Read below the

opening chapters of

The Belfast Girl. 

CHAPTER ONE

JANET—BELFAST

DECEMBER 1993

 

 

 

Janet wondered what it was like for other women when they held their child for the first time. She had always imagined a smiling nurse. Joy rolling through her exhausted body. Tom in scrubs, sweaty and beaming at her side. The two of them staring at the small bundle in her arms. A tiny hand in hers.

But Tom wasn’t even looking at her or the baby. He was 10 feet away, standing with a skin-headed man in a leather jacket, counting out bills.

And the baby wasn’t swaddled in blankets, gazing in silent awe at her new world. She was screeching and flailing around in Janet’s arms. With her tiny fists, Kathleen pounded Janet’s chest. With each punch, Janet felt the sting of her real message. If she could speak she would be saying: I reject you. You are an imposter. You are not my mother.

She rocked Kathleen from side to side and repeated quietly, ‘It’s ok. Shush. Everything is going to be ok.’ Kathleen simply screamed back at her fighting, with all her might, to escape. She wanted back to the girl who was standing a few feet away. The girl was perhaps half Janet’s thirty-six years, maybe even younger, and she and the baby had the same oval green eyes, rimmed red with tears.

‘Did you bring any of her favorite toys with you? Maybe that might help distract her,’ Janet said.

‘No, I didn’t. Perhaps I should take her for a minute, just to calm her down.’ The girl reached out for Kathleen, and Janet immediately stepped back, beyond the girl’s reach. 

‘It’s fine,’ Janet said.

The girl’s arms fell at her sides. Janet turned away, humiliated by her own selfishness. A better person would have let her comfort the baby. But Janet could not allow the girl to hold her daughter again. She could not risk the girl changing her mind. 

The girl cast her eyes around the room. ‘Didn’t you bring a buggy?’

‘A what?’

‘A stroller,’ Tom said, looking up from the count.

‘No…we do have a car seat…but I thought I’d just carry her from here to the car.’

‘Oh, it’s just she likes to be rocked back and forth in her buggy.’

Janet should have known that. All kids love their strollers. She should never have let Tom convince her to wait until they got home to New York before buying one. “What’s the point?” he’d said. “We’ll be in the car and then on the plane, soon as. We’ll have no time for strolling around Belfast anyway. The faster we’re out of there the better.”

The girl reached out and stroked Kathleen’s chubby little arm. ‘It’s ok. There’s no need to be frightened.’ 

Behind the girl, the father stood biting his fingernails. Slim, pale, and red-haired, he was the picture of Ireland. He kept glancing at the door and then at his watch. Janet wondered if he was waiting for someone to burst in or if he was just desperate to leave. She studied the young couple, in their jeans and sweaters, the boy with teenage acne splattered across his chin, his hands in his pockets shifting nervously from one foot to the next, the girl holding a screwed up tissue in her hand, her face contorted, trying to fight back her tears. They were just kids. Why did they have to sell their daughter? How desperate were they? Didn’t they have parents of their own to help them?

‘What will you tell your families?’ Janet blurted out. Tom looked over and scowled. He had warned her to let him do all the talking. 

‘We’ll tell them she’s been adopted by a good family. She is going to a good family, isn’t she?’ the girl said.

‘You have nothing to worry about. She will never want for anything.’

‘I just want her to have parents that love her.’

‘Ouch,’ Janet winced as Kathleen tugged angrily on her earring.

The girl stared at Janet, examining her, and Janet immediately averted her gaze. She didn’t want to see herself reflected in the girl’s eyes. She knew what she looked like—an incompetent fool who had no idea how to soothe a baby—a woman so inadequate she couldn’t do the one thing women had done since the dawn of time—a complete failure of a woman.  

 Then Tom announced it was time to go. Ever the businessman, he paused to shake hands with the skin-headed guy on the successful conclusion of the transaction. He lifted the car seat and made for the door. 

‘C’mon, we should be leaving,’ he said. 

The girl suddenly started to hyperventilate, a red rash raced across her forehead, and tears started to roll down her face, fast and thick.  It was as if she had just realized what all this had been leading up to. The boy put his hand on the girl’s shoulder in an awkward attempt to comfort her. 

Tom, already at the door, motioned for Janet to follow. But she hesitated, staring in shock at the strange swirl of emotions held within the girl’s eyes—fear, torment, and just a hint of relief. She looked to Tom for guidance. 

‘Love, the car’s waiting downstairs,’ he said. 

‘Just go,’ the girl spluttered between tears. 

Janet’s shoulder muscles loosened, ever so slightly. They were really doing this. This young couple was really giving them this beautiful, healthy child to bring up as their own. Janet almost giggled in relief, catching the inappropriate laughter before it could escape.

She had never fully believed this moment would come.

When they had started IVF last winter, after nearly two years of disappointments, Janet had thought it was a step forward. IVF had a certainty about it. The moment of conception would be planned, with scientific precision, taking place in the controlled environment of a laboratory and not within the messy accident of her body. That’s the story Janet had told herself as she had endured the invasive scans, with a big camera pushed up inside her and moved forcefully around, and the daily injections, the bloating, the headaches, the nausea, the mood swings, and the painful harvesting of her eggs. Throughout that first painful cycle, Janet accepted all the indignities with grace and joy, for each one brought her closer to a child of her own. Not once did she imagine she could put herself through so much and not even have an embryo to implant at the end of it. But that’s what happened on the first cycle, and the second and the third. “Poor quality and incompetent embryos,” they said. “Another baby lost,” Janet heard.

When their fourth cycle finally produced so-called “quality embryos,” Janet had felt hopeful once again. But it had been short-lived. Even with a healthy embryo inside her, Janet had failed to get pregnant. And she failed again next time round too.

The turning point had come in the pressure-cooker of the doctor’s office after that fifth disappointment. With a mass of miracle babies staring down at her, their photos tagged to the wall with notes of gratitude from their joyful parents, Janet had pressed the doctor: ‘I don’t understand, you keep saying I’m fine. So why didn’t I get pregnant when we, finally, implanted fertilized eggs?’

The doctor had shrugged. ‘We cannot always explain everything,’ she had said in her heavy Polish accent.

 ‘But you said the problem was Tom’s sperm swim too slowly. We got the sperm into the eggs and we’re still not pregnant. I don’t understand.’

‘Yours is what we call unexplained infertility,’ the doctor had said, as if that were an explanation. ‘There are no guarantees. I am afraid we simply must keep trying.’

Janet had stared at her in disbelief, and the truth of the matter had suddenly hit her. It was all just luck. Even the best fertility doctors in the world were mere children tinkering with a complex technology they could barely understand. With all their jargon and protocols, with words like: “controlled ovarian stimulation”, “FSH levels”, “luteinizing hormone surge”, and “hCG triggers” they tried to give the illusion of knowledge and control, while, at the same time, they kept their fingers crossed behind their backs, hoping their dabbling would bear fruit.

A week later, Janet had called the adoption agencies during her lunch hour to request some brochures. And afterwards, she had cried, locked in the toilets at work, for over an hour. She needed to grieve. Again. To accept that she would never share a genetic connection with a child of her own and to sacrifice the part of her which still hoped for that reality.

But when those first brochures had arrived in the mail, with pictures of smiling families on the front and detailed terms and conditions at the back, Janet could never have imagined this: a suitcase full of cash; a transatlantic flight; a dingy motel room in Belfast; a teenage girl in tears; Janet with a boisterous ten-month-old in her arms, about to walk away with her.  

 ‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ Janet now whispered to the girl. The girl turned away, towards the boy, as a strangled howl exploded from deep within her. At this, Kathleen started to wail even louder and tried to fling herself out of Janet’s arms. Shell-shocked, Janet almost dropped the child. So she tightened her grip, squeezing Kathleen to her chest, encircling her with her arms as if they were a ring of steel. The boy pulled the girl further into him and murmured soft words of comfort in her ear. He didn’t even glance at Kathleen. 

Janet stayed rooted to the spot, watching them. Fascinated. Unsure what to do next.

‘C’mon, we don’t have time for this.’ Tom’s bark shook Janet to life. ‘Let’s go. Now.’

Janet took one final look at the young couple and then turned and fled.

Kathleen screeched and beat Janet as she carried her along the narrow hallway. The elevator took an age to come. Finally the doors opened, and Janet and Tom stepped inside with Kathleen. For the first time ever, the three of them were alone together. Janet was shaking. Tom was jabbing the elevator buttons, cursing how slow it was. Kathleen looked terrified. This was not how the first moments with their daughter were supposed to be.

Inside the car, the clock on the dashboard said 4pm. They had been in the motel only half an hour but, in that time, the white afternoon sky had turned a dark grey. Outside, the streets of Belfast rushed by in a blur, and Janet prayed they would get out of Northern Ireland safely.

Like a common thief making a getaway, she kept glancing behind, searching for the police. Wild visions of sirens, hand-cuffs, interview rooms, prison, and, worst of all, some uniformed policewoman tearing Kathleen from her arms flooded Janet’s mind. It was an irrational thought. She knew that. The police wouldn’t come after them. After all, the man driving the car was an off-duty officer—one of the dirty cops on Geary’s payroll, apparently. 

When they pulled up outside their hotel, Tom turned around from the front passenger seat. ‘Me and you can go get the bags, Trevor here will keep the car running and watch the baby.’ 

‘No,’ Janet replied. ‘You and Trevor go. Everything is already packed. You don’t need me. I want to stay here with her.’ After all this time waiting, there was no way Janet could step out of the car and leave Kathleen behind.

‘Fine.’ 

Tom snapped at Trevor to pull over into a parking spot and ordered him out to help with the luggage. Doors opened and a blast of cold air rushed into the car.

On the radio, the newscaster announced that, after another year of bloodshed, there was some optimism in Belfast today. He said yesterday’s date of December 15th, 1993 would go down in history as the day the British and Irish Governments finally recognized the right of the people of Northern Ireland to self-determination. A commentator was saying self-determination meant the people had ‘free choice over their own actions without external compulsion.’ It sounded completely unrealistic. No one has complete freedom to decide the shape of their lives. Everyone is at the mercy of some external force, Janet thought.

She looked at Kathleen who was still screaming with her entire body. Janet felt the world shrink around her. What was happening outside no longer mattered. Janet’s only concern, now, was for her family’s safety. She had never before thought of her and Tom like that, as a family. However, their two had just become a three. Finally, people would look at them and see a family, rather than a childless couple approaching their forties, with hope of ever being parents fading fast. 

She turned her full attention to Kathleen, filtering out the excited discussions of the radio presenters and all talk of the Downing Street Declaration. She had no idea, nor did she care, what this famous document meant for this place of Tom’s birth. She only cared about what it meant for their escape to the airport where a private plane was waiting to take them to Manchester. Following this supposedly historic announcement, security in the city was tighter than usual. Thankfully, she didn’t have to worry about passport control tonight. Even though they would cross a sea from one island to another, they would still be in the same jurisdiction. That would not change anytime soon, no matter how many petrol bombs were thrown in Belfast tonight.

It would be tomorrow, at the airport in Manchester, when they would have to use their fake passports. That morning, Janet had quizzed Tom about it. Was he sure it would work? Would the forgeries stand up to scrutiny? What would they say if they were questioned? He had lost his temper and told her if he was capable of buying a baby, he was capable of buying that baby a passport.

‘Let’s just say, the man I used forges papers for people who have gone on the run, and they’ve run far and wide. They’ve sauntered right past border control officers that should be looking for them. No one will be looking for us.’ His voice became softer.  ‘We’ll be ok. We are not criminals. OK, this isn’t exactly a conventional adoption, but that young couple wants to give up the child as soon as possible. If we’d gone through an adoption agency, there would have been red tape. I assure you, when we go through immigration, no one will bat an eyelid.’

 In the car, Janet stroked a scalding tear from Kathleen’s cheek.

‘Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,’ she sang in an attempt to quiet the baby.  Her mother always said she had an Irish voice, just like her grandmother’s. Janet was one quarter Irish. The rest of her family was a mix of Swedish, German and Italian. With auburn hair and grey eyes, Janet had always thought she looked like Greta Garbo, but without the dainty bone structure. Kathleen stared up at her suspiciously, the green in her eyes standing strong against her dark mop of black hair. She looked nothing like Janet. But maybe, just maybe, people would think she took after Tom’s dark-haired side of the family.

‘Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,’ Janet sang over Kathleen’s screams. ‘Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral.’

Kathleen suddenly paused for breath and let her taut face unfurl. Confused. Still teetering on the edge of tears. Then she scrunched up her nose once more. Janet braced herself for another angry onslaught. Kathleen opened her mouth into an O and this time…this time she giggled. As she did so, she reached over and grasped Janet’s thumb possessively. And with that tiny gesture, the full weight of the motherly love that Janet had been storing up for years came falling down at Kathleen’s feet. I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

At Belfast airport, Kathleen clung on tight and nuzzled her head into Janet’s shoulder as she allowed herself to be lifted from her car seat. Janet glanced over towards Tom. His eyes were misty and his smile was full of surprise and relief. 

Together, the three of them walked directly from the car to their private plane, without having to enter the Terminal. Inside the aircraft, Tom fussed putting away the luggage, and Janet sat down with Kathleen and took out a plastic Tupperware of fruit. She held out a piece of apple. Kathleen took it and shoved it into her mouth. Before she was even done chewing the first slice, she lifted her hand up demanding another. Janet offered her a second piece, which Kathleen immediately grabbed. ‘You must have been hungry,’ Janet whispered. 

If it were not for this simple act of handing her fruit, Kathleen would have starved. She was now wholly dependent on Janet and Tom to fulfill even her most basic needs. Janet shifted in her seat feeling the shape of her body stretch to accommodate this new reality. It was a strange, delightful and overwhelming feeling to be so important, to be needed so. 

The doors closed, the engines came alive, and the plane started to move. Effortlessly, they rose up into the night air. Janet felt a swell of excitement surge from somewhere deep within. She and her family were heading home, together. Tom came over and stroked Kathleen’s forehead and kissed Janet. 

‘She’s a beautiful wee thing, isn’t she?’ he said. 

Throughout the short flight, Kathleen clung to Janet, as if she was the only one she trusted in this strange new world. By the time they got to the hotel at Manchester airport, Kathleen was dozing in her arms. In the room, she drowsily took a bottle and then fell back asleep. 

All night, Janet and Tom lay wide awake, side by side, not speaking, listening to Kathleen in the hotel cot. Even though the sounds of her gentle breaths filled the room, Tom still got up four times to check on her. He smiled over at Janet in the half-light and whispered, ‘She’s perfect.’ 

The next morning Janet and Tom got up early. They were both keen to get to the airport and start their journey home to America. Tom turned on the television to the news. 

‘I want to let her sleep as long as she can, please switch that off,’ Janet said.

Tom put the TV on mute and went back to getting dressed while Janet made a bottle for Kathleen. She carefully measured out the formula, trying to remember how long it should take for the milk to be cool enough for Kathleen to drink. Over the past few years Janet had read every fertility book on the market. She always promised herself she would read the parenting books when she got pregnant. She hadn’t wanted to jinx things by reading them before. She had thought nine months would be enough time to learn the basics. As it turned out, she’d had six weeks from first finding out about Kathleen until now. Despite the years of waiting, in the end, her gestation as a mother wasn’t nearly long enough. She lifted the bottle and shook some milk on to her arm. It was still scalding.

‘Fuck!’ Tom suddenly cried out.

‘What?’ 

‘Where’s the remote?’ He leapt on to the bed, searching for the remote control under the blankets. 

‘What’s wrong?’ 

‘Nothing, just…’ he jumped up and rushed towards the TV socket. But Janet saw it before he got to pull the plug.

On screen was a young man with jet-black hair and blue eyes, probably no older than twenty. He was pale and hollowed out looking. At the bottom of the screen the ticker read: “Father implores child’s kidnappers to return her safely”. 

‘No,’ Janet said. ‘It can’t be.’

There, next to him, tissue in hand, sat a young woman dabbing her eyes. They were the same oval green eyes that were staring up at Janet from the crib. The same eyes that had stared into Janet’s yesterday afternoon. On the TV, the girl had her arm around the father in support. 

‘I’m going to fucking kill Geary,’ Tom shouted. 

‘Did you know about this?’ 

‘No, of course not. I would never have let him convince me if I didn’t think both parents wanted it.’ 

‘But who was that boy yesterday? She said he was the father.’ 

‘I don’t fucking know.’ 

Janet caught sight of the remote control on the bedside table. She grabbed it, frantically looking for the mute button. Tom yanked it away from her. 

‘No.’ 

‘Turn it up Tom, I want to hear.’ 

‘No. We are not doing this. We have a plane to catch. I’m not having you sitting here watching this, getting yourself all wound up.’ 

‘But she sold us their baby and didn’t tell him! The police are looking for this child.’

‘They’ll be looking in Belfast, not here. If we get out of England today, we’ll be ok.’ 

‘But we can’t just fly out as if nothing’s happened. This changes everything.’ 

‘What, so you want us to give her back? And how do you suppose we do that without getting caught? What would we tell the police? Here, sorry officer, we were going to buy this baby, but now we’ve seen her Daddy crying his fucking eyes out on TV, we’ve had a change of heart. So here she is, and we’ll just be on our way. Oh, and would you mind asking that psycho mother for our money back? No way, darling. If we take her anywhere near Ireland they’ll be consequences for us.’ His voice was low. When he was angry, he reverted back to the menacing Belfast accent of his youth, stripped of all the mid-Atlantic charm he had worked so hard, over twenty years, to cultivate. 

Kathleen started to whimper and stretched up towards them. Janet lifted her out of the cot. 

‘Really, what do you want us to do? I don’t see a way out of this. But, please, enlighten me if you do,’ Tom said. 

Janet looked at Kathleen, smiling in her arms, with the tears of a moment ago still rolling down her face. She glanced at the boy on TV. It was now clear from where Kathleen’s jet-black hair had come. 

‘But he must be going wild with worry,’ Janet said. Tom did not respond.

Janet saw the three of them reflected in the mirror. Even Kathleen was still. They looked like actors frozen in position at the end of an act. In those seconds, all possible avenues for where their story might go were open. But a tableau lasts for only a moment before someone shifts and the action begins again.

Kathleen reached up and grabbed Janet’s nose.

‘What are you doing?’ Tom cooed, approaching the two of them. ‘Are you trying to steal mommy’s nose?’ 

Kathleen looked at him and started to giggle, and then she reached up for Janet’s nose again, a look of sheer delight on her lovely face. Instinctively, Janet smiled. But then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the boy on TV—his despair an unwelcome foil to their happiness. 

‘Tom, give me that remote.’ 

‘No, love. Don’t do this to yourself. You don’t need to hear this.’ 

‘You don’t get it do you?’ Janet walked over to the TV and turned it off. ‘We have packing to do. We can’t be late for our flight. We don’t have time to be watching the television,’ she said. 

They quickly gathered up their belongings in silence. Janet put away their toiletries. She wrestled with the tiny buttons of the romper suit, so alien in her large hands, as she dressed Kathleen. She checked she had enough diapers in the change bag. She checked again.

Just before they left the hotel room, Tom hugged her. 

‘This child is ours,’ he said ‘and we are going to take her with us to America today. What’s done is done, and we need to go home now and start our new life as a family.’

They were a family now. They were no longer a childless couple. Childless—a word with so many connotations. For years, Janet had thought of her and Tom that way. But now, thinking about that boy on television, she realized he was childless in a way they never were. He was without a real baby that he had loved for months, not just the promise of a child. She looked at Kathleen snug in the car seat, clutching a plastic sheep Tom had bought her yesterday, studying its shape. It was too late. There was only one thing to do. For Janet was already in love with her too. 

CHAPTER TWO

EMMA—BELFAST

DECEMBER 1993

 

 

 

Seven hours after she’d sold Kathleen to the Americans, Emma took up her place on the landing just outside the nursery. She rested her hand on the nursery door, as if she’d just closed it, and she waited. She waited for nearly an hour. Still and silent in the darkness. The dead air trapped in her lungs. And finally he came.

There was a quiet shuffling sound as he opened the front door. Followed by a loud thud. He must have knocked the coat stand into the wall as he passed it. Wordlessly, Emma urged him to go into the living room and put on the TV. But instead he appeared at the foot of the stairs, looking up at her, swaying.

She moved towards him. With a deep exhale, she straightened her back and fixed a quivering smile onto her face. She was ready to give the performance of her seventeen-year-old life.

‘How’s the baby?’ Aiden asked.

‘She’s fine.’ Emma walked to the top of the stairs. ‘I only just got her down and settled. Don’t be waking her.’

‘I’ll be quiet. I just want to give her a wee kiss,’ he advanced towards her. His movements were slow and heavy. The effect of the pills, Emma hoped.

She stepped further down the stairs, meeting him halfway. She kept one trembling hand in her pocket and clenched the banister with the other. ‘No,’ she stood firmly in his way. ‘Let her sleep. I need to go to work soon. And I don’t want you setting her off and making me late.’

 ‘Just let me have a wee peek in at her,’ he pleaded, giving Emma a smile. 

‘Fine,’ she turned and walked up the stairs. He followed right behind her. The drums of her heart echoed through her rib cage. ‘Leave the hall light off. If she sees us she’ll start crying again.’

Emma opened the nursery door a fraction, enough for Aiden to see the corner of the cot and the baby sleeping bag stuffed to make it look like there was a child inside. The big teddy bear was strategically placed next to the bars blocking the line of sight to where Kathleen’s head should be.

‘Awww, my wee dote,’ Aiden said. He went to take a step forward.

Emma yanked the door closed on him—perhaps a little too forcefully than she should have. But she couldn’t let him go into the nursery. It was too early. He couldn’t find out Kathleen wasn’t there. Not yet.

 ‘I have half an hour before I need to leave for work,’ Emma whispered. ‘C’mon down to the kitchen with me. I’ll make you a sandwich.’

He gave her a glassy-eyed look that she couldn’t read.

‘Aye, alright,’ he said and turned to make his way back downstairs.

A cold cocktail of relief and fear snaked through Emma’s capillaries. She’d passed the first hurdle, but she was still far from safe.

In the kitchen, Aiden sat down at the table and played lazily with the saltshaker as Emma moved around the kitchen.

‘What did I miss today then?’ he asked.

‘What’s that?’

‘Did she do anything special?’

‘Nothing new.’

Aiden was always doing this, probing her to find out what Kathleen did when he wasn’t around. She was a baby. Most days were pretty much the same as the day before. But Aiden didn’t seem to understand that. He was always marveling at even the tiniest advancement in Kathleen’s development.

‘Well, did she pull herself up against the sofa again today?’

‘Aye she did,’ Emma lied.

‘It’s amazing that she’s already standing, isn’t it?’

‘It is,’ Emma responded distractedly as she buttered the bread. Aiden’s voice sounded far too animated. Shouldn’t he be getting drowsy? Shouldn’t his speech be starting to slur?

‘I might just go up to the bathroom to wash my hands.’ He stood up.

Emma spun around wielding the butter knife like a weapon. A pretty ineffectual one, she imagined, if it came to that. ‘You will not. Since when have you cared about hygiene? You’re just sneaking up to see Kathleen. It was hard enough getting her down the first time. Let her sleep, would ye.’

Obediently, Aiden folded himself into the chair again. Emma turned her back on him and started cutting the cheese. The knife felt chilly next to her sweaty palms. God, when would the drugs take effect? She couldn’t distract him all night. She really did need to get to work. That was a critical element of the plan. The only reason she’d taken that stupid part-time job nearly two months ago was so, when tonight came, she’d have an alibi.

Usually she only worked Friday and Saturday night as she had school during the week, but she occasionally worked other nights and then skipped school the next day. The teachers always cut her some slack, given the circumstances.

Aiden had been away on a job with Geary that afternoon, and the official story was Emma had spent the afternoon in the house with Kathleen. What she had really been doing was handing her over to the Americans. After their job, Geary had taken Aiden to the pub. The plan was for him to drop Aiden back home around eleven, nice and drunk, and with a few sleeping pills in him for good measure.

But what if Geary hadn’t been able to drug him? Maybe Aiden had been watching him the entire time. Maybe Geary never got an opportunity to slip the pills into Aiden’s beer. What if Aiden didn’t fall asleep before she had to leave for her nightshift at the care home? What excuse would she give him for not going? She couldn’t leave him awake and alone in the house. The risk of him going into Kathleen’s room before he went to bed was too great. Had he really looked drugged when he’d come in? Or had she imagined that?

‘Was she crabbit the night then?’ Aiden asked, still sounding very much awake.

‘What’s that?’ She didn’t turn around. The less eye contact they had the better.

‘I said, was Kathleen not at herself tonight?’

‘No, she’s fine.’

‘But you said you had trouble getting her down.’

‘Do you want mayonnaise on this?’

‘Aye, please…Listen, thanks for doing this. I know you need to get off to work soon.’

‘That’s ok,’ Emma turned and forced a smile across her face. “Act normal,” Geary had advised. “He can’t suspect you.”

She went to the fridge for the mayo and finished making the sandwich. Then she filled up the kettle and took out two cups.

‘Are you having tea with this?’ she asked.

He didn’t respond. She turned to examine him. His head was on the table lying on top of his folded arms. 

‘Aiden?’

No response.

She edged towards him and poked him lightly.

‘Aiden,’ she said, more sharply than before.

Still nothing.

She lent down right next to his waxy ear and shouted, ‘Aiden!’

He didn’t flinch.

She glanced at the clock on the wall. 11:20pm. Should she wait five minutes before giving Geary the signal? Just to make sure he was really asleep? No, they didn’t have five minutes. She needed to get to work on time. It had to look like a regular evening.

She tiptoed towards the back door, opened it a creak, and stuck her head out into the winter air. Aiden snorted loudly. She jumped and turned around. He was still folded over the table, still asleep.

She opened the door wider. Down the back alley the red glow of a cigarette bobbed around in the darkness. She waved, and the smoker started walking towards her.

‘He doesn’t suspect anything?’ Geary asked as Emma closed the door behind him.

‘No.’

‘Good work.’ He went to the corner cupboard and took out a bottle of whisky.

‘What are you doing?’

‘What does it look like?’ Geary didn’t even bother to drop his voice to a whisper.

‘Is that a good idea? You’re not supposed to be here, remember?’

‘Don’t worry. I know how to clean up after myself.’ Geary grabbed a glass from the drying rack and poured himself a large shot. ‘And besides, my prints are all over this place. Wasn’t I here this afternoon picking up Aiden? Am I not here all the time?’

‘Fine. But make sure you wash that glass afterwards and put everything away exactly where you found it.’

‘Shouldn’t you be leaving for work already?’

A couple of months ago, when they’d come up with this plan, Geary had got Emma a part-time job at a care home for the elderly that his sister-in-law managed. During the nightshift, her job mainly consisted of accompanying the residents to and from the toilet or changing the soiled bed sheets of those who didn’t call her in time. The whole place stank of peas and bleach and death. She absolutely hated it. But it was the best way to ensure she had an ironclad alibi between the hours of midnight and 7am, which is what she needed.

She ran upstairs to the nursery and removed the T-shirts that she’d stuffed into the tiny sleeping bag a few hours ago. The desolate cot was so grey and bleak in the darkness.

‘Don’t cry,’ she said to herself. ‘Remember, this is what you wanted.’ She slapped a tear from her face. She needed to arrive at work looking normal. She lifted the teddy bear from the cot and held it to her, letting its softness caress her cheeks. Then she dropped the bear to the floor and fled.

 Back in the kitchen, Geary was resting against the counter sipping at his whisky and smoking a fresh cigarette. Relaxed as the summer days are long. He really had a constitution made for crime.

‘Did Jonny give you your cut of the money this afternoon?’

‘He did.’

‘Tidy sum. What are you going to do with it?’

She shrugged. ‘Maybe I’ll use it to get out of this shithole.’

‘Well, remember what I said, our work is only beginning. You need to be on form tomorrow. People need to believe the kidnapping story. You’re going to get a lot of heat over the next few months, and we can’t have you raising suspicions by swanning off on some fancy holiday.’

‘I’m not an idiot. I know I need to wait a year or so. Don’t worry. Now, do you need help carrying him upstairs?’

They planned to leave Aiden in bed and then stage a break-in downstairs so he’d think someone had come in and snatched Kathleen while he lay passed out, apparently too drunk to notice. Aiden would have no clue that he’d conked out from the sleeping pill rather than the booze.

‘No. You go. You can’t be late. This wee lad doesn’t weigh much. I can handle him.’

Emma made her way towards the door and then glanced back at Aiden slouched over the table. This time tomorrow, she thought, they’d be back in this kitchen, and Aiden would be sitting on the same chair, in the same crumpled position. But he’d be awake, and he’d be sobbing. Emma imagined she and Aiden would be exhausted after spending all day at the police station. They probably would have appeared on every TV channel begging Kathleen’s kidnappers to return her. And perhaps, by tomorrow night, Aiden might start to realize he’d really lost Kathleen. The child he doted on and adored with all his being. Looking at him now, fast asleep, unaware of the torment she had unleashed upon him, Emma almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

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