she was standing right in front of me: the other Lexie. She was wearing the same expression that she’d worn in Aisling’s photo: penetrating, cool. Our truce was over, just like that, and this was the price she would be exacting for my long-term loan of the only life I’d ever wanted to keep. I didn’t have it in me to resent her for it.
I reached out, my fingers against the glass, tracing our eyes, our cheeks, our mouth. She had fled to build something new, and this one last time I would do the same, for me and for this tiny person growing inside of me. And finally, this time would be for keeps.
I didn’t have long—Justin’s worry would be pulling them inside, and then they’d be back in our corner of the library, wondering where I was. I took the stairs to the ground floor and the connector to the Arts Block and its phones. I didn’t have the number for Ned’s mobile, but I knew where he worked: an estate agent’s in Bray. I found the company name in the phone book with a finger, dialed. The receptionist put me through.
He answered on the second ring. “Hanrahan here.” He sounded like a little boy imitating his businessman father. I made a face. I should have known Ned would answer the phone like a bloody prat.
“Hi, Ned,” I put on a friendly smile, like he was there. “This is Lexie Madison.”
“Who?” In the background it sounded like a busy restaurant, or some bizarre mid-day party. I could hear somebody laughing, music playing.
“Lexie Madison. I’m Daniel March’s friend? I’m—” I tossed a glance over my shoulder. “—one of the owners of Whitethorn House.”
I could feel something shift, like the dip in the air when a plane lurches in mid-flight. There was a beep, then a rumble of static in my ear.
“Oh. Yah, right. Hi.” He was trying to sound nonchalant, but there was a sudden alertness in his voice, and his eagerness was coming through loud and clear. I could hear papers shuffling, and then the sound of a door closing. The room around him went quiet.
“Hi,” I said.
“So you’re, like, really one of the owners?”
“I am.” My empty hand balled into a fist, loosened.
“Wait, are you just going to give me a bollocking about the other day?” Ned’s voice was sharp. “Because I can’t be arsed—”
“No, no, wait, it’s not that,” I said, holding up a hand. “I’m phoning because—because I’m hoping we can meet.”
The line grew thick with static, and my heart constricted. I could hear Ned breathing on the other end.
“Are you saying you want to do business?” he asked finally, a thread of hope winding its way through his voice. “Because if you don’t, you’re just wasting my time, here.”
I closed my eyes. I stepped up to the Edge. I jumped off.