Emma Donoghue Two-Book Bundle

BOOK: Emma Donoghue Two-Book Bundle
Emma Donoghue Two-Book Bundle
Touchy Subjects
Emma Donoghue
Touchy Subjects
Emma Donoghue

This book is for Finn Claude Donoghue Roulston, with a big wet kiss.

Touchy Subjects

Sarah’s eyes were as dry as paper. Jet lag always made her feel ten years older. She stared past the blonde chignon of the receptionist in Finbar’s Hotel. Twenty to one, according to the clock on the right. One take away eight was minus seven. No, try again. Thirteen take away eight was five. Twenty to five, Seattle time. Morning or evening? Wednesday or Thursday?

She shut her eyes and told herself not to panic. A day either way would make no difference.
Please let it not make any difference.

‘Ms Lord?’ The Germanic receptionist was holding out the key.

Sarah took it and tried to smile. There were four different clocks behind the desk, she realized now. The one she’d been reading was New York, not Dublin. So here the time was a quarter to six, but according to her body clock it was …

Forget it.

Bag in hand, she stumbled across the marble floor towards the lifts.

A young assistant porter in Edwardian stripes brought up her double espresso ten minutes later. Sarah felt better as soon as she smelt it. She even flirted with the boy a little. Just a matter of ‘That was quick,’ and a tilt of the eyebrows, just to shake herself awake. He answered very perkily.

Even if, to a boy like that, thirty-eight probably seemed like ninety.
Every little hormone helps.

Her heart thudded as the caffeine hit home. She dragged the chair over to the window; sunlight was the best cure for jet lag. Not that there was ever much sunlight to catch in Ireland, but at least it was a clear evening. Her eyes rested on the long glitter of the river as she drained her espresso. Time was you couldn’t even have got a filter coffee in Dublin; this town had certainly come on. You could probably get anything you needed now if you paid enough. She winced at the thought: too close to home.

Knotted into the starchy robe, she flexed her feet on the pale red-and-black carpet and considered the dress spread out on the bed. She knew it was comical, but she couldn’t decide what to wear. This was a big night, most definitely, but not the kind of occasion covered in the book on manners her mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. (Sarah still kept it on her cookery-book shelf in Seattle; guests found it hilarious.) Whatever she wore tonight had to be comfortable, but with a bit of glamour to keep her spirits up. Back home, this sleeveless dress in cream linen had seemed perfect, but now it was creased in twenty places. Like her face.

Sarah was tempted to keep on the dressing gown, but it might frighten Padraic. She wished she knew him better. Why hadn’t she paid him a bit more attention at all those Christmas do’s? She was sure there was a chapter on that in her etiquette manual:
Take the trouble to talk to everyone in the room.
Last year her entire corporation had undergone a weekend’s training in power networking, which boiled down to the same thing, with motives bared.
Work the party. You never know when someone might turn out to be useful.

Was she using Padraic? Was that what it all amounted to?

No more bloody ethical qualms, Sarah reminded herself. This was the only way to get what she wanted. What she needed. What she deserved, as much as the next woman, anyway.

The dress was impossible; it would make her look like cracked china. She pulled the purple suit she’d travelled in back on; now she was herself again. Cross-legged on the bed, she waited for her heartbeat to slow down. Six twenty. That was OK; Padraic was only five minutes late. All she wanted was to lie down, but a nap would be fatal.

There was that report on internal communications she was meant to be reading, but in this condition she wouldn’t make any sense of it. She stretched for the remote and flicked through the channels. How artistic the ads were, compared with back home in Seattle. Sarah paused at some sort of mad chat show hosted by a computer. Was that Irish the children were talking? How very odd.

Please let him not be very late.

The Irish were always bloody late.

Padraic was relieved that Finbar’s Hotel was way down on the quays opposite Heuston Station, where he was unlikely to bump into anyone he knew. He stood outside for a minute and gawked up at the glistening balconies. He remembered it when there was only a peeling facade, before that Dutch rock star and his Irish wife had bought it up. What would it cost, a night in one of those tastefully refurbished rooms? It was a shame all the yuppies had to look down on was the Liffey.

The first things he noticed when the doors slid open were the white sofas, lined up like a set of teeth. Ludicrous – they’d be black in a month. Padraic grinned to himself now to relax his jaw. Greg in marketing had this theory about all tension and pain originating in the back teeth.

Padraic was the kind of man who always wore his wedding ring, and it hadn’t occurred to him to take it off. But as he stood at the desk and asked the receptionist whether Ms Lord had checked in yet, he thought he saw her eyes flicker to his hand. He almost gave in to a silly impulse to put it behind his back. Instead, he tugged at the neck of the Breton fisherman’s jumper he had changed into after work.

The receptionist had the phone pressed to her ear now. She sounded foreign, but he couldn’t tell from where. What was keeping Sarah? What possible hitch could there be?

Poor woman,
he thought, for the twentieth time.
To have to stoop to this.


He leapt. He felt his whole spine lock into a straight line. Then he turned. ‘Máire, how
you! You look stunning! I don’t think I’ve seen you since Granny’s funeral. Didn’t I hear you were in England?’ The words were exploding from his mouth like crumbs.

His cousin gave him a Continental-style peck on the cheek. ‘I’m only back a month.’

Her badge said MÁIRE DERMOTT, RECEPTION MANAGER. He jabbed a finger at it. ‘You’re doing well for yourself.’ If he kept talking, his cousin couldn’t ask him what he was doing here.

‘Oh, early days,’ she said.

‘It all looks fabulous, anyway,’ he said, wheeling round and waving at the snowy couches, the bright paintings, the rows of tiny lamps hanging like daggers overhead. He edged away from the desk, where the receptionist had got Sarah on the phone at last.

‘So how’s Carmel?’ asked Máire. ‘And the boys?’

Padraic was about to give a full report on his respectable family life when the receptionist leaned over the desk. ‘Excuse me, Mr Dermott. If you’d be so good as to go up now, the room is 101. And please tell Ms Lord that the champagne is on its way.’

He offered Máire a ghastly smile. ‘Friend of Carmel’s.’

His cousin’s face had suddenly shut down. She looked as snotty as when they were children doing Christmas pantomimes and she always made him play the ox.

Padraic gave a merry little wave of the fingers. ‘Catch you later,’ he said, backing away.

On the way to the lifts Padraic glanced into the establishment designated as the Irish Bar, which looked just like the one he and Carmel had stumbled across in Athens. He pressed repeatedly on the lift button, then put his hand against his hot face. It was god’s own truth, what he’d told his cousin about Sarah being a friend of Carmel’s. But it was also, under the circumstances, the worst possible thing to say. His father’s side of the family were notorious gossips. Once again, Padraic Dermott had dug himself a pit with his own big mouth.

Sarah was standing in the door of room 101, her heart ticking like a clock. When she saw him coming down the long corridor she felt a rush of something like love. ‘Hi!’ she called, too loudly.

‘Hey there!’

They kissed, as if at a cocktail party. Padraic’s cheek was a little bristly.

‘Come in, come in! I’m thrilled to bits to see you!’ She knew she sounded stage-Irish; she was overcompensating. She didn’t want him to think she was some transatlantic ice queen who’d forgotten how to travel by bus.

Thank god there were armchairs, so they didn’t have to sit on the bed. Padraic hunched over a little, hands on his knees, as if ready for action. She tried to remember if they’d ever been alone in a room together before.

‘How was your flight?’

‘Oh, you know.’ Sarah yawned and shrugged. ‘How’s business these days?’ she asked.

‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘not bad at all.’ She could see his shoulders relax a little into the satin-finish chair. ‘We’re diversifying a good bit. Lots of opportunities.’

‘I’ll bet,’ she assured him.

‘And yourself?’

‘Well, I got that promotion.’ She added a little rueful smile. Not that he would have any idea which promotion she meant.

‘Of course you did!’

Did she detect a touch of irony? Surely not. ‘And the lads?’ she asked.

‘Doing great,’ he told her. ‘Fiachra’s in the senior school this year.’

Sarah nodded enthusiastically. ‘I brought them some stuff …’ Her voice trailed off as she nodded at the heap of presents on the sideboard. She didn’t mean to play the rich Yank, buying herself a welcome.

‘Ah, you’re very good.’ Padraic was craning over his chair to see the presents.

Then a silence flickered in the air between them.

‘D’you ever see anything of Eamonn these days?’ His tone was ostentatiously light.

‘Not really,’ said Sarah. ‘He’s in Boston.’

‘Mmm. I just thought—’

‘That’s nearly as far from Seattle as from Dublin.’


Padraic was looking as if he wished he hadn’t mentioned Eamonn’s name. She hadn’t sounded touchy, had she? She hadn’t meant to, if she had. It was just the general twitchiness of the occasion. Padraic just sat there, looking around at the furnishings. And then, thank Christ and all his saints, a knock on the door.

The boy in stripes brought in the champagne on a tray. Was that a hint of a smirk on his face? Sarah squirmed, but just a little. In her twenty years away from Ireland she had taught herself not to give a shit what anybody thought.

Five minutes later, Padraic’s hands were still straining at the wire around the cork. Sarah thought for an awful moment that she’d have to ring down and ask for the boy to be sent back up.

‘Excellent!’ she said, when the pop came, very loud in the quiet room. The foam dripped onto the table. ‘Ooh, doesn’t it make a mess!’

And then she realized she sounded just like that nurse in the
Carry On
films, and the laughter started in her throat, deep and uncouth.

Padraic looked at her, owl-eyed, then started laughing, too. His face was red. He filled both glasses to the brim.

‘I swear, I didn’t mean—’ she began.

‘I know you didn’t.’

‘It was just—’

‘It was,’ he said, knocking back half the glass and wiping one eye.

Sarah felt a bit better after that little icebreaker. She offered to refill his glass.

‘Better not,’ said Padraic, all business now. ‘You know what Shakespeare said.’

She tried to think of all the things Shakespeare ever said.

‘“Drink,”’ he explained. ‘“It makes a man and then mars him … provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”’


Padraic added, ‘It’s the only quote I ever remember.’

Sarah nodded. Privately she was sure Shakespeare had never said any such thing; it sounded more like Morecambe and Wise. It was time she took charge of this conversation. ‘Listen,’ she began in the voice she used at meetings. Was she imagining it, or did Padraic sit up straighter? ‘Listen,’ she tried again, more gently, ‘are you sure you’re OK about this?’

‘Absolutely,’ said Padraic.

‘No, but really, you’ve only to say.’ She let the pause stretch. ‘It’s a lot to ask.’

‘No bother.’

Typical bloody Irishmen, can’t handle any conversation more intimate than buying a paper.
Sarah pressed her fingertips together hard and tried again. Her voice was beginning to shake. ‘I hope you know I wouldn’t be here if there was any other way.’

‘I know that, sure.’

‘I can’t tell you how grateful I’ll be – I mean, I am, already.’ She stumbled on. ‘The only thing is, I get the feeling Carmel kind of talked you into this?’

‘Nonsense,’ he said, too heartily. ‘I’m more than happy. Glad to be of use.’

She winced at the word.

‘Well now.’ Padraic got up and straightened the sleeves of the shirt he wore beneath that ridiculous striped jersey. ‘I suppose I should get down to business.’ From his jacket pocket he produced a small empty jar that said HEINZ PEAS & CARROTS FOR BABY.

Sarah stared at it. ‘How suitable.’ Her throat was dry.

He peered at the ripped label. ‘Would you look at that! I grabbed the first clean jar I could find that wasn’t too big,’ he added a little sheepishly.

Compassion swept over her like water. ‘It’s perfect.’

They stood around as if waiting for divine intervention. Then Sarah took a few light steps towards the bathroom. ‘Why don’t I wait—’

‘Not at all,’ he said, walking past her. ‘You stay in here and have a bit of a nap.’

She heard the key turn in the bathroom door.

A nap? Did he seriously think she could sleep through what might turn out to be the hinge of her whole life?

Padraic knew he was being paranoid, but just in case. Sarah might think of some further instructions and burst in on him in that scary suit with the pointed lapels. Anyway, he’d never been able to relax in a bathroom without locking the door.

The jar looked harmless, standing beside the miniature elder-flower soap. He tried perching on the edge of the bath, but it was too low; he feared he might fall backwards and damage his back.
Dublin Businessman Found Committing Lewd Act in Luxury Hotel.
All right for the likes of George Michael, maybe, but not recommended for a career in middle management. And his cousin Máire would never forgive him for the publicity.

He tried sitting on the toilet – with the lid down, so it would feel less squalid, more like a chair. He leaned back, a knob poked him between the shoulderblades, and the flush started up like Niagara. He stood up till the sound died down. Sarah would think he was wasting time. Sarah would think him a complete moron, but then, he’d always suspected she thought that anyway.

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