Hennessy New Irish Writing: July 2017’s winning story
The Light on the Water by Niall McArdle
Niall McArdle is a writer and critic from Dublin
Running on the beach is supposed to be better for you because of the uneven surface: three miles on the sand is like six miles on the road. All I know is I can run barefoot on the beach and I tell myself that I like the feel of water underfoot. If the tide is out you have to walk about half a mile to the water. I prefer low tide so I always run in the morning. There’s nobody about except for a few seniors with their dogs. The view is lovely, even in the winter when the ocean looks like it wants to drown us all.
I slog through puddles and rivulets by the water’s edge, and at the end of my run I perform a daily ritual. I step into the ocean up to my waist and I let the water lap around me. It was months before I could stand this far out from the shore. The look of the ocean, slinking like a living thing, has always unnerved me.
I look back at the beach and sometimes I think I can see Kevin sitting there squinting at the sun. He had that Irish thing of never really liking the heat. He didn’t do well in it. You’re my Longford lobster, I used to say, touching his red skin. Longford’s in the midlands, you know, he answered. No lobsters there.
I wade back to the shore. I sit and run my hand through the sand. The water rolls and makes that strange noise it always makes, that odd hushed roar.
I don’t know why I keep coming here. We should have sold the beach house. The holiday home is what Kevin used to call it. My sisters thought that was funny, like it was a place our family only went on Thanksgiving. Jesus, Lauren, can’t you teach him to speak American? The woman at the store was confused when he asked if they sold togs. He refused to say swimming trunks on principle. “Floating trees, like. That’s ridiculous.”
There is a fire-pit on the beach. Kevin and I would sit at dusk and have cocoa and snuggle. I’d get chilly after a while and retreat into the house, but he’d stay out there, a silhouette against the sparks, waiting for the fire to die.
The ocean returned Kevin to me four days after it took him. I had to identify him. His body wasn’t pink anymore. It was dirty green like a bruised pear, and bloated too. I laughed when I saw him. The people at the morgue were very understanding. Shock, they said. It wasn’t that; it was just funny seeing him fat because he’d always been as skinny as a lamp post.
When it happened I was sitting on the sand watching Kevin way out there near the buoy, too far out, really, but he was a good swimmer, no cause for worry. His head up and I swear I saw him smile. This is important. It’s important that I think he was smiling. He wasn’t, of course. He was struggling against the current which was pulling him under like a sea wraith wrapped around his legs. He was too far out, but even if he’d only been 20 feet away, I couldn’t have done anything: I didn’t know how to swim. Stupid, I know; I’d been coming to the beach every summer since I was a kid but I’d never learned.
We’d made love that morning, the odd sort of sex that married couples get to have when they’re on vacation. It wasn’t rushed or that clumsy. It was peaceful and exciting all at once, and for a brief while he looked at me and didn’t see the sagging woman under him and I could forget about his little paunch and the fact that he never put the toilet seat back down and his occasional farts in bed. All day I could still feel the remnants of him inside and on my body, even after showering, the spicy smell of him, the heat of his body, and when I stood screaming his name after he went under for the last time, a small trickle of him ran down my leg.
After the funeral I came down to the shore and shouted at the water. My sisters were with me but they hung back while I yelled f**k you to the ocean.
I step into the water and tense at its icy grip around my waist, cold fingers pawing at me. It smells, too, of brine and Christ knows what. It’s not a nice smell. The buoy is in my sights and getting bigger as I wade farther and farther in. Finally, I push off from the bottom and let my arms pull me along. I swim slowly. I am not in a rush, and I am alone. Overhead I can hear birds screeching but cannot see them. They sound like gulls, and they are urging me. Go on! Go on! The buoy is closer now. I can see it bobbing up and down like one of those silly plastic inflatable bop clowns I had as a kid, the sort you punched and he always came back for more punishment.
Sometimes Kevin comes to me in dreams, freshly drowned, covered in seaweed and smelling of oil. His skin is green and his body has ballooned. He doesn’t speak, just stands at the foot of my bed and stares at me with a trembling silence.
It was terrifying, at first, me and the other adults wearing our little wing thingies, standing in the shallow end of the pool. The instructor, this young guy called Gary, he told us to stand on our toes, then lift our feet off the bottom, get used to holding ourselves up with just our arms. I doggy-paddled a lot. We must have looked ridiculous: a bunch of middle-aged women cantering the width of the pool like a jumble of clumsy golden retrievers. At the end of the first lesson, I dragged myself out and had to fight the urge to shake the water off me the way a dog does.
My arms are burning now and my legs feel like lead. It’s not like at the swimming pool. Gary was always telling us that ocean swimming and pool swimming are vastly different. Vastly. He kept saying vastly like if he said it enough we’d get the idea. I get it now, out here in open water struggling to make it.
The buoy is red and white and there is a little flashing light and the tiny, annoying clang of a bell. When the light goes out, does someone have to come out here in a boat and change the battery, or is it solar powered? I know so little about this stuff even after a lifetime of summers by the ocean. When we were kids, my sisters and I would run on the beach here and collect shells and root around for old sticks and driftwood, but how the oceans work, the currents and the waves and the fish you find here, those things I never learned. I don’t even know how the buoy is attached to the seabed. Is it a rope? Surely not. A rope would fray and snap eventually. A chain of some sort, then, but then wouldn’t a chain get rusty and break?
Kevin would know this sort of thing. He was one of those men who know all kinds of useless facts. He delighted in being asked, and he was terrible at disguising how delighted he was. He’d look into middle distance and assume a thoughtful expression and hum and clear his throat loud enough to be heard in the next room and then say Well . . .
I wonder was he also that way with Julie? Or did he act differently with a girl who was almost half his age and with a body not yet slackened and stretchmarked?
I don’t think his family ever forgave me for stealing him away to the States. His mother was always nice to me, was never overbearing or anything, but still, when Kevin talked to her on the phone she’d often ask when were we going to come home, and on the times we visited she’d always mention all the work that needed to be done during lambing season and shoot a look at him. Kevin never fell for it, though. I used to think he was great like that, not being guilted into stuff. He’d just chuckle and say “Mammy, sure you’ve plenty of pairs of hands around here.” Kevin was the youngest of nine. Nine, can you believe it? When I told my sisters that, they thought it was hysterical. Christ, his poor mother. Didn’t his old man ever just whack off into a sock like a normal person?
We buried him back at home, though. He’d requested that in his will. That shocked me. I didn’t even know he’d made a will. But then I didn’t know about Julie either, did I?
The airline people were really good to me. I think they must be trained to take extra care of grieving widows taking their dead husbands across the ocean. They bumped me up to first class and kept me well-oiled for the flight. I thought I’d done all my crying until I glanced out the window shortly after take-off and realised we were flying over the beach house. I was soused when we landed and stumbled into his family’s arms. I was lost at the funeral. I’d stand when I was supposed to kneel and kneel when I was supposed to sit. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone only half-knew the hymns and I caught his sisters bluffing their way through the prayers. When the priest began saying the rosary in a mumbling drone I had to put my face into my hands to stop laughing because I thought I’d walked into a movie.
The sun is heaving down on me as I churn through the waves. I might get a suntan. I cackle at the thought and end up swallowing a mouthful of the sea. I splutter on.
I never would have known about Julie if she hadn’t contacted me. It was sort of earnest letter only a 20-year-old could write, full of I’m so sorry and I feel awful and I never wanted and I know he loved you.
I’m at the buoy now. It’s rusty and I am careful not to cut myself on any of its sharp edges. My breathing is heavy. My body is wrecked, but I am elated. Swimmer’s high, I guess.
She was writing me now because she knew it was coming up to a year since he died and she couldn’t bear it any longer, couldn’t handle holding on to a secret for so long.
I press my hands against the side of the buoy, and push myself under. When I open my mouth my lungs rebel. I shoot back above the surface sputtering and spitting. I push myself under again, open my mouth once more, force it to stay open. The salt screams at my tongue. I get under the buoy and feel its curved bottom, covered in molluscs and slime. I feel something brush my legs: the chain. I reach down with one hand and feel for the links. I wrap one leg around it, then one arm. I let go of my hold on the bottom of the buoy. I am clung to the chain. I cannot see anything. I cannot hear anything. My eyes sting. My ears hurt like a bitch.
I guess I should be grateful that she actually made the effort to write a letter instead of sending a text. It was in bright blue ink. I can see her writing it, a little girl curled up on a bed, surrounded by stuffed toys, pictures of horses on the wall, her perfect hair tied up in a scrunchy, worrying over how to spell “conscience”.
I shudder and let go of the chain and kick my way up. I clutch the side of the buoy and I’m spewing and retching and crying for ages before I have the energy to pull myself up on to the ledge.
I stare at the water sloshing around my ankles. It’s dark and cold. Kevin must have been so scared, the ocean rushing into him and black all around. The current swallowed him and covered him in darkness, and sitting here I wonder what his last thought was. Was it about me or her?
I cannot hear anything except the sloop of water on the side of the buoy and the thudding of the bell and the cries of gulls overhead like the awful screams of a newborn baby, and I think about the idea of Kevin soothing a child and kissing its forehead and when the kid gets older and asks a thousand questions about rainbows and where does the moon go in the day and why do leaves fall off trees, he’ll turn his head away for a moment and say Well . . .
A breeze picks up and rocks the buoy and the bell clanks. From here the shore looks an eternity away. The beach quivers in the heat, and when the sunshine glints on the ocean, tiny sparks of fire scatter across the waves.
Niall McArdle is a writer and critic from Dublin. In 2016 he was nominated for the Hennessy Literary Awards and the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition. His work has appeared in “The Irish Times”, “Banshee”, “Spontaneity”, “Honest Ulsterman”, “Phoenix Irish Short Stories”, and has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio