To Be Sure (HBTC Novella)
"Well, isn't this nice?" Aileen patted Saorla's hand, maintaining contact as she leaned back in her seat and regarded the plane as if it were a grand palace.
"Anyone would think you'd never flown before."
"Listen to you, clocking up the old air miles there."
"Aye, well, it's cheaper these days to fly."
"Cheaper still if you've nowhere to fly to," Aileen pointed out.
"I don't know," Saorla tormented, "Brendan would give you a fine welcome, so he would."
"Jesus. Never again." Aileen was dramatically aghast at the very idea.
Saorla chuckled. "Where's he living now? Still in Wales?"
"No, he moved to Liverpool, didn't he?"
"To be near their Lottie. I'm sure I told you."
"If you did, I don't recall. In fact, I don't recall you saying Lottie was in Liverpool."
"Are you sure?"
"My memory's not what it was, Aileen."
"Aye, well, she's been there a few years now. Her husband passed his law degree, didn't he? He's working at the courthouse. Brendan's not impressed one bit, as you can imagine."
"I'd have thought it'd come in handy, having a lawyer in the family."
"He's not fully fledged. An usher or something. Clerk, maybe. I don't pay much attention, if I'm honest." Aileen gasped and wagged a finger in the air. "Oh, you've just reminded me. I didn't tell you about Don Reagan, did I?"
Saorla drew breath to answer - yes, she had, if it was the story Saorla was thinking of, although with Aileen's love of gossip, it could be an entirely new saga, not that it mattered, seeing as Aileen had gone on anyway.
"So Don's heart attack just before Christmas, then. You know what caused it, don't you?"
"Pushing his son's car..." Saorla said - both proof she was listening and that she'd heard the story before.
"Right, which he wouldn't have been doing if he was still on the Motability. He's suing the government for negligence. The government!"
"He's not going to win, is he? It'll set a precedent."
"I thought we had a prime minister, not a precedent." Aileen gave Saorla a twinkly eyed grin and chortled at her own joke.
"God, you're a case." Saorla joined in with the laughter. She'd always appreciated Aileen's sense of humour. It had brought her through some tough times - the toughest of all being the months following Finn's accident at nineteen. The doctor's honesty - about Finn's slim chances of survival and, should he make it, ever having anything near a normal life again - was less an acute blow than a constant chafing that left her raw. Even now, she couldn't process how close she'd come to losing a son. Her brain refused to believe it, though she was aware, looking back to that time, that she'd smothered Sean with the love she'd held back from Finn for fear of the unthinkable.
"Are we eating?" Aileen asked.
Saorla emerged from her meanderings to find a stewardess progressing along the aisle with a trolley. "We ate before we left home, and it's only an hour we'll be in the air."
"It's the done thing, when you're on a plane."
Saorla wrinkled her nose. "I'm not hungry, but I might take a drink."
The stewardess edged another row closer; Aileen leaned sideways, her face less than an inch from Saorla's ear, and muttered, "Douglas beach."
Saorla smiled at the shared memory of the Isle of Man holiday they took the year after she left Jim. They were planning a day out, and the boys had wanted to go to the beach.
"Douglas beach is all full of pebbles," Aileen had said and then noticed Sean's worried frown. "But we can still go if you want."
"Was he hungry?"
"What're you talking about, dafty?"
"He must've been hungry to eat all those pebbles..."
"That was our last holiday together," Saorla mused.
"Aye, it was." Aileen gave a wistful sigh, seemingly studying the back of the seat in front. "I was thinking - "
"Would you like anything to eat or drink?" the stewardess asked, drawing up alongside with a worn but cheery smile.
"Coffee for me, please," Saorla said.
"Same here, please."
"Just ordinary coffee?"
"That's fine," Saorla confirmed for the both of them. It hadn't gone unnoticed that Aileen was a little more subdued than before. She'd something on her mind, for sure.
The stewardess handed over two paper cups with lids, and Saorla paid, pleasantly surprised by how little it cost - relative to what she'd expected. Once the trolley had rolled past, she prompted, "You were saying..."
Saorla turned as far as her safety belt would allow and studied Aileen's troubled profile. They'd not spent quality time together in a while, or not away from curious ears, so Mass didn't count.
Aileen kept her eyes on the path her finger was tracing around the lid of her cup. "Why didn't we go away together more often?"
"Money?" Saorla suggested. "Or lack of it. And Finn, of course. And your mother."
Aileen's mouth opened and closed in a couple of false starts before she said, "May I ask you something? It's a wee bit delicate."
"Go on," Saorla agreed warily and sipped her coffee for distraction.
"If it had come to worst in January, would you have moved to England?"
Saorla lifted her drink away from her mouth and rubbed her chest to relieve the sudden reflux brought on by Aileen's question. As if it wasn't bad enough to have her son at death's door the once, the fool had to go and do it all over again. In those long, silent hours at the hospital, waiting for Finn to speak, to explain himself or put their minds at ease, the thought had flitted like an alluring, uncatchable butterfly amid the awful mess of their lives: move away, start anew, enjoy her retirement before she was too old.
"I miss Sean and Dylan something terrible," she admitted. "And, I suppose, there'd have been no reason for me to stay in Derry. Well, I say no reason..." Saorla turned again to look Aileen in the eye.
"I hope you wouldn't have stayed for my sake," Aileen teased lightly.
Saorla smiled. "Don't do yourself down."
"I'm not, my love. Your sons are more important than anyone or anything else - as it should be."
"I doubt any of us would've made it this far without you." Saorla sought Aileen's hand and gave it a light but sure squeeze. Aileen curled her fingers around Saorla's, keeping hold as the plane began its descent, to the accompaniment of the pilot's announcement that they'd be landing at Liverpool John Lennon Airport in ten minutes.
"So, I've a question for you now," Saorla said.
"What's that, then?"
"Well, it's buried under a big mound of ifs, but...if I'd gone, and if you didn't have your mum, would you have come with me?"
"Oh...there is a question." Aileen freed herself from Saorla's grasp and swapped her coffee to the other hand. With a grimace, she flexed her fingers and peered out of the window. "See, I could've told you it was raining without looking."
"You looked anyway."
"True enough. I wonder what Brendan's up to this week?"
Saorla pursed her lips. She'd got the gist, or, at least, Aileen had confirmed her question-dodging had nothing to do with not wanting to be within spitting distance of her long-ago ex-fiancé. When she'd broken off the engagement, she'd told Brendan she was joining a convent. Of course, she never did; nor had she been with another man since. It was an unintentional cruelty, for while Brendan had married and remarried, and had children and grandchildren, his heart still belonged to Aileen, whereas Aileen's belonged...well, perhaps it was best not dwelt upon.