Sheila Kinsella – Gently Now

Belgium-based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. 

Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.


Gently Now

By Sheila Kinsella

I stand on top of the Fairy Bridges and stare out to sea. The turf is springy underfoot on these ancient sea stacks that form a natural arch in the cliffs. An army of white-crested waves tumbles in formation to crash on the beach.  The strip of yellow sand stretches out before me like a knife spreading butter on toast. Although the wind lashes my face, I relish the fresh wild smell of brine and seaweed and the taste of salt on my lips. The sea thrashes against the rocks in the blowhole beneath me.  

A threatening mass of blueberry-coloured clouds rolls across the horizon, their dark backdrop highlights the tiny whiteboards of surfers weaving in and out of The Peak wave off Mullaghmore Head. 

I turn to view County Sligo and across Donegal Bay to the Slieve League Cliffs rising in the distance.

As I tread a careful path back to the safety of the grassy bank, I notice the stone Fairy Throne that tourists take turns to sit in on warmer days to make a wish. If only. But no wish can bring Colm back.

Nowadays experts call it abuse. Back then, it was Daddy wanting to make a man of his son. I recall that day like a film I’ve watched over and over.

Already first thing, Daddy roared at us to get a move on and slapped Colm on the back.

‘Come on Colm, we’ll conquer the waves!’

In the car, Mammy sat in the front. Silent. The surfboards on the roof rack rattled all the way to Bundoran. Daddy gave a running commentary on the weather and the surfing waves in Bundoran. I stared at the passing countryside. Next to me, Colm was head down engrossed in a book about a child wizard.  Every few minutes he pushed his glasses back on his nose.

On Tullan Strand, the receding tide revealed deep rivulets in the expanse of sand. Daddy selected a spot just in front of the dunes and lay the surfboards down, he picked up a stick that someone had poked into the sand. Mammy spread the tartan blanket out, placed the cool box on top of it and sat down to read Woman’s Weekly.

Surfboard under his arm, Daddy took Colm closer to the shore. I watched as Colm dropped the board and Daddy slapped the back of his head as he picked it up. Why was he always slapping him? I ran after them. Daddy outlined a surfboard on the wet sand, with a line down the middle.

‘That’s the stringer. Remember from last time?’ Daddy said.

‘Yes,’ Colm replied.

‘Lie on the sand and show me.’

Colm lay on the sand, belly down.

‘No, no, no!’ Daddy shouted. ‘You’re too far down there, shuffle up!’

Colm inched his body further up the make-believe board.

‘Paddle!’

Colm flapped his arms around with little conviction.

‘Come on, the wave is chasing you,’ Daddy made splashing noises.

I laughed. I’ve always felt guilty about that.

‘Push on your hands and jump up!’

Colm leapt up, left foot forward and right foot at the back, arms outstretched.

I clapped my hands together and cheered.

‘No, no, no, faster than that! Remember that wave’s going to swallow you up!’ Daddy slapped his thigh. ‘Again!’

I lay on the sand next to Colm, mimicking his actions.  The wet sand clung to my swimming costume and my hands were covered in a brown gritty paste. After a few turns, I tired and lay on my back staring at the blue sky.

‘Again!’

Colm breathed heavily and tried his best. A circle of kids gathered around. Their snot-nosed faces glaring at Colm.

‘Get lost!’ I shouted.

‘You fecking eejit!’ They laughed and ran off.

‘Come on Colm!  Again!’ Daddy kept on.

Colm jumped again, but his glasses flew off, landing skew-whiff in the sand next to me.  I picked them up and folded their arms into the lenses.

‘You won’t be needing those anyways,’ Daddy said. ‘Right, we’re going into the water.’

Colm turned, gave a resigned shrug and waved.

I remember the coolness of the water lapping over my toes as I watched them walk into the water. Daddy’s tall frame towered over Colm’s slight body.

‘Catherine, run back to Mammy,’ Daddy shouted. ‘It’s not safe for you to swim alone here.’

‘Pick the nose of your board up Colm,’ Daddy yelled as the sea splashed his ankles.

Lazy waves rolled in to unfold their bubbling foam on the shoreline, affording Colm time to practice and enjoy the sea. His white skin started to turn pink.

I ran back and scratched messages in the sand like, ‘SOS, Catherine and Colm.’ I collected shells in a bucket and scuttled around the dunes among the wiry grass.

Time passed quickly, the sun rose high in the sky, I felt the back of my neck getting hot. From the shoreline, I shouted Daddy and Colm in for lunch. I hopped on the sand as I shook off slimy strings of seaweed lodged in between my toes. I held Colm’s surfing board as he put his glasses back on.

The breeze picked up, blowing sand everywhere. I grimaced at the gritty taste of the soggy tomato and cheese sandwiches.

A flock of screeching seagulls hovered over us, their wings trembling, waiting to pounce on the slightest discarded morsel. 

‘Do I have to go back in?’ Colm asked. ‘I’m tired.’

‘Tired? A young fella like you?’ Daddy said, his mouth full of sandwich, the crumbs fell from his lips to the blanket. ‘We’ll wait a while and go out further.’

Colm and I exchanged looks.

‘Can I try?’

‘No, surfing’s not for girls.’

The tide turned and was building up to a high tide by late afternoon.  The wind whipped the waves into a frenzy.  

‘Do you not think it’s a bit rough out there?’ Mammy said.

‘Don’t,’ Daddy glared at her.

‘Mammy’s right. I don’t want to,’ Colm whined.

‘Come on, we’re going.’

‘But I’m s-s-scared Daddy,’ Colm’s eyes began to fill up.

Daddy yanked him up by his arm, ‘You’re coming, grab the board!’

Colm resisted, as he pulled back his legs trailed on the sand. Daddy kicked him in the belly and started whacking him around his head.

I jumped up and hit Daddy, ‘Get off him! Get off him!’

His arm flew back and caught my face, the bitter taste of blood trickled from my nose to my mouth.

Walkers and surfers glanced over but looked away, thinking we were larking about.

Colm wriggled free and ran.

‘Colm!’ I raced after him. I looked back; Daddy was on my heels. ‘Run Colm!’

Daddy sprinted past me, his big strides far outstretching mine. But Colm had a good head start, soon he was scrambling up over the rocks and tufty grass towards the Fairy Bridges.

Daddy yelled after Colm, ‘Stop! You little bastard!’

Colm ran up past the surfing school and along Rougey Walk towards the Fairy Bridges.

I ran faster but had to stop to rub the stitch in my side.

One-minute Colm was silhouetted against a cloudless sky, the next I saw him no more. That was when I heard the scream, a howl like no other I’ve heard since echoed off the black rocks. Daddy stood on top of the Fairy Bridge staring down into the abyss. By the time I caught up, Daddy was crawling down the rocks. Colm lay motionless, his body splayed across the rocks, like he was sleeping. His feet were bloody and raw, his hand dangled limply from his wrist, the sea spat and roared at him. His spectacles lay askew, their lenses shattered, their frames bent.

Daddy’s face was ashen as he lifted my brother’s body out of the water, two surfers helped pull him up. They lay Colm on the grass.

A silent crowd gathered.

‘Colm, Colm,’ Daddy slapped his face. Gently now.

The surfers checked his breathing and started thumping his chest. I stood frozen to the spot. The image of him was etched on my brain for eternity.

Today, I sense the inadequacy of the bunch of garage-bought flowers, but it’s the thought that counts and in twenty years I’ve never stopped thinking about that day. I launch the bouquet; it hovers slightly in the wind before dropping to the water below. The blooms scatter. In my pocket my hand touches the shape of Colm’s glasses.

 

 

 

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