Sojourn, a short story by Elaine Feeney

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes visit Inisbofin in this story by the author of As You Were

Elaine Feeney: poet and author of acclaimed debut novel As You Were

Elaine Feeney: poet and author of acclaimed debut novel As You Were


I’m familiar with the sea. Throughout my girl summers I’d walk into her wet coughs, up to my knees, shiver, the cold water shocking my thighs, shiver, salting my darkened navel and over my nipples until it pooled in front of my sternum, shiver, shoulders dry, like a dipped portrait one now sees in a gallery, top of the head obscured with a cover of sorts, a masking tape or oily ebony paint that has been applied to obscure something, breasts or sternum, clavicle perhaps? Something bony and sharp.

Artists are inclined to obscure human portraits and it must be dependent on their mood or the mood of the weather, for the latter does furiously interact with one’s spirits. But we can never quite get to root intentions of the artist, for I notice artists with brushes don’t answer questions on motivation in the same way I must, in the way I constantly defend my work, especially to myself.

I had often entered the dank sea off the coast of England since my moving there, but lately, since the birthing of the two tiny humans, the sea was inducing a most unsettling sickness, which in turn unsettled me, the constant up and down of it, the back and forth, and moreover the thought of vomiting up in public without due warning, which would absolutely mortify me. The sea had begun to feel much like the mess under the stairs or the cramped scarlet bus I rode, though I ride it far less so now, as cadging around the two children is awfully bothersome. And the sea was inducing a movement that made no progress, much like the cooking a woman must do when she doesn’t choose to. And to that end, the motivation of artists who obscure a portion of their canvas must be surmised. I imagine they dip the canvas into paint to upset their subject long after they have finished it; perhaps the portrait preys on their mind, like humans do, all the insecurities of portraying someone other than oneself. I remain in constant obsession about this level of obscuration that comes from one’s art, one’s mistakes.

It was autumn, and decided that Husband and I would holiday on the West coast of Ireland for a brief sojourn and to visit a small island off the town of Cleggan, and the park where Yeats has a tree with names etched into it, of writers and dreamers. We were to be the guests of the poet, Richard. Husband said that I’d decided it, to get away from the squalling babies. I seem to remember it differently. But this is the way of us. Whatever the rationale, the trip was beginning to cause me much anxiety, after all that had been and gone, for now we had different abodes, Husband and I, and the unsettling came at me as a pulsing, not as sounds, but the accumulation of tiny vibrations, like the children’s early vowels or cutting a beef tomato and the knife pulsing off the wooden plinth. I fear the power of knives, so I threw away the soft red tomato slice in the trash and left the knife down. Out of reach of the children.

Also, I do not like packing, especially for this particular trip, where I wasn’t entirely sure in what capacity I was joining Husband, or even Richard, of whom we would be guests, given my letters with him. Perhaps it was indeed that Husband would accompany me in some guesthouse, but even this detail was uncertain. I berated myself, compared myself with my mother, who would have asked such questions, been quite certain of her rank and the order of things, before her departure.

I knew the island, Inisbofin, was sea­locked, without a bridge of any kind, and that set me to fretting about the water and if I would ever rediscover my sea legs. I found this alarming, another thing to add to an over-cluttered to do list, as though packing my suitcases and dressing myself accordingly weren’t enough of an ordeal, now one must go and actually find something that isn’t in the least tangible, sea legs. I grew increasingly concerned about the boat, a hooker named the Ave Maria, and so that by the time we arrived in Cleggan, I had indeed forgotten my physical self entirely.

Husband chatted about class on the trip, himself, Richard, the islanders; everywhere we went were long and rude conversations about the idiocy of people, ordinary people, women, writers. I always find the English, or the Anglo­Irish | English so obsessed about class and the mores of people. This must come from shallowness about oneself, for I am quite sure that Husband is mostly concerned about the ignorance of his broad tongue. Yet, despite the conversations, I don’t know how the native Irish class determine themselves from the Anglo­Irish class, but I can easily spot the difference. Clothes on first encounter, or shoulders, and of course the broadened beautiful vowels.

Richard didn’t have the appeal of an Irish voice that I liked, the timbre of which could excite me. His was rather slim and nasally.

After some time at Cleggan, awaiting Richard and the hooker to moor at Nimmo’s Pier and take us off to Bofin, Husband, tiring of waiting and seeming unimportant in reflection of the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, suggested we go get a drink in a public house with the locals, because this was an Irish custom before boarding a boat, and he was ever so polite with customs that were manly and existed in a bar. Also, they’d asked for his signature in their guestbook and I thought it might lift his spirits were he to leave his mark somewhere.

The pub was pleasant, if a little dark, and immediately upon stooping under the door, Husband went and signed their book, like one does in a boarding house, and I noted, to my upset, that he didn’t use our address, the one we share with our children, and I was conflicted. I wanted to both fuck him and kill him that very moment, but this was our way, and for now, I thought rather haughtily, he could stay in Halifax and let Halifax mind him, for he needed so much minding, giving so much away to people we had never met, who would pore over his signature in the weeks to come and ask all sorts of questions. Of course, this village seemed far too real for the wants and whims of poets; perhaps they would think we had a holiday home and a fixed abode, and this settled me somewhat.

The strangers in the bar didn’t seem happy with our being there, darting glances and quizzical wiry faces, and who could blame them? They dragged their tulip glasses full of black porter into themselves, as though they were cradling a baby, and guffawed at Husband, not that he’d care, for he was louder than anyone in the world when he wanted to be, and then he could be completely silent, and that presence was all­encompassing, like the shadows of rooks; it would come on him without any warning. He would go deadly quiet and contorted in his physical body, put his head down and stoop into his coat collars, and then, after some hiatus, rise out of it like a wise tortoise and talk and talk and talk, usually about other people, the way of them and less about their work, which infuriated me. But sometimes it was enjoyable, particularly if I was feeling low, or envious.

I said so much to him in the bar as I drank the warmest glass of Guinness, the black eel making his warm way up through the yellow froth. I found it hard to understand how a nation had built so much myth on this drink that tasted oddly like my own blood. Husband hardly looked up from his pint, for I was not in the least agreeable, all tense and fluttery, and though I nudged him hard so he might look at me in the eye, he only lifted his finger to the barmaid. I knew then it would have been best if I hadn’t favourably recommended Richard’s poetry, it drove Husband into himself, but the Cleggan Disaster was such a sad affair, and I liked him, Richard, and his poem about the sinking boat, well it blew me away in that way you get blown away when you’re not expecting it, your mind is astray about beaches or money or a flower you saw once but never saw again, a deep violet one.

Husband lifted his finger to call the bar for another pint.

After we finished our drinks, we took our tentative leave. Husband ran his hand over the guestbook upon exit, perhaps to take some luck out with him. His face was ruddy now, and he was somewhat more jovial and in better spirits. But I was ever so flat­footed as we walked along down the street to the pier.

Nimmo’s Pier was named after an adventure, though I find it difficult to figure out how anyone could decide to start an adventure here. That said, I imagine the situation was one where a boat simply crashed into the coast, for that’s about the size of how most adventures begin, with a crash or by an accident. Even explorers just happen upon lands by fate, whichever way one sees it, though they pretend it’s all been arranged prior; that’s the way of the male, everything is planned, metre, form, rhyme, nothing is a stray word, or action, but of course it is, and we know it and keep it to ourselves, all the magic accidents that were planned as though Husband’s work were like that of creating a bridge or laying rail track.

Of course it’s not, it’s not nearly that important.

The boat arrived with her big buffeting white sails and looked unsteady. The West of Ireland was billowing in a muted buffet of bleak colour, not in a Constable way, but in a different way, like how smoke might leave a gentleman’s pipe and fingers yellow, and his eyes and cap grey, a grey tweed herringbone, I imagine, though the style of tweed was of no concern to the locals, who favoured oiled skins and fisherman’s hats. I think they must be entirely practical rather than taking flights of fancy like we do. I cannot particularly remember the weather with any sort of decent specifics; it had that awfully grey hue, suffice to say, the mock­up of the day was a grey that matched the rock and the sea and the sky and Husband.

Back in Devon, the children aren’t sleeping at night; they resemble Irish weather, grumbly. They’re ever so unsettled since Husband took leave, and they miss his physicality about the place, and squawk at me all day long, no matter what I seem to do with them. I bring them out and they cry as it is so very cold, or perhaps that’s just a freezing memory from last winter and all that entailed. Tiredness fuels empty thoughts, shiver, but not the same intense grey that the West coast of Ireland seems to have burled up in my face, and in Devon we stay in for a considerable amount of day, as long as I can bear without tearing out my eyelashes with boredom.

pluck, pluck, pluck…

I find my rearing of them does not resemble my mother’s, and this is some­what a tragedy. For one thing, my kitchen is so different to Mother’s. One always assumes they’ll follow their mother in some way, particularly in the way of her kitchen. Once or twice I tried, but it is difficult to settle yourself on domestic chores when words constantly reel inside your head, observa­tions to be recorded. She had a terrifically big kitchen, which would scare me now. She would slice mangos on hot days, and prepare fish; it would all appear to be perfectly normal, these scenes, until I began to think more about it, Mother and the house and the sea and Father and the great man he was, and I can make out the husk of my memory shell, but little else besides. It’s empty, and when I try to see it, it floats upwards, so furiously unreliable, like what happens to the dead when they’re dead, and to bring it back to mind, I have to imagine myself walking upstairs, with my feet on the steps, and I count them out in German, but then I can’t remember his face at all, it just ups and disappears from my memory…

eins zwei drei

But it doesn’t matter, for in my dreams I cannot walk straight up a staircase. Firstly, I cannot seem to put my foot flat on the mahogany boards and then I lift upwards and outwards over the bannister and I must hold on very tight to it; and secondly, for I’m not a ferociously strong woman, but in a dream and especially a day­dream, I try to convince myself that of course I have power. But it is hard to be louder than Husband.

Richard stood on deck, skinny and hollow like a sailboat, and I remarked on it, as a woman remarks to make everyone feel a lot more comfortable and at ease, though I had made little else except to unsettle the whole darn lot, yet I said, rather unfortunately, that Richard looked a lot like Husband. I wasn’t sure if it was a rugged handsomeness or that he looked out of place and kind of useless; if there was a storm on the way from Cleggan to Inisbofin, we would have to Mayday an islander or a man from the town of Cleggan and he’d have to come out and do something, as useless as these men looked.

The crossing had been uneventful, as I locked myself inwards and lay prone down on the floor of the boat, but nobody passed remarks. Richard and Husband were busy criticizing the work of other poets, mostly letters, and nonsense about publishers. We docked at the pier at Inisbofin; it was slippy as I alighted, and I remember some old rusty tin and the like, but the action hummed in such a way I thought I could most certainly die here, and that calmed me, although the thought was fleeting, and Richard took my hand as I walked from the boat. Husband had already begun walking off, up the pier with his hands behind his back – in that way a man walks and thinks at the same time.

I would have liked to have asked Husband to wait up, but I thought that I’d catch up later, and in any case, it wasn’t worth making a fuss in a strange place before one had even settled into their lodgings and unpacked their clothes and toiletries and bits of ends, and asking a man to wait up when they hadn’t remembered you in the first instance was needy, and I knew enough to know that now wasn’t the time to be needy. No, now was the time to be needed and I had to figure this out, how to be needed. It was something I had never fully come to grips with, not in the way Mother had. I would think about it on the island, if we managed to remain solid and not succumb to our usual habit of becoming horny and self­destructive, as we did after wine and talk of beautiful phrases and things we had seen during our days.

I was hot and bothered by the time I arrived at the guesthouse. In the lodgings I was shown to my room, along a dark narrow corridor. The locker was ever so near the bed and the bed was covered in an eiderdown of plain cream. I noticed a jug and a bowl and became startled, for I’m never quite sure what to do when one finds oneself face to face with the past. But I asked the woman of the house for a little warmish water and she filled some into the jug, in that way a woman can predict another woman’s needs, though might not always meet them. I was ever so grateful for it and poured it into the bowl and began to wash my face and neck with a cloth, the water soothing, in the way I had hoped, but I was terribly conscious of the fact that I’d have to redo my face make­up. I rationed this with myself and agreed the soothing was worth a possible reapplication. I had been so face­flushed on the boat and Richard kept on about it and in turn on about how he’d bought the hooker boat named as the Ave Maria off this man who loved it more than a woman, and I thought that’s about right, because from everything I know of how a man loves a woman, this made the most sense. I lay down for a while and shoved my face into the cream eiderdown. I may have cried.

I slept. Upon my stirring, the woman of the house knocked gently and advised me of the hour and suggested I had a little time to myself, a polite way of putting my abandonment, before meeting up with my charges later that evening. She suggested a swim, and I agreed, that after the awful motion of the boat, being in the water may recalibrate the way I feel. She began to chatter about the disaster of that boat that had gone out and not returned and had left the fishermen to the sea, but then immediately she started fretting that she shouldn’t have told me, as I gathered my swimming costume into myself and pawed it with my hands. But it was part of the reason I wanted to come here. I kept this to myself.

I left the house and walked out as far as the East Beach. I so wanted to go in for a swim, shiver, but I should like to test the water in advance, and all I could think of was the disaster; there was something about giving someone part of a story which was worse than not telling them at all, and far worse than giving the entire account. I have noticed that about the Irish, particularly the men – they talk a long time about very little, as though the topic is somewhere around the chatter, and it’s your puzzle to find out.

I held my costume close into me and thought of the fishermen drowning and crying out, and I could hear Husband’s voice, saying things to me, suggestions and chatter, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything at all, especially recently what he was going on about. He didn’t seem to want to be there, with me, in the same place as me, in the dark kitchen with me, or a garden, or walking along the street, and I wasn’t entirely sure that us both leaving for another country was going to help us one bit; but men are far less concerned with long games anyhow, and are all far more impulsive.

I changed, feeling awkward as a couple ran a kite on the beach while their children played in the sand, one digging, the other building. The water was like a friend, helping, and it did what cold water does, made me feel awake. And for the first time in a long time, vibrant.

Later that evening, I returned to the lodging and fixed myself. I twisted my hair after braiding it, and my neck was tingling from the saltwater. I was giddy and unreliable.

The Bar was dark, and I was disappointed I hadn’t bumped into Husband along the walk back from the East Beach. I didn’t hassle the woman of the house as to his whereabouts, as women often do to each other, holding them accountable for the disappearance of a man.

The men were there, and I joined them. We started with a bottle of white wine and Richard tasted it and then looked like he had bitten into a lemon, though I found it quite pleasant, but a little too warm, like the earlier Guinness. I drank it very quickly until the flush rose on my breasts and up to my face and Husband shot me a look. I smiled at him. Richard was quoting Yeats and I wished they’d give over about apples.

I sat among them, blessed, and thought I’d like to light a long cigarette at this moment and escape. But I had none, so I poured myself another glass of wine and there was a moment of silence, but then all the men laughed, and I felt instantly angry.

I drank the wine and was feeling giddy, noting that Husband hadn’t looked me in the eye since I sat down. The server woman came and smiled at me and stood at our table for some time and I asked after her family and she after mine, which brought them to the surface like boiling oil.

Of course something happened with Husband and I, in the way it always does with us, hidden and secret. Maybe I was inclined towards Richard. I think back on this and I am never certain or trustworthy of my recollection, of who touched who, but of course initiation is a futile mulling, for it’s the aftermath that’s always the more dramatic, and how inane it is to meet a man’s leg under a table, and though I berated myself – please note I am also quite long­legged like a moorhen, as is Richard – sometimes I think that I was caressing the calf of Husband, and it was willing, hard, warm, so welcome, and I like this memory best. But then I think of her, with her dark hair and large lips, and I know it must be Richard I was seeking, or perhaps they were all seeking me, angrily, in the way men compete with each other. I had better stay on the sea like a portrait, remain there, dip myself down in the rainbow colours of the kites, bury myself alive in the child’s bucket on the East Beach. I was self­destructive and seeking attention in the way I sometimes do, like Husband. Husband, noting my flirtation, or rouge, rose from the table, most irritated, and muttered about indigestion or a sharp pain in the bowels, lifted his collar up and over his chin.

I followed out into the night, after him, shiver, gathering my skin up and together, but couldn’t catch up, shiver, and my shoes were now so tight they were melted on my hot feet, which began to swell. I took rest on the damp ditch, the dew falling as it did, without warning, more liquid than expected, enough to dampen me entirely, the back of my dress and my pants. I took off my shoes and curled my feet over the grass and the cold water began to bring the swelling down, faster than usual, and I could see the sinews in my feet, each bone that protruded into a toe, the baby toe, like the crowning heads of the children, and I rubbed them.

A dying corncrake cried out in the field behind the dry stone­wall that was precariously laid on the grass, bravely or stupidly, and I watched the corncrake move into the corner, like a rook returning back. I sat there to sing to it at first and to cool the toes, shiver, but I couldn’t remember the words of any song. I thought of the drowning men and the paintings with the faces dipped and I thought if I were to be a painting, I’d rather the face was covered in the blackest rook­black, and not in the cerise or the lemon sherbets, and that the painting should hang in the corner of a gallery, so no one sees it, like this dying corncrake, and its swalking swalking swalking, that I couldn’t shut the damned thing out. Oh fuck, but so make me a rook in a gallery, blackened with only my breasts on show, although it’s most unlikely I’d get any attention.

I hummed a little. I think it was Brahms, with the hard pianoforte banging after the violins, but the corncrake cawed out, louder and louder, my new friend, and I pulled my skirt down around my legs, taking my hair down and rubbing my arms fast with my hands. I took long deep breaths and watched the men bolt from the bar in his wake. In search of Husband, I went, but he was gone, far up the road as the corncrake cried out again, squalling, squalling, against the sea.
Elaine Feeney is a writer from Galway who teaches at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Feeney has written four collections of poetry, including The Radio was Gospel (2013) and Rise (2017), and a drama piece, WRoNGHEADED. Her debut novel As You Were, published in 2020 by Vintage, was chosen by the Observer as one of its Best Debut Novels for 2020. This story appears in Galway Stories and The Art of the Glimpse. Galway Stories, edited by Lisa Frank and Alan McMonagle, is published by Doire Press. The Art of the Glimpse,edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is published by Apollo on October 1st.

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