Staring at the Sea by John-Philip O’Connor
What the judges said about Staring at the Sea:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Keenly observant writer – great details, aural and visual. Surpisingly unusual insight into the plight of an immigrant to Ireland who, having settled, is faced with the need for further emigration. Magda is very sympathetically portrayed and very interesting. Great to see Polish on the page in an Irish short story. Too many characters, maybe?
Staring at the Sea
Finding our destination proved beyond the pair of us until Magda rang her friend to pop outside the new address we’d zigzagged across the hills above Youghal in my van searching for.
‘There she is. Stop!’
We parked outside a bungalow in an old estate overlooking the harbour and its returning salmon swimming upriver at the estuary. By the door were Joanna and her daughter Natalie – four years old today and sprouting a yellow dress that contrasted lovely with her cafe au lait coloured skin. They greeted us first in Polish, then in English, and we were soon inside sitting down chatting about how big Natalie had gotten; and about last night’s devastating church bombing in Nigeria.
‘Mah cousin witnessed it,’ said Rob, coming into the room. ‘Damn Hausa murderin’ us Christians!’
Rob was Ibo and married to Joanna for the same duration me and Magda had been going out. The girls had worked together at a deli in Midleton and had kept contact ever since Joanna’s departure for a fishmonger supposedly not far from where we were. Rob had been a kitchen porter, but was currently surviving off the dole, which wrecked his head because he thought a husband should always earn more than his wife and not be hanging around all day minding their child.
‘I hope you not gonna be like this when Ibrahim and Zuza arrive,’ said Joanna in English. ‘Is Natalie’s birthday.’
‘Okay, fine. Tommy, you want a Corona?’
‘Just the one, Rob boy. I’m driving.’
At his exit I caught Magda giving me that tense stare I’d endured from her driving down here. Our landlord was pressing us for a decision on renewing the lease and I’d suggested she make her mind up quickly on Dubai; stilting the conversation in our apartment above the roundabout. She’d grafted the Cork accent on to her own version of English, absorbing some of my sayings she’d say back to me when we talked together breathlessly before yesterday. Our shelves were stocked with dictionaries and books on exotic plants from across the plastic globe I kept on a corner stand near the window. Magda had promised to follow me across its patterned surface to wherever I ended up. But that’d been before Dubai and the profitable offer of manicuring gardens of rich expats desiccated from the molten sun sweltering above its skyline.
‘I’m telling ya,girl, it’ll be a new world for us out in the desert. Mark my words!’
Suddenly it was too Middle Eastern for her and anyway, didn’t she need a visa?
‘It’ll be sorted! Ye’re an EU citizen, sure, so no problem!’
Except there was. She confessed the thought of leaving Ireland upset her. It’d been her land of opportunity and had given her a pleasant lifestyle she’d never been able to afford in Poland, despite the low-paying deli job she was still stuck in.
‘Is way worse at home,’ she said. ‘I feel good here.’
But I hadn’t in a long time and explained we’d be back nowhere once my temporary contract working day shifts in a Yank medical device factory finished; with me on top of her shoulders again, struggling.
‘I know my Kotku. But please let me time to think.’
And the longer she did, the more pessimistic I became, her new nervy eyes only blackening my gloom.
I nipped outside to the van and gasped in the salty air of a familiar country existing beyond the walls of the digital ghetto I’d escaped to for sanity’s sake, once the bad news about Ireland had swollen to a deluge my ears rejected. Via Polish satellite TV, our flat had become an enclave bordering a reality I’d drop in and out of, depending on what my work colleagues said, or else I read from a newspaper one of the security guards left behind them in the canteen, painted an uplifting green to raise our spirits from the mind-melting monotony of working the line.
I opened the passenger door and retrieved the red-bowed parcel we’d forgotten to bring in with us. For a second I swore I smelt sweet, peaty soil on split upholstery. Boom-time it’d been there on those rainy days I’d be returning from a landscaping job the brother would rake in good coin for. He was out in Dubai now and inviting me to join him. He said Magda was wrong if she reckoned the whole region was up in arms – the Emirates were stable and besides: ‘How come she can’t see Ireland’s fucked forever?’
Because unlike us she believed it to be redeemable; no matter how hard I said otherwise, her conviction held firm.
A red Peugeot pulled up behind me as I locked the van.
Out stepped Ibrahim and Zuza carrying a present. She’d chemical blonde hair and was all mahogany from the pay-as-you-go sunbed she lived under three times a week.
‘Cze?’ she said.
Ibrahim smiled timidly at me.
‘Story, guys? Nice to see ye. There’s a feast of food inside.’
Ibrahim left Zuza walk ahead of us in to the house before tapping my shoulder.
‘Ah rang Rob this morning about the explosion. It’s terrible what happened.’
‘How was he?’
‘Quiet. Just asked what time we’d be here.’
Ibrahim was a non-practicing Muslim, who ran an imported food-shop up Shandon Street across from the credit union. We’d first met at a barbecue last year, where I’d drunk myself blind from the vodka everyone was plying me with, telling Magda I loved her in a language she said sounded like strange mangled Irish. Ibrahim and Rob avoided religion as a topic of conversation, talking instead about football and different Nigerians they knew living around the county.
I closed the front door and followed Ibrahim into the sitting room, where the girls were welcoming Zuza in a shower of hugs and kisses.
‘Wszystkiego najlepszego z okarji urodzin,’ she said to Natalie, handing her the present.
‘Dzi? kuje, said Natalie, munching on a mini Mars bar.
Natalie’s face blended Rob’s angular eyes with high cheekbones inherited from her mother that morphed into delicate features Magda thought were beautiful. She’d been born a year plus before the troika in the CUH maternity ward at 2am on a wet Wednesday in March. She’d never visited Poland because her grandparents rejected Rob as her father. He was a Murzyn and wouldn’t be welcome in their home. Joanna’s refusal to return with just Natalie made her mother emotional whenever she saw the pixellated little girl on Skype; speaking Polish to them in a soft Irish accent neither had heard the likes of before.
‘Cze? Joanna. Is Rob here?’
And off he went, nearly tripping over a balloon.
Magda had perked up slightly and was on the couch talking to Zuza, someone she secretly regarded as stupid on account of her fondness for cheesy Disco Polo music only farmers and villagers danced badly to. Magda was in a pair of white Doc Martens, knee-length with illustrated flowers growing up the sides. Her curly hair was down and she wore a navy blazer above tight denims rippling the curves of a glorious figure honed by regular swimming in a health-club pool. Every so often she’d glance over at me, checking if I was still there, before focusing back on Zuza, listening to a jaunty story I was straining my ears to follow.
‘Smile, Natalie,’ said Joanna, flashing her camera.
Natalie was tearing the paper off Zuza’s present.
‘Wow! A beautiful dress. What we say to auntie?’
‘Nie problem,’ said Zuza, zapping the remote between different Polish music stations playing mute on an oversized plasma screen Rob was very proud of. None were showing Disco Polo, so she settled on a news channel showing the shocking floods in Silesia that’d swept coal miners away and submerged towns with names too twisty for my tongue to hit all the right sounds when I flunked learning Polish again off Magda. I understood more than I could speak, though. Unlike my Irish, which I’d forgotten after the Leaving, but still knew that gra gheal meant ‘bright love’ – a name I’d called Magda until one night she said it sounded more like ‘awful Gargamel catches Smurfs.’ For her spoken Irish sounded ancient, African almost, and unappealing to listen to. The inability of most of us to speak it was something she never understood and it always got me thinking like now, when everybody was switching between languages as I stayed dumb in the corner, trying to decipher the hubbub.
‘Wow! An abacus.’
‘I got it in city.’
In fact Magda had bought it in a wooden craft shop near where she took a half-hearted picture of Queen Elizabeth behind a barrier, disappointed Kate wasn’t there too, parading outside the English Market. I didn’t think Natalie would like the thing and was surprised when she started joyfully moving the coloured beads along its strings, counting carefully – first in Polish, then in English – with a kneeling Joanna beside her. Magda once said she’d noticed how all the Irish girls working in the deli counted first from their little finger down the digits to the thumb.
‘How do Polish people count, so?’
‘From thumb up to little finger.’
We were in our bedroom that night, me reading, Magda propped up on pillows chatting to friends across the keys of her laptop on that Polish Facebook thing: Nasca Klasa. When she went to the kitchen I enlarged a picture to see what she’d been viewing. It was one of us looking good together against rugged scenery. Back then we’d been inseparable, bumping gravity off each other like orbiting planets sharing the same space. Weekends we’d travel round remotest Kerry, seeing sights unknown to her big brown eyes filling up on beauty. In the photo Magda’s clothes were quainter; more eastern-looking; less expressive. Then for some reason I got thinking about Dubai not working out and getting Magda out of Ireland for nothing; losing the life she’d lovingly built here.
I needed some air because suddenly my head was spinning.
‘Sorry, girls. Just goin’ out for a walk to the beach. Haven’t been there in years.’
‘Be careful,’ said Magda in English.
She looked on as I left.
On my way down the hall I glanced in the kitchen. Rob and Ibrahim were speaking lowly in pidgin. Rob was gazing out the window at the distant harbour, nodding every so often at something Ibrahim said. An unopened box containing Natalie’s birthday cake lay on the table beside sticks of sugar cane about to be put in a press.
‘Off to the beach there, boys. Want anything from the shop?’
‘We’re ok, Tommy’, said Rob, before Ibrahim resumed talking in a thudding language that softened every few sentences before galloping off again on the back of a few English words.
I felt a bit better walking downhill into Youghal. When the brother and I were small, our parents brought us here in summer to the bumper cars at Perks gone ages. The town seemed constantly busy then and Dad told me how Moby Dick had been filmed in its medieval streets during the fifties. Midway down some gulls wheeled above me, screeching. Roadside I skipped the beach and opted instead for the town centre, arriving minutes later at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel; a pissed old fellah fighting with his lighter outside its bar.
‘D’ya haf a light?’ he said as I passed.
‘City accent, ha? Tourist?’
I said nothing.
‘Myrtle Grove is the place ya want. It’s after the Clock Gate Tower where they hung United Irishmen. Surely ya haf a light?’
Onwards the streets were bleak and deserted. Daubed cotton clouds were scudding inland as I wandered aimlessly beneath slanted buildings. Around a corner the Clock Gate Tower rose in front of me, displaying the time in Roman numerals. Its face said half past two and I watched the small hand go minutely nearer the new hour. Tomorrow I’d be back in the factory threading platinum coils that surgeons inserted into the human body to stop aneurysms bursting. The recruitment agency hiring me deducted a percentage off my weekly wage, which was a €100 less than what the lifers got for helping them hit targets rewarded with a bonus exempt from temps. Dressed in gowns and masks we all worked together in a clean room pumped with oxygen recycled from our breathing. The artificial light hurt our eyes, making them sleepy, as we focused adjustable lenses on microscopic components cut, threaded, formed and produced for sale across the world. Every morning we washed our hands with special soap over stainless steel sinks in the crowded gowning area outside the clean room, where we clocked in with a scanned bar-coded ID recording our timekeeping. Out in the plant’s car park spray-painted vehicles advertised their owners’ past trades as carpenters, electricians, gardeners – numbers now; dispensable.
Before long I was bamboozled again from thinking.
Doubling back I re-entered the estate by a different route and noticed a dilapidated house on the way uphill. Its windows were boarded across and multiplying lichen had colonised its decrepit surface in greasy yellow clusters dripping down from the gutter. Japanese knotweed grew out of the cracked driveway, shooting up from resilient roots burrowing deep down into the earth. It’d also overrun the wild garden, smothering every other plant beneath a high, leafy canopy risen on green stems that were beginning to crawl out onto the road. A few crows pecked about the precinct, and I suddenly ached to reshape this place to perfection with the herbicide and tools still stored in the back of my van. Me and the brother had done jobs like this back in the boom-time; in the fresh familiar air I missed so much. But the grim vision of the house only added to my torment, so I moved on quickly to the next street, resisting the urge to look back over my shoulder at its flourishing alien creeper expanding triumphantly over the wall.
Beyond was the bungalow. Joanna’s Polsat dish was barnacled to its roof with a row of different vehicles parked outside. An Arsenal pennant hung from Ibrahim’s rear-view mirror; reflecting me coming up the street towards my starting point.
At the front door I heard a commotion.
‘Tom! I was ’bout ring you like,’ said Magda, answering my knock.
She ushered me inside. A weeping Natalie held her hand, scared of clashing voices.
‘They start argue!’
I ran down the hall into the kitchen. Rob and Ibrahim were eyeballing each other; squaring up, Rob wielding a sugar cane. In between them were the girls pleading:
‘Don’ fight! Don’ fight! Uspokoj si? Presta?!’
But neither were listening; their pidgin pounding like a full force war beat against the window.
‘What’s goin’ on?’
Everybody faced me.
‘Ah want this Hausa-man gone!’ said Rob, pointing the cane at Ibrahim. ‘Now!’
Ibrahim looked insulted.
‘Mah brudah, why you doin’ this?’
‘We’re no longer brudahs. Ah’m sorry, Zuza.’
Then Rob threw the cane on the floor and looked glumly out to sea.
Ibrahim turned to go.
‘C’mon, Zuza,’ he said grabbing her hand and trooping down the hall past Magda.
Ibrahim slammed the door before speeding away aggressively.
Joanna now looked angrily at Rob.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said in Polish, a phrase I knew by heart.
Rob went out to the hall and picked up Natalie; kissing her forehead; comforting her. Magda said something reassuring to a distressed Joanna before signalling for us to go. I kept quiet and we walked out the front door together, my arm around her shoulder, trembling.
We drove westwards out of Youghal, saying nothing for a stretch. An approaching sign reminded us that the road had been partially paid for with EU money; a golden constellation cresting majestically over its bilingual text. From the corner of my eye I saw Magda staring out the passenger window like she did when admiring the Irish countryside she loved so much. Her gaze was on the rolling terrain we were gunning through, taking it all in for as long as she could. Magda was humming a kid’s tune she’d sung to me about a tomcat lost in a weird wood, directed home by pine needles. Her rhymed words had sounded lovely to my ears; less harsh than regular Polish; a new vernacular – Creole.
My brain popped.
I rolled down the window. A Statoil truck overtook us on its way to the marina beyond Little Island, where I worked in a fading industrial estate unseen from traffic; blowing in dust from the abandoned road works we were passing opposite. Minute particles alighted on the dashboard above the steering wheel. I wiped them off before putting my free hand on Magda’s, tightening my grip. Ahead of us the landscape was levelling out as we neared our apartment and its portal elsewhere.
‘Natalie liked the present.’
Magda smiled sadly.
‘She did, didn’t she?’
And that’s all we needed to say to each other.
John-Philip O’Connor graduated with a PhD in history from the University of Limerick in 2012. His article on Irish identity will soon be published in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing. He was previously shortlisted for the RTÉ Francis MacManus Award (2010) and the RTÉ PJ O’Connor Radio Drama Award (2011). He lives and works in Cork.