Niall Crowley works on equality and human rights issues, in Ireland and across Europe.
He is part of a prose collective supported by Cork County Council. His short stories have been published by The Galway Review, CafeLit, The Writers Club, Pure Slush, and Spillwords Press.
He was shortlisted in the From The Well short story competition in 2021 and 2022, and the Colm Toibín International Short Story Award 2022.
The Incomplete Cabinet
By Niall Crowley
Simon stood forlorn at the foot of the cross, time suspended. Water caressed the washed smooth pebbles at his feet, a false calm prevailed. The main artery swept straight, through black rock that undulated along the stretch of coastline. The dark walls were breached on each side, half way along the artery, to form tapering gullies. The wind shifted and, as if summoned, bleak solitude enveloped. He stared out beyond the funnel formed at the head of the cross, checking the wilder waters beyond.
He was sure he could see Mary, with each lift of the swell. One arm waving at him, churning the water with the other. There was anxiety or distress at her situation, it was a signal for help. No, she would never admit of such weakness. There was thrill in the raw wildness, it was a call for him to join her. Though, she knew he was a man for the calmer waters. There was a hurry to her, it was a distracted farewell. He couldn’t be sure what it was, he couldn’t even be sure it was her.
Simon swam straight out the main artery. Strokes slow and laboured, due to wasted muscle. He had never been a regular, only frequenting the cove from the house above when good weather and high tide combined. His routine was to float and dally, offer a target for swooping sand martins. On this occasion he swam with purpose. His normal was to drift up along each of the gullies, appreciate their warmer waters, rest against the shallow incline of the rocks. There was no time for meandering in these circumstances. Mary was out there beyond the funnel, she needed him. Or, at the least, he needed her.
Elizabeth sits with her back to the stone wall of the house, absorbing its warmth. Straw hat and sunglasses, artful in her affectation of incidental visitor. She takes in the view, imperious and listless. The cove lies cruciform below. The sand martins dive and skim along the water ingesting erratic insects, then whip back to cliff-face nests. Tranquillity asserts, the prelude, she knows, to babbling incursions of summer bathers. She’s impatient with inertia, but that was her choice. The capacity to sit idle still eludes her.
She lives at the terminus of a long winding road, on the brink of the ocean. That road emerges from a fork lost in the middle of emptiness. Resigned to pause and decline, she did not move here for ambition or diversion. A straggle of neighbours is plotted sparsely along the road. Any contact is a matter of chance encounter, and, even then, confined to the inconsequential. A wall insulates the property, of a height to allow inspection of the surroundings, while precluding exchange with passers-by.
Simon had watched Mary’s creeping decline, the light dimming in her eyes, the energy dissipating in her demeanour. They had not talked about it, that was not their way. Life had just narrowed and flagged. Mary would be impatient with his clumsy efforts at care. Rhythms had shifted, structure began to crumble. As ever, she had made her own determination when the moment came. He had found her black canvas shoes set neatly by the cliffside rocks. He had paid homage to her fortitude, placing the shoes on an emptied shelf in the glass fronted cabinet, with reverential ceremony.
Stoicism and detachment had offered him little protection at that point, beyond deterring insistent commiseration for his loss. Time became an empty blur. The mix of them together had rendered what was barren and lonely into bright and animated. Mary danced with creative zest, he attended with inquisitive pedantry. Time then was stilled in shared contentment. Mary the conduit to the outside world, himself a channel for the internal contemplative. Perturbation had blended with serenity in equal and satisfying measure. The one, however, could no longer suffice without the other.
Elizabeth’s abode of choice has recently traded personality for modernisation. Smells of fresh plaster and raw paint still burgeon. Builder’s dust oozes from invisible crevices. Furnishings assert the functionality of the institutional rather than the clutter of the lived in. The glass fronted cabinet, hemmed in by the new and utilitarian, had surprised her with its vintage and incongruity. Three shelves for display, the top one with a pair of faded black canvas trainers, an ungainly pair of leather brogues laid out on the middle shelf, and the bottom one empty. It is shrine-like in demanding her attention, but resistant to inspection for being locked.
She had eked out the history from neighbours. A double tragedy, two deaths initially recounted in sombre but imprecise terms. The detail came with growing contact and familiarity. A true love couple unable to cope when confronted with loss. A nephew returned to stake his claim, only to clean the place of all memory. Hypothesis and opinion came with the detail. Judgement on all involved took the place of compassion. Spite and malice flourish with chatter. Elizabeth retreats from it, for being too familiar.
Mary squatted pensive at the foot of the cross, time was done. Shoes unlaced and carefully set aside, Mary had strode fully clothed into the water. Without hesitation, she dived in and swam out with the measured strokes of the practiced. The chill had reached in to constrict, even before she was at the funnel. Sheltered calm gave way to bruising waves. She had pressed on with determined lunges. Lethargy grown with the cold, energy sapped by the swell, she had drifted on her back with the current. One heartsore glance back at what had been.
Born and reared for independence, her engagement with the world around was ever on her own terms. She had come late to Simon, or Simon came late to her. He deemed her prickly, she had understood him as trapped in the traditional. Each had provoked adequate curiosity in the other, though, to circumscribe such hurdles. Ultimately, each had found sufficient need for the other, to transcend them. The balance achieved would be dismantled with dependence on either side. The place they had created would wither with the intrusive demands of constant care.
Elizabeth retreats indoors with the arrival of bathers. She is anti-social by resolution rather than by nature, consequence of the social turning sour. A wary fugitive from the virus of rumour and chatter. True or false, palaver holds a cruel and lasting power over those it targets. People get riled, fixated on condemnation, lost to gradations. Elizabeth had been exorcised by this gradual corrosion of those around her. No one took the chance to check, the risk of contamination had been too great.
She had transgressed, drawn by the allure of easy wealth or driven by the threat of penury. Client cheques were redirected from their intended destination into her personal account. Reputation besmirched and the family business shuttered, censure was immediate and without mercy. The Court had concurred, but with a penalty limited to a suspended sentence and a fine. The judgement was nuanced in its balancing of factors, recognising an economic crux not of her making. No matter, gossip magnified her criminality. Judgement was forgiving in its conclusion, offering space for promised restitution and rehabilitation. No matter, hearsay undermined her character beyond repair.
Exile and anonymous seclusion offer salvation. Escape or flight, it comes with a ticking clock. Incipient insolvency means eviction from her clifftop bolthole is on the horizon, and was so from the moment the rental contract was signed. Elizabeth grapples with the conundrum. What could follow a bolthole on the ocean’s edge, as one’s direction of travel continues to spiral? She does anxiety with calculated insouciance, careful not to provoke the popular spotlight, with its attendant risks of rumour and chatter. She is the incidental visitor, a woman of means resting on past laurels.
Elizabeth recognises that malevolence infecting the stories told. Simon was lost, grieving and abandoned, Mary had been selfish, narcissistic even, superficial. He was true, she was false. The cove could be named in his memory only, it would be Simon’s cove. Mary was weak, but was failing and left without options, Simon was distraught, but had been incapable of providing the care she needed. Coves, however, rarely get named after women.
Elizabeth can detect a strength in Mary, a capacity she envies. She can see a steadfastness in Simon, a trait she covets. Mary had resolved to manage her loss and led with purpose in her decision. If only she too could do so, but Elizabeth recognises the disparity between them. Simon had dissolved in the face of his loss and resigned in the absence of purpose. Surely unbecoming of her situation, but Elizabeth feels a kinship with him. She craves that liberation they each had seized. As her resources dwindle and options steadfastly refuse to emerge, she ponders that empty bottom shelf.
The leather brogues argue quietly that the moment comes when loss is so comprehensive, there is no point. The black trainers murmur in apparent agreement, that when your time is up, you have to take charge of that. Elizabeth retreats from the whirling whispers, drifting from room to room, unable to sit still. She picks at the bits and pieces of her life that she had salvaged. Worn albums, bric-a-brac gathered from travels to the far flung, legal files, a flurry of wraps and stoles, a mobile phone leaden for lack of energy. Life is mapped out by the trivial, when bundled up for evacuation.
Mary follows her around, Elizabeth senses her peering over her shoulder. You don’t let things determine who you are, you don’t let others decide your path, Mary insists. She seems more open in the absence of Simon. Elizabeth tries to shake her off in the mundane, boiling up water for a cup of tea. Chase your own future while you still have life, Mary insinuates. Elizabeth hankers for Simon’s calm detachment, needing his undemanding bleakness. Make your own opportunities, options don’t just emerge, Mary persists. A cove still decked out with bronzing bodies and cavorting children, and a winding road still choked up with cars strewn at all angles, leave her no avenue of escape.
Hard to claim a future when foundations are crumbling. Elizabeth is trained to calculate the odds, that’s her business, was her business. The clamour and thrash of bathers eventually turns to the growl and complaint of cars threading a way home. Deliverance from the hectoring beckons, the choice is between a solitary swim in the cove, or a lone ramble back up the road. Elizabeth hesitates, even the smallest decision is a challenge. She sides with Mary, outcome of harsh goading or inspirational benchmarking. She returns to the bedroom, takes out the leaden mobile phone, and moves to power it up. It would not be Elizabeth’s cove, and not just because coves don’t get named after women.
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