Surfacing by Mary Róisín McGill
What the judges said about Surfacing:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: I liked the rich style of this classic story of self-discovery. Sometimes, it feels slightly overwritten, but compensating for this linguistic exuberance are gems, like ‘Now her backpack sat stuffed like a turkey on the end of her bed’ and ‘It was like being Gulliver in Lilliput, if Lilliput was candy pink and frilly with faded outlines where her teenage posters used to be.’ Recession theme seemed somewhat marginal, but it’s a lovely, focused, well-shaped story.
Donal Ryan: Extremely well done, insightful, realistic and with a heart-stopping, triumphant ending.
The other waitresses at the Hari Café on Cuba Street tried not to raise their eyebrows when Aoife, the forlorn-looking new girl, announced she would hike to Karapoti Gorge that Saturday.
‘On your own?’ Maia asked, as they restacked the pastry display, piling warm cinnamon rolls and miniature kumara pies onto the silver cake stands that sat in a polished row above the deli counter. Maia’s broad shoulders were turned towards Aoife, her onyx curls twisted into a bun held in place by magenta cloth that glowed in the murk of the rainy morning. Privately, she referred to Aoife as ‘Little Noodle Arms’, wondering why she always looked so glum – wasn’t travelling supposed to be enjoyable?
‘According to the guide book, it’s easy to moderate, so I should be fine,’ Aoife replied, swallowing the hot nausea creeping up her throat like an evil vine. She tore open a bag of coffee beans, tipping it into the grinder, closing her eyes against the sound. Maia shrugged, wiping her hands on her apron. What was the point trying to argue with white girls and their guide books? She’d only lived in Wellington her entire life.
‘Well, good luck with that,’ she said, slipping a pen behind her ear. Before Aoife could ask what she meant, Maia was on the floor, handing out menus to a dreadlocked man and his grubby-faced daughter, all of them smiling, as if being happy were effortless.
Aoife stared hard at Maia’s back; caught between impending, tsunami-like vomit and the feeling she’d once again said something stupid. Sweat burst across her skin like a flash flood, herding her into the bathroom where she thrust her head over the bowl, feeling the cold tiles dig into her knees as the gagging began.
Racked with spasms, she curses herself for not saying ‘no’ to Sinead, for giving in to homesickness.
The previous evening she’d arrived in from work, clutching a flyer for a yoga class, something she’d always meant to do but never got around to. Sinead was in the kitchen, can in hand, face painted, hungry for the craic, waiting for her because in Sinead’s mind they were as good as sisters, two Irish girls who’d never met until now, on the other side of the world.
‘But I don’t have any going-out clothes,’ Aoife protested, imagining with longing another night of sitting in with Brett and Jonno, chatting and watching Kiwi soaps. She smelt of burned coffee and glass cleaner. Her leg muscles ached as if bruised. In her backpack, she had all the ingredients for a huge, cheese-sodden lasagne.
‘But sure no one gets dolled up here,’ Sinead said with disdain, popping a can of cheap cider and handing it to her. ‘Just stick on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Ah come on will ya! This job-hunting shite is killing me.’
Six hours later, The Green Fields of France tinny in her ears, everyone hoarse, red-faced, somewhere between laughing and crying, Aoife wanted to leave O’Kiernan’s, regretting coming at all. Sinead was sitting on the lap of a lad she knew from home, the very one she’d quietly pointed to earlier in the evening, saying, ‘whatever you do, keep me away from that prick’.
At 4am, her blood sluggish with whiskey she’d downed to make the time pass faster, Aoife managed to peel Sinead off your man and into a taxi. Once they got home she left her in the sitting room with the lamp on, sprawled on the sofa like an octopus in glittery hot pants, talking nonsense.
Slipping off her flip-flops she whispered, ‘Shush Sinead! You’ll wake the others.’
Sinead rolled her eyes, the light from the phone illuminating her face as her thumb swiped across its screen.
‘Kiwi dryshites,’ she muttered, punching in a number, adding, as Aoife turned to go upstairs, ‘and you’re no better!’
Lying on her bed, Aoife watched the dawn light pierce the thin material of the curtains. She’d gotten the text while she settled Sinead on the sofa, a single ‘?’. It echoed in her head as if her skull were one of those cathedral domes they’d seen in Rome, two tiny sunburnt specks and a camera, staring skyward with their mouths open.
On Saturday morning, Aoife heard Sinead arriving home in a drunken calamity while she laced up her new hiking boots. With the help of the guidebook, she’d written a list and gone to one of the outdoors stores where they were used to helping novices. Now her backpack sat stuffed like a turkey on the end of her bed. She slathered sun screen and insect repellent over her freckled skin until it was slick with pale, synthetic grease. Then she slipped out into the cool still of the morning to wait for the bus.
An hour later they pulled in to the Akatarawa Forest car park, just as the dull sun was warming up. Aoife expected it to be quiet but the bus was packed with mountain bikers and trampers, munching bananas, studying battered maps, one eye on their watches. As she set off towards the gorge alone, her boots crunching the car park’s gravel, raising white clouds of dust, she felt a pang of loneliness, as if they had somehow become a gang on that short journey from Wellington.
The forest swallowed her whole, its pristine air filling her lungs with a cleanness she could taste, its waters gushing in time with her blood as she trod over the mucky path, her muscles humming with energy. Rain was forecast. She needed to get to the gorge and begin her return before it started. Even so, she found herself stopping to listen to strange birds singing or craning her neck to stare at sky-scraper trees, their branches teeming with luscious greens through which pure sunlight spilled, reminding her of stained-glass windows in the church at home.
Her thoughts began to roam, back to Ireland, back to him.
‘Stay,’ he said. ‘Sure, something will turn up.’
It was almost noon on a Sunday morning and they were still in bed. The room smelt like a keg had exploded in it. From his eyes, she could tell he was still drunk.
‘It’s been almost a year,’ she’d said, kicking off the duvet. It was making her skin itch. ‘I can’t take it anymore.’
‘Plenty of people in your boat,’ he said, rolling onto his back, yawning.
She’d pulled on her dressing gown then, wishing to God she’d gone to her parents after the pub, back to her childhood bedroom, now her actual bedroom once again. It was like being Gulliver in Lilliput, if Lilliput was candy pink and frilly with faded outlines where her teenage posters used to be.
‘It’s not like the Eighties,’ he said when she’d arrived in with the visa forms. ‘Don’t think you’ll get teaching in America or the like. Qualifications don’t matter over there.’
‘Who says I want to teach?’ she shot back. ‘Maybe I just want a break. Maybe I’m worn out and sick of having to justify myself. Maybe I just need to get the fuck out of here.’
‘A break from what?’ he’d asked, slit-eyed. She said nothing but made sure to tidy the forms away before he got a chance to toss them in the bin. When he finally admitted he didn’t want to leave, that he was happy ‘the way things are’, she said, ‘well, I’m not and I’m going.’
It took him two weeks to realise she was serious.
At Christmas, just before she was due to fly out, he proposed as they walked arm-in-arm along Mulranny Strand, the winter air biting their faces with sharp little teeth. Seeing him trying to hold steady that sparkling box against the riptide of the wind reminded her of how they’d once been.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Give me some time to think.’
The three months they had agreed upon passed so quickly it unnerved her. He’d texted right on the deadline, 48 hours ago. Here she was, stomping over alien rock and dirt, a patina of sweat across her skin, his question unanswered.
In the shade she stopped for water, letting stray droplets trickle down her chin. It tasted better than any water she could remember.
A string of words floated across her mind: queuing for one-way flights like they queued for houses that weren’t even built. She can’t remember if she read it or heard someone say it. Maybe it was something she said to herself during one of those days when everything looked damp and time felt like a tonne weight she dragged around with her from grey room to grey room.
She rubbed the sweat from her forehead with her T-shirt, proud of the grime it left on the white material. Her thoughts were rolling with the river, which now lay ahead, swollen with recent rains, gurgling around rocks that glistened with wet.
There is no bridge over the Little Akatarawa River, just a point where the water is slightly lower, allowing trampers who don’t mind getting wet to cross. She knew this, but now the reality was here, rushing past, a steely, fluid blue.
Aoife stood on the riverbank, her insides contorting. It didn’t look especially deep. It wasn’t too wide. A few long steps and she’d be across, but the force of the water was frightening, as if she were a rag doll to be swept away.
Maia’s face hovered in front of her eyes as she plunged her right foot in, gasping as the chill water flooded her hiking boot, gobbling up her skin as high as her thigh.
‘Oh shit, oh Jesus,’ she whispered, submerging her other leg, arms out for balance. She began to wade, the river crashing against her hips, drenching her shorts, turning her limbs into marble.
Beneath her feet the riverbed was uneven, slippery as black ice. She wobbled along; her eyes pinned on the far bank, her heart punching her ribs. She was almost there when the water took her, a ferocious burst of it, slamming her side, throwing her beneath with a great, squealing splash.
The forest was still. The river ran on.
In a moment of absolute instinct, her lungs full of fire, Aoife pushed through its glass surface, smashing against its force with all her will, her hands gripping the rocks, dragging her body out, spluttering, river water streaming from her eyes and nose.
On the other side, she gulped air into her lungs as she sat, looking at where she’d been, her hands scratched and trembling between her thighs. In the quiet of the forest, her terror faded into the breeze. Her heart returned to a dull, steady thud. She stood up, her jelly legs now solid again and went on.
On the way back, she would try to cross with one hand always on the bigger rocks for support. In time, she’d become experienced, stronger, without a need for rocks to keep her steady.
A vague throb in her hip, the odd flutter of adrenaline in her veins was all that remained of the fall. Soon, as she turned the corner into the gorge, starry-eyed by her achievement, they would disappear completely.
Mary Róisín McGill hails from Leitrim. She reviews books for RTÉ’s Arena and is editor of Irish feminist website Fanny.ie. This year, her fiction has appeared in The Bohemyth and Wordlegs and was shortlisted for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide short story competition and longlisted for the 2013 Over the Edge Award. She tweets at @missmarymcgill.