Aoife Walsh recently realised that writing is the thing. Before that, she qualified as a solicitor. She then scarpered to Canada. Not being cold enough there, she moved to a tiny town in Sweden where she had a lovely desk on which to write amusing letters home. Her short story ‘Madeleine’ was awarded third prize in the 2015 Roberts Short Story Competition.
By Aoife Walsh
‘I think I’ll have a pot of tea; you get more out of a pot of tea than a cup of coffee. These are lovely chairs, aren’t they? Biscuits? Is that the sweetest thing they have? That man didn’t look young to me. In his seventies anyway. He looked crocked. Didn’t he say his wife couldn’t walk. Remember I had the chicken wings here, they were beautiful, and they gave me ten.’
Colm wondered would his wife stop talking when she died. She paused for six hours at night. Sitting up in their bed, she’d be mid-sentence and drop off. It was a magic moment. Like the moon coming out from behind a cloud. That was his time. Sometimes he stayed up the whole night to hear the half-quiet.
They were in the café part of the hotel in Glendalough. Their annual visit. He thought that she must eventually run out of things to say, but every day, a new delight. He was expected to give responses, so he did. It didn’t matter too much what they were, as long as they chimed, like a sort of duet. He supposed it was better than the couples sitting in silence. He wasn’t decided though. The peace of those people, after forty odd years, content, or stable at least, in each other’s company. Not commenting. Sometimes he wondered would his wife run out of breath, she didn’t seem to need as much as other people. It was impressive he supposed. She could perhaps she could enter a speed-talking competition. He’d suggest it some time. Or not.
The waitress came over with the pots of tea. And the biscuits that came free with them. They weren’t paying for pastries, though he wouldn’t have minded some apple crumble and custard, the day wasn’t warm. The biscuits were okay, but they’d no chocolate on them. He’d better pay attention, his wife was looking at him, he’d missed his cue.
‘Yes, love,’ he said.
The robin had a fantastic voice, he could hear one when the door opened. Songs were written about the blackbird, but robins were the real talent. And they only got their picture on a Christmas card. Not that they cared, he thought.
‘They’ve changed the carpet since last time, I could swear it, I’ll ask the waitress when she comes back, though she’s so young she probably won’t know, unless of course she’s a member of the family. It was owned by the Casey’s, wasn’t it? Before it was sold, so she might be related to them or maybe she’s just from around the area. What do you think of the tea? It’s not as good as the tea in that new place on Abbey Street, but it’s not bad all the same. I wonder if Catherine has had the baby yet, Eileen has been worried sick after what happened with Brendan. I like the new sofas they have here. I think the journey seems to get faster every year, only an hour on the dual carriageway, not like before, you’d be travelling half the day to get here.’
Half the day. Half a lifetime. It had started out beautiful, a real belter of a day and they’d taken a notion to take the children on a day trip. The same time of year as now. Either Michael or John must’ve been learning about St. Kevin in school or something, he didn’t know what put it in their head. It’s not like they were living nearby, they were in Drumcondra at the time. They all packed into the mini. The drizzle started before they’d left town. Then it came down heavier. The boys started fighting in the back of the car. John leaning over Michael’s side or else Michael making faces at John. The usual. The window on the driver’s seat didn’t wind up properly, which was fine if it was soft rain, but with a downpour like this, he was getting drenched. He thought about turning the car around and bringing them all home. But Mary said they should keep going.
He took a wrong turn out near Cabinteely. Maybe because the rain had gotten on to his glasses and he couldn’t see out properly. It put them off course by an hour. They were all getting hungry. So they stopped on the side of the road, stayed in the car and Mary dished out the sandwiches. That had helped. Some of them were egg salad sandwiches, he loved them. Like the ones you got at funerals. Then she produced the pint of milk which she’d been holding between her knees the whole time. They’d had to drink the pint between them in one go because the foil was off. It was nearly half four by the time they got there. The old roads at the end were killer, all spindly. When they finally arrived, he’d just wanted to walk away from Mary and the kids, but Mary had started telling the boys about St. Kevin and Laurence O’Toole and the little churches and lake formation. The boys listened for a bit and then tore away to play chasing.
There were no shops back then, no toilets either. He’d had to go behind a tree. He’d just shook himself and was finding the clasp on the belt when he felt an arm around his waist.
And Mary’s voice up close to him saying, ‘Are you sure he’s ready to go back in just yet? There’s only forest around here, the boys are off playing . . . what do you say?’
He’d been a bit taken aback, but not altogether. He’d turned to face her and she with this look in her eye, God, she was a stunner back then. He drew her close, she pressed into him. All he could hear was the rain and her breath up close to his ear. She undid his buttons and he hoisted up her dress. She’d no tights on. He let his slacks fall down to his knees and then she’d pulled him to the ground on top of her. The wet, mulchy leaves under them, the muckiness in her hair and she not caring. They’d pushed their underwear to the side, the faster to be in each other. She’d let out a loud groan when he’d entered her, the like of which she didn’t when they were at home. They hadn’t lasted long, it was fast and blurry and he remembered coming inside her and he remembered her moans and at the same time there was another sound, somewhere far from them, another sound, beyond the rain, a cry or a shout; a child was shouting, that was it, a child; their child, calling a name,
‘Maaaa! Daaaaa! Where are yeh? Michael’s in trouble! Maaaaa! Daaaaa! Come quick!’
The jumping up, he pulling her up quickly from the ground, at the same time trying to button up his trousers, she looking rattled. The two of them running towards the shouts, he faster than she was and leaving her behind. Through the car park with no cars, past the boarded up huts, faster, his footbeats the loudest sound. Seeing his son John, hearing him roaring and holding something, something red and round in his hands, but it’s too heavy for him and he’s dropping it. At the lake side now and looking for Michael and not seeing him and John pointing, pointing at what, at nothing, following his point though and wading into the water and then swimming out and trying to see under the water, but it’s dark and murky and he can’t see anything, where the fuck is he, what the fuck happened, shouting at John to tell him where Michael is and John just pointing and shouting, ‘There Da, over there, by the reeds!’ Which fuckin reeds, there were reeds everywhere, head under water, over water, wading and holding his nose under and looking and looking. And then. And then seeing the bit of blue. Not seeing it; seeing it. Going over to it and touching it and not touching it. And knowing.
And then Mary’s voice. A screech, a soaring, piercing, heart-stopping, merciless screech. He reaches out to the blue as he hears her splashing into the water. He is holding the blue now. The sleeve that is attached to the arm that is attached to the body that is attached to the head of his son Michael. He turns the body over, he doesn’t know how long all this takes, it doesn’t matter. The face doesn’t look surprised to be so still. It looks calm enough. He hears more flapping of water. Mary who can’t swim is thrashing towards them. He brings Michael to his chest, he is heavy. He holds him there. He thinks to thump the boy’s back, he whacks it and Mary is closer now and she’s wild-eyed and she’s not breathing well after her half-swim. Nothing happens to Michael when he’s hit. He doesn’t splutter to life. He doesn’t cough up a pint of water and then smile a cheeky smile and say ‘Ah but Da, it was only a dare’ He doesn’t do anything but be heavy. Mary is holding onto the child from the other side, so that the boy is wedged between them. They stay like that.
Until they hear crying from the shore. It is John. He is still clutching the red lifebuoy, it is making him look lop-sided. The boy is not very loud in his crying, but the air is still now and carries it. He says ‘Go back’ to his wife. She won’t move, but he can’t leave Michael with her; he’s too heavy. It has to be her to go to the child on the shore.
He says it louder now, ‘Go to John. He needs you.’
The wrong thing to say of course. Her unsaid response hangs between them. She goes though. She wades through the water, slowly, slowly. He adjusts Michael’s body across his arms, cradling him. He can carry him this way. Slowly, slowly he follows his wife to the shore.
It turns out the hotel carpet is new since their last visit.
‘Do you think we should change the stools in the living room, Colm, they’re beginning to look shabby and they don’t really go with the wallpaper either. What do you think? I think I’ll have some dessert after all, it’s cold out here today and some apple crumble and custard would warm us right up. If they’re still doing it at this time of year, that is.’