Exclusive: POSTSCRIPT is Cecelia Ahern's much-anticipated sequel to her debut best-selling novel 'PS, I Love You'. At IMAGE.ie, we are beyond excited to publish an exclusive chapter, continuing the story of Holly Kennedy and Gerry Clarke. Make a cuppa, sit back and get ready to enjoy this wonderful read...
‘Are you ready?’ my sister Ciara asks me quietly as we take our positions on bean bags at the head of the shop while the crowd hums, waiting for the show to begin. We’re sitting in the window of her vintage and second-hand shop, Magpie, where I’ve worked with Ciara for the past three years. Once again, we’ve transformed the shop to an event space where her podcast, How to Talk about . . ., will be recorded in front of an audience. Tonight, however, I’m not in my usual safe place, servicing the wine and cupcake table. Instead, I have given in to the persistent requests of my beleaguering yet adventurous and fearless little sister, to be a guest on this week’s episode, ‘How to Talk about Death’. I regretted my yes as soon as the word left my lips and that regret has reached astronomical intensity by the time I sit down and am faced by the small audience.
The rails and display stands of clothing and accessories have been pushed to the walls and five rows of six fold-up seats fill the shop floor. We cleared the front window so Ciara and I could sit at an elevated height while, outside, people racing home from work throw passing glances at the moving mannequins sitting on bean bags in the window.
‘Thanks for doing this.’ Ciara reaches out and squeezes my clammy hand.
I smile faintly, assessing the damage control of pulling out this minute, but I know it’s not worth it. I must honour my commitment.
She kicks off her shoes and pulls her bare feet up on to the bean bag, feeling perfectly at home in this space. I clear my throat and the sound reverberates around the shop through the speakers, where thirty expectant, curious faces stare back at me. I squeeze my sweaty hands together and look down at the notes I’ve been furiously compiling like a frazzled student before an exam ever since Ciara asked me to do this. Fragmented thoughts scribbled as inspiration seized me, but none of them make sense at the moment. I can’t see where one sentence begins and another one ends.
Live event: Cecelia Ahern in Dublin Sept 21 - get tickets now
Mum is sitting in the front row, seats away from my friend Sharon who is in the aisle seat, where she has more space for her double buggy. A pair of little feet, one sock hanging on for dear life, one sock off, peeks out from beneath a blanket in the buggy, and Sharon holds her six-month-old baby in her arms. Her six-year-old son Gerard sits on one side of her, eyes on his iPad, ears covered by headphones, and her four-year-old son is dramatically declaring he’s bored and has slumped so low in the chair only his head rests against the base of the back of the chair. Four boys in six years; I appreciate her coming here today. I know that she’s been up since the crack of dawn. I know how long it took her to leave the house, before entering it again three more times for something she forgot. She’s here, my warrior friend. She smiles at me, her face a picture of exhaustion, but ever the supportive friend.
‘Welcome, everybody, to the fourth episode of the Magpie podcast,’ Ciara begins. ‘Some of you are regulars here – Betty, thank you for supplying us all with your delicious cupcakes; and thanks to Christian for the cheese and wine.’
I search the crowd for Gabriel. I’m quite sure he’s not here, I specifically ordered him not to attend, though that wasn’t necessary. As someone who keeps his private life to himself and has a firm check on his emotions, the idea of me discussing my private life with strangers boggled his mind. We may have strongly debated it but right now, I couldn’t agree with him more.
‘I’m Ciara Kennedy, owner of Magpie, and recently I decided it would be a good idea to do a series of podcasts titled ‘How to Talk about . . .’ featuring the charities that receive a percentage of the proceeds of this business. This week we’re talking about death – specifically grief and bereavement – and we have Claire Byrne from Bereave Ireland with us, and also some of those who benefit from the wonderful work that Bereave do. The proceeds of your ticket sales and generous donations will go directly to Bereave. Later, I’ll be talking to Claire about the important, tireless work they do in assisting those who have lost loved ones, but first
I’d like to introduce my special guest, Holly Kennedy, who just so happens to be my sister. You’re finally here!’ Ciara exclaims excitedly, and the audience applaud.
‘I am,’ I laugh nervously.
‘Ever since I started the podcast last year, I’ve been pestering my sister to take part. I’m so glad you’re doing this.’ She reaches across and takes my hand, holds it. ‘Your story has touched my life profoundly, and I’m sure that so many people will benefit from hearing about the journey you’ve been on.’
‘Thank you. I hope so.’? I notice my notes quivering in my hand and I let go of Ciara’s hand to still it.? ‘“How to Talk about Death” – it’s not an easy topic. We are so comfortable with talking about our lives, about how we are living, about how to live better, that often the conversation about death is an awkward one, and not fully explored. I couldn’t think of anyone else that I would rather have this conversation about grief with. Holly, please tell us how death affected you.’
I clear my throat. ‘Seven years ago I lost my husband Gerry to cancer. He had a brain tumour. He was thirty years old.’
No matter how many times I say it, my throat tightens. That part of the story is still real, still burns inside me hot and bright. I look quickly to Sharon for support and she rolls her eyes dramatically and yawns. I smile. I can do this.
‘We’re here to talk about grief, so what can I tell you? I’m not unique, death affects all of us, and as many of you here today know, grief is a complex journey. You can’t control your grief, most of the time it feels like it’s in control of you. The only thing you can control is how you deal with it.’
‘You say that you’re not unique,’ Ciara says, ‘but everybody’s personal experience is unique and we can learn from one another. No loss is easier than another, but do you think because you and Gerry grew up together that it made his loss more intense? Ever since I was a child, there was no Holly without Gerry.’
I nod and as I explain the story of how Gerry and I met, I avoid looking at the crowd, to make it easier, as if I’m talking to myself exactly as I rehearsed in the shower. ‘I met him in school when I was fourteen years old. From that day on I was Gerry and Holly. Gerry’s girlfriend. Gerry’s wife. We grew up together, we learned from each other. I was twenty-nine when I lost him and became Gerry’s widow. I didn’t just lose him and I didn’t just lose a part of me, I really felt like I lost me. I had no sense of who I was. I had to rebuild myself.’
A few heads nod. They know. They all know, and if they don’t know yet, they’re about to.
‘Poo poo,’ says a voice from the buggy, before giggling. Sharon hushes her toddler. She reaches into a giant bag and emerges with a strawberry-yoghurt-covered rice cake. The rice cake disappears into the buggy. The giggling stops.
‘How did you rebuild?’ Ciara asks.
It feels odd telling Ciara something she lived through with me and so I turn and focus on the audience, on the people who weren’t there. And when I see their faces, a switch is flicked inside me. This is not about me. Gerry did something special and I’m going to share it on his behalf, with people who are hungry to know. ‘Gerry helped me. Before he died he had a secret plan.’
‘Dun, dun, dun!’ Ciara announces to laughter. I smile and look at the expectant faces.
I feel excitement at the reveal, a renewed reminder of how utterly unique the year after his death was, yet over time its significance has faded in my memory. ‘He left me ten letters, to be opened in the months after his passing, and he signed off each note with “PS, I Love You”.’
The audience are visibly moved and surprised. They turn to each other and share looks and whispers, the silence has been broken. Sharon’s baby starts to cry. She hushes him and rocks him, tapping on his soother repetitively, a faraway look in her eyes.
Ciara speaks up over the baby’s grumbling. ‘When I asked you to do this podcast, you were very specific about the fact you didn’t want to concentrate on Gerry’s illness. You wanted to talk about the gift he gave you.’
I shake my head, firmly. ‘No. I don’t want to talk about his cancer, about what he had to go through. My advice, if you want it, is to try not to fixate on the dark. There is enough of that. I would rather talk to people about hope.’
Ciara’s eyes shine at me proudly. Mum clasps her hands together tightly.
‘The path that I took was to focus on the gift he gave me, and that was the gift that losing him gave me: finding myself. I don’t feel less of a person, nor am I ashamed to say that Gerry’s death broke me. His letters helped me to find myself again. It took losing him to make me discover a part of myself that I never knew existed.’ I’m lost in my words and I can’t stop. I need them to know. If I was sitting in the audience seven years ago, I would need to hear. ‘I found a new and surprising strength inside of me, I found it at the bottom of a dark and lonely place, but I found it. And unfortunately, that’s where we find most of life’s treasures. After digging, toiling in the darkness and dirt, we finally hit something concrete. I learned that rock bottom can actually be a springboard.’
Led by an enthusiastic Ciara, the audience applauds.
Sharon’s baby’s cries turn to screams, a high-pitched piercing sound as though his legs are being sawn off. The toddler throws his rice cake at the baby. Sharon stands and throws an apologetic look in our direction before setting off down the aisle, steering the double buggy with one hand while carrying the crying baby in the other, leaving the older two with my mum. As she clumsily manoeuvres the buggy to the exit, she bumps into a chair, mows down bags sticking out into the aisle, their straps and handles getting caught up in the wheels, muttering apologies as she goes.
Ciara is holding back her next question until Sharon has gone.
Sharon crashes the buggy into the exit door in an effort to push it open. Mathew, Ciara’s husband, rushes to assist her by holding the door open, but the double buggy is too wide. In her panic, Sharon crashes time and time again into the doorframe. The baby is screaming, the buggy is banging and Mathew tells her to stop while he unlocks the bottom of the door. Sharon looks up at us with a mortified expression. I mimic her earlier expression and roll my eyes and yawn. She smiles gratefully before fleeing.
‘We can edit that part out,’ Ciara jokes. ‘Holly, apart from Gerry leaving letters for you after his death, did you feel his presence in any other way?’
‘You mean, did I see his ghost?’ Some members of the audience chuckle, others are desperate for a yes. ‘His energy,’ Ciara says. ‘Whatever you want to call it.’ I pause to think, to summon the feeling. ‘Death, oddly, has a physical presence; death can feel like the other person in the room. The gaps that loved ones leave, the not being there, is visible, so sometimes there were moments when Gerry felt more alive than the people around me.’ I think back to those lonely days and nights when I was caught between the real world and trapped in my mind. ‘Memories can be very powerful. They can be the most blissful escape, and place to explore, because they summoned him again for me. But beware, they can be a prison too. I’m grateful that Gerry left me his letters, because he pulled me out of all those black holes and came alive again, allowing us to make new memories together.’
‘And now? Seven years on? Is Gerry still with you?’
I pause. Stare at her, eyes wide, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I flounder. No words come to me. Is he?
‘I’m sure Gerry will always be a part of you,’ Ciara says softly, sensing my state. ‘He will always be with you,’ she says, seeming to reassure me, as if I’ve forgotten.
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Dissolved, besprinkled particles of matter around me.
‘Absolutely.’ I smile tightly. ‘Gerry will always be with me.’
The body dies, the soul, the spirit lingers. Some days in the year following Gerry’s death, I felt as though Gerry’s energy was inside me, building me up, making me stronger, turning me into a fortress. I could do anything. I was untouchable. Other days I felt his energy and it shattered me to a million pieces. It was a reminder of what I’d lost. I can’t. I won’t. The universe took the greatest part of my life and because of that I was afraid it could take everything else too. And I realise that all those days were precious days because, seven years later, I don’t feel Gerry with me at all.
Lost in the lie I’ve just told, I wonder if it sounded as empty as it felt. Still, I’m almost done. Ciara invites the audience to ask questions and I relax a little, sensing the end is in sight. Third row, fifth person in, tissue squashed and rolled up in her hand, mascara smudged around her eyes.
‘Hi, Holly, my name is Joanna. I lost my husband a few months ago, and I wish he had left letters for me like your husband did. Could you tell us, what did his last letter say?’
‘I want to know what they all said,’ somebody speaks out, and there are murmurs of agreement.
‘We have time to hear them all, if Holly is comfortable with that,’ Ciara says, checking with me.
I take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. I haven’t thought about the letters for so long. As a concept I have, but not individually, not in order, not exactly. Where to start. A new bedside lamp, a new outfit, a karaoke night, sunflower seeds, a birthday trip away with friends . . . how could they understand how important all of those seemingly insignificant things were to me? But the last letter . . . I smile. That’s an easy one. ‘His final letter read: Don’t be afraid to fall in love again.’
They cling to that one, a beautiful one, a fine and valiant ending on Gerry’s part. Joanna isn’t as moved as the others. I see the disappointment and confusion in her eyes. The despair. So deep in her grief, it’s not what she wanted to hear. She’s still holding on to her husband, why would she consider letting go?
I know what she’s thinking. She couldn’t possibly love again. Not like that.
POSTSCRIPT, by Cecelia Ahern, will be published in Ireland on September 19th. It is published by HarperCollins UK.
Pre-order a limited signed edition of POSTSCRIPT now: http://smarturl.it/
“I dreamed of a cover that was elegant, sophisticated and original. Working with my publishers, we tried a few routes before the idea of ink came to me. Ink represents the handwritten letter and ink drops are also similar to tear drops…they represented so perfectly what the book was about. I wanted to ensure that the cover was evocative and emotional. I love where we ended up. It’s absolutely beautiful - Cecelia on the beautiful cover of 'POSTSCRIPT'
Read more: Cecelia Ahern confirms she is releasing a sequel to 'PS, I Love You'