The Secret Well--an excerpt


        “She’s left me, Dad.”

During the worst times of my life, I’ve been silent, unable to utter a word. Which, given my reputation for being good with the talk, makes no sense, really.
As a lad, my skill with schoolboy recitations won me high marks, even a prize or two. And halfway into my teens, Mam was dead keen on my taking holy orders. “You’d make a grand priest, Frankie,” she’d say, “giving homilies that would make the angels lean down from heaven to listen.” Once I became a schoolmaster—I’d chosen teaching as a way I could inspire others without the enforced celibacy of the priesthood—my lessons could interest the most recalcitrant pupils. But now, as my only child tells me his wife of twelve years and the mother of his children has done a runner, I was unable to offer even a bit of comfort.
It was dusk. Declan and I sat outside, on the steps of St. MacDara’s church, a stone’s throw from the parish hall where my retirement party was in full swing. Here I’d such big plans once I was free of the schoolroom, but suddenly, I’d no stomach for celebrating. I heard the hum of voices, the occasional hoot of laughter, but trapped in appalled silence, I felt my throat close with pity.
“Or perhaps I should say, she’s left us.” His dark head bowed, Declan rested his elbows on his knees, hands clasped so tightly his knuckles shone white.
“When?” I finally choked out.
Declan drew a ragged breath, then looked sideways at me. “Does it matter?” He moved his broad shoulders in a tiny, defeated shrug. “Two days ago. A lifetime.”
“It’s not just another trip? Another project?” Declan’s wife, Suzanne, was a documentary filmmaker, always leaving the country to chronicle people living a desperate, hardscrabble existence elsewhere on the planet. I always thought that the woman could stay right here in Ireland and follow the lives of a great many miserable folk, but that’s just me.
“No, Dad. Suzanne made it clear she won’t be coming back. Except to visit the kids.”
Big of her, I’m sure, I wanted to say, especially with little Ava only four years of age. But I kept my mouth shut, as I’d always done where my daughter-in-law was concerned. My boy hardly needed me sticking my oar in, even if he was as dutiful a son as he was a husband. After all, he’d come all the way from America, in the middle of a crisis, to attend the party.
I bestirred myself, and managed to reach out to give his knotted hands a brief squeeze. “You’ve told your mother, then?” Declan shrugged again. I took that as a yes. “What’s she got to say about it?” I tried to sound casual.
“Oh, you know Mam. You can tell her your troubles all you like, and she says all the right things. But you sense she hasn’t any notion of what you’re going through.”
Actually, I didn’t really know Maeve. I often felt I’d no idea what made my wife tick, even though I’d spent the last forty years of my life sleeping next to her. Forty years of having conversations with her when I was certain she was somewhere else entirely. Somewhere more interesting, no doubt.  Perhaps keeping herself to herself was only Maeve’s way, but her detachment strengthened my need to help Declan if I could.
“Anyway,” Declan appeared to pry his hands apart. “I’ve already said goodbye to Mam and the rest, so I’m off—got to tuck up Nuala and Ava back at the house. Nuala does far too much child-minding already, all the evenings I’ve had to work late.”
Sure, Suzanne’s leaving explained why Nuala, my elder granddaughter, had seemed so subdued when I picked the three of them up at Shannon Airport yesterday. At eleven years of age, she’d stayed home from the party, saying it would be easier to keep her little sister out of trouble at the house. “You’ll need to be back in Seattle next week?”
 “Actually, I’ve asked for a leave of absence, so I can be with the girls while the dust settles. My contract was nearly up anyway. And there’s lot to sort out.” His voice was weary. “You know, the house and the kids’ visitation, the other legalities.”
“No chance to make things right? With Suzanne, I mean.”
“When was it ever right, Dad?”
In another man, you’d hear bitterness in his voice. But Declan? He was a great one for just…accepting.
“Why not stay here for a bit, son?” The vague retirement plans I’d entertained suddenly seemed filled with promise. “In fact, stay the whole summer.”
Declan didn’t speak for a moment. “That’s a generous offer, Dad, but I don’t think so.”
“I can help look after the kids.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose—”
“Impose! I’d love it. And I’ve some projects round the house I could use your help with. Come on then.”
I saw Declan’s shoulders shift a bit, as if a weight had already been lifted from them. “But Mam…”
We both knew his mother wasn’t likely to go for all the commotion a pair of kids would bring.  “I’ll sort things with your mam,” I said confidently, though I felt anything but.
“No worries Dad, I’ll talk to her.”
I’d always had a way of wanting to protect Declan from the world. I suppose because it had never occurred to Maeve to do it. “Really, son, I could put in a good word—”
“I am a grown man, Dad,” Declan said wryly. “I’ll ask her myself.”
 “Right,” I said with phony heartiness. “Maybe I’ll make myself scarce tomorrow—hit the links first thing, while you and your mam make the arrangements for a longer stay.” And if Maeve turned him down, I wouldn’t have to witness it. “The village is putting on their traditional bonfire tomorrow evening—you’ll tell the girls their granddad will take them round after supper?”
“That’d be great, Dad. I was hoping to give it a pass—still feeling a bit jet-lagged.” As Declan stood up slowly—as if he was the one in his sixties, instead of me—he pressed my shoulder. Whether the touch was in gratitude, or he only needed to steady himself, I didn’t know.
I ached with wanting to embrace my boy, but I hadn’t so much as given him a kiss since he was Nuala’s age. As I watched him walk away from the parish hall and down the lane toward the house he’d grown up in, I could feel my heart crack, with love and grief for him. And with the aching regret I couldn’t spare him his pain, and take it upon myself.
* * *

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