When Declan and Tom, friends since schooldays, left Dublin fairly late in the evening of 21st September 2014, Declan was driving Tom's ancient and battered Opel. He probably should not have been driving at all, but he was slightly less drunk than Tom who, in any case, had claimed that he knew, like the back of his hand, the route to Listowel and would make sure they didn't get lost. "Sure, it's the M7 to Limerick and then the N21 home," he said.
Their state of inebriation was largely the result of celebrating the Kerry football team winning their 37th All-Ireland Final at Croke Park and, having spent the first hour or so of their journey debating whether Kieran Donaghy's performance against Donegal that afternoon was even better than the one he put in against Mayo in 2006, Tom forgot all about navigation and fell asleep.
Some time later, he awoke to find the car stopped and Declan standing, having a smoke, at the side of a road which was definitely not the M7.
"What's happening, Declan? Why are you stopped? Where are we? What time is it?
"It's after one and what's happening is that I have absolutely no idea where we are. One thing I am sure about is that there's no petrol in the tank. We're well stuffed."
"Jaysus, Declan, could you not have stopped at one of the petrol stations on the M7?
"It's a long story. I needed a piss but there were so many cars on the road, I was scared of being lifted by the Garda for indecent exposure or something. So I pulled off the motorway, had a piss, and then I took a couple of wrong turns, trying to get back on."
"What was the last signpost you remember before you turned off?"
"I'm pretty sure it was the turn off for Portlaoise."
"Great job, Declan. You are totally useless. We're lost. It's nearly one o'clock in the morning. We're not even halfway to Limerick. Are you sure we've no petrol at all?"
"Tom, I've told you. The car is bone dry. And who was it anyway who knew the road like the back of his hand? You've been lying there snoring and farting for the last hour."
As their voices became louder and the insults grew in their intensity, suddenly a light in a window became visible about 100 metres away from the road.
"Now, you've done it, Declan. The Guards will be here shortly."
"Don't be daft. Maybe we can buy a can of petrol from whoever that is. We could probably get enough that'll take us back to the M7."
"Sure you haven't a clue how far it is to the M7 or even what direction it's in. Tell you what - you stay here. Don't move. I'll go and see if whoever that is might help us out.
Tom headed of in the direction of the light and was gone for what seemed to Declan to be a long time. After about half an hour he returned, with a real smart-ass smile on his face.
"Declan, it's a good job you have me to get us out of all the mess you get us into. Everything is sorted. Come and meet Mary."
Mary was probably in her late thirties, maybe forty, Declan reckoned, about ten yours older than both Tom and himself, and an extremely attractive woman.
"I've been explaining our predicament to Mary," said Tom, and she has very generously offered to put us up for the night - on a bed and breakfast basis, of course, and tomorrow morning she'll get us a can of petrol and we'll be on our way."
Mary headed off to the kitchen to make some tea and sandwiches and immediately Declan started quizzing Tom. "What's the story here?" "What's going on?" "Who is she?" "Do you know her?" "Is she on her own?"
"Declan, you know me. I can lay it on when required. All it took was the 'little boy lost' approach and, in no time at all she was wanting to 'mother' the both of us. She's not married. Her parents left her the farm. She was an only child. She looks after it herself and has no difficulty getting help when it's required. The other local farmers' sons are queueing up to help."
"How in God's name did you find out all that in twenty minutes?"
"Ah, it's a gift I have, Declan."
They chatted with Mary for a short time when she returned and then she showed them to a small bedroom with twin beds. “I’m sorry but you’ll have to share this,” she said, “I only have the two bedrooms.”
The next morning there was a substantial farmhouse breakfast waiting for them when they got up and shortly afterwards they realised that Mary had already been to the local petrol station and their car was ready to go.
When Declan asked her how much they owed her for the bed and breakfast, never mind the petrol and the circumstances of their visit, she smiled and told him that she had been delighted to have been able to play the Good Samaritan and wished them both well.
The rest of the trip home to Listowel was uneventful but there were long discussions about why there were not more people like Mary in the world and how they would have behaved if the situation had been reversed.
After a couple of weeks, the story largely faded into the background but occasionally, usually when the two of them had had a fair amount to drink, there was a reference again to Mary.
All that changed the following June, when Declan received a letter from a solicitor in Portlaoise. He telephoned Tom.
“Tom, it’s Declan here. We need to have a talk - now.”
“Is something the matter?”asked Tom.
“You’ll find out when I see you.”
They met at their usual bar.
“What’s got you so cross?” Tom wanted to know.
“I have some questions for you, my old ‘so-called’ friend. And I want straight and honest answers.”
“Do you remember the night on the way home from Sam?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you remember the girl who put us up for the night?”
“I certainly do.”
“Do you remember she put us both into a twin bedded room?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Did you leave that room during the night?”
“Did you go into her room?”
“And, by any chance, did the pair of you have a great romp between the sheets?”
“Yes, Declan, we did. In fact, it was fabulous - one of the best - but what is this all about?”
“Tom, I have just one more question to ask.”
“Why, in God’s name, did you tell Mary you were me? Why did you say your name was Declan Walsh?”
There was a long pause as if Tom was about to deny it, but then he finally said, “I really am sorry, Declan. I told her that simply because I’m married. And because you’re not. I didn’t want my Ciara ever finding out about it. But how on earth could you have found that out?”
“Do you remember how long ago that night was? It was nine months ago, Tom. I got a letter this morning from her solicitor in Portlaoise that made it very obvious.”
“No. No, I don’t believe it. Declan, please tell me she hasn’t had a baby and said that you’re the father.”
“No, Tom”, Declan smiled, “that’s not what happened at all. She died suddenly a couple of months ago and left me the farm.”