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.”
I take the apple. “Thank you,” I say and trot away.
He shouts, “Cheerio!’
The man has tumbled my walk from its natural path and now I have to continue on into the marram grass and pretend that I don’t mind. Soon I am tripping over the things the sea has belched up: barrels, lager cans, a wooden pallet. I stop walking and pull wind into my lungs then let it out. Ducks in chevron flight skim over my head and I watch them until they disappear. I veer down towards the beach where oystercatchers poke about.
In the ladies’ bathing shelter, I sit and look at the apple. I feel like tossing it away whole but instead I polish it with the hem of Luke’s coat and bite into it. The skin is bitter so I eat the flesh and spit the peels on to the ground. Luke’s voice floats into my head: “Spitting women and crowing hens will surely come to some bad ends.”
He always said that and I always answered, “It’s whistling women not spitting women.” Luke would shrug and we’d both smile.
I cannot even put a name on the feeling of missing Luke – it’s too raw, too wide. All I know is that I am in a waiting room and the world has receded. My heart opens and closes like a mouth that wants to speak but can’t form the words. The days carry forward in regular ways – I ink people, I eat, I watch TV documentaries – but I push myself through weeks with a strength that seems to belong to somebody else. Mourning is hard work, it is long work; every 24 hours is a new lesson in learning the proper way to grieve. It’s as though I am swimming through seaweed and just as the water begins to clear I whack into the hull of a boat.
I throw the apple butt on to the beach and the oystercatchers scatter then regroup. The rocks below the shelter are decorated with doughnuts of amber lichen; they bring colour to the grey. Between the rocks, shell caches lie in sandpits – mussels and winkles, empty of meat. I heave myself up and exit the bathing shelter. The man is still at Luke’s bench but now he is standing. I take a wide arc to avoid him. He will think I’m rude but, sure, let him off.
“Ahoy!” he shouts, waving his arms like a man signalling from the deck of a ship.
“Jesus Christ,” I mutter, throwing my eyes up in apology to Stella Maris who watches over the harbour from her plinth.
“Missus,” the man shouts, “wait!” He putters up beside me. “I’ll walk with you.”
“I prefer to keep my own pace.”
“Not at all,” he says. “You have ‘lonely’ bobbing like a balloon over your head.”
He comes with me, his plastic bag rustling at his side, all the way down Walk and Run Avenue to my door. We don’t speak and I feel foolish and annoyed; foolish for being irritated – what harm is he doing? – but annoyed with him too for disrupting my morning.
“Now,” I say, “I’m home.” I fish my key from the coat’s deep pocket.
“ ‘Squidinky’,” he says, craning to look at the shop sign. “Well, if that doesn’t beat all.” He sticks out his hand and I take it; he closes his other hand over mine and I see his knuckles are dotted with ink. “Have a lovely day now, missus. Be good to yourself.”
Once in the quiet of my hallway I am pleased as a peashooter to be alone again. I unpeel myself from Luke’s coat and pop it on to its hook. It hangs like a collapsed cross and I twist it to press my face into the lining, searching for a whiff of him, the smallest scent. There is nothing there.
Luke would disapprove of all the time I spend alone now. It was he who kept up the friendships while I looked after the business. And because he was the one who rang people and greeted and mollycoddled them, after he was gone, I was forgotten. Our friends were his friends, it turned out.
IN THE MORNINGO Sole Mio drifts into my half-sleep. I think it is the ice-cream van come a season early but it’s someone whistling. The whistler trills the rising notes of the tune and drags them out; the sound is sweet wafting up to my bedroom. The words sing themselves in my head: Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole. What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!
I peep out the window and see the man from Luke’s bench standing outside. Gulls lunge around him, their cacophony hardly keeping up with their bawling beaks. The man whistles louder to drown them out, then throws his arms up in surrender. He laughs.
When I open the door to the parlour he is still outside.
“Hungry,” the man says, and I’m not sure if he is referring to himself or the gulls.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“I think so. I want to get a tattoo covered up.”
“No, no,” he says. “Can I come in?”
I stand back and he walks past me, the same plastic bag rustling in his hand.
He takes a seat, removes his jacket and unbuttons his shirt. His story is revealed: he has been seaman, lover, convict.
“So which one do you want covered?” I say, taking in the blurred lines of mermaids, and Sailor Jerry pin-ups, the lexicon of names: Mabel, Assoulina, Grace.
He stands and looks in the mirror, pushes his shoulders back to right the sag of his chest. “Do you know what?” he says. “Give me a new one altogether.“
I haul a book of flash from the counter for him to look through. “Where do you want to place the new piece?” I say, my juices up at the idea of giving him something to blend with the cascade of ink on his chest. I hold out the book. “Here you go.”
He puts his hands behind his back, refusing to take it. “I don’t want some ready-made thing. I trust you.” He sits again, whistles a bar of O Sole Mio and looks up at me.
“You trust me? You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.” He slips off his shirt and shows his back to me; there are no tattoos. “There’s a man in Catalunya who collects tattooed skins. He says he’ll buy mine when I’m done with it.”
“That’s big in Japan,” I say. “Well, maybe not ‘big’ but they do it there.”
“I’ve been saving my back until I met the right artist. I want the sun – a great furze and orange coloured ball of light. I want it to have a face.”
“I can do that.”
“I know you can. Like I said, I trust you.”
HE COMES EVERY DAYafter that and I work on his back; the sun’s rays lick at his shoulder blades and armpits; its face frowns on the right side and smiles on the left. He asks me to put bones across the eyelids and a skull on each cheek.
“Everything has light and dark,” he says, “even the sun. We’d be as well to keep that in mind as we go about our lives.”
My machine buzzes and he talks and talks. About his life as a seaman; how Barcelona was his favourite port; how he misses the sway of a boat under his feet. I mention Luke, little snippets: our trips to India; his love of musicals, especially when Esther Williams was involved.
“It gave him such pleasure to watch that Esther swim,” I say. “Luke was a merman, most at home around, in or on water. He taught me to love the sea.”
“I’m that way myself,” the man says. “Why don’t we call it a day for today? Go out for a walk.”
I switch off the machine. “Are you sure? All I’ve done is a bit of shading.”
“Haven’t we all the time in the world?”
He sits up on the side of the tattoo couch; I wash him down gently with cold water and rub emollient into his skin. I watch him put on his shirt; he does it deliberately, with care, unlike Luke who was always in a hurry. I catch the scent of lemon off his shirt, that sweet freshness that always makes me feel hopeful and at ease.
We head along Walk and Run Avenue to the top of the terraces, past the ghost hotel and along the stretch where the residents have planted flowers on the tops of the stone walls. There are daffodils now, sweet and smoky and bright as the sun. We both stop to sniff them and we smile at each other, noses bent into the flowers’ yellow bells.
Once at the beach, we sit on Luke’s bench and look out over the bay and the two lighthouses. Stella Maris watches over the water and the boats, her arms raised in an eternal blessing. I take my new friend’s hand in mine and he throws his arm around my shoulder; I lean my head against his head, feel the heat from his skin. He whistles a few bars of O Sole Mio.
“Brine gets into your blood when you live beside the sea,” he says. “It gets into your bones.”
We sit on, watching the oystercatchers and the ducks, the sway of the marram grass. The bench grows warm beneath us and the sea sways and shimmers under the wan glow of a March sun.
This story is from Silver Threads of Hope, an anthology, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, in aid of Console, the suicide prevention charity. Also featuring writing by Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue, John Boyne, Colum McCann, Pat McCabe and Roddy Doyle, it is published by New Island