A short story by NUALA NÍ CHONCHÚIR
BRINE GETS INTO your blood when you live beside the sea; it gets into your bones. You flow with a watery energy that carries you along. But you become tough and unwieldy too, like salt-cured fish. I haven’t always been a shore dweller but ending up here with Luke made me feel at peace. I live above Squidinky, my tattoo parlour, and at night I hear the sea shushing and the tourists who patter by, drunk on beer and each other.
Lying in bed I pluck sleep crystals from my eyes, stretch until my bones click, then heave myself up because my bladder is leading me to the bathroom. To my daily surprise, the mirror above the sink tells me that I am old. Hovering in front of it I examine my shirred jowls and the yellow tinge to the waterlines of my eyes.
“Not too bad,” I announce, because if I say it enough it might be so.
Sunny days clang here: children beat buckets with spades, the ice cream van tinkles O Sole Mio and parents whine and smile. There is such pleasure in letting all life take place outside my window to those who come to the sea in search of happiness and escape. They are right to come here. This is the home of happy.
I won’t open Squidinky today; the skins of a few more people can stay blank until tomorrow – things are slow in the spring anyway. This is a day for walking and relaxing; for air in the throat. After my porridge, I wrap my slacks into my socks and pull on rubber boots. Luke’s green cape coat will keep me cocooned if the wind is high.
Outside, the town is morning quiet and there’s a tang of fish-rot. I head along Walk and Run Avenue to the top of the terraces, planning to end up at the pebble beach. I pass the ghost hotel that sits on one wing of the town; there’s a ghost estate on the other. Refugees from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast used to live in the hotel but they are gone now, taking with them their turbans and kaftans, their firm-faced children. They had a church service above the Spar every weekend and it oozed joy: they sang and clapped and shouted. I often stood outside to soak it in after buying my few messages.
I continue along the avenue; pansies the residents have planted along the tops of stone walls curl their faces away from me like shy babies. I have the streets to myself and I savour the slap-and-echo of the soles of my boots on the footpath. The avenue feels long today but not in a bad way; it is uncluttered except for parked cars. I always relish that feeling of being queen of the town when I take an early walk. The sea glints through the gaps in the houses and I glance at it, anticipating the soothe of its blue expanse when I get to the beach.
The bench above the strand is occupied and I am put out. Who is this sitting on my seat? As I draw nearer, I see that the man on the bench is wearing socks and sandals. The first thing I always look at is people’s shoes, don’t ask me why. He turns to me and raises his hand.
“Hello!” he shouts, as if we are friends. I nod and go to take the steps down on to the beach but he pats the bench. “Sit, sit. Come and take a seat here. Look at the view!” He tosses his hand at the bay as if he owns it.
“I’ll sit for a minute,” I say.
This is my bench. Well, it’s Luke’s bench; I put it here for him after he died, replacing the wooden one with the fraying slats. On a cold day it is not as warm as the old seat but the council said steel would weather better. I am possessive about this bench, about its position overlooking the bay and the two lighthouses – Luke’s favourite view. I sit at the opposite end to the man and stare out to sea. A messy cloud, like the aftermath of an explosion, hangs over the horizon.
“If you just looked at that little slice,” the man says, making a frame around the cloud with his fingers, “you’d think all was not well.” He lowers his hands. “But of course, all is well.” He looks at me, his worn face alive with smiles.
“Is it?” I say. “What about the economy? Bankers? The hospitals?”
“What about the here and now?’ he says.
A young mother in pink runners barrels past with a three-wheeled pram; she pushes her sunglasses up on her head. Her child, a plump toddler, does the same.
“Sunglasses on a baby,” the man says, “isn’t it marvellous?” He rummages in a plastic bag at his feet. While he is distracted, I stand up. “Have some fruit!” He hands me a red apple. “It’s a Jonaprince.”