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.