Claire had never been in the attic in her life. She was only a few months old when her mother vanished off the face of the earth, and her father took her to Dublin to get away from the rumours and the wagging tongues. Now, twenty years later, she was back, living with her grandad in a town where she hardly knew a single soul. And with a baby too, so she really didn’t give the attic much thought.
Yet, in the dream, it seemed so familiar - a long, dusty room with thick, sloping rafters, and hazy beams of sunlight coming in through gaps in the roof. And it was so vivid, too; one of those dreams that lingers on for days afterwards. It wasn’t a particularly disturbing dream, though, more peculiar than anything else.
In the dream, Claire sensed that there was someone else in the attic too, but she couldn’t see who it was behind the soft veils of sunlight. For some strange reason, though, she thought it was her grandmother. The impression she got was that her grandmother was pleased that Claire had come here, as if she wanted to tell her something really, really important.
Claire tried to move towards the image, but she couldn’t. Her feet seemed to be rooted to the spot. Then a loud ticking sound made her look around, and it was only then that she noticed the big grandfather clock standing in the corner. And as she turned the minute hand gave one, final tick before moving onto three o’clock. The chime echoed loudly through the attic and suddenly Claire was wide-awake.
And so was the baby. It took seconds for Claire to come around sufficiently to crawl out of bed and scoop little Zoe out of the cot. It was at times like this that she wished Liam was still around. They could take turns getting up in the night. But Liam was never a baby man. Three years together, lots of good times, but the moment the tests confirmed that Claire was pregnant, holes began to appear in their relationship. Eventually all the little holes merged into one big one, and Claire came back to live with her grandad.
Maybe it was all her fault. When her father died her whole world had collapsed, and the only one she had to cling to was Liam. Perhaps she clung on too tight, eventually smothering him.
Her father had been her life, you see, ever since her mother disappeared and left them all alone in the whole world. Her father would never speak about what really happened. All Claire knew was that one night her mother was gone. Nothing was missing. All her clothes, her shoes, her bits and bobs were still in their place.
There was a huge search, of course. The Gardai, neighbours, friends, all turned out to look, but there was no trace of her. Clair’s father was so distraught that he took the baby to Dublin and never came back. Grandad visited a few times over the years, and from snippets of conversations she’d overheard, Claire got the impression that there might have been someone else involved. But whenever she tried to ask her father about it, his big gentle eyes would fill up and he’s quickly change the subject.
Then suddenly he was gone too. Changing a light bulb and thinking he’d switched off the power. So simple, so unbelievably quick.
At first Liam was supportive, but maybe she grieved for too long, took too long to let go and pull herself together. Then she discovered that she was pregnant. Foolishly, she believed that it would cement their love, bind them together, forever. It was only when the other woman called, late one night. Claire answered the phone, and she realized she’d lost him as well.
So it was back to Grandad. She held baby Zoe tight against her chest and rocked her to sleep, and the image of the attic fluttered back into her mind. At three o’clock in the morning the world seemed such a dismal place.
“Maybe your grandmother was trying to tell you something important.”
“Your grandmother. You said your grandmother was in the attic.”
”I did not. I said I sensed … felt that maybe it was. But I couldn’t really see anything.”
Claire knew that she shouldn’t have said anything to Rene about the dream. Rene had a strange sense of humour, mostly dry with a wicked edge, but there was also a morbid aspect to it. If a house was cold, she’s say it was because it was probably built on a graveyard, things like that. She saw something humorous, but sinister, in everything.
Claire had met Rene at the anti natal clinic, a tiny little body with a big bump and long flowing ginger hair. She was the smallest person there, but you noticed her immediately because of the beaming smile and the intense blue eyes, and the fact that everyone around her was convulsed with laughter.
After the babies were born, Rene and Claire met every Tuesday for coffee and a chat. Rene was still full of energy, taking everything in her usual, casual stride, and her baby slept all night and most of the day, too. She was so contented she’d make you sick. Claire was tempted, on several occasions, to swap those babies.
“Anyway, I knew you’d make fun of me if I told you.”
“But I’m not, though.” Rene moved closer, and the look she gave Claire was unusually serious. “Maybe she was trying to tell you who murdered her.”
“What?” Claire felt her heart give a thump and she spluttered in her coffee. “What do you mean ‘who murdered her’? What are you … that’s a terrible thing to say. My grandmother wasn’t … what do you mean? Are you saying my grandmother was murdered?”
“Oh, Claire, I’m sorry.” Rene took her hand. “I thought you would have known. Surely you must have heard about it. She was your grandmother. And with you living in the house as well. Surely someone would have mentioned it to you, after all these years. It’s common knowledge around here, everyone in the town knows about it.”
“Well, I didn’t know.” Claire took another long sip of her coffee, trying to gather her senses. “When did … what happened to her?”
“Well, no one knows exactly what happened.” Rene’s eyes sparkled now. “According to my Da – you know he’s an Inspector with the Gardai – well, when I was telling him about you the other day, the subject came up, as you’d expect. Anyway, apparently they found your grandmother sitting in the bus shelter, the one in the street just outside your house. She’d been hit on the head with a blunt object, and it seemed she died instantly.”
“In broad daylight? Did they catch who did it?”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly in broad daylight. According to the report, it was three o’clock in the morning. She was found by the milkman, just sitting there. Apparently, the poor man was never the same again, gave up the milk round and became a bit of a recluse. And, if you believe the rumours, the big old clock in the hallway stopped at exactly three o’clock, and there hasn’t been a peep out of it ever since.”
They sat in silence for a while, both of them absorbed in their own thoughts.
“Why would my grandmother be sitting in a bus shelter at three o’clock in the morning?” Claire suddenly asked. “Where was my Grandad during all this?”
“Well,” Rene took a tissue from her bag and wiped the baby’s nose. “The belief at the time was that she was meeting someone else. The theory was that she had a fancy man, but she also had a baby that was only a few months old at the time. The Gardai believed that the fancy man wanted her to go away with him, but she couldn’t leave the baby. When she refused to go with him, the fancy man decided that, if he couldn’t have her, then no one else would either.”
“That’s really awful,” Claire said, wiping her eyes with her fingers. “Do you realise that the baby would have been my mother?”
“I know.” Rene sipped her coffee. “Didn’t she disappear too, when you were only a few months old yourself?”
“Yes,” Claire sighed as she stood up. “And that was enough of a mystery in itself. Now this, it’s all too much for me to take in, I’m afraid. I’ll see you next week.”
Claire went home in a daze. A murder? She couldn’t believe that no one had ever mentioned it before. Her own grandmother – and no one told her?
She had a million questions to ask Grandad when she got in, but he looked so thin and frail now, just sitting by the window looking out onto the garden. He was so pleased when Claire came back to live with him. She was his only living relative. Now she watched the sad old face and the thinning grey hair, and she felt that he had so much bottled up inside. She was afraid to say anything it in case it all came pouring out.
Suddenly Clair was startled to see the photograph standing amongst the clutter on top of the piano. The smiling young woman’s dark, intense eyes appeared to be looking directly at her. How come she hadn’t noticed it there before?
“That’s Caroline, your grandmother,”
Claire jumped when Grandad spoke. She didn’t realise he was watching her.
“Has it been there all the time?”
“No, no. It was up in the attic, ever since the day … ” He hesitated, as if unsure whether to go on or not.
“Grandad, I know all about it.”
“Do you? Really?”
“Well, actually, no. Not all about it. Only that she was killed … ”
“Murdered!” Grandad snapped. “Whatever way you look at it, she was murdered.”
“I’m sorry,” Claire said softly. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“And that has been the hardest thing to cope with in this whole sorry affair,” Grandad sighed. “No one ever wanted to talk about it. All these years, my friends, my neighbours, they all skirted around the subject, in case it might upset me. But it upset me more, when I desperately wanted to talk about it, to discuss it openly, to ask questions and maybe find some answers, they would all shy away and change the subject. It was as if I was some kind of delicate flower that would crumble under the pain of it all.”
He shuffled across to the piano and picked up the photograph. “My Caroline was murdered, and I still don’t know who did it. All this time I’ve agonised over it. The Gardai believe that she was seeing someone else, but how come I didn’t know anything about it? Why couldn’t I see any evidence of that? Was I that naïve? Was I so blinded by my love for her, that I was oblivious to her seeing another man? Was I so engrossed in my work, in struggling to give us all a better life that I was just too tired to see what was happening right under my nose?
Anyway, the Gardai had a theory that she had planned to elope with him, and she went to meet him at the bus stop down by the gate. I was asleep when she crept out, but, for some strange reason, the chimes of the clock woke me up. They seemed so much louder than normal, almost urgent. Three loud chimes, then I realised that she was not in bed with me. You’ll never know the feeling of foreboding that swept over me at that moment. I just sensed that I’d lost her forever.” The old eyes filled up and he sniffed loudly. “It was then that I heard the frantic hammering on the front door, and there was Larry, the milkman, blood all down his overalls and the look of sheer horror on his face. The neighbours were woken by the racket, too. Some of them tried to stop me from seeing her, but they couldn’t. And even in death she was beautiful, sitting upright on the bench, as if she was just asleep. I couldn’t understand it. There was no sign of a struggle, just a lot of blood from a wound on the side of her head, as if she’d been struck suddenly and unexpectedly. I sat and held her until the Ambulance came and took her away.”
“What about the man who found her? I mean, didn’t he see anything? Surely, at that time of the morning, there wouldn’t have been many other people around.”
“Poor old Larry? No, he didn’t. He got such a shock, finding her just sitting there, that he never really recovered from it. The Gardai couldn’t make much sense of what he was saying, he was just gibbering incoherently.”
“The poor man. You said old Larry, how old was he?”
“In his forties, I suppose. A lovely, gently old soul, knew everyone, always had a pleasant word for you. He drove around in one of those huge American pickup trucks, a fierce big red thing, with a white stripe down the side. Everyone recognized him in it, but flash and all as it was, he never went very fast in it. It was all for show, and it worked, because everyone got their milk from him. But he gave up the milk round after that, left it all to his father. It was a family business, you see, started by his father and an uncle, and Larry worked with them all his life. But the confidence was knocked out of him. He never married, you see. He still lived with his parents, so he sort of went into semi retirement, just doing the paperwork and stuff. I don’t think I ever saw him after that.”
Grandad put the photo back on the piano. Claire felt strangely mesmerized by the intense eyes, brown like her own but a much deeper shade. The hair was also black, but hers was cut in a typical 60’s bob. Was this who Claire thought she sensed in the attic? Now her head was filled with the dream once more, and it was only the baby crying that snapped her out of it.
Later that evening they sat in the garden as the day cooled down. Claire was still overwhelmed by everything that had been piled on her, leaving her with so many questions.
“What do you think happened to my mother?”
Grandad shook his head slowly. “My darling little Lizzy,” he sighed. “You know, when Caroline died, the only thing that kept me going was the baby. I was terrified that they would take her away from me, so I fought day and night to make sure I kept her, devoted my whole life to bringing her up properly. Eventually she found a wonderful man, and they got married. And then you came along. Everything seemed so wonderful. Then, exactly twenty years to the day that Caroline was killed, – you were only a few months old, like little Zoe – Lizzy disappeared. You can imagine the despair, the desperation of not knowing what happened to her. Of course, there were so many theories about that too. Some were quiet ridiculous, I might add. Anyway, Lizzy just vanished off the face of the earth. Nothing was missing. Even her purse was still on the kitchen table. Your father said that everything was fine between them at the time. He had a good job with the council; they were saving for a house of their own. Things couldn’t have been better.
Anyway, according to your Dad, they went to bed around ten-thirty, and he swears the next thing he remembers was hearing the grandfather clock. It chimed three times, even though it had stopped working years ago and had been put up in the attic. That’s when he realised your mother was not in the bed with him. She was never seen again. The Gardai and the neighbours did a search, of course, but your Dad and I sensed that everyone believed she’d just run away. Post - natal depression, or else she had a fancy man, just like her mother. Your poor father took it very badly – he couldn’t stay here, with all the suspicion and the bogus sympathy. He got a transfer to Dublin.
Amongst her things we found one of those small pocket diaries. Lizzy had written some notes in it. It appeared she was determined to find out how her mother, Caroline, had died, all those years ago. The notes seemed to suggest that she’d discovered something in the attic, and she believed it was a clue as to who the killer was. Some people thought maybe she did find out, and went to confront him, only to end up the same way as Caroline.”
They sat in silence for a while as the daylight faded, allowing the moon to replace it with a silver glow.
“Forty years exactly,” Grandad said suddenly.
“Tonight,” he nodded. “Exactly forty years since your grandmother died, and still no one knows what happened. Except for the killer, of course. Still, apart from me, who else cares? Every one else has already forgotten about it by now.”
“No they haven’t. Please don’t think that.”
“Ah, ‘tis just me, how I feel right now. Take no notice of me. But I’ll tell you this, if I had one wish before I die, it would be to find out what happened to them, Caroline and Lizzy, and put an end to all this mystery - and misery.”
It was well past midnight when Grandad went to bed, and Claire was relieved to climb between the cool sheets herself. It had been a long, strange day, and within seconds she was sound asleep.
Suddenly Claire was startled to find herself out on the stairs. Her heart was beating fast, and she had a strange flutter in her stomach. Creeping down into the hallway, tiptoeing across to the front door, as if pulled by an invisible force. She jumped when she caught sight of herself in the hall mirror, illuminated for a second by a shaft of moonlight that came in through the little window above the door. Why was she wearing a pink dress, and with a hem so short that she’d have been too embarrassed to wear it normally? And her hair – it was cut in a bob, just like the lady in the photograph. The beautiful eyes that looked back at her were so dark and intense that, for a moment, Claire was mesmerised by them. It was only the ticking of the grandfather clock that drew her attention away from the mirror. What was that doing in the hall? Shouldn’t it be up in the attic? The clock said ten minutes to three. In the morning? The flutter in her stomach intensified, and it was a moment before Claire realised why. She was excited. Out through the door and down the path to the gate. Was he there yet? Who?
Headlights were coming up the street, and now she was breathless, unable to contain herself. The vehicle stopped about a hundred yards away, near the bus shelter. A tall man got out, and Claire was almost overwhelmed by the awesome feeling of love that she felt towards him. She ran to him, and her mind was a blur as she tried to focus on his face. Then she noticed the big red American truck. The man moved into the light from the street lamp. Larry?
“Caroline, sweetheart.” He put his arms around her and squeezed her tight.
Caroline? He called her Caroline! But that was her grandmother’s name. A tingle ran up Claire’s spine. Larry had moved away from her now, and she suddenly sensed something in the tone of his voice, and it caused a deep feeling of dread to sweep over her.
“Larry,” she heard herself saying. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“I’m so sorry, Caroline,” he said. “I’m after giving this a lot of thought over the past few days, and I really think that it would be better all around if we were to stop seeing each other.”
“No.” Claire reached out to touch him but he moved farther away. “Please don’t say that, Larry.”
“I’m sorry, but what we’re doing is so wrong and the both of us know it.” Larry rubbed his hands through his hair, and Claire was fascinated by the amazing feelings that she had for him. She’d never felt anything like this before in her whole life. “It has to stop right now, before anyone gets hurt.”
“Larry … ”
“But what if someone finds out about us?” he insisted. “What would happen if they told your husband? You’d lose everything. Even the baby.”
“I don’t care.” Claire had a sob in her voice now. “Please, Larry, don’t do this to me. I couldn’t bear it. All I want right now is to be with you, just for a little while. Please let me hold you.”
He shook his head. “Caroline, this is hard enough already. Please don’t make it worse.”
“But why are you being like this to me? You told me you loved me, you said that I was the best thing that ever happened to you in your whole life.”
“I do! You are!” He went to reach out to her but pulled away again. “And that’s why I have to let you go, because I love you so much. I just know that, if we go on like this, it will only end in pain and tears. And I’d end up losing you anyway. So I’d rather end it now, and remember you for the good times that we’ve shared.”
“But what happened, what brought all this on suddenly? Is it because of the age difference? Are you worried about the age difference?”
“Not just that, although that’s important. The fact is, you’re a beautiful young woman. And, in spite of the way you feel right now, there’s bound to be a time when someone your own age comes along. Then you’d realize that you’d have more in common with him than you would have with someone my age.”
“But your age doesn’t matter to me. It never did. I love you for what you are.”
“As I said, it’s not just that.” Larry gave a deep sigh and wiped his eyes with his fingers. “Imagine how you’d feel if you lost the baby, and we’re cooped up in a tiny flat somewhere, on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon with no place to go, no money and probably no job either? You’d be frantic, pining for her, terrified of missing her first step, her first words, her first day at school. No! Like I said, Caroline, I love you too much to put you through all that.”
His big hands took her by the shoulders and he kissed her on the forehead, then he walked back to the truck. Claire’s eyes were stinging from the tears that burnt them now. The pain was horrendous, as if he had reached inside and he was pulling the heart out of her. The truck was moving away and now she was running after it, crying desperately for him to stop, to come back.
It had only gone about a hundred yards when the brake lights came on and it ground to a halt, then it began reversing back up the street towards her. Her heart leapt in her chest. He was coming back to her. She rushed forward and reached out to grab the door handle, and she didn’t see the wing mirror until it was too late. She tried to duck, but it caught her on the side of the head.
There was no pain, just a tremendous light. Larry was holding her now, his whole body shaking as he frantically tried to wake her up, crying and whimpering. He picked her up and carried her to the bus shelter, and he sat her on the bench.
It was all warm and cosy now, making it hard for Claire to open her eyes. She realised she was feeling hungry, but also relieved that, at last, she knew what really happened to her grandmother that terrible night, all those years ago. It had been just a horrible accident. Poor Larry. Poor Grandad. How was she ever going to explain it to him? How could she tell him about Larry? Her heart went out to the both of them. She frowned. How was she going to explain it to anyone? Who would believe a dream?
A moonbeam came in the window and fell across the cot. How big the bars looked from this side. And the colours of the mobile that dangled above her head, how wonderfully comforting they were to a baby. She was feeling so sleepy again.
Suddenly there was a loud, urgent, chime of a clock, then another. As the third one echoed through the house, the bedroom door crashed open.
It was Grandad.
“Oh, no! Claire, where are you?”
For a tense moment he just stared at the empty bed. Then he shuffled over to the cot and his huge hands reached down and wrapped themselves around Claire. They lifted her gently and held her against the stubbled face. The face was wet with tears.
“Oh, Zoe, Zoe, what’s happened to your mammy? Please don’t say it’s happened again. It can’t happen again.”
Zoe? Why was he calling her Zoe? Somehow she didn’t care anyway. Everything was fading into a comfortable blur now. Claire was still hungry, but she was so comfortable in the huge arms of her grandfather, who was rocking her so gently.