I held the secret letter deep in my raincoat pocket as I approached the hostel warden. “Excuse me,” I said, obviously American but at least polite. “Are you busy?”
He gave an impression of youthful surliness: intimidating glasses covering small eyes, bangs falling across his face. “Not terribly, at the moment.”
“I was wondering if you could help me find someplace — a village called Shanaheever . . . or something like that.” Aware that I was scrambling the pronunciation, I produced a note — not the letter — from my other pocket and pointed to the name of the village. The note was an e-mail, pulled from my computer’s printer just as I’d left for my flight to Dublin. It read:
You follow the Skye (sp?) Road up from town, from a pub, I think it’s called the King’s Arms or something, and go about two miles till you’re in the village of Shanaheever. There are no shops or anything to indicate a village — you have to ask. You’ll see the castle gates on the left. Sort of opposite them is the lane to the Sayers’ house. If you go too far you’ll see a big white house. In other words, turn before the castle and you’ll see his cottage. Of course, all this is from twenty years ago, so it may have changed. Oh, Jill, I hope you find him!
My friend Adrienne — a nurse in Little Rock with twin toddlers and a handsome, delinquent teenager — was the author of the note, and of the secret letter. In her hurry, she had neglected to mention which town you took the Skye (Sky?) Road from. I had come here to Clifden, a coastal town in County Galway, because I remembered hearing the name in earlier conversations with her. I supposed that Shanaheever — unmarked on any map and probably hugely unknown — lay outside another, smaller town to the north. Or possibly the south, there being no land west of Clifden.
The warden peered at my e-mail. “Shanaheever,” he said, in a way that sounded correct. “No, never heard of it.”
“Oh, dear,” I said. I had picked up the expression in England; it was useful for conveying all sorts of emotions, from sympathy to outrage to self-pity. “I really need to find it.”
The warden tried to hand me back my paper. To hold his interest, I blurted, “I have to tell a man there about his nineteen-year-old son in America.”
“Have you, now?” The warden glanced down again at the note. “God, it wouldn’t be John Sayers, would it?” Behind the glasses, his eyes rounded in sly delight. “I know John. He’s a bit of a flirt.”
“Oh, shit,” I said, accidentally reverting to American. “Sorry. I just — I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. Please forget what I said. How do you know him?”
“Lives just up the road. Here, the Skye Road — that’s just up that hill on the left. It is John, is it? This is fantastic.” In Britain, fantastic can mean “incredible” or “unbelievable,” rather than “great.”
“Please, please, don’t tell anyone,” I said. “I thought the village was miles away from here. I have a big mouth.”
“Every time I see John, he’s talking to at least two American ladies,” the warden mused. He sounded envious. “Not one, two. Sometimes more. He likes the tourists.”
“He sure liked my friend.” I was bursting to tell the story of how, twenty years ago, Adrienne, my older sister’s most glamorous friend, had met John in a Dublin pub where she was barmaiding the summer before her senior year in college. How he had been charmed by her thigh-length red hair and Southern accent, and she by his pirate beard and complete collection of Van Morrison, which they spun on a little hi-fi in the whitewashed cottage where John lived with his father. (I think mainly Adrienne fell in love with “Moondance” and rural Ireland. And Bushmills whiskey helped.) In the six months before her tourist — “employment prohibited” — visa ran out, she moved into the cottage loft, got a job in another pub, and got pregnant, although she didn’t find out about the latter until she was back in Arkansas, a college dropout carrying a large Gaelic fetus.
She named the child — who had his father’s deep, powerful eyes — Seamus, but at thirteen he rebelled and demanded to be called Steve.
“If you want to meet John,” the warden said, “just take another American girl down to the pub with you tonight and sit at the bar looking like tourists. I guarantee —”
“Ah, that’s a point.” The closed look on the warden’s face was gone, replaced by interest. “I often see him at King’s, and Mannion’s. I have seen him at Humpty’s, but not often. Then there’s the hotel, where they do poetry on Wednesday nights; he always reads there.”
It was Tuesday. “But I need to find him tonight; I have to leave tomorrow.”
“Ah, well, then you won’t hear the poetry. Pity, that. He’s not bad. But as to tonight, there’s no telling. He’ll probably be at Mannion’s.”
“Just up the road. It’s not difficult. Listen, I’m free about nineish. If you like, I’ll take you round the pubs and we’ll find John. That suit you?”
It was well into the evening, but the sun slanted in the pub windows as bright as afternoon, reminding me how far north I was. We sat on low stools at Mannion’s, waving away the smoke. A white-haired fiddler, an even older man on spoons, and a fiftyish woman singer in a print dress performed ballads and unhappy love songs. I bought the warden a pint of Guinness and drew a smile in its thick white head. “Thanks again,” I said. “I would’ve had no idea which man was John. All Adrienne said was that he was tall, good-looking, and had brown eyes and brown hair.”
“I don’t know about the good-looking part,” the warden said, “but the rest describes half the men here.”
“Right. Oh, and supposedly he has nice hands.” Also, Adrienne had guessed that, in the maddening way of men, John would have aged well. She hadn’t allowed me to bring a picture of her — forty, short-haired, and solid. I picked up my half pint of Carlsberg and clinked it against the warden’s glass. “To John, wherever he is.”
“John Sayers, indeed,” he said. “That’s a very touristy drink you have there. Lager and lime is it?”
I nodded. “I don’t like the taste of Guinness. Dark beer —”
“Don’t call it beer!” he said. “That would be sacrilege.”
The oak door swung open and four men crowded in. All were tall, had dark hair, and could have been dapper two decades ago. I glanced at the warden, who shook his head.
He continued to shake his head about all the tall, dark, and handsome locals who entered Mannion’s. Then it was on to King’s, where the warden peered into every smoky corner of the cloistered, cluttered little rooms, but to no avail. He asked the barmaid if she’d seen John. “Not tonight,” she said. As we crossed the street to the hotel, the sky was still yellow-blue and bright, though it was nearly 11 P.M., closing time. The hotel lounge contained only a pack of Italian tourists listening to a dreary country-and-western cover band.
Finally, we tried a pint in Humpty’s, a rock pub full of teenagers, but when last call came we still hadn’t found John. Taking his leave, the warden thanked me for the drinks and wished me luck. “I’d go with you back to King’s,” he said, “but I’ve got a busload of schoolkids from Limerick coming in late tonight.”
My escort gone, I sauntered back to King’s, feeling the lager’s effects, and planning how to explain my indiscretion and failure to Adrienne. In the small front room of the pub, I spotted two Australian women from my hostel leaning chummily against the bar on either side of a stunning, six-foot-plus man. He wore long sable curls, a beard no less lustrous, and a black leather coat (though the pub was plenty warm). One of the women recognized me and waved drunkenly. “Hullo! Come and meet John — Jesus to his friends.”
“Jesus to everyone,” the man said. He gazed at me with a combination of lust and Guinness, his eyes as compelling as Steve’s. I remembered Adrienne saying, “If you’ve seen Steve’s eyes, you’ve seen John’s.” (She also claimed that they laughed alike, but I had never heard Steve laugh. Mostly he was a shadow who went in and out of his mother’s house by the back door.)
“John Sayers?” I said.
“Och, no, not Sayers. Owens, I am. That’d be my cousin, now.”
“Oh, sorry.” Of course. This character with the Celtic cross around his neck and the scar on his nose was the age John had been when Adrienne had met him. The man I wanted would be graying or balding or at least slightly stooped.
Forgetting the two women he’d been chatting up, Jesus focused blearily on me. “How do you know Johnny? Is he about tonight?”
“I don’t think so; I’ve looked in every pub within walking distance. I have a letter for him, from a friend in America.”
“You could give it to me.” He tried to make his wizard eyes sincere. “I live near John. I’d see that he got it.”
Adrienne had said her relationship with John had provided great gossip in the village for years. Having already revealed John’s secret once, I didn’t want to risk doing so again. Besides, Jesus seemed a little creepy. “I was told to give it to him directly,” I said apologetically. “Could you tell me where his house is, exactly?”
“Of course I could,” Jesus said, “seeing as you don’t trust me. It’s up the Skye Road, a couple of miles. You’ll pass a great stone barn near the road, with pony carts in it, and then look up the hill.”
“Is there a number?”
“Och, no. No numbers on the Skye Road. But if you’re afraid of not finding it, and you don’t trust me, why don’t you slip it in the post? You could just put ‘John Sayers, Poet, Skye Road,’ and he’d get it.”
But every letter Adrienne had sent in twenty years had gone unanswered; she wanted to know that he’d received this one. Besides, this quest was too romantic to end at a post office. I had to at least try to find his cottage.
“So, is John married?” I asked. Adrienne was hoping that John had paired up with a local girl, Mary O’Something, and that they’d bred a dozen children.
“No, not John. He’s a writer. And a wee bit of a farmer.” Jesus said this as if writers and farmers never married. “And his friend in America?” he said, leering now. “Is she married?”
“Yes,” I snapped. “Happily. With children.” I wanted him to know this was not about an unrequited love.
“Ah, that’s grand.” Jesus turned to one of the Australian women. “Would you marry me tonight?” She giggled, and he leaned over to me and said, “I think she likes me.”
Realizing how tired I was, and how early I’d have to get up, I said good night and thanked him for his help.
“And thank you,” Jesus said, raising the dregs of his pint in my direction, “for not trusting me.”
In the morning, the Skye Road lifted me with every step. I was alone on the narrow lane except for dozens of indifferent sheep roaming about heathery enclosures. The arms of oaks and beeches bent overhead, making a green tunnel for me to pass through. Around the bend in the hill, the trees thinned, revealing brown cliffs tumbling rocks and clumps of grass into the sea. Daisies grew in the cracks of a stone wall, and wild fuchsia bushes as big as houses dangled fine pink flowers.
A few hundred feet above sea level and rising, I began to pant. Adrienne must have walked this road every day, going down to Clifden for bread and milk, climbing back up in time to make tea and bring the dog in from the rain. No car, no TV, no central heat, no worries — except staying warm and dry.
When Adrienne had returned to the States, my sister had brought her home to stay with us that first night. Seeing the cold sliced meat and cheese and vegetables laid out for supper, Adrienne had knelt and closed her eyes to say grace, her long hair falling around her like a veil. She’d been eating nothing but potatoes and bread and lard for so long, she’d said. Yet she’d gained so much weight recently. . . .
To the left of the road rose two pillars — bumpy rectangles made of gray stones and festooned with honeysuckle — but I saw no castle beyond. Every acre of Galway held so many old gates and walls; this might be the gate to the castle, or it might lead to an ancient cemetery or a modern mansion. To the right, a pair of indistinct ruts wound up the side of the hill. The drive to John’s house? I turned up it, my heart pounding from more than just the walk.
What if the door was answered by an American girl — or two? What if John was angry with me for bringing the letter? How would I even know it was he and not another cousin wanting to learn John’s long-distance secrets? Behind me, I heard the slow groans of an old bicycle. A stout woman was peddling determinedly up the Skye Road, plastic shopping bags nestled on either side of her rear wheel. “Excuse me,” I called, trotting back down the ruts.
She hopped off, looking helpful.
“Is this where John Sayers lives?”
“Oh, yes.” She squinted up the way I’d been walking. “That’ll be his car in the drive.”
For the first time I noticed a small dwelling near the top of the hill. “Thanks,” I said.
“No bother,” she said, and remounted, probably off to tell her neighbors about the tourist woman seeking John.
His Fiat was shabby — nothing a typical American would cheerfully drive — but it looked fine in the little dirt-and-thistle driveway. The one-story cottage was small with deep windows and a red door. I liked the door. A dewy bottle of milk rested on the stoop, and a cat disappeared around a corner as I crunched over the stones. “Good morning,” I called, rapping on the door.
No answer. After a few seconds the cat came back and leapt onto a fence post to eye me. A donkey behind some barbed wire sneezed. I wished I’d had an apple to offer it, as a gesture of international, interspecies goodwill. Would John receive the letter like a goodwill apple, or a baited trap?
He must be home, I thought. It was almost eight o’clock; surely a “wee bit of a farmer” wouldn’t still be sleeping. Maybe he was in the shower, if the cottage even had one. I knocked again, more assertively. Still no answer. I waited several minutes, getting my breath back. My heart was pumping irrationally fast. Although I was only delivering a letter, I was unable to shake the sense of adventure. He couldn’t have gone out on foot, I reasoned, because if he had, he would have brought in the milk. What a sleuth I was, on the trail of love. Maybe there was a back entrance. It seemed presumptuous to walk through the side yard of a person I didn’t know, but I hadn’t come five thousand miles, the last two on foot, to be deterred by a man ignoring my knock.
Sidling past the cat, I minced along a path of half-buried stones. There were no windows on that side of the cottage. Not wanting to surprise John taking a wash or a whiz in his back yard, I called, “Hello? Hello?”
From inside, a querulous voice echoed, “Hello? Is someone saying hello?”
The back door stood open, and inside the dark room beside a neat fire, somebody’s grandfather sat smoking a pipe: too old to be John, unless the poet-farmer had led an excruciating life. Then another figure blocked my view — a fortyish man, fat, with brown hair and, yes, deep eyes, perturbed and nervous.
“Are you John?” I asked. “John Sayers?”
Though he looked as if he wanted to deny it, the man nodded. I wondered if his cousin had somehow told him about me already.
“I’m Jill Kendall,” I said, “a friend of Adrienne Hackney, in America.”
At her name, John stepped outside and closed the door behind him, shutting off the old man from the light. Then he walked me away from the house, toward the lane.
“I have a letter from her,” I said. “She thought you might want to know about Steve — Seamus.”
He seemed to recognize his son’s name.
“You know?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said, but noncommittally. Perhaps he had received the other letters, in which case this one might be redundant and unwanted. I held out the envelope, which he snatched and folded into a pocket. “Very kind of you.” He spoke quickly, even faster than most Irish people did. “You’re here on holiday, are you? On vacation? Traveling round?”
I got the impression he had asked the same of thousands of women. “That’s right,” I said slowly. “We landed in Dublin a couple of weeks ago.”
“With your husband, are you? Or boyfriend?”
What possible difference could it make? “Girlfriend,” I said, and saw the question on his face, but I did nothing to answer it. My lover, Amber, was expecting me to arrive in County Clare at noon on the bus.
John shifted his gaze, evidently unsure how to continue. “So you like the countryside, do you? Find it pleasant?”
“Oh, yes,” I gushed, glad for an icebreaker. Soon we would get to the subject of Adrienne and Steve. “It just keeps getting prettier the farther north we come. We went to Scattery Island —”
“People think it must be grand, living here,” John interrupted. The statement sounded rehearsed, the beginning of a speech he’d given in many a pub to many a lady stranger. “And it is grand: remote and beautiful. But it does strange things to a person. It makes you face yourself in a way you don’t have to in most places. You can’t run away from yourself here.”
As if considering his ideas, I gazed west to the sea, flat and hazy over the treetops, and thought, Yeah, right. Those of us from the suburbs never engage in self-reflection.
“A lot of people can’t take it,” he said. “When they’re young, a lot of people run off. They have to get away from this for a while. They go to London, or Dublin, and try to hide.”
Yes, Dublin. Was he explaining his own escapades?
“But once you get all that out of your system, you have to come back to this. At least I did. I couldn’t live anywhere else now. You know?”
Remembering that Adrienne would want to know every detail, I studied John. He had not aged well, after all, though he and Adrienne would still have made a nice couple. His belly was great with Guinness, and there were deep lines around his mouth, but his face was clear and tanned. The famous beard was gone, leaving only a heavy black stubble.
He was a middle-aged man who lived with his father, afraid of what his neighbors thought. Suddenly sorry for him, I turned to the donkey, which was meandering in our direction. “What a nice creature,” I said. “He seems very happy.” Like all the Irish animals I had seen, the donkey was full-bellied and smooth-furred, having plenty of room to roam in and lush greens to eat. It bent down to nibble something near my feet, then put its neck over the wire. Stroking the coarse gray mane, I murmured endearments: “Good boy. You’re a pretty boy. Oh, yes you are. You’re so good. . . .”
“That donkey was mad,” said John. “I had to have him gelded last year. I didn’t want to do it, not a bit, but I had to. Had to take him to the vet and have the operation. He was running mad — getting out of the pen, wandering up and down the road. I’d never know where he was one day to the next. I hated to geld him, but it had to be done.”
“He seems gentle enough now,” I said. As if to demonstrate, the donkey nuzzled my palm.
“Oh, he’s all right now I’ve had him gelded. But he was running mad, he was. He’d go everywhere, you know. He’d be off at the neighbor’s horse pen, trying to get up on the horses. Mad.”
A poet’s allusion to his own days of hormonal madness? I decided to stretch the metaphor and perhaps find out. “Maybe he wanted to make little mules,” I said.
“Sure, that’s natural enough, but he was acting mad with it — fighting and running about. Had to geld him, poor creature.”
The animal moved away from my caress, and John shifted, apparently impatient for me to go. “You’ll be about for a few days, will you?” he asked.
“No, unfortunately I’m leaving this morning.” In fact, I would have to hustle to make my bus. “Did you . . . want to hear about Adrienne?”
‘‘I’ll read the letter,” he said, touching the pocket of his jacket. “Very good of you to come out of your way. Thanks. Have a good holiday.”
“You should write to her,” I said, suddenly a little desperate. “She’d like to hear from you.”
“That I will,” he said, nodding hard. “Sure I will.”
The Skye Road was easier with gravity in my favor, and I nearly skipped toward town and my bus and my girlfriend, who was twenty-five and lovely. We never lied or let each other down, we had yet to break each other’s hearts, and neither of us would ever unintentionally get the other pregnant.
That was all, except that as I came around the last bend to where the Skye Road straightened and flattened out and the white hostel and the first pubs leaned against one another, I passed a couple heading up the hill. They were young, maybe in their late teens. He — another Sayers cousin, perhaps — had a black ponytail and carried a round wicker basket full of the day’s groceries. She — his girlfriend, his sweetheart, his someone — came barely up to his shoulder, but she matched his steps, and he bent his head to listen to what she was saying. And I wasn’t surprised that she had long red hair. They nodded to me but didn’t say hello, caught up in their discussion. Earnest and serious, they looked almost like married adults, like people who planned to stay together their whole lives long.