On the day Joseph left Dublin the sky was cold and grey, reflecting his mood. He had to leave, he knew that, to get away and forget about the last eighteen months. After all the good times they had shared the surprise and pain of rejection was just too much to bear. Now, as the plane raced down the runway and lifted into the air he felt a weight slipping from his shoulders. He closed his eyes and determined to put everything behind him and embrace the future. ‘It’s over,’ he whispered ‘that’s it.’ A new beginning, a new life with all its endless and exciting possibilities awaited, and he was going to grab it with both hands.
New York was everything Joseph had dreamed it would be and the pace of life was both exciting and exhausting. It was so full of life that he often laughed about its non-stop energy – when he got a chance! So, with a few contacts in his notebook he managed to organise some interviews, and less than after arriving he had landed a job with a small magazine. The Pip was a weekly issue that covered entertainment, sports and all the cultural events going on in the ‘city that never sleeps’. He was kept busy and soon forgot the pain that had brought him here. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ as his mother had said at the airport, and he was beginning to believe her.
His apartment was a world away from what he had been used to at home. His old bedroom was almost as big as his entire apartment on the fourth floor of a large, brownstone building on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t cheap – nowhere in Manhattan was – but it was only a ten minute walk to Central Park, the centre of the universe for those who lived there. There were plenty of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs that only began to liven up when the sun went down. It was invigorating and he couldn’t get enough of it. The Big Apple was his lifesaver and he bit into it as hard as he could.
Over the years there were plenty of trips back to Dublin for holidays and family events. The Celtic Tiger was gorging all around him and the city had changed completely. Gone was the innocence, he noted, and he was happy not to be a part of it. The old ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’ had gone and it was now replaced by something much less caring. As a caustic radio commentator observed Ireland had now become the ‘Land of Taints and Dollars’.
Back in New York, Joseph was promoted and that allowed him to move into a larger apartment, and one with a better view. From here he could see a piece of Central Park and, beyond, the towering elegance of the Empire State Building. In the early days he would often sit by the window and enjoy looking at the magnificent view. He watched as the night silently closed in, the day replaced by the sparkle and glitter of a thousand lights.
Life was good for Joseph and got even better when he met Lisa at a book launch. She was the photographer commissioned to take pictures of the author and guests attending the cocktail party. David Cortez, the author, was a friend from his earliest days in the city, and Lisa took quite a few pictures of them as they chatted and joked with other members of the New York literary scene. Joseph noticed her dark hair, brown eyes and the shape of her mouth that laughed at the edges, all reminding him of someone from Dublin – someone from a previous life. It was a surprise, and although it stirred a few memories, both good and bad, he was intrigued.
‘You seem lost,’ said David.
‘Yes, the photographer reminds me of someone.’
‘You’re grinning, you know that?’
Joseph nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s just that I feel some old memories stirring.’
‘That’s good, right?’
‘The best I can say is ‘Yes…and No’ if you know what I mean.’
‘Only too well, my friend. Only too well.’
Lisa moved in with Joseph about three months later and it was the happiest time of his life. He was working at a job he loved, in the most exciting city in the world, and he had Lisa by his side. They were very happy and loved being together; walking in the park, snuggling on the settee and watching television or eating in their own favourite, Italian restaurant nearby. They talked so much and Lisa made him laugh more than anybody had ever done. He was hooked, absolutely and completely, and knew he was the luckiest man in New York City.
All that changed however, on a cold, snowy day in early February. Lisa had an assignment on Coney Island and on her way home a drunk driver crashed into her car killing her outright. Joseph was devastated and not sure how to carry on. There were many nights he cried myself to sleep and his circle of caring friends watched him, and slowly, one day at a time, he emerged from the pain and darkness. He was tired, beaten and in need of a break, so after sorting things out with his boss he went home to Dublin.
It was cold when he arrived but a hug from his mother soon warmed him up. She was looking well, as usual, but Joseph noticed that her memory wasn’t quite as sharp as before. He said nothing and was delighted to be at home, listening to her voice again and tucking into her cooking. The portions weren’t as big as those in New York but they tasted better. Less was definitely more, he thought, as he licked his spoon clean.
One day his friend Ted called in and they went for a stroll on the East Pier like they had done many times before. Sometimes they went to Sandymount Strand, but as they both wanted ice creams they headed to Dun Laoghaire. It was quiet and they only had the cawing, diving seagulls for company. Across the bay in Howth windows sparkled and winked in the sunshine, and the salty air was enticing. ‘Nothing like this in the Big Apple,’ Joseph said as the wind tossed his hair.
‘Yeah, it’s nice here today,’ Ted said as a yacht sailed by. ‘I prefer it like this when we almost have the place to ourselves,’ he added, taking in the bay and the antics of a brave windsurfer.
Joseph always loved being here and it was the memory of this place that he would conjure up when stuck on the subway in New York. It made those crowded moments bearable. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle it?’ he often asked himself. Fresh Sea Air – who wouldn’t want some of that? It was a cracking idea and he smiled at the thought of seeing travellers on the sweat subway sniffing the fresh air of Dublin Bay. Flann O’Brien would, no doubt, have something pithy to say about ‘such an invention’ but then people were now buying and carrying around bottles of water. That was a surprise, and maybe another was coming. One day, perhaps.
‘Never guess who I bumped into the other day?’ Ted said when they sat down at the end of the pier.
Joseph shrugged. ‘No, who was it? Bono?’
Ted laughed. ‘Would you stop for God’s sake.’ He coughed and put his hand to his mouth. ‘I met Catherine, your old flame.’
Joseph’s heart missed a beat. ‘Oh, yeah.’
Ted leaned close. ‘She’s looking well…and she said to say ‘Hello’.’
Joseph slapped Ted on the shoulder. ‘You’re messing, I know you.’
Ted laughed. ‘I’m not, honest.’ He turned to Joseph. ‘I’m not making this up, I wouldn’t do that. Come on, man!’
They had been friends for over twenty years and Joseph knew that Ted wasn’t joking. It was good to hear about Catherine but what did it matter.
They watched in silence as a tanker headed for Dublin Port, and the colourful sails of a yacht filled as it cut across the water. He saw it all but he was soon lost in thought. He was back on that day. He couldn’t stop it and like a film director watching a story unfold, it all came rushing back.
‘Why?’ he said.
Catherine sniffled and wiped an eye with the back of her hand. ‘I’m sorry, really, really sorry.’ Another sniffle. ‘It’s my fault, it’s got nothing to do with you…you are the nicest guy that I know…the nicest that I’ve ever met!’
Joseph felt numb.
‘It’s just that…oh, I don’t know how to say what I’m thinking…. I’m confused!’
He didn’t hear much more, at least he couldn’t remember what she had said, as he was too upset by the icy words. The world around him was quiet but he was mind was spinning.
Joseph turned and realised that Ted was speaking. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘I said, I’ve met her a few times in the last year or so, and she always asks for you.’
‘That’s nice to know, but…… isn’t she happily married?’
‘Well, from what I learned she’s now happily divorced. Apparently the marriage went pear-shaped after a few years and her husband turned out to be a nasty piece of work.’ He gave a little shrug. ‘You never know, do you?’
‘No you don’t…and aren’t you full of surprises, eh?’
Ted leaned back against the granite wall. ‘Hey, I just thought I’d pass it on.’
They sat in silence and watched more yachts heading out to sea, their sails filling in the stiffening breeze. It was a beautiful scene and another one for Joseph to recall deep beneath the streets of New York.
The following summer Joseph realised that his mother was not as strong as he always hoped she would be and he decided to return to Dublin. He had been away a long time, but with the opportunity of setting up a branch of the business in his home town, he decided to go home. He had done well in New York and now he was looking forward to going home and the new challenge that lay ahead.
‘You’re always welcome here, you know that,’ said Paul, The Pip’s boss, when they shook hands for the last time. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he added, with a wink.
Joseph smiled and knew that he would miss him.
The first few months back in Dublin were hectic. He set up an office, made contacts and got to know the ground rules. His background in New York opened a lot of doors and before long the business was running nicely. It was never going to make a fortune but the folks in New York were happy and that was what mattered. He was happy too, happier than he thought he would be. He enjoyed linking up with old friends and keeping an eye on his mother. He liked being home, and walks and talks on the East Pier and Sandymount Strand helped confirm his decision.
Summer gave way to autumn and the leaves changed from green to gold. It was a lovely time of the year, the colours radiant and giving their all before the winter set in. It was on one such day that he crossed Merrion Square and ducked into the familiar surroundings of Greene’s Bookshop on Clare Street. It was a place where he had spent many a happy hour, lost among the crammed shelves and tables of books. It was his Aladdin’s Cave and the place where he discovered so many great writers and their stories. He loved the old shop, its unique atmosphere and character so different to the new, bright chain stores. Greene’s may have been a dinosaur, but it was his favourite one.
He browsed the shelves, picked out a book and began reading. This was a real treat, and as he thumbed the pages he became aware of someone close by. They were invading his space, and in such a small shop it was not what he expected. To his left he could hear a customer talking with a shop assistant and he heard the cash register open and close.
Joseph had just flicked another page when he heard the person next to him say ‘Hello’.
Time stood still and Joseph heard the air rush from his nostrils. He closed his eyes for a moment, all thoughts of his book now gone, as he realised he knew who was beside him. It was quite a surprise and he took a deep breath before turning his head and looking at Catherine.
‘Hello,’ he said and awkwardly dropped the book. They both bent to pick it up and banged their heads together. It was like a scene from a comedy sketch and they laughed and rubbed their heads.
‘Two heads are better than one,’ said Catherine.
He loved that sound and the way her eyes smiled. She was his ‘brown-eyed girl’ just like the one Van Morrison sang about. Looking at Catherine it was easy to understand why Van the Man had been so captivated.
‘I suppose so,’ he said, replacing the book on a shelf.
‘I heard you were home, Joseph,’ Catherine added. ‘And may I say that you’re looking well.’
‘Thanks, and you’re not looking too bad either.’
She frowned, eyes narrowing, taking everything in.
‘It’s just that I didn’t realise that Ted was such a liar. I’ll have to have words with him when I see him again,’ he continued watching her eyes.
‘Why, what did he say?’
Joseph paused wanting to make sure that the words came out correctly. ‘Well, he told me that he met you and that you were…looking good.’
‘And…?’ an eyebrow rose.
‘Well, from where I’m standing I think you’re… looking great.’
She pursed her lips but didn’t reply.
‘How long has it been?’ he asked.
She took a long time to reply as all around them people moved about. She stepped closer to let a man with a briefcase and a bag of books pass, and he could smell her perfume, a fragrance he recognised. ‘A while…a long while.’
He couldn’t stop the smile coming, and didn’t try. ‘In that case I suppose I should get the coffees. Still white and one, is it?’
Catherine smiled and then they made their way down the creaky stairs and into the autumnal sunshine. The coffee smelt great, and in that moment Joseph remembered his mother’s words ‘Time heals all wounds,’ and he wondered if she was right. She usually was, and he didn’t see any reason to start doubting her now. After all, mums know best!