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An excerpt from Let it Shine

Let it Shine front cover.jpg


The sun had dropped behind the mountain, leaving an expanse of streaked indigo sky. Deirdre stepped out through her kitchen door into the fading light. Shivering from the sudden chill, she pulled down her sleeves, tightened her cardigan, and wandered to the end of the garden. She gazed out across the darkening fields with an intense longing. A sliver of moon appeared from behind the clouds, and she looked up.

“Where are you?” she choked, “Where have you gone? Where? Where? … Where?”

An upsurge of grief enveloped her. Powerless to fight it, she clung onto the fence and wept. As the waves passed, she straightened up, pressed her eyes hard with the heels of her hands and turned back to the house. Closing the door, she pulled across the sitting room curtains and flopped into an armchair by the fire. “It’s time for change.” She told the empty chair opposite. “I can’t carry on like this for much longer. It’s putting years on me, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know what I’m for anymore.”

Reaching over to throw on a log, she sank deeper into the cushions and wrapped a throw around her shoulders.

“Did I tell you I’ve signed up with a life coach, Niall? I bet that’d surprise you … me admitting I need help, but I can’t make my way out of a paper hat these days, or is it a paper bag? You’d be able to tell me, wouldn’t you? You’d be laughing now, wouldn’t you … Are you laughing? Are you watching? Are you listening? Are you?”

She swallowed hard.

“Thing is …,” she managed after a while, “I need to get on, but I don’t know what to get on with … I’ve signed up with this woman Caroline knows. We’re going to Zoom. Yes. I Zoom, Niall, you’d be amazed.”


The silence reverberated.

“According to all the books, I’m supposed to see this widow business as an opportunity for growth and do all the things I couldn’t do while you were alive. Whoever’s writing them didn’t have a marriage like ours, did they? You weren’t keeping me from doing anything, so I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve no interest in seeing the Taj Mahal or the pyramids without you. I don’t have a bucket list. Time …” She sighed, glancing up at the mantel clock. “Time … I have too much time on my hands. Turns out I spent a lot of it making our dinner and doing the laundry. Who’d have thought I’d miss washing your socks?”

She smiled, remembering his penchant for polka dots.

“That’s how pathetic I’ve got; I even miss your underwear. I don’t want this. I don’t want a new life without you, but I’ve no choice, do I? I have to find a reason to get out of bed in the mornings. Can you help me? Can you show me what I’m supposed to be doing?”

A log shifted in the grate.

“Is that the best you can do by way of a sign?” She shrugged, heaving herself from the chair and poking the last of the embers. Lifting a silver frame from the mantelpiece, she ran a finger over her wedding photograph.

“I love you, sweetheart.” She whispered. “I love you so very much. I got through another day. How many more will I have without you?”

Resting it down gently, she switched off the light, dragged upstairs to the bedroom, and pulled back the covers on one side of the bed.


Deirdre’s phone buzzed as she was washing the breakfast dishes the next morning. Pushing a strand of hair from her forehead, she shook the suds from her hands and picked up.

“Hang on, Caroline, while I turn down the radio. Okay. I have you on speaker. What did you say?”

“I saw Father Rafferty just now. He said to call him if you need anything before the anniversary mass on Tuesday.”

“Ah! Thanks. It’s unbelievable it’s a year, isn’t it? A whole year. I don’t remember much of it, to tell the God’s honest truth.”

“It’s nothing to the forty-four you had with him.”

“That’s so true.”

Deirdre shook out a dishcloth and swept it across the draining board.

“You got me through it. What would I ever do without you?”

“Hopefully you’ll never have to find out.” Caroline laughed. “It’s as well we don’t know what’s in front of us, isn’t it?

“It is. I feel so old these days.”

“Hauld on, missus! We’re not buying into that one. I saw an interview with Clint Eastwood; he’s ninety-two. They asked him what keeps him working.”

“What did he say?”

“He said ‘I don’t let the old man in.’ Isn’t that just brilliant?! We’re nowhere near his age and we’re not going quietly. Look at your women: Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn … Maya Angelou.”

“Maya Angelou’s dead.” Deirdre offered.

“Well, if you’re going to be a stickler for detail.” Her friend laughed. “Next you’ll be telling me Elvis is dead too.”


“Ha! But you’re right. It’s all about energy isn’t it. Some days it feels like it’s coming back, and then I’ll have a day like yesterday when the waves hit me like a tsunami. I could hardly get out of the chair. I was in bed by eight o’clock.”

“Well, you did get through it, and it’s a new one today. You’re doing great. One day at a time. It’s all any of us has.”

“It is.”

“I’ve the call with Sally in a few minutes.”

“Ah! Great. Let me know how it goes. I think you two will get on great.”

“Will do. I’ll call you later.”

“Okay. Talk soon.”

Deirdre quickly checked her reflection, ran a hand through her hair and pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. She fired up her laptop, angled the screen and waited to join the meeting.

Sally greeted her with an open smile.

“Hello, Deirdre. Lovely to meet you.”

“You too, Sally. Can you see me okay?”

“I can.”

“That’s good.” Deirdre said. “ It’s my first time using Zoom. Caroline showed me the ropes the other day.

“She said you’ve known each other a long time.”

“A very long time. We were at school together from the age of four.”

“Were you really? I was one of her lodgers when she lived in London.”

“I know. She told me you were an absolute delight to have around.”

“How sweet of her. I remember these great suppers. She’s an amazing cook — taught me all about wine. I think of her every time I have a glass of Chablis.”

“She certainly likes her Chablis.” Deirdre laughed.

“I’ve been meaning to get over to Ireland to see her.”

“Well, you must. She’ll make you very welcome. I’m glad she came back home, though. I’d never have got through this year without her. She’s been an absolute rock.”

“I can believe that. I’m so sorry for your loss,” Sally said, dropping her voice. “How do you think I can support you moving forward?”

“Thank you. It’s been a rough ride, that’s for sure, but it’s time to make some changes, and I need some help to figure things out.” She looked over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, could you just bear with me a moment? There’s someone at the door. Wouldn’t you just know it. 

“Sorry, Sally. That was a neighbor checking in about the anniversary mass next week,” she said, coming back to the screen. “There’ll be people here at the house afterwards; she wanted to know if she should make some vegetarian sandwiches but …” Deirdre threw her head back and laughed. “she wasn’t sure what a vegetarian sandwich consists of or how many to make.”

“So what did you suggest?” Sally asked.

“I said I’d make them myself. I don’t want to send her in search of avocados. You can get them at Tesco’s, but I doubt she was planning on going that far. So, where were we?”

“I was asking how I might support you. Maybe you could tell me a little about yourself so we can get to know each other?”

“Ah! Yes. That was it. Where to start? How much time do we have?”

“Plenty, almost an hour.”

There was a long pause.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“Would you prefer me to ask some questions to get us started?”

“Maybe.” Deirdre nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose I’d find it easier to tell you about myself if I knew who I was anymore.” She sighed. “I feel like I’ve lost my sense of identity.”

“In what way?”

“Most of my life I’ve been the other half of a couple. Some part of me doesn’t know how to function on my own now that Niall’s gone … it’s still so hard to believe. You’d think it’d have sunk in by now. I was in grief therapy for months. I’ve prayed, meditated, scoured every book on grief I could lay my hands on. I’ve climbed up the side of that mountain so often, there’s a track where
I walk.”

She gestured towards the window and shook her head.

“I’m exhausted, absolutely wiped. I’m worn out trying to manage this pain every minute of the day and night.”

“I can only imagine. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you …”

Aware that she was sounding more intense than she intended, and that Sally’s brow had furrowed, she changed tack.

“I’ve been journaling. Here look.”

She pulled across a large cardboard box file. “This is full of letters I’ve written to Niall every day, every single day. You’ve no idea how angry I get in some of them. So angry he had to leave me. It doesn’t make any sense. Nothing makes any sense.”

She paused again, a catch in her voice.

“Some days I’d just write what I was doing or thinking. You know, all the little things you never realized you just told someone you live with, like who I bumped into down the road, or that I had a paper cut, or what I was having for my tea. Nobody cares what I have for my tea anymore … and most days neither do I.”

“It sounds like you’ve shown a lot of strength in how you’re handling this,” Sally said quietly.

“I’m doing the very best I can, but I’m going round in circles. I need to move forward, but I don’t know how. I understand that coaching can help someone to get focused and set goals. That’s what I need.”

“Personal development work is exhausting even when we aren’t in the depths of grief. You’ve made enormous progress. Just look at what you’ve achieved — you’re still positive, you’re a fighter, you’re not playing the victim. Don’t be hard on yourself. It may be a cliché, but this is a journey and it’s sometimes helpful to think of it as just that.”

“I’m sorry. Do I sound shrill?”

“Not at all.”

“If I do, it’s only frustration.”

“You don’t. You sound very self-aware.”

“I need guidance. I’ve lost all sense of direction.”

Sally paused.

“Okay. How does this sound? I’ll ask different questions. I’ll ask you what you love doing, how you like to spend your time, what films you watch, what books you read. We’ll build up a picture of Deirdre Macardle together. We’ll look at what you value, what you believe in, where you feel confident, where you feel scared. Then when you’re ready, we’ll begin to work towards a vision of your future.”

Deirdre took a deep breath and heaved a sigh of relief.

“That sounds incredible. Thank you,” she said. “That’s exactly what I need.”

“Great. So let’s start to get to know each other a little. What kind of films do you enjoy?”

Deirdre relaxed into the conversation and closed out of the session with a vague sense of optimism. A vision of my future, she thought, and only when I’m ready to face it.

She sat for a while. The future was still a terrifying prospect. Getting through today had been a challenge. If she looked ahead to Christmas, she panicked. If she thought about money, she had an anxiety attack. The idea of a night out filled her with dread. Clichés had real meaning now: butterflies in the stomach, weak at the knees, breaking into a cold sweat, frozen in the headlights, overwhelmed by grief. Yes, she thought with a wry smile, I can feel fearful, lost, abandoned, and desolate all in the space of a few minutes. It’s like a whole new talent.

Standing up and stretching her arms above her head, she reached down and rested her hands flat on the floor. Grief, she had determined, could do many things, but it would not immobilize her. From the very first days, she had known that she had to keep moving. Unexpectedly, getting out of bed and getting dressed had been the easy part. It was ingrained from childhood; she did that on automatic pilot.

Slowly lifting up, she inhaled deeply. She would go up the mountain as far as the holy well and tell Niall about the conversation, how she was planning on beginning a new chapter. Niall was the only person whose voice she wanted to hear, and she could hear it best in the silence of the mountain by the shrine where they had picnicked together so many times. Pulling on an old pair of boots and grabbing a water bottle and snack, she stepped out into the late morning sunshine. A farmer greeted her down the lane.

“Good morning, Deirdre. Fine day for it,” he said, brandishing a stick back and forth to guide a cow that was wandering into a blackberry hedge. “How’re you doing?”

“Ah! Not so bad, Peter.” She smiled. “How’s your mum getting along?”

“The auld knee’s still bothering her, but she’s driving again. You can’t keep that woman indoors; she’ll see us all out.”

“How old is she now, Peter?”

“Ninety-three coming next month and still winning at whist! Must be off; these creatures’ll be the death of me,” he said, herding the last of the heifers through the gate.

“All the best now.”

As Deirdre turned onto the narrow road leading up to the mountain, she was struck by an alarming thought. Ninety-three! She’s thirty years older than me. What if I’ve another thirty years left? Thirty years on my own? It’s unthinkable.

Reaching the ancient churchyard, she levered the heavy chains from the gates and stepped through the overgrown grass past crumbling tombs to stop at a granite headstone. She perched on the edge of the grave.

“Hello, Mammy,” she whispered, “Not staying long, just couldn’t walk by without saying hello. I ran into Pete McGuinness on the road just now, and he told me Kathleen’s ninety–three, I was thinking you’d have been that same age. You were at school together, weren’t you? It’s such a funny old business, this life thing, isn’t it? I wonder how long I’ve got. Some days I just want to climb right in there next to you, but I can hear you giving out to me, telling me to wise up and get on with living. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

She stopped speaking as a circle of crows flew through the lintel of a doorway into the ruins of the church.

“Okay, then,” she said, once the cacophony had stopped. “I’ll drop by on Tuesday after mass. I’m going to read my favorite Yeats. You remember the one, ‘When You are Old.’ I know that’s what Niall would have picked.” Yanking out at a clump of dandelions from the stonework, she knocked the soil from her hands and stood up.

“Well, I’ll be going now. Bye, Mam. I love you,” she murmured, making her way back to the gate. Determinedly fighting back tears, she turned up an overgrown path at the side of the graveyard. The fastest way to the well was across the fields.

In recent years, the mountain had been named an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” Hiking trails had been carved out for visitors to reach the shrine, and there were roads to the lake at the summit. Deirdre had mixed feelings about it. It was progress in the context of the years of sectarian violence she had lived through, but she felt a protective ownership of this mountain where generations of her family lay buried.

Further up the incline, she negotiated the pebbles across a stream and paused to catch her breath. Then, pushing back brambles from a hawthorn bush, she opened the gate to a derelict cottage that had belonged to her mother’s friend Winifred many years before. Taking out her phone, she snapped a few pictures of cow parsley set against a dry-stone wall, and clambering over a stile, continued climbing until she reached the well. Lifting a bottle of water from her bag, she tore open a packet of crisps and sat on a flat rock.

“I had a great old chat with the life coach, Niall,” she said. “She used to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist; you’d be able to tell me the difference. I’ll have to look it up now.”

She twisted the top of the flask.

“Here’s the thing, Niall. It’s been almost a year and I can’t get you out of my head. I go to bed and there’s this big empty space. I make our coffee, then pour half the pot away. I look to you to finish my sentences. I can’t tell a decent story; you’d always come in with the punchline. But this has got to stop. I can’t spend my days walking endlessly like this and talking out loud like I’m unhinged.”

She finished the last of the crisps and lay down on the grass, relishing the sun on her face, She closed her eyes and listened to the water gushing over the rocks, drifting off for a while then jolting up with a shiver. The sky was darkening rapidly. Pushing the empty bottle and wrapper into her bag, she began making her way down the slope.

“You’d have told me to wear my mac, wouldn’t you, Niall?” she said. “I’ve nobody looking after me anymore … nobody.”

Feeling increasingly desolate, she reached Winifred’s cottage. As she wrestled with the iron gate, a tree branch sprang back and whipped across her face. Outraged by the sting, a mounting fury swelled in her throat. She let out a ferocious scream, then another and another, her primal howls echoing across the hillside as the pain ripped through her. Kicking open the gate, she tore through the fields, running until her knees buckled. Doubling over, she clutched her chest waiting for her heart to stop pounding. Then, steadying her breath, she continued down the mountain.

A car horn honked as she reached the lane. There would be no way of avoiding the neighbor waving to her. She knocked some grass off her sweater and walked across to the car.

“Deirdre. Just the woman I wanted to see. The missus and I were wondering if you’d be up for a bite of dinner on Saturday night? She was going to call you.”

“You know, Peter, I’d like that,” she said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Thank you.”

“Grand. Come over around eight. Can I give you a lift?”

“No thanks. I need the exercise.”

“Fair game to you.” He grinned. “All the best now.” Deirdre watched the car disappear down the road, then walked on. The rain was hitting her shoulders, but she didn’t care. Her screams had been cathartic. Something had shifted. A weight had been lifted. She would walk until this feeling had settled into her bones.

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