Hennessy New Irish Writing: July’s winning story
‘The Cliffs’, by Jamie Samson
America, he shouted. And I said it was. And you said really? And I said yes. And if you look at it very closely, I told you, you’ll see the Statue of Liberty. Illustration: Gavin Connell
The fog arrived just before we did. It settled over everything, gently and evenly, and made soft grey shapes out of the parked cars and the picnic benches, the crooked signs that said Danger of Death in many languages, and it fell over the edges of the famous cliffs with a kind of stumble.
We had chosen a poor day to visit.
I wheeled my father down the sandy path towards the viewing platform. In these conditions, the ocean was effectively invisible, a radiant, shifting blur beyond the precipice, but it could still be heard and smelt and faintly tasted. As the land came to its dazzling end, the old man kept swatting the air, groaning in discomfort, like he was inhaling a noxious gas.
It’s only fog, I said.
I don’t like it, he said.
I positioned the wheelchair on a high tuft of land, set back a little from the edge: the view would have been beautiful from here, if there’d been a view. My father didn’t seem bothered either way. He scowled into the square miles of fog.
Is this it? he asked.
Are you sure, Michael? It looked bigger in the photographs.
This is it, I said.
My father was sick. He had perhaps a few months left. Perhaps he had a year.
The last time I’d gone to visit him, he was not quite himself. In a tantrum against his illness, or perhaps against his failing mind, or his oncoming death, or against some other, unknown affliction, he’d made his way through an old picture album, tearing up family photographs as he went. I caught him as he ripped apart, with trembling hands, a decades-old picture of himself as Santa Claus. And then I saw the rest of his work, on the carpet beneath his wheelchair: Christmas dinners, holidays abroad, my graduation, his wedding. They lay in torn-up shards beneath him like the ruins of his life.
Dad, don’t do that, I said. Come on, Dad. You shouldn’t do that.
My mother had died a few years before, and he hadn’t been the same man since. He had a kind, fussy Hungarian clean the house for him, whom he peered at quietly from his chair with unreserved suspicion. He spent a lot of time ordering cactuses on the internet, watering them, giving them names. He would often phone me, late at night, asking how my children were. I did not have children.
Previously, and in a sporadic, uncertain way, I’d been coming to fear he might soon exit reality altogether. But the sight of him tearing up a lifetime’s worth of family memories proved to be, as they say, the last straw. That was when I suggested a trip.
He made the word resound with all that was moronic and worthless.
Just the two of us, I said, as brightly as possible. Come on, Dad. Where have you always wanted to go?
The Pyramids, he announced grandly.
Okay. Anywhere a little closer? Anywhere we could drive to?
The Pyramids, he repeated. In Egypt.
It took a lot of persuading to get his mind off that particular destination, but eventually he started muttering something about the Cliffs. He had never been to the Cliffs; he supposed, maybe, that they were worth a look.
Then we’ll go there, I said.
Over the Atlantic, the fog began to turn blue. White and grey specks of dust travelled horizontally on its hidden surface. These dust-specks turned out to be seagulls, reduced into almost nothing by the sea-smoke and the great distance.
My father sat slumped in his wheelchair, facing the ocean. He still seemed disappointed. I pointed out the gulls to him.
Michael, he said flatly, they’re just birds.
He began to straighten the blanket on his lap. Moving himself into a more comfortable position, he then reached for something in one of the blanket’s folds. It was a little paper bag, filled with sweets, the boiled, sticky kind he’d always kept in jars around the house. He offered me one silently and I declined. He took one for himself and pushed it between his lips and began sucking on it noisily.
These are awful, he said.
Then why are you eating them?
Instead of responding, my father reached out to touch me. A sudden emotional shift had taken over him. His hand in mine was cold and small and dry; I could feel the near-weightlessness of his bones.
So, he said, when are you going to do it, son?
It’s just, I’d like to have a minute first. To finish my sweet.
What are you on about, Dad?
Don’t play the fool now. When are you going to push me over the edge?
Push you over? What do you mean? I have no intention of pushing you over.
He peered up at me, genuinely surprised.
No. Of course not.
You mean to tell me you didn’t bring me out here to push me over?
That’s exactly what I’m telling you.
An expression of great puzzlement came across his features.
I thought that’s why we came out here, he said.
He began to plead with me.
Ah, go on, Michael. Push me over. I’ve nothing left on this earth. Push me over the edge like a good boy.
Not knowing what else to do, I found myself pulling the bag of sweets from his hands. He gaped at me, shocked. I was shocked, too. I had never confiscated anything from my father before.
You’re not getting these back if you keep talking like that.
Give those back, he said. They’re mine.
A long silence passed between us, during which I pulled his chair as far from the precipice as possible, until we hit a wire fence. Then I sat on the grass beside him. The trip was taking on a new significance for me. Earlier, in the car, as we were driving along the coast, he had taken an unusual interest in the sea. He watched it pass by the window, his eyes hopeful and meditative; at one point he’d pressed his finger to the glass and jauntily said, I’ll be in there soon. Thinking it another tumble into the past, a momentary slip or retreat into some ancient memory of swimming, I’d just nodded and said Yes. Yes, you will, Dad.
I looked at my father now. His face in profile was noble and sad against the enormous expanse of fog and grass and water. He seemed resigned. He sighed heavily, thinking.
I was only joking, he muttered. I was only having a laugh, about you pushing me over.
Are you sure? You didn’t sound like you were joking.
He pulled the blanket farther up his body, and shivered.
I’m very sure, Michael, he said. Will you give me back my sweets now?
The presence of other cars had deceived us; we were all alone out here. Gazing right across the edge of the country, we didn’t see a soul.
We moved on a little farther; the land sloped beneath us, falling abruptly, then smoothly rising. A broadening, dark formation in the centre of the fog suggested the onset of evening.
Just as we were turning around, my father threw his arms into the air, gasping.
I was wrong, he exclaimed suddenly.
Wrong? What about?
I’ve been here before, he said. I’ve been here before. I was here with you. Do you remember, Michael? We came over for the night. We stayed in a little cottage in Doolin. The woman who owned it, she was a nice woman. Maggie. She kept a cow in the garden. Do you remember the cow, Michael? Do you remember the milk she took from it? Now, that was fine milk. Real milk. You have to come out west for the real milk.
I smiled; I did not remember. But the change of topic was welcome.
Ah, it was a lovely day, he said, the day we came out here to the Cliffs. You could see for miles and miles and the water was as blue as anything and had no end to it.
I crouched in front of my father. I had not seen him so animated in years.
There was a little, a sort of a little lump of cloud, he saying now. It was way out in the distance, way out there in the distance, on the what-do-you-call-it.
The horizon? I guessed.
The horizon! A little lump of cloud on the horizon. But it looked like land. It looked like a hill, you see? And do you know what you asked me, Michael? Do you know what you asked me, when you saw the cloud?
What did I ask you?
You asked me if it was America.
He began to laugh hoarsely.
America, he shouted. And I said it was. And you said really? And I said yes. And if you look at it very closely, I told you, you’ll see the Statue of Liberty. And so you spent the next fifteen minutes with your hands cupped over your eyes, trying to see the Statue of Liberty.
He composed himself, wiping at his face with the blanket.
Ah, you were a good boy, Michael. A very good boy.
I frowned vaguely. I patted him on the lap and began to push the chair again. For my own part, I had no recollection of a previous trip to the Cliffs, nor had I ever heard it mentioned. What had struck him as an eruption of concealed memory might as easily have come from a story he’d heard somewhere or a programme he’d seen on the television. Perhaps it didn’t matter. My father believed we’d been here before together. That was what mattered. I would believe it, too.
For the whole walk back, he was lost in reminiscence. He hardly said a word. When I suggested that we go for lunch afterward, he shrugged and said that he wouldn’t say no to a bowl of chowder.
The car stood ahead, all alone in the mist. As we approached it, I asked him what he’d thought of the Cliffs.
He spent a long time thinking before he answered me.
They were fine, he said at last.
They were better the first time around.
I got him into the passenger’s seat, and folded up the chair and put it in the boot. He told me he was feeling awfully tired all of a sudden. He rested his head gently against the window, smiling abstractedly.
Can we have that chowder another time? he asked.
His voice was full of apology.
It’s just, he said, I’m awfully tired after those cliffs.
I told him not to worry, it was for the best, it would be a long drive home, and we were losing light as it was.
That’s a funny expression, I said, losing light. Does anyone ever talk of finding light? What do you think, Dad? Can you find light or can you only lose it?
But when I looked over he was already asleep.
Jamie Samson is a 24-year-old content writer. He has lived and worked in several countries, including Spain, France, and Israel. In February 2018, he won the Kanturk Flash Fiction Award. He currently lives in Dublin with his family