"And how did you meet?" I asked, taking a sip of tea.
There was a pause during which all three of them looked at each other, leaving me feeling even more excluded than I did already.
"We met through the group," my dad said finally. "Remember the counselling group I mentioned—the one we went to Iceland with the Christmas before last?"
"Well, Stuart is part of that. Stuart lost his wife and daughter in an accident a few years ago. She was twenty-seven and his daughter was only a baby."
I looked at Stuart. His eyes were moist, and I felt guilty as hell. "I'm sorry. That must have been awful."
Stuart didn't reply. He just closed his eyes as if the mention of it was still too painful.
"Anyway," my father added brightly. "We've been a good support to each other, I think."
Stuart placed his hand on my father's shoulder and then reached out and took my mother's hand in a gesture that reminded me of a séance. I shivered. God, what was wrong with me? Maybe I just needed some sleep. I could feel myself getting light-headed.
I stood up. "I think I need a nap."
I shook my head in response to Stuart's renewed offer to take my bags upstairs. The idea of him walking into my childhood bedroom was one step too far, although something told me that it was a bit late for that, that he'd already explored every inch of this house.
* * *
I woke up three hours later, feeling marginally more clear-headed than I had earlier, deciding I needed to get up or I wouldn't sleep tonight. Also, I was hungry. I pulled on jeans and a shirt and made my way downstairs to find my parents watching a wildlife documentary in the sitting room while Stuart cooked in the kitchen. Uncomfortable as I was to see another example of his installation, I had to admit it smelled great.
Dinner was a repeat of the earlier tea party with different food, this time a lasagne and salad. Stuart didn't drink "any more" so there was no wine. I was happy enough with that since I'd had gin and red wine on the plane, but it was unusual for my parents who liked their Shiraz. But I kept my opinions to myself.
After dinner, I tried my best to stay up, but it became increasingly clear that Stuart was a night owl and I wasn't going to out-sit him, especially with my repeated yawning. So eventually I turned in and left them all watching a crime drama, determined to get a chance to talk to my parents on their own before I left for Donegal the next day.
Which thankfully I did. The morning was bright, allowing us to go for a walk in the park. I half-expected Stuart to join us, but I was relieved when my dad asked him to clip the hedges, I suspected to get him out of the way. I was pleased they wanted a chat, with just the three of us, as much as I did.
It was only when we walked through the turnstile into the Phoenix Park that I realized why. One question followed another until it became clear that they'd been worried I would decide to stay permanently in Florida. The relief on their faces when I explained my time there had been temporary pricked again at my conscience.
My mother looked up at a particularly majestic tree with green leafy shoots. "We'll have a good summer. The Oak is coming out before the Ash."
I remembered the rhyme from school. If the Ash comes out before the Oak, then the summer will be a soak, if the Oak comes out before the Ash then the summer will be a splash. When we were kids, we'd joked it meant the summer would be wet no matter what happened with the trees.
We walked towards the papal cross and watched a small herd of red deer jaunt past. The ground was wet underfoot but the park felt fresh and cool, with sweet spring scents. We stood for a while to watch the deer and on our way back to the house, I asked some questions of my own.
"So, this Stuart. How long has he been here?" I gazed at my feet as I kicked away some dried beech nuts. Why did I feel so odd about asking them what was going on?
My mum glanced at my dad to check. "A few weeks?"
He nodded, striding along, hands clasped behind his back, cap shading his eyes.
"Yes," she said. "A few weeks."
I was amazed. My parents usually disliked house guests. My uncle had always said that house guests were like fish, nice for the first day and not too bad the next, but after a few days they start to smell, and they'd always agreed with that.
"Does he work?" I asked. "Have a job?" Surely doing odd jobs for my parents couldn't take up all his time, I thought.
"Oh yes," my mother said. "He works for the civil service—he has a good job."
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Locust Lane by Stephen Amidon.