Hills like Hemingway’s, a short story by Lauren Foley

A ferry full of Irish women crosses the Irish Sea

Lauren Foley: was shortlisted for the Irish Times Hennessy Literary Awards, 2017, and is a current Pushcart Prize nominee

Lauren Foley: was shortlisted for the Irish Times Hennessy Literary Awards, 2017, and is a current Pushcart Prize nominee

a
 

A Play in One Act
Dublin to Holyhead
Scene I

The waves across the Irish Sea are high and rough.

A woman sits alone at a table. Another woman stands at the bar peering into the bottom of her whiskey glass. A young woman and a man sit huddled in a dark corner of the ship. Where the movies play. He holds her hand open and draws circles round the edges of her palm with his thumb. A girl, no more than nineteen, stands on the open decking, the wind hurtles around her. What need has she to care? She peers over the railings’ edge and steps up just one step, one rung. A girl child is on board with her parents. She is wan, not pale, more transparent in actual fact. The bones of her skull are set so tight the skin pastes itself to them, she looks as though a roar of wind will break her. Or it actually already has, and she has been stuck back together with glue which has set, down to the bones, too tight. There are other Irish women on board, they are alone, maybe with friends, one close friend, a partner, even a spouse. They are all on this ship. Not one of these women has a name.

The waves across the Irish Sea are high and rough. On that side there is no shelter only shadow and by this time the ferry is between here and high water. Close against that side of channel is the cold shoulder of the homeland. The ship’s windows, around the cabin, are made of mirrored glass to keep in reflections. So it is just you looking back at you, and no one from outside seeing in, no one from inside seeing out.

The lone woman is in rich company, though she doesn’t know it, and likely never will. The whiskey woman is onto her second double, her third trip across these waters, said it wouldn’t happen this time, said he’d come back for her, she couldn’t stay in the village like this, unwed, her time for loving him is nearly up, she is hoping the whiskey will drown it, she’s hoping to never have to make this journey again, he went back to America, hard edges are blurring and she considers staying abroad, she cannot make the return journey again. The couple are young and newly married, they have dreams of the life they will share, they have choices and always make theirs together, wherever they go the other will be there. The girl has long since stopped dancing, there is no shore in sight. She holds fast to the barrier and juts herself forward the rushing past is fast it feels light.

The girl child is wearing no makeup. Her hair is scraped back into a high pony tail. Her skin is so clean you could eat your dinner off her. But on closer look she’s rubbed raw red. Her schoolbag-covered with hand-sewn patches of pop bands and butterflies-sits on the floor between her feet. The father and the mother with her, sit on seats furthest away from other passengers. It is very cold and the ferry to Holyhead will port in forty minutes. It will stop at this port for ninety minutes then go back.

’What should we drink?’ the mother asks. She tugs up her scarf and is fidgeting with her gloves.

’It’s pretty cold,’ says the father.

’Let’s drink tea.’

’Three teas,’ the father says into the bar.

’Hot ones?’ a woman asks from the back.

’Hah. Three hot ones.’

The lone woman notices the particles of air all around her. The lone woman is shrouded in silence. Ciúnas. Le do thoil. The whiskey woman is sipping some warm amber water now planning their new life abroad. She has a cousin who lives in Liverpool. She could take this money and set themselves up there. The happy couple are softly sleeping in the nooks and crooks of each other’s arms. Padded as they are from the elements, wrapped up in their cosy life’s choices. The girl puts her two feet on the railings and rolls her jacket’s lengthy zip to its bare end. Sticking it fast on the last tooth, feet up one rung, two, three, extends her face forward on the top rail. Pinches the zips’ ends. Folds her jacket over, holds it up either side of her head. Monstrous wind rushes up in and around her pummelling her to and fro. This must be what flying feels like. Her need to care is superfluous as the engine shifts downgear.

The girl child is biting her fingernails. They are bitten right down to the quick. They have rivulets of dry blood in the crevices-blood bruises-and fresh tears on old.

The bar woman brings three cups and a pot. She puts the pot and the cups on the table and looks at the father and the mother. The girl child is looking off at the crests of the waves. They are bright white with foam and the ferry is rocking side to side.

’They look like white elephants,’ she says.

’I’ve never seen one,’ the father drinks his tea.

’No, you wouldn’t have,’ the mother says.

’I might have,’ the father says. ‘Just because I say I wouldn’t have doesn’t mean anything.’

The lone woman watches people talking. They have everything and nothing to say. The lone woman thinks how poetic the silence of noisiness is. It doesn’t translate how she’d like it: is fileata ciúnas fiosrachta, nó nach fileata ciúnas fiosrachta. She searches for the right words. The whiskey woman ponders what if her cousin won’t have them? What if they’ve no place to stay? She would have to work. She’d have to. She can’t think of another way. The sleeping couple are snoring softly. The winds and waters roar. The girl tumbles out her hair.

The girl child is an effigy of her former self.

The mother says, ‘We’ll have two Irish coffees.’

’Can I have a taste? Ugh. It tastes like whiskey,’ the girl child puts the glass down.

’That’s always the way,’ the mother says.

’Yes,’ says the girl child. ‘Everything tastes of whiskey. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like chocolate truffles.’

’Oh, don’t start,’ the mother says.

’You started it,’ the girl child says. ‘I was being hilarious. I was having a grand time.’

’Well, let’s try and have a grand time.’

’All right. I was trying. I said the waves looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that smart?’

’That was smart, alright.’

The girl looks out at the waves.

’They’re lovely waves,’ she says. ‘They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the foam like water gushing from their trunks.’

Nameless women travel undocumented seeking refuge and comfort abroad. Searching for shelter, save haven, and some fundamental thing, some thing right. There are hosts of other women not on this ship. They are home, stuck where they don’t want to be nor like. Few laundries left, they are outcast; or woollen geansaí to pull over for now, this month, next, two geansaís on top of their school uniforms, letting skirts out with safety pins, bobbins, elastic bands. Hiding in plain sight. Until the bleeding comes. Blood under bedsit doors and bathroom floors all across the lush and fertile green green green earth.

No matter how hard she tries to translate it all the lone woman can hear is: Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Ciúnas. Le do thoil. The whiskey woman stops her drinking. She has decided, if nothing else, she won’t be going back. The sleeping couple are rousing softly. They look to each other. And smile. The girl jumps, for joy and liberty.

None question their consent.

Scene II

Dad: It’s really an awful simple operation, Pet. It’s not really an operation at all.

The girl child looks at the floor the table legs rest on.

”Has no one said those daring. Kind eyes should be more learn’d?”

Girl child: Then what will we do afterwards?

”Or warned you how despairing the moths are when they are burned.”

Dad: We’ll all be fine afterwards. Just like we were before. It’s the only thing that still bothers you. It’s the only thing that could make you more unhappy.

Mam: I could have warned you, but you are young.

Girl child: And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.

Dad: Well look, if you don’t want to you absolutely don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.

Mam: I could have warned you, but you are young.

Girl child: I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want to do it if Mam doesn’t really want me to. And if I do it you’ll both be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?

Dad: We love you now. You know we love you.

Mam: I could have warned you, but you are young.

Girl child: I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?

Dad: We’ll love it. We love it now but I just can’t think about it.

Mam: But I just can’t think about it.

Girl child: But I just can’t think about it.

”I should have warned you, but you were still so very very young.”

The girl child stands up and walks to the end of the deck. Across, on the other side, are cliffs of stone and mountains behind the coast of the mainland. Far away, behind the mountains, is another other country. The shadow of a cloud moves across the coastline and she sees the mountains behind.

Girl child: And we could have all this. And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.

”Suffer as your mother suffered.”

Mam: What did you say?

Girl child: I said I could have everything.

”Suffer as your mother suffered.”

Mam: No, you can’t.

Girl child: I can have the whole word.

”Suffer as your mother suffered.”

Mam: No, you can’t.

Girl child: I can go everywhere.

”Suffer as your mother suffers.”

Mam: No, you can’t. It isn’t yours any more.

”Suffer.”

Girl child: It’s ours.

”Suffer.”

Mam: No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back. You’ve got to realise.

”Suffer.”

”I could have warned you, but you are young. So we speak a different tongue.”

Girl child: Would you please please please please please please please stop talking? I’ll scream.

”O you will take whatever’s offered, And dream that all the world’s a friend.”

Girl child: I feel fine.

”Be as broken in the end.”

Girl child: There’s nothing wrong with me.

”But I am old and you are young.”

Girl child: I feel fine.

”And I speak a barbarous tongue.”

Curtain.

Lauren Foley is Irish/Australian. Her short stories are published internationally. In 2016, Lauren won the inaugural Neilma Sidney Award with Overland Literary Journal, was highly commended for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award, and shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year. She was shortlisted for the Irish Times Hennessy Literary Awards, 2017, and is a current Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Skerries, Co Dublin

a
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.