This Is How It Ends

A Novel


By Kathleen MacMahon

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This is when it begins

Fall, 2008.

This is where it begins

The coast of Dublin, Ireland.

This is why it begins

Bruno, an American, has come to Ireland to search for his roots. Addie, an out-of-work architect, is recovering from heartbreak while taking care of her infirm father. When their worlds collide, they experience a connection unlike any they’ve previously felt, but soon a tragedy will test them-and their newfound love-in ways they never imagined possible.

This is how it ends . . .

A story you will never forget.


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Chapter 1

IT WAS A WET MONDAY morning in mid-autumn when Bruno Boylan finally set foot in the land of his forefathers.

He was traveling on a four-hundred-dollar return fare that he'd purchased just days beforehand from the comfort of his own home. A couple of clicks of the mouse and a sixteen-digit credit card number. No ticket, just an e-mail printout and a magic code. No delays, no stopovers, no adverse weather conditions for the crossing. He'd stayed awake through the drinks cart and the meal. He'd read his book for a while. Then he'd popped a Xanax, slicing hours off the flight time in one fell swoop. He was traveling light. All he had with him was a small backpack and a canvas bag in the hold. There was nothing whatsoever to suggest that this was anything in the nature of an epic journey.

The ping of the PA system woke him. He opened his eyes to find himself curled pathetically towards the wall of the plane for comfort, his face squashed against the window blind.

He hauled himself up to a sitting position, leaning his head back against the head rest. Closing his eyes again, he sat there without moving, waiting for a voice to come.

He became aware of an overwhelming physical discomfort. His back ached, and his knees were locked hard, they cracked when he tried to straighten them out. His butt hurt from sitting for so long. He needed to pee. The detritus of the journey was scattered around him. The thin blanket across his knees, the tangled earphones in his lap. His book was wedged somewhere underneath him, but he was so numb he couldn't even feel it. His shoes were under the seat. Soon he would have to find them and get his feet back into them. He allowed himself one more moment to savor the luxurious feeling of his socks on the carpeted floor.

Another ping and the pilot's voice spread over the cabin. Bruno could hear him only in snatches, but he could guess what he was saying. He could fill in the gaps. They would shortly be beginning their descent. Something about the weather in Dublin, Bruno couldn't catch it. He nudged up the blind and looked out at thick white cloud. All he could see was the wing of the plane, strangely still.

He turned his attention to the little blue screen on the back of the seat in front of him. A moving map, all it showed was a blunt outline of the East Coast of America, the huge expanse of the Atlantic, and then the outline of Ireland and England up in the right-hand corner. A sweeping arc traced the trajectory of the flight, the dotted line ending in a virtual plane. The model plane was almost on top of Ireland now. It was so far out of scale that it was about to block out the entire country.

Bruno's mind shifted a gear. He experienced an unexpected moment of panic, a sickly feeling that he should have prepared himself for this arrival. He wasn't ready for it. He shouldn't have slept. He should have stayed awake the whole time. He should have been present for the journey. He remembered something he'd been told once: that American Indians sit in the airport after they arrive somewhere, that they like to give their spirits a chance to catch up with their bodies. Suddenly, that made complete sense to Bruno. His body was out of whack with his spirit, and he needed time to catch up.

The screen in front of him changed. Now it was showing a list of statistics. Time to destination, 0:23 minutes.

He had to use the time. He had to straighten it all out in his head.

Three weeks since he'd lost his job, three weeks that seemed like three years. Or three days, or three hours. It made no sense. It seemed like a lifetime ago and yet it was all so fresh, the wounds still open and raw.

A month to go to the election. The wait was unbearable. You had to convince yourself that time was marching on like it always does, that any day now it would all be over and you would know the outcome. But the wait was still unbearable.

And here was Bruno, suspended in the air between these two points, 0:21 minutes to destination. He imagined himself as a little man on the moving map, a crude gingerbread cutout. He plotted his journey right along that sweeping arc across the ocean. He was just tracing the line with his finger when, without warning, the screen went black.

The PA system kicked into action again and the cabin lights came up. The seat-belt signs were turned on and the cabin crew started moving through the plane handing out immigration cards. Blinking in the vicious light, Bruno filled his card out carefully with the ballpoint pen they'd given him. Once he'd finished, he discovered he had nowhere to put the card. He tucked it into the inside cover of his book and held the book closed in his lap.

A slow descent through the clouds, there was Bruno hunched at the window, peering hopefully out at nothing. All he could see was the rain streaking the outside of the window, the gray expanse of the plane's wing plowing on through dense white air. There was no way of knowing how close they were to the ground.

Suddenly, there was green outside the window. There was wet grass rushing by and a red-and-white-striped wind sock and a low gray building and the terrible sound of the wheels briefly hitting the ground and then bouncing off it again. A messy landing, the body of the aircraft swung violently to the left and then to the right before finally steadying itself as the brakes took hold. Bruno held on to the back of the seat in front of him with his two hands to stop himself from falling forward.

As the plane wheeled in towards the terminal building, he had a giddy sense of elation. After all these years, he had finally done it. Thirty years since that deathbed promise and it had been haunting him ever since. Now it was done. For a moment he imagined that he could just stay on the plane and go right back. Until it occurred to him, there was nothing to go back to.

His spine shuddered as he leaned over to grope for his shoes on the floor. He stuffed his earphones into the pouch on the back of the seat. Unclipped his seat belt. Sat there, longing to brush his teeth.

The plane jolted to a stop and there was a big exhale as the doors were opened. Immediately people were up and delving into the overhead compartments to retrieve their stuff. A moment or two waiting for the order to move, then they were shuffling along with their heads bowed like prisoners in a chain gang. Bruno shunted himself over to the aisle seat, heaved himself onto his feet, and stretched up to get his carry-on down. Then he moved with the line towards the door of the aircraft. He nodded at the stewardess and stepped out into the plastic tunnel connecting the plane to the terminal building. He began the gentle climb up the walkway, following the people ahead of him. There was a strange comfort in being part of this orderly procession, like being on a pilgrimage.

As he crossed over the elbow joint, it wobbled under him, as if it were a floating jetty. His stomach wobbled with it. He felt light as a balloon. He took his bag off his shoulder and let it hang down towards the floor, clutching it for ballast. Without it, he imagined he might just float up into the air.



On a clear day you can see Dublin Bay laid out below you as you come in to land. Dun Laoghaire harbor way over to the left, Portmarnock to the right. Between them the vast empty stretch of Sandymount strand.

From the beach you can watch the planes arriving, a steady stream of them moving silently across the sky. They appear way out to sea, coming in on a gentle gradient above Howth Head and gliding along the south wall. Then they disappear noiselessly down into the city.

The planes are so much a feature of the landscape that Addie seldom notices them. The same with the smoke from the chimneys at Poolbeg, the same with the car ferries lunking their way along the horizon towards Dun Laoghaire. The clouds and the seabirds and the sea itself. Addie takes no notice of any of these things. She's so caught up in her own head, she doesn't notice anything else.

The beach is where she was born, pretty much.

She was five days old when they brought her home. She was carried out of the car in her mother's arms, a tiny bundle wrapped up in a purple angora blanket, a wool hat pulled down over her forehead and her ears. Her mother climbed the steps up to the front door, pausing at the top to turn back to face the sea.

Her father had the door open already. He had stepped into the hall and he was beckoning for her mother to follow. Come on in, woman, for God's sake, he said. You'll freeze out there.

But her mother stood on the steps for another moment with Addie in her arms, gulping in the cold sea air. It was heaven after the sticky heat of the hospital and she couldn't get her fill of it. It never occurred to her that her newborn daughter too was drinking in that salty air, that she was pulling it down into her spongy little lungs. Some of it must have made its way right down into her soul.

That's how Addie feels now. She feels as if the beach is a part of her. It's her special place, it's probably what's keeping her sane.

The beach is deserted at this hour of the morning, there's nobody around but herself and the little dog. The tide is out and the clouds are hanging low over the sand, you can almost feel the pressure of them on your head. The forecast is for rain, but there's no sign of it yet.

Addie walks straight for the waterline. She's half a mile out and still the sea seems no closer. It must be a very low tide. There are some puddles now, more and more of them, so she doesn't go any farther. She doesn't want to get her feet wet. It's starting to get cold, and she really should be wearing her boots. But she doesn't, she prefers to wear her runners. That way she can feel the ridges of the sand through the soles of her shoes. It makes her feel solid, the sensation of the hard sand under her feet.

All her life Addie has had the feeling that there's a black cloud following her around. These days she feels like that cloud has finally caught up with her. The beach is the only place where she has the sense that she can outwalk it.

Out on the beach she can talk to herself. She can sing along to her iPod and no one can hear her. She can scream if she wants to and sometimes she does. She screams and then she laughs at herself for screaming. Out on the beach, she can think about all the things that have happened. She can sift them, backwards and forwards in her head. She can cry hot tears of self-pity. She feels guilty about crying in front of the dog, but afterwards she feels much better. She feels almost content.

The dog is scrabbling in the sand for something that isn't there. She's shoveling wet sand with her front paws, tossing it back between her hind legs. A big pile is building up behind her and her whole underbelly is filthy, but she doesn't seem to notice. Addie stands there and watches the dog working away at her pointless task. Sure let her at it, she thinks, isn't she happy.

Addie throws her head back and looks up at the sky. She's studying it, as if she's looking for something up there. It occurs to her that she'd love to travel out into space, she'd love to look down at the world from out there. If she could see the world from the outside, maybe then she'd be able to gain a bit of perspective on her situation.

She turns and faces back towards the shore. Even from here, she's able to pick out the house. It's the putty-colored one in the middle of a terrace of smudgy pastels. Three large windows looking out over the sea, two upstairs, one down.

He'll be sitting in the downstairs window. She can't see him from here, but she knows he's there. She knows he can see her. He's watching out for her. It makes her reluctant to go back in.

She takes her iPod out of her pocket and scrolls down through the menu. It takes her a moment to find what she's looking for. She selects the track and slides the lock over to stop it from slipping before she puts it back in her pocket. Then she pushes her shoulders back and raises her face to the wind as she waits for it to start.

A piece of music for a soprano, and Addie's voice is anything but. That doesn't stop her from joining in. She sings along heartily, imagining herself to be in perfect harmony:


"I know that my redeemer liveth…"


She doesn't know all the words but it doesn't matter. It feels so good to sing. There's a lot of repetition of the bits she knows.


"I know that my redeemer liveth…"


She throws her head back and closes her eyes as she sings. There's no one around to hear her, and anyway, she wouldn't care if there was. The dog pays no heed to the singing. She's well used to it.

Addie's striding back towards the shore now, the little dog whirling around her feet as she goes. Behind her, the sky is black and angry, the rain only moments away. The line of the horizon is interrupted by an awkward cargo ship. It's just sitting there, blocking the view. The chimneys are still pouring smoke out into the air, the smoke pale against the darkness of the sky. The aircraft warning lights are blinking intermittently.

Out beyond Howth Head, another plane comes down out of the clouds and begins the gentle slide towards Dublin Airport.


COMING THROUGH passport control, Bruno suddenly felt too old for all this.

So long since he'd done any traveling, he'd forgotten how physical it was. The rubbery legs, the parched throat. The creaking bowels.

"Reason for your visit?"

"Political refugee," said Bruno in a moment of madness.

The guy looked up at him with raised eyebrows. Surely he wasn't old enough to be a policeman, he only looked about twelve. He had bright orange hair, hair the color of a carrot. So that wasn't just a stereotype.

Bruno came to his senses.

"I'm only kidding," he said. He tried to summon up some charm, leaning in towards the booth in a conspiratorial fashion. Aware now of the line forming behind him.

"I was stretching a point," he said. "I'm actually here on vacation. Until after the election. Look, November fifth."

He held up the printout of his ticket, but the guy didn't even bother to look at it. He was scrutinizing Bruno's face.

"Fair enough," he said.

He raised his stamp and brought it down with a little thump on the page. Closing the passport, he handed it back to Bruno. Slowly, as if he had all day.

"Tell you what," he said. "If that crowd are still in charge after the election, come back to me, and we'll give you asylum all right."

Bruno wasn't sure if he'd heard him right.

"No offense, now," the young policeman added, worried all of a sudden that he'd gone too far.

"No offense taken."

And Bruno was tempted to say something else but he didn't. He slipped the passport into the pocket of his jacket, picked up his carry-on bag, and moved off.

He was still smiling to himself as he waited at the baggage carousel. Fancy that, he thought. Back home, joke with an immigration official and they start taking out the rubber gloves.

But it got him to thinking. By the time he'd spotted his bag snaking towards him, he'd made a pact with himself.

If the Republicans win, I'm not going back.


THE RAIN STARTED just as she was turning her key in the basement door. A spill of rain, sudden and violent. She dashed inside and slammed the door behind her. The dog only just managed to squeeze through the gap in time.

"We just about made it, Lola. We would have been drenched!"

She's been talking to the dog more and more lately. Sometimes she finds herself addressing full conversations to her. It can't be a good sign.

Lola was hovering at the empty water bowl, standing there with her tail swaying expectantly. Addie took the bowl and filled it up from the tap and Lola drank noisily, emptying the bowl in seconds.

Then Addie filled the kettle from the neck and switched it on, leaning back against the counter while she waited for it to boil.

She glanced over at the clock on the wall and saw that it wasn't even ten. She had the whole day ahead of her, the whole morning and then the whole afternoon and after that the evening. Suddenly, she couldn't face the thought of it. She couldn't for the life of her think how she would get through it.

As she stood there, leaning against the kitchen counter, a tiny puff of optimism took hold of her. She seized upon the possibility that she could visit Della. She could text her and suggest they meet for coffee. An upbeat text, she wouldn't want to come across as needy. But then she remembered that today was Della's library day. She had signed up to help in the school library. She wouldn't be free for coffee. Addie felt the tears rising in her throat. She found herself yet again peering into a deep well of despair.

Do you ever feel like doing yourself harm? That was the only thing that the counselor had wanted to know. She was just covering herself. She was terrified Addie was going to kill herself and she'd be held responsible. So she kept asking, do you ever think about doing yourself harm and Addie said no, even though it was a dirty lie.

How many times a day does Addie think about it? More than two, fewer than five, the fingers of one hand. She thinks about it and then she thinks about the reasons not to. Lola. Her dad. Della and the girls. The possibility that things will get better.

It flits across her mind and then it floats away again. She knows it's not an option. She's just turning the handle of a door she already knows is locked.

Lola was sitting on the ground in front of her, her head elegantly raised, her tragic spaniel eyes fixed on Addie's.

"Don't," begged Addie, her voice cracking. "You'll make me cry. Please don't make me cry."

And she got down on her hunkers and wrapped her arms gently around the dog's wet little body, burying her face in the fur at the back of her neck. She closed her eyes and collapsed into the dog for comfort. Lola staggered and then steadied herself to take Addie's weight. A smell of damp sand, of salty shells and the creatures inside them, it was overpowering. Addie had to pull away. She got to her feet again just as the kettle reached the boiling point and switched itself off.

A small victory, she had managed to regain her equilibrium. She made the coffee and heated some milk for it in the microwave. There was enough hot milk left over for another cup, but that was as far as she would allow herself to plan ahead. She took her cup over to the table and sat down. She sipped the hot, milky coffee, looking out through the patio doors at the rain falling on the back garden. Concentrating on just the coffee and the rain, she was determined not to think about anything else.

She was just about to get up and fill her cup again when she heard a pounding on the ceiling above her. One, two, three short thumps, the signal that he needed something.

She forced herself to sit there for another minute before she went up to him.


OUTSIDE THE TERMINAL BUILDING, there was a line for taxis. Groups of people in their summer clothes with sunburned skin were pushing trolleys piled high with big cases. Everybody seemed to be smoking. Bruno felt out of place and very alone.

When he got to the front of the line, an usher waved him forward.

"How many?"

"Just one," said Bruno apologetically.

He opened the door of the taxi and tossed his bags inside, then he climbed in after them. He leaned back against the seat, relieved that the trip was nearly over. It was a moment before he realized that the driver had turned around. He was looking back at Bruno expectantly.

The driver was saying something, but Bruno couldn't understand him. He was having trouble with the accent.

"Pardon me?"

"I said I'm not a mind reader. You'll have to tell me where you're going."

"Oh," said Bruno cheerfully. "I'm going to Sandymount. Could you take me to Sandymount, please?"

He hardly had the words out of his mouth before they were pulling away from the curb.

Bruno leaned forward into the gap between the two front seats.

"Do you happen to know any hotels or bed-and-breakfasts in Sandymount?" he asked. "I need a place to stay."

The driver looked back at Bruno through the rearview mirror.

"Anywhere in particular in Sandymount?"

"Is there a beach? Maybe we could find something near the beach."

The driver was still looking at him. "Fair enough," he said. He sounded unconvinced.

"I have family there," added Bruno. But the driver didn't seem interested.

Sandymount. That was all his sister had been able to remember. She'd written it down for him on a scrap of paper and he'd copied it into the inside cover of his guidebook. "They lived right on the beach," his sister had said. But that was all she could recall. There was no guarantee they'd still be living there.

He would look them up in the phone book, that was the first thing to do. And if they weren't listed, he could always start asking around. Somebody was bound to know them. Even if they'd moved, maybe there would be a forwarding address, maybe someone would know where to find them. As the taxi sped through the city, Bruno worked through all the scenarios. He worked through them methodically and he came up with solutions. The only thing he didn't contemplate was the possibility that they wouldn't want to see him. It never even occurred to him.

The taxi swung round a tight little traffic island. Then they drove over a wide, ugly bridge. To Bruno's right, the river cut a path all the way through the city. Low gray buildings lined the quays on either side of the strip of quiet gray water. When he turned to the left he was looking at boats. Cruise liners and cargo ships leaned against the quay wall, little yachts moored precariously in the middle of the river. Beyond them, he imagined, must be the sea.

The taxi stopped in a line for a tollbooth. In the silence Bruno became aware of the car radio. The accent of the woman reading the news was delightful to him. He leaned forward in his seat to savor it. To Bruno, it was a voice from the past.

"The latest polls from the United States show the Democratic candidate Barack Obama gaining on his Republican rival John McCain in the key battleground states. In Ohio, where voters have chosen the winner in the last eleven elections, Senator Obama now holds a three percent lead over Senator McCain. The two candidates are due to go head to head in a second televised debate tonight."

Bruno smiled.

So much for getting away from it all.


OF COURSE IT'S SO obvious now, in retrospect. It's hard to imagine that it could have turned out any other way.

When you see this guy, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, his long arm draped in front of him to deliver that famous left-handed signature. When you see his lanky frame emerging from the entrails of Air Force One, his palms held up to the cameras, his lovely wife standing beside him, he looks like he belongs there. It's hard to imagine anyone else in his place.

When you turn on the news and you hear them say, for the hundredth time, that the property market is in free fall. When you hear them predict that the recession will be deeper than expected, that the bill for it will be bigger, you're not really surprised. Because it seems pretty clear that it was always going to turn out this way. It seems like things have reached their natural conclusion.


On Sale
Aug 7, 2012
Page Count
352 pages

Kathleen MacMahon

About the Author

Kathleen MacMahon is a former radio and television journalist with Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE. The granddaughter of the distinguished short story writer Mary Lavin, Kathleen lives in Dublin with her husband and twin daughters. This is How it Ends, her first novel, was published in 20 countries and was a #1 bestseller in Ireland.

Learn more about this author