We're delighted to present an extract from The Promise, the new novel by Emma Heatherington, published by Harper Collins.
One terrible moment changes everything for Irish teenagers Kate and David. Brought together during the darkest of times, a spark of hope is ignited between them – a handheld in the darkness, a promise whispered. Neither of them will ever forget those moments.
It's another ten years before David and Kate meet in Dublin once more, and their lives are now so different. The promise they made to each other on that fateful day still binds them, but now they have so much more to lose. With so much at stake, have they missed their once chance at happiness?
'You look pale. You need to eat more.'
My tone is firm and disapproving but she shrugs and looks away as a familiar grip of despair clutches my stomach. She was always thin and small in stature, but every time I come here, she looks sicker and sicker, and I sleep less and less in return with worry.
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ she says, flicking back her wispy brown hair and avoiding my eye, playing with the fine gold chain around her neck. I’ve never known her without that chain, yet never took the time to ask why it was so special. Someday I’ll remember to. ‘It’s so hard to get used to the food in here but I’ll manage. You know what I’m like about my own cooking.’
‘Are you hungry?’ ‘I’m not hungry.’
I don’t believe her, so I pile up a mountain of crisps, fruit and a Snickers bar from my oversized straw bag.
‘Your favourite,’ I whisper. ‘It is. Thank you.’
She grips my hand and squeezes it so hard it hurts a little, but I haven’t the heart to admit so.
‘I’m really enjoying the course,’ I say with a burst of enthusiasm, trying to brighten her up a little by shifting the focus from her eating habits in this hellhole to my nursing degree out in the real world.‘I’ve just another few days before we break for summer, but I’ve the auxiliary job in the hospital to keep me going until we start again in September.’
I casually loosen from her grasp when I can and I play with the visitor’s card around my neck, the presence of it against my student’s blue uniform feeling as if it might choke me.
She nods and looks away, flicks her hair again, and I know what’s coming.
I know she can only absorb so much of what I tell her about real life before she quivers and breaks down in a flurry of panic and guilt and everything in between. She is like a hollow eggshell; a heartbreaking opposite to the fierce campaigner, the vocal activist and the role model I looked up to all my life.
‘That’s really . . . that’s really good to hear, love,’ she whispers.
Her lip trembles. Her chin wobbles.
‘And I still come home to the girls most weekends when I can,’ I remind her, keeping my end of the promise we made and talking so that she doesn’t have to. ‘We’ve devel- oped a bit of a routine where I help out with the wee one to give Maureen a break, so nothing to worry about, just like I promised you. Nothing at all.’
She stares so hard at the table that separates us that her eyes might bore a hole in it eventually.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘What on earth would we do without you? Thank you, Kate.’
If someone was to sum up my life lately in a sentence it would be just this from her always: What on earth would we do without you? I sometimes wish they could do without me more, but I know this isn’t going to last for ever and for now we just have to keep going. We have to keep paddling towards the future when this will all be a distant memory and we’ll laugh at how good it feels to be normal again.
It’s quite cold in here, just as I knew it would be, so I wrap my navy cardigan around me a little more tightly. The room is vast and green like a hospital, but with a distinct air of suffocation and the force of control that seeps from its shiny walls and echoing corridors. She is lost here, in an alien world full of rigid routine, where complex charac- ters from all walks of life move around, some riddled with regret and sorrow for their actions, others dead behind the eyes with denial, stunned with shock and horror at how they ended up here in the first place. Others strut around, their steely complexion fuelled by conviction, ruling the roost as days and months tick by in this bubble-like existence.
‘If you can just hold on—’
‘But this wasn’t meant to happen!’ she hisses, wringing her hands and glancing around to see who is watching.
‘I know that,’ I whisper. ‘We all know that. Don’t let this place break you, Mum. You’re going to be home soon and we can put all this behind us.’
She smiles, but I know it’s an empty expression just to please me. She is right. This wasn’t meant to happen. There isn’t a violent bone in my mother’s body but her profile and position made her an easy target for local paramilitaries to hide guns and drugs on her property, determined to keep a conflict going as the rest of us plead for peace.
Years of civil protests on the streets had gained her a reputation for speaking up and speaking out, yes, and her voice for equality and justice through a dirty war drew attention her way and ruffled the feathers of many, but to link her with a political crime she didn’t commit that sucked the blood right out of her, leaving her almost soulless and broken for months now was heartbreaking for us all.
The end was near, though. If she could just stay strong for another short while, this would all be over soon.
‘Have you seen your dad much?’ she asks, changing the subject, her voice shaking now so badly, telling me the big breakdown moment I’m expecting can’t be too far away.
Now it’s my turn to force a smile and try to stay positive. ‘Yes, yes, I have seen him quite a lot lately,’ I tell her. ‘He’s keeping well. He was asking for you.’
She looks away and I see how her eyes glisten at the very mention of him. This is as hard for her as it is for me, I know that.
She inhales. What I can’t tell her is just how angry my father is at the dogs on the street who know my mother has been set up. What I can’t tell her is how we’ve argued that he mustn’t get involved or he could do something stupid in revenge and end up behind bars too.
Both my parents grew up in an era where shootings and bombings were the norm, where Protestants and Catholics lived at war with each other. While my father has his own strong political beliefs due to his own experiences growing up during The Troubles, he has never in all my years on this planet taken those beliefs into his own hands. I don’t want him to start now. He might have his own issues with those he sees as being on the ‘other side’ and has been cautious of their motives, but to stand up now to the bad boys in our own community who have wronged my mother is a path he dare not go down – for his own safety and for all of ours.
‘Did he give you money?’ she asks me.
‘He always gives me money when I see him,’ I reply. ‘He’s a lot more financially supportive these days. I think he knows he’s a lot to catch up on.’
She takes it as it is, and I can sense her mind scramble as her thoughts build up into the inevitable crescendo. I can tell by her short breaths, by the shake in her voice, by her lack of eye contact, by the way she fidgets with that chain.
I often wonder if it makes her better or worse to see me like this once a month, on the other side of a table with other people lined up like ducks beside us, nodding and talking in stilted hushed tones.
‘And your sister?’ she asks. Her eyes fill with tears now.
I know this is killing her, stuck in here so helpless and trapped, unable to do the things she is used to doing around her own home: making sure Shannon gets to school every day without a fuss or an argument, or that my sister Maureen doesn’t go off the rails and disappear again like she used to.
‘I’m keeping a very close eye on them both,’ I say, as though I’m reading off a script, ‘and look, before you know it, we’ll have all this sorted and you’ll be back home again where you belong. It’s nearly over. You’re so nearly there.’
We sit in silence, our eyes skirting the room, finding eye contact with anything but each other.
I hate this part. I dread this moment, these few seconds before she breaks down as the pain of the life she has left behind hits her.
I wait. I know it’s coming, and when it does, even though I’m prepared, it just never gets any easier.
An apology is first as usual.
‘I’m so sorry, baby!’ she says, gulping back a wave of emotion that threatens to choke her and stabs me in the heart at the same time. ‘I had no idea the place was being used to hide guns! And I’ve never touched drugs in my life, you know I haven’t! It goes against everything I’ve always stood for and—’
‘I know, Mum. I know,’ I whisper. ‘Everyone who knows you believes you.’
She looks so tiny and pathetic, so I try my best not to frown or crumble as we repeat the same patterns from before. Her voice gasps and peaks, like a squeal almost, so much so that other visitors and inmates look our way, then shuffle back to their own business. The prison guard shifts from one foot to another and folds his burly arms.
‘I’m so sorry to put you all through this, my darling! I’ll never, ever let anything like this happen again to our family and—’
‘Hush, please. Please don’t cry. I already know all of this,’ I tell her softly, taking her hand, all the while feeling the stare of a silver-haired woman across from us who is gaping in our direction with her mouth open. ‘You don’t have to keep saying it, now take a deep breath and try to relax. They’ve promised us peace and there’s great work going on out there. You’ll be home sooner than you think. You’ll see.’ I grip her hand tighter. I want to fidget, to do something with my hands to occupy my mind so I can hold in my tears and not add to any of her mounting fears that seem so overwhelming every time I come to see her. I close my eyes and breathe, just like I’ve asked her to do as well. I won’t let her down. I can’t let her down. I try to remember something, anything to make her feel even just a little bit better.
‘I bought Shannon the most beautiful new dress in Belfast this week,’ I announce, shifting in my seat to change the energy. ‘I got it for her birthday. Oh, it’s so pretty and she looks like a real princess, or so she keeps telling us every time she tries it on.’
She lightens up immediately and so easily, like a crying child distracted by a shiny new toy. She closes her eyes tight and tilts back her head so that her eyes face the low ceiling. ‘Describe it to me,’ she tells me, smiling broadly as she waits. ‘Tell me every single detail and I’ll picture it all in my mind. Start with the colour and take it from there.’
And so I do as she asks me, and with every word I say about the pretty pink dress and the beautiful chiffon and the way it flows when my niece twirls around to show us as she spins around on the tiles of the kitchen floor, I battle – as I always do – to not cry in here in front of my mother. ‘And the little sequins glimmer on the neckline when she stands under the light,’ I whisper as tears stream down her face. ‘And she sings, and she dances, and she can’t believe she is going to be six years old soon. And she misses you so much. We all do, Mummy. It won’t be long till you’re home. They say it should only be another few months now and we’ll be waiting for you with open arms, no matter how long it takes.’
She nods so slowly, soothed in her own world, so I push back my chair and I stand up ever so quietly and leave her there without saying goodbye, lost in thoughts of her precious little granddaughter dancing and singing as she counts down the days to her birthday, while my mother counts down the days to her own freedom.
‘Goodbye Kate, my angel girl,’ she whispers without opening her eyes. ‘You’re a good, good person. I’m so very proud of you.’
It’s always too painful for her to watch me walk away towards the door so I know she’ll keep her eyes shut tight until I do.
My mouth is so dry I can’t reply, so I walk without looking back, sensing the silver-haired woman from before is staring at me again. When I hit the fresh air outside I stand against the wall in the summer sunshine, and I cry and cry for what we have become.
I may not be a prisoner like my mother is, but I want to escape this all so badly.
I can’t wait to get out of here.
The Promise by Emma Heatherington (published by Harper Collins) is out now.