Clifftop Vows by Seosamh Ó Riain

Seosamh Ó Riain is from Kerry and this is his first short story. Seosamh has spent many years working internationally in Software Engineering.  He has also worked in the Irish language sphere, including freelance/full-time journalism and has been published in Foinse, Feasta, Comhar , An tUltach, Gaelscéal, Politico.com and the Galway Independent.

He holds a BSc degree in Computer Systems from UL and a post-graduate degree in Irish translation from NUIM.

Clifftop Vows

By Seosamh Ó Riain

The office front door closed with an unexpected booming, betraying thud behind him. So loud, that the cacophonous clang must have reverberated right throughout the elegant, yet soulless Georgian building he had just hastily exited. Uncharacteristically, he didn’t care. Not one bit.

Nothing mattered much anymore, Frank thought to himself, as he stood disconsolate and motionless outside in the sweeping rain. Eyes gazed to the skies, he embraced the heavy gregarious raindrops, even admiring their cleansing powers. They too had fallen from a higher plateau, had also come crashing down from a once fêted celestial existence. Theirs was, in contrast, a struggle-free downward spiral, as accepting as craggy rocks are of cloaking moss. Frank sighed.

On entering the taxi, he beckoned the driver to drive on, anywhere but remain here. The Friday evening work crowds continued to pour excitedly out onto the saturated streets, giddy and half-abandoning their stress, if only for the now, to form a criss-crossing populace, only to go their own way again.

The taxi, like a mother’s hug, offered Frank a cocoon away from the utter stress of his life, from that office in that building. Then, a sudden braking pierced the cocoon’s protective layer, punctuated the silence, and startled Frank, abruptly wrenching him back from solemn brooding. The young man ahead, visibly shaken, had just narrowly avoided a terrible mishap. The sonorous screeching of the horn sounded his hasty exit, as he made hurriedly across the street and around the corner to safety.

“Where to then?” uttered the taxi driver, almost bashfully. “Oh, of course, sorry, to the station, to the train station please,” replied Frank. “What time is your train then, I mean, the traffic is heavy an’ all.” “Ah, we have time still, it leaves in 40 minutes,” says Frank, his eyes all the while gazing at the soaking faceless people going by.

Such was the volume of passengers furrowing their way back and forth from carriage to carriage, that Frank momentarily regretted he had not reserved a seat. But, then again, this was hardly a well-planned trip, rather one spawned about the midnight hour on the previous evening as he sipped on a glass of wine in the silent dimly lit apartment. Perhaps the unfamiliar could fleetingly bridle his sense of lethargy, he mused, and the stinging pain of loss and loneliness that ached in his every living breath. Even for one weekend.

It felt so good to sit. Scarcely that he had been on his feet long, but an increasing weariness that clung like a cloak of lead had surreptitiously escorted his every move for months, nay perhaps even years now. He dared not count. Such inward fatigue hardly reflected the outer façade of a man who had always adopted a blooming healthy approach to life, boasting a sporting physique, thick wavy brown hair infiltrated by grey and a relatively youthful face that belied his 53 years.

Nor could he criticize and damn middle-age, whose dubious realm he had most definitely entered, for such toils and turmoil. That would be anathema to one born of such convivial, enthusiastic and optimistic disposition as he. Although, never the magnetic centre of attention, Frank was nevertheless viewed as a steadfast, solid, irrepressible fellow with an abundant arsenal of charm and charisma, even if he dared to show them only every now and then.

The ticket-checker had to prompt Frank twice for his ticket before he snapped out of a gaze into eternity that lay somewhere between the seat window and the great grey beyond. He was embarrassed, apologised and duly proceeded to rummage through his wallet for a few moments before satisfying the teller’s request. He felt the curious stares and glares of other travellers on him.

It was only just then on tardily looking around, now more than an hour into the journey, that Frank first noticed the fellow passengers that shared his table. An elderly couple, well-dressed in rustic country fashion, exchanged a pleasant but distant smile with him, before returning to their reading. They seemed graceful and content, but slightly dubious of him.

The man to his left had meantime returned to a semi-natal position, resting his head between the seat and the window, in a seemingly determined effort to close out the world around him. Slovenly dressed, unkempt, with errant hair tousled in every possible direction, his appearance was redolent of the discarded winos that Frank frequently encountered hugging the shore hole on city street corners. The stark stench of alcohol off his breadth substantiated the suspicion.

Ditch-demarcated fields sped frantically past the large window; carpets of moss green adorned by large mirror pools of water, reflecting a sudden hue of brilliant blue that had just pierced the omnipresent dark clouds. Here and there sheep, cattle and the odd horse bespeckled the landscape. Willow and birch stood defiantly in the background, dutifully overlooking the meadows, casting their non-threatening silhouettes far and wide.

On arriving in the West, Frank made immediately for the ferry shuttle bus that would bring him out to the harbour. Thirty minutes of negotiating winding, meandering roads accompanied by the soft gentle melodic whispers of the Atlantic saw Frank disembark at the pier. It was a western fishing port bearing all the hallmarks of a semi-abandoned outpost and there Frank boarded the island ferry that would eventually complete his cross-country and sea sojourn.

It scarcely seemed more than a mere few minutes later when Frank was startled from his sleep by the bustle and commotion of excited tourists on the boat’s upper deck. In fact, a full 55 minutes had passed.  The sound of cars and taxis and joyous laughter tempered his initial anxiety and confirmed that he had indeed arrived at the destination. A half-smile crossed his face, accompanied by a sigh of relief that repressed the throes of tiredness – travel and otherwise. He grabbed his black wheeled-duffel travel bag, and quick-paced headed up the stairs and onto the upper deck, the last passenger to do so.

The air that greeted Frank was amazingly clean and fresh.  He paused momentarily, not passing up the opportunity to inhale and imbibe its alluring charm. Its almost nascent pristineness was timeless and true, unblemished by the industrial revolution, soothed by the great sea. This place was different, thankfully, Frank thought to himself, as he walked swiftly down the boat ladder steps onto the pier.

A great crowd had gathered just yards from the ferry. A conflation of locals and wide-eyed tourists that had just disembarked transformed the remote serene fishing-pier into a busy transient trading post.

Taxi-cars and vans lined the pier, ready to transport the visitors to their island accommodation. Jaunting-cars, despite holding the rear of the queue, captivated the crowd and secured the foremost batch of tourists. Immaculately kept, and splendidly bedecked with a thick layering of seal brown interfused with forest green, they had either two or four person seats placed back to back, with well-worn foot-boards projecting over the wheels.

Frank, respectful and considerate as ever, waited his turn at the back of the crowd. Others, less thoughtful, more stealthful, and saliently impatient made an unconscious expedient alliance and pushed brusquely forward in groups of four or five to the dismay of their fellow travellers. This provided the impetus for a handful of timid, cordial but follower-type personalities further back to follow suit in jumping the queue. A needless albeit non-threatening chaos thus ensued, voices slightly raised, the hitherto delightful scene smeared slightly by self-indulgence and egotism. Frank never waivered.  He stayed to the back, ever the gentleman. He had seen it all too often before.

“Where d’ya be headed Sir?” said the mini-bus driver, stepping out of the twilight and closer to Frank. “I need a bed for the night, would you know of anywhere vacant?” “Oh, I do indeed then faith.” The islandman, in his early 60s, with a weather-beaten face adorned by a tweed ivy cap, deep-set eyes and chiselled lines running from his cheeks down to the fine jaw line, studied Frank intently, overtly looking him up and down. The work suit threw him a little, hardly the conventional bright-eyed tourist, he thought to himself. “Is it a hotel you be looking for then?” “No,” said Frank, “just a B&B would be fine.” “Ahea, yeah, no problem,” said the man, “Máire Áine has just the place, hardly a mile back the road.” “Jump in with the others and I’ll spin you back in no time my good man.” “Perfect, thanks” said Frank and followed the man to the red mini-bus, now almost full to capacity.

Darkness had laid her expansive cloak over the island, the rain clouds of the late afternoon had well dispersed and given way to a fine clear evening. Frank was delighted the driver only slowly winded his way down the half-circular sandy road from the pier towards the little fishing village. He was keen to steal a first glimpse of island life that lay before him.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Immediately after they passed the local tourist office, two bikes came hurdling recklessly at no little speed past the mini-bus, one to each side. The driver, in such a dart to down the window, lost grip of the window winder, tried a second time and flung a flurry of exotic expletives – in native Irish – to the back of the bus towards the two teenage renegades. The night air was thick with the echo of yelping and laughing of the two lads who no doubt had just added one more twig to the comedy branch of their tree of life.  The unfortunate bus driver, less than impressed and visibly stressed, turned towards Frank, the nearest front passenger. Noticing the astonishment on Frank’s face, he wryly smiled and explained “Just an islandman’s greeting to another, a mhac, ancient words of wisdom is all.”

Frank nodded but did not hear the words that followed. Instead, his mind replayed the incident – for it was the very first time he had ever heard the Irish language being spoken naturally, by a native speaker, outside of a tedious classroom environment. Incredibly, Frank de Paor, the internationalist, the cosmopolitan and worn-heeled traveller had not realised, nor considered, ‘till this very moment that poetic rhapsodic Irish was still the vernacular of these island people. He was inwardly thrilled.

To the back of Máire Áine’s house a semi-clothed moon hovered high over the lake like a lodestar guiding the weary traveller. The deferent rocky lake duly reflected the dashing beams of moonlight, and splashed a dash of light onto the dark, winding island road. The granite house, located just over a mile north of the village, stood proudly two storeys tall. Shining snowy white-washed walls, direct from a 1950s John Hinde picture postcard, defined the entrance, and a green wooden gate to the left of the house led to a side garden.

Hardly had the mini-bus pulled up, when the front house light came on. A graceful-looking middle-aged woman with grey hair tied in a bun appeared at the door, wiping her hands on a blue, white-star-speckled apron. She greeted the driver in a flow of soft-sounding words, dulcet in tone, chain-linked to an ancient culture that stretched back over 3,000 years and had somehow, miraculously, survived. Just.

Frank alone listened attentively, but grasped precious little of the excited conversation that ensued. It saddened him. Not that he wanted to pry. But, because the words that flowed and filled the island air were also his words, words native and familiar to his heart, yet achingly foreign to his brain. If these were the dead words of a dead language, then this must be Gaelic Heaven, he thought.

After viewing the modest, yet warm and comfortable, bedroom, Frank followed the bean a’ tí back down the stairs to the dining-room. A roaring, homely turf fire dominated the room and provided the perfect background melody to the nutritious country home cooking that followed.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast Frank set off on a walking tour of the six- mile long by two-mile wide island. Máire Áine had recommended going north first where a neolithic fort overlooked the sea. Spectacular views she promised. Abandoned was the suit that stenched of office stress, replaced by casuals and sturdy explorer walking boots.

Brilliant May sunshine hailed the first Saturday of Summer. Frank could hardly believe his luck, and set off as if he had not a care in the world. After a few miles, he took the walking trail north-west in the direction of the fort, quite happy to have left the surprisingly busy twisting road behind. Here and there, local farmers out tending to their livestock, greeted him warmly before resuming their afternoon chores without fuss. He was not the first tourist to pass this way, not by far.

He made his way slowly and carefully over jagged rocks and the odd boulder that had now replaced the walking trail. The whole landscape was a patchwork of tiny plots of mostly bad land bound by a thread of stone walls. Walls as old as the Famine, Frank thought to himself.

The walk became a little steeper, and the intensified sunshine of the afternoon emphasised the dearth of drinking water. A studied glance around mitigated his parching thirst however; the far-distant purple-capped mountains, the encircling sea, the pleasant aroma of freshly cut grass all reminded Frank of the sheer beauty of the world. He had almost forgotten.

The fort was majestic – 2,500 years of history sealed within. Thirty-foot walls of stone enclosed the semi-circular structure with daring extremities at the sea-cliff edge. Huge stone supports were located about every 30 yards along its main land entrance. The rear was fortified by a 600-foot searing awe-inspiring drop into the ocean. He dared not look over the edge.

Frank, sweating profusely after the tough trek, flung himself down on the grass. With the fort as a backdrop and the jagged cliff edge as his front vista, he marvelled at the extraordinary beauty of this age-old spot. The still turquoise sea stretched out ahead of him rising like a phoenix to embrace the cloudless sapphire blue sky. Small sailing and fishing boats dotted the glistening horizon.

Claire would have loved it here, he thought. It was the one real common denominator they had; the love of the sea, its soothing sounds and divine power. They had met in their early 40s, at a time when both had long consigned any notion of marriage in their respective lives to the last chapters of Mills & Boon romantic novels. And then love intervened. They were married within four years, the first 18 months of which were positively blissful.

And then life intervened and a dreary divorce saga ensued after less than five years of ‘until death do us part’. Both had agreed to the divorce, that the relationship would never work long-term, that it had been a big mistake. Only their reasons differed; she aspersed his lack of drive and sclerotic work habits in a world of constant change, his unwillingness to socialise with her friends at the regular city parties and get-togethers. He admired her ferocious work-drive, her considerable professional achievements on the corporate corridors, but could never acquiesce to her increasingly megalomaniacal ways. There had to be a more humble, harmonious path through life. “Pomposity is but the handmaiden of financial worship.” became his catchphrase. As for her friends, “as false as dicers’ oaths”, he would bellow, “a parvenu show of wealth destined for the long lane of lost souls!”.

He missed her.

Oddly, from time to time he still considered, if only for a sweet second, a trip to his home town. A catch-up with family and friends. Only for reality to bite sharply and remind him that the door to the past was firmly bolted. His parents had long passed over, and friends were scattered to the four corners. The parental loss hurt deeply. Always would. He was well and truly on his own now. Still, the fleeting thought of home filled him with a sense of warmth and glee.

Despite modest achievement in his professional life, Frank still felt largely unfulfilled. Whilst hardly a paean of success on the corporate ladder, he had risen to middle management in an international insurance company. His parents would have been proud, especially his Dad, who always encouraged him to pursue a good career. Except, their ideas of a career differed deeply. At 17, Frank would have ideally gone on to Art College, but his father dissuaded him from such folly. “Clouds in your coffee Frank”, he would say, “Why not get a proper career.” He did, but at what cost?

That can happen in life, Frank reflected. We can carve out the life our parents and loved ones had planned for us. But, can it ever fill the void left behind for what we ourselves truly want? Here, 600-feet above sea-level, on a timeless day, in a place of living history, Frank De Paor sucked in a deep breath and at last realised that he had neglected a vital side of his life for nigh 40 years. He had not remained loyal to the urges of his soul, the beatings of his heart. He vowed here in this ancient stronghold, to sow the seeds of long overdue change. To re-embrace art and culture and the dear language that he had become oddly blind to.

Frank stood up to return back down to the village. At the fort’s main exit – the gateway between the old and new worlds – he paused, and looked back. A bright smile lit up his face, and a teardrop for loss and lost opportunity fell onto the Gaelic soil underneath. He turned and set-off on his journey of discovery.

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