Storks, a short story by Nuala O’Connor
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 6: Caitríona needs a holiday break with her partner, but her past catches up with her. Illustration by Jane Webster
We are meant to be in Switzerland. We are meant to be staying in the hotel in the Bernese Oberland where I worked one student summer long ago. We are meant to be lording it over the Rüeggs, the handsome, humourless couple who ran the hotel. More croissants, Herr Rüegg! Fresh towels, Frau Rüegg! But we are not there, because when I said Switzerland Fergus heard Spain, and he was the one in charge of our escape.
It takes us an hour to get away from Madrid airport and on to the right road; useful signs, no more than in Ireland, are scarce. But here we are, eventually, on a motorway that is flanked by squat olive trees and abandoned factories. Fergus drives; I enjoy the slump in my seat, the not having to talk. It has worn me out, all the talking lately – with the consultant, with friends and family, with Fergus. The endless going-over. I crave a muted calm now, just the two of us, in an elsewhere that does not include any points of familiarity, or long, tear-marinated conversations. Maybe, in that sense, Spain is the better choice; I have never been here before, and we will manage to be properly alone.
We head south because there is a place that Fergus thinks I will like. I am content to be a passenger, inert and quiet; content to be led. The fields to either side of the road hold skull-capped haycocks, and there is snow on distant mountains. I see static bulls with tails a-twitch, staring at the road from their field, as if plotting a breakout. I know how they feel.
“Travel is always a kind of resting from the self, isn’t it?” Fergus says.
“I don’t know about that; I seem to haul myself with me wherever I go.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” he says, “especially when you’re grieving.” He reaches over and squeezes my knee.
“As are you,” I say.
Fergus doesn’t answer.
The air, when we stop at a roadside diner, is grill hot. I had been craving Alpine air – Swiss thin, Oberland fresh – when I decided we needed a trip. I know I have to make do now with Spanish air, but I am not altogether sure I can find the good in being here, the things that will restore me to myself. I have been squashed under the weight of this mourning; it sits on me like a lead brace and makes a dull, slack creature of me. The heartache is worse than when my mother died, though I haven’t said this to anybody, not even to Fergus.
In a corner of the diner we eat tortillas, under the cigarette fug of the other customers – a row of desultory old men, stuck to bar stools. When we finish we drift to stand in front of a glass cabinet that has knives and woven bracelets for sale.
“Weapons for the boys, jewellery for the girls,” Fergus says.
“It’s like Aldi in miniature.”
We buy petrol in the Repsol next door – along with sweets and cold drinks. The garage forecourt boasts shelf after shelf of pottery piggy banks and phalluses.
“It’s hard to know who those are aimed at,” Fergus says, and we both snigger.
We go on. The Río Tajo shines like quicksilver beside the road, and we eat greasy chocolate and thin, red liquorice sticks as Fergus drives us up into hills. Four hawks dip and circle above the car. How do they see the dart of rabbits or rats against the dun soil, I wonder. Is the constant flash of vehicles – red, blue, yellow – not a complication to the hunt?
“What is it, love?” I ask.
“Nothing, Caitríona.” He squeezes the steering wheel with both hands. “Everything.”
“It’s with me all the time, too.”
“I know it is, sweetheart.”
I close my eyes against the road, the preying birds, and the Moorish fortresses that dot the hills, and ease myself back to March, oily with nausea and glad of it. Several times a day over the loo, puking lines of yolky stuff, the smell of piss and bleach helping the next heave along and the next one. I would get up from the bathroom floor, triumphant and dizzy, and sit on our bed in a trembly sweat, happier – though more nervous – than I had ever been. This one would surely stick. It had to, didn’t it? When the sickness stopped I mistook it for a settling, a nesting-in. Then came the rusty spotting, followed by a torrent of red, and it was over. After that, sorrow, a defeated kind, because it was wefted with blame and what-ifs and not-agains and a turning against myself.
I open my eyes to a signpost pointing to Santa Marta de Magasca.
“Will we go?” I ask.
Martha was top of our list for a girl.
“Let’s just keep on,” Fergus says.
I see a tiny black pig on the hard shoulder. Roadkill. It looks as calm as a cat-napper, but it is all alone, and that makes my heart hurt. Little pig, so forlorn and abandoned, so very small. I turn away and face the road. The helix squiggles of joyriders decorate the tarmac, and I conjure their hurtling madness on dark midnights on this mountain pass, the exhilaration of it, the careen and skid, the joyful danger. Maybe I will steal a car when we go home and tear up and down the M7. Something – anything – to jolt me out of this fug.
We pass a solitary building stuck to a hillside; it has two huge white orbs on its roof.
“Weird,” I say. “They’re like ping-pongs for giants.”
“Or a pair of eyeballs scanning the sky.”
“God is watching us.”
“Or are we watching God?” Fergus says.
“If he exists, that is,” I say.
Faith has departed me since our latest loss. What kind of god would put us through this over and over? What kind of god would deny us the one thing we yearn for? I cannot fathom why I am being punished, and I cannot understand why my body won’t do what it was made to do. Fergus tells me over and over that we have done nothing wrong, that it is nothing to do with gods or fate or our pasts, or any of that.
“It’s just biology,” he says.
Logically I know that he is right, but somewhere inside me there is always that nag, that scolder, who whispers that these losses are a penalty for some wrongdoing. That this is revenge.
I drift into a head-bobbing sleep, aware still of the car’s movement, and dream a rush of things.
I am out walking a baby, but when I lean into the pram it is empty.
I am at an antenatal clinic, and as the midwife palpates my abdomen it turns floppy like dough, a place incapable of housing a child.
A statue of Mary holds a teeny infant, but when I stretch out my hands to take it from her she pops it into her mouth.
The car stops, and I jerk awake to Fergus saying, “We’re here.”
I yawn. “Where’s here?”
]]] There is a market on Plaza Mayor, and I walk from stall to stall, buying pine nuts and pimentón, enjoying the feel of the cobbles under my feet after hours on the road. The stallholders are patient with my bockety Spanish, which morphs into German even for a simple thank you, the foreign-language compartment of my brain muddled. I have lost Fergus again; he is a ruminative tourist, whereas I prefer to take things at a gallop. When I have exhausted the market I look around for him. He is on the church steps, talking to another man. Fergus is animated, all smiles and chatter, and when he sees me he waves.
“Caitríona,” he calls, beckoning me over. “Caitríona, you’ll never guess who I’ve bumped into.” He gestures to the grinning man by his side. “It’s Worms Gormley, my old boarding-school pal.” He lunges into the man’s side and hugs him, and they both laugh.
I have heard a lot about the elusive Worms over the years. His story is so known to me that it’s like meeting a familiar: he is from Limerick, a nomad, a fiddle player, a gas man. I shake Worms’s hand, and his look is quizzical, appraising; he grips my fingers longer, perhaps, than is needed and holds my gaze.
“Lovely to meet you, Caitríona.”
“And you. Are you on holidays?” I ask, taking my hand back.
“This is home. I live here,” he says.
“Nice.” I nod, already short of things to say. “Do I have to call you Worms?”
He laughs and slopes one hand through his ragged hair. “No, it’s William. Will.”
“Worms wants us to go to his house. Meet the family.” Fergus is delighted with himself, as if he has presented a sparkling gift to me, but I am a-prickle.
“We can do that, one of the days, I’m sure,” I say, sending no-way signals to Fergus with my eyes.
“When, Worms?” Fergus asks. “Tomorrow?”
“Let me talk to Marta. Set something up.”
“Marta,” Fergus says, glancing at me. “Such a lovely name.”
]]] We share a porrón of red wine at a cafe called Kiosco Colon. Fergus tries to make me laugh about the name, but I am in no mood. We eat jamón ibérico; I savour its fatty salt until I start to think of the roadkill piglet and push the plate away. I sit for a moment, staring at the uneaten ham, and then tears come. They are never far away these days.
“It was meant to be us,” I say. “Me and you.”
“I’m sorry,” Fergus says.
“I haven’t the head space for other people. You know that.”
“Come on, love. Worms is sound. It’ll be grand.”
“I’m sure he’s fantastic. No doubt his wife is a goddess. But I can’t, Fergus, not in the state of mind I’m in. I can barely speak to you. How would I make small talk to strangers?”
He sighs. “We kind of have to go now, Caitríona. It’s all set up.”
]]] The Gormleys have four children under four. Dark eyed, red haired, round as puttos. We sit in their kitchen and eat their food: couscous with fat sultanas, smoked salmon, patatas bravas in a paprika sauce, stuffed piquillo peppers, and blue cheese that is the colour of cement. The children eat what we eat, to my amazement, and they are the most beautiful, well-behaved little ones I have ever met. They are all silence and enormous eyes, taking us in with each mouthful.
“Your kids are incredible, Marta,” I say.
Fergus looks at me and half grins, half grimaces. He knows I suffer around children.
“This jamón is great,” he says, “we had some in a cafe yesterday.” He scoops more slices on to his plate.
“The pigs are so fat and flavourful we call them ‘olives with legs’,” Marta says, and we all laugh.
“We saw a piglet on the roadside on the way here.” I stop myself saying that it was dead; I don’t want to alarm the children. “He looked so sweet.”
“So sweet,” the oldest Gormley boy mimics, and everyone laughs again.
Worms pours more wine, and his eyes on me across the table have me squirming; he is remarkably interested in studying me, and when I try to stare him off he raises his eyebrows and smiles. I struggle to find things to say; I am flat and tired. My conversation is not much needed, anyway. Worms and Fergus want to reminisce about school in Galway and wild sessions in Tí Neachtain and Salthill. I half-listen, enjoying their buoyancy as they vie to remember their night haunts and the details of escapades. It is good to see Fergus alight.
Marta rises suddenly, comes towards me and plonks the baby she has been holding into my arms. She rushes to mop up juice that waterfalls from the table and threatens Fergus’s lap. She gives out to the three-year-old who has caused the spill, and Fergus protests and kisses the boy on the head.
He leans forward to look into the child’s eyes. “Beans and gravy,” Fergus says, “that’s you.”
“Beans and gravy?” asks Marta, wringing the dishcloth into the sink.
“It’s what you call a redhead with brown eyes.”
“When you don’t call them Worms,” Marta says.
Her husband throws back his head and laughs. Looking at his face, I get a vision of a younger version of him on his back, chest bared, grinning, me straddling him. The scene is so vivid that I gasp and almost lose my grip on the wriggling infant in my arms.
“Take her,” I say, standing up and thrusting the baby at Fergus, who grabs her under the armpits and looks in alarm to Marta. She comes, lifts the baby and tosses her expertly on to her hip. “Excuse me a minute,” I say.
I leave the kitchen, thinking to go to the loo and gather myself. Was it Switzerland? Germany? Where was it? I stumble down a corridor, pushing at doors until one opens on to a hallway. I go to the end and land on a small balcony. The evening air is tepid, but I am sweating; I look out over Cáceres and my heart wallops in my chest.
Worms was the boy, my one and only false-hearted move against Fergus. Worms was the nub of guilt that I had nursed and worried for years until, eventually, I managed to crumble it to nothing at all. The vision is clearer now: it was Switzerland. I can conjure Worms playing fiddle in a corner of the Stella-Leone, where my colleagues and I would linger each night after work in the hotel. I remember my Merlot-fuelled approach to a fellow Paddy, incited by my friends. Later, Worms – or Will, as I knew him – tiptoed with me up the staff stairs to my bedroom, both giggling and shushing, in my desire to avoid the formidable Frau Rüegg, who might be on the prowl. And there were other desires, of course.
Homesickness had smothered me from the start in Switzerland: it was my first solo adventure, away from Fergus, away from my family. But it was something I wanted to do, to prove to myself that I was self-sufficient, or brave, some notion like that. When I realised that the red-headed fiddle player at the Stella-Leone was Irish I was determined to talk to him, if only to wallow in the comfort of a familiar accent.
So Worms Gormley was my misstep. Will Gormley. Once I had liked the fact of that lapse, that one night with Will. I enjoyed the covert feeling that I had something that Fergus was not privy to, could not own, and never would. The memory was mine alone. But I had let it go, eventually, ground it down. Forgot about it.
Cáceres’s buildings are spread out below me at angles to one another, a fairy-tale tumble of red-tiled roofs topped with turret chimneys. I hold the balcony rail and listen to the town: an occasional car engine, music pumped from a bar and, above it all, an odd clack-a-lacka-lack that is followed by a prehistoric whistle.
The sound comes again; it’s like the rapid tap of sticks but hollower. Bones, maybe. The beating of bones.
Behind me I hear a door open and close, then footsteps; somebody comes out on to the balcony. I stay as I am, face forward.
“What’s that noise?” I say. “Listen!”
“It’s the storks.”
I turn to see Will. “Storks?” I ask.
“They nest on buildings and on the tops of poles. Anywhere they can get purchase, I suppose. Big twiggy nests. You must have seen them as you walked around.”
“I don’t remember seeing them.” I peer out over the rooftops. “Storks of all things.”
“What are they called in Spanish?”
“Cigüeñas. What a lovely word.” Clack-a-lacka-lack. “There it is again.”
“They’re calling to you, Caitríona.”
“And why would they be calling to me, especially?” I turn to look at him.
Will runs both hands through his hair, a gesture I recall from that night long ago; I blush.
“Fergus told me what you’ve been going through. I’m really sorry.”
“I don’t want anyone’s pity. It is what it is.”
“It’s hard on you, though. Childhood sweethearts and all that.”
I turn back to the view, strain to see the storks in the dim light, their nests. I think of Will’s fiddle case, stashed under my bed in my staff bedroom, how I joked there might be a gun in it for all I knew, that he might be some class of Provo. I recall the sourness of his long-travelled denim jacket and T-shirt, the warm heft of his bare chest, the assured touch of his hands.
“Do you remember me, Will?”
He comes close up behind me and slips his arms around my waist. “I knew you the second I saw you on Plaza Mayor.”
I swivel towards him and put my arms around his neck. We kiss and his mouth is soft and sweet. His hands travel up and down my back, firm caresses that feel as if they might be the kind that could erode my cares. The storks restart their abandoned conversation: clack-a-lacka-lack. Clack-a- lacka-lack.
“They’re calling to you, Caitríona. I mean it. Listen: ‘All will be well,’ they’re saying. ‘All will be well.’”
I turn from him, look out over the town; the dusk makes a peach-pearl sheet of the sky. Up from one of the chimneys rises a stork, all legs and beak, ancient, cumbersome and dark against the sunset. The call goes up: clack-a-lacka-lack. Clack-a- lacka-lack. All will be well. All will be well.
Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel is Miss Emily. She also writes as Nuala Ní Chonchúir. nualanichonchuir.com Janes Webster teaches at Kingston University. janewebsterillustration.com