We are far from life now, on an unpaved road that makes the car hiccup like a heart in distress. The hedges and leaves all about us are coming closer, brushing like fingers against the windows, scrambling the sunlight till the road gets tighter, darker. I shout Buckle up! and accelerate enough for the car to hop about. Conor looks up from his Gameboy behind me and makes a long humming sound. The furrows and knuckles of the road make his voice skip like the jagged line on a life support machine. Fionnuala joins in from her toddler seat: aaaww-AH-aaaaw-AH-aaaaww. Soon the green is arching over us like a wave, swallowing the car.
The plan is to spend your birthday on the Secret Beach. To get there, we need to walk through the Hidden Woods.
The last time we were here, you led us in whispers and winks through the sun mesh of the trees. I was carrying Fionnuala in one arm, holding branches aside for you with the other. The shredded bracken shining around us, twigs crunching at our feet. Leafspatter flash flowing over Conor’s grin whenever he reached out for us, still young enough to let his hand be held, here, where no one else could see it.
Today he won’t take my hand, and Fionnuala is doing her stomp-walk after him, trying to keep up. I’m behind them, carrying the picnic gear, the towels, your ashes.
Two years ago and we’re drying Conor and Fionnuala in the heartbeat and steam of the bathroom on a Saturday. Pyjamas fetched from the hot press, walls beaded with condensation. It’s like being in the hot core of love. You cocooning Conor in a giant thick towel. Fionnuala swaddled on the floor beneath me. Tiny fingers that reach and grab the wet in my hair. I sink silly faces into her barrel belly and blow raspberries. The silk of her skin runs in ripples along my cheeks. She is screaming laughter and the chuckle and hop of her giggling makes the rest of us laugh too. Fionnuala sees that, so she laughs harder. This back-and-forth – us laughing at Fionnuala laughing at us laughing back – see-saws itself upwards till the room spins, till you’re wiping your eyes and Conor’s moaning and Fionnuala’s kicking in the middle of the floor, pudgy-legged ringmaster and fulcrum of lunacy, conducting the laughing world in a bounce around herself. I catch myself smiling at this later, when the kids are in their beds. I go to say it to you but you’ve fallen asleep on my shoulder. At the time, I don’t notice how exhausted you’re getting. I just turn the TV down and keep watching. There’s no sense of the world readying its tilt.
The first time you bring me to the Secret Beach is a month after taking my hand outside the college bar and saying 'Here, are we shiftin' or what?' Our feet are in the foam and I'm afraid of water, and you can see it. It's the first puncture in the version of myself I've been presenting to you for months. My beefy shoulders, built in the gym, not on a pitch or in fields. The man I want you to think I am, fracturing like scree from a cliff face, leaving me exposed like unshaped clay, face flaring beetroot with the shame of it, a sort of tumbling through my stomach under your gaze towards whatever you'll make of me, knowing you're pure class, knowing how much I don't want you to laugh at me. Knowing how far I am from safety here. But you don't slag me. You take my hand and guide me, slowly, one step after another, till I'm up to my waist with you in fresh Atlantic. When you pretend not to notice my wheeze-bag breathing, my hunched shoulders, my bowed head, and when you reach up and tip my chin to make me look you in the face, and when you say 'We're looking great, babe. Pure Baywatch,' it's like sun hitting stained glass, and I know this is it for me, this is as good as anything gets, this is maybe the moment of my life, standing here with you between the waves, and part of me knows now that this is pure pass-me-a-puke-bucket stuff, that you would roll your eyes at it if you could hear me think it, but that doesn't make it any less real, and that was our life once.
Your mother on the landing last Christmas, holding Conor to herself, sharing memories of you. She stops when I’m midway up the stairs. Conor’s making low, wounded-calf sounds into her chest. His whole body is rigid. Tiny scarecrow. Your mother nods at me and I pull back. I retreat downstairs, agreeing to some argument about myself I don’t realise is being made.
That first time at the Secret Beach, my only job was to bring the cutlery. I forgot it, of course. I was mortified. You insisted we ate everything with our hands. You fed me mushy red velvet cake off your fingertips. I’d never done anything like that before. I kept looking about the empty strand, in case anyone saw us. You, looking at me with your wide open face. Me, blushing in the glare of your fluency but some core beneath my brittleness already responding to how you could enjoy your body without apology. A sort of delighted confusion.
I bought litres of ice cream towards the end, when you couldn’t stomach anything else. I rubbed it across your bottom lip and you slowly sucked your mouth clean. You gave me weak smiles each time, like you still wanted to tell me I’m doing good, like I still needed that. I filled the entire freezer with ice cream that month, as if having 15 tubs of the stuff might help you stay. Long hours of me talking shite to you when you were awake, rubbing the sweetness onto your mouth, you blinking slowly up at me. Your kisses on my fingertips like air popping, like when you first pushed my fingers into red velvet cake and told me to feed you back.
When I came into the utility room last week I found Conor and Fionnuala standing at the freezer with the door open, eating your ice cream. I grabbed Conor by the collar. Wrenched him out of his standing. I could hear myself roar awful things as he trembled in my hands. The rabbit-glare of his eyes. The ice cream box clattering across the tiles. I didn’t hit him, but I would have. I bent down, scooped the ice cream box up and hurled it against the wall. The box cracked, left a mark. Conor and Fionnuala started to cry. I sent them to bed. I stood there in a rage of shame. The room grew dark around me.
Me making a balls of the Tesco self-checkout machines. The young wans on the tills all giving the same sure-god-love-you smile. My skin’s a blizzard of hot-cold shivers as a girl comes over and says: What’s it this time, love? I only go to these fucking machines so I won’t have to talk to anyone.
Night hours. I wake with the dark rivering about me and it’s like someone’s laying bricks on my chest. I wander through the house. There are still signs of you everywhere, objects scattered about the place like shadows without a sun. The world isn’t anyone’s home, not really. After a while, I end up in the kids’ room. They’re out cold. Their pillows – rumpled smiles of the Avengers and Dora the Explorer – lie thrown on the floor between their beds. I tuck them behind my back and sit against the radiator and try to be a single person, intact. The clock-ticks wind around the room, coming loose from the dark, dithering into the dark. The room is swarming, but the floor’s cold under me. Its hardness straightens my spine and reminds me that, in the real world, I’m actually solid and not this heap of ashes being blown about in silence. I look at the kids shaping themselves through the mess of the blankets. The slow heave of their breathing. Fionnuala’s breaths are shallow, like she’s eager to get more life into her. Conor’s are much slower, dragging the universe into himself and spooling it out again. I try to find my own rhythm, lull myself into the floorboards for whatever hours are left. I close my eyes for a moment and Fionnuala is prodding at my face, because it’s morning. Conor’s already up making breakfast. My body’s a sack of rusty hinges as I push myself from the floor to help Fionnuala get dressed.
Yesterday, on my way to pick up the kids from your mother’s. There’s a news story about some man who drove into the sea with his children in the back seat. Some part of my brain wonders if it was me. If this is something I’ve actually done and not quite realised yet. I have to turn off the radio. The car’s coiling all about me now and I need to step out of it. The seatbelt burns my hand as I fight my way out and every passing driver is a gargoyled face twisting around me as I try to light a smoke. Fionnuala’s empty toddler seat gapes out at me from the car. Headache for weeks now.
That evening in bed I see ourselves on the Secret Beach. I see me walking the kids into the waves, carrying you. I see us beneath the water, our bodies turning in the murk. Your ashes are a storm of dark cloud all around us.
The kids running across the sand now, stripping down to their togs. Fionnuala thought it was amazing this morning – wearing swimming togs under her clothes, instead of knickers. They rush down to the water while I lay out the picnic blanket, the picnic box. I take out the burgers and the disposable barbecue. The kids scream while I try to read the instructions, try to think.
Fionnuala in the shallows, singing the song from Frozen. Conor comes and sits near me. He doesn't sit on the picnic mat, he sits by the picnic mat. I roll up a cigarette. We're both looking at Fionnuala.
Conor, I say.
I’m sorry. The other night. The ice cream. I hope I didn’t... I was just upset.
Conor keeps his head down for a while. When he looks at me, his mouth is tight over his teeth.
Will you always be upset? he says.
I don’t think so, I say. I rub his arm. No.
We sit like that. My fingers tight on his arm.
Sometimes…, he says. He looks at me. His mouth has a cut look. Sometimes, I think I’ll always be upset.
I give his arm the tiniest tug and he dives into me. His head sinks deep and hot into my chest.
Ah, love, I say, over the sound of him sucking air through his teeth. Ah, love.
We stay on the beach for a long time, longer than expected. I join the kids in the water. Conor has Fionnuala on his shoulders and she squeals. I let them spring backwards off my knees into the surge. We don’t scatter your ashes, in the end. We pack everything up. The disposable barbecue is smouldering. Conor offers to carry it. I tell him: Be careful. He holds it out from his body, like an offering. It’s evening.
The Hidden Woods are darker than the beach. The black is hurrying down around us, swallowing the trees, the light. The kids keep close. They look up at me often, to make sure everything’s okay. I smile at them, but I’m slowing down, and the kids notice.
Fionnuala asks: Are we lost?
I say: Of course not, and pretend I’m only stopping to light a cigarette. Everything is a shadow of a shadow. The only light comes from the tip of my smoke and the fading coals of the barbecue in Conor’s hands.
We should put leaves in the fire, Conor says.
Fionnuala drops tiny fistfuls of leaves and twigs from the ground into the barbecue. They flare up to give a warm bowl of flame.
Conor grins, light and shadow dappling his face.
As we walk, Fionnuala gathers more leaves and feeds the brightness. Some embers splash on to the ground beneath us and I turn to step them out. Then I realise we’ve been spilling crumbs of ember all along. Behind us, there’s a broken spine of hot light threading the dark, like a trail to the shore, where you once teased me to get into the water and the kids cheered in surprise to see me joining them, and you waved sleepily at us from the sand, and I waved back at you before turning, gathering breath, letting my brittleness glide across the shingle, and then I was wading deeper, moving out further, to carry our children between the waves.
Colin Walsh grew up in Galway. In 2017 he won the RTÉ Francis Mac Manus Short Story Award, was a prizewinner in the Bridport Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. In 2018 he won the Doolin Writer’s Weekend Flash Fiction competition. His stories have been published in the journal.ie and various anthologies. He lives in Belgium and is currently writing his first novel