A woman leaves the hospital and walks down to the river. Speckled clouds move fast from the borderland towards the sea. East wind. A jogger passes by. He gasps his arrival. Next minute: departure.
The woman isn’t young anymore. She has been hospitalised for the previous weeks. She wears a long, black, fashionable coat. Tailor-made. A well-off woman. But then there is the holdall slung over her left shoulder. Looks somewhat inappropriate. Her face-a blank page. Something has stopped to come along.
A middle-aged man and his golden retriever saunter down the path.
To the right, a flooded track, water-trees, their roots about to tum into boats. The sharp sting of wild leek. A treacherous stretch of the track runs underwater, then emerges again, eager to come forth, shining with deep, saturated wetness.
The woman shifts the holdall to her right shoulder. For the first time in years, she walks without a stoop.
It gets warm. She stops, enjoys the sensation of removing the holdall. Slowly she peels it off her aching shoulder, lets it glide down, down, until she allows it to paw the ground. She hears a click. Glass?
A cloud spits open with a firy blaze and the riverworld turns into the deep south. She was never down south. For instance, Cork. She only made it to Dublin.
She slips out of her black coat, rolls it neatly together and settles herself on it under a tree. She leans her back against the tree and watches the river rafting along, feverishly thrusting itself toward the sea. Last Christmas Eve, it took two boys with it. They had jumped in for an easy Christmas ride, late at night. Never made it out again.
Her husband is waiting now by the entrance to the General Hospital. He will sit in the car knuckling his eyes, then drum his fingers on the steering wheel. Drumming. A fast, hard drumbeat.
Today he won’t be able to tell her in his low voice, subdued with rage, that she kept him waiting and that he would be late for his golf.
Her kids watch telly in the living room expecting her back at any minute. In the living room. As if they lived there.
A bird swoops down beyond the river, dives into the trees, then out again, hangs above the field. Its head is absolutely still. Occasionally, it flicks its wings just enough to maintain its position. She watches it, spellbound. It has been ages since she last watched a kestrel. Suddenly it breaks into a second, perfectly executed hover about sixty feet above the ground. Then it drops like a stone, talons outstretched. She watches it intently. She knows what it will do next. Before take-off, it will mantle its food. Just after the kill, for a few seconds, kestrels spread their wings and tail like an open umbrella and screen their prey. She can’t recognise what it’s got firmly in its talons, flying off now to a feeding perch. Gone.
She breathes deeply as if she had just watched an important incident in her own life unfold in front of her. There were times in hospital when she couldn’t move in bed because the room was spinning. Loss of balance, the sensation of whirling about in the void. World upended.
A group of people come towards her. Maybe Tom Regan, her husband’s mate, is among them. They are still way off.
‘How are you?’ he will ask her. ‘How are the kids? How is John?’ Asking questions. Keep asking questions where there are no answers. Then he will fix her with a stare, and pronouncing every syllable, he will say: ‘So they let you off the hook, Mary.’
She leaps to her feet, grabs her coat and runs into the waterworld, under the trees; sloshes through thick, rich mud into hiding. Then she makes up her mind. For the first time in fifteen years, she makes a decision.
The train is speeding down south. She stayed in Dublin for about an hour, then took the next train to Cork. Further south. Nobody would suspect her there. She would vanish like smoke in a fist, water in a cloth.
While she is riding the black speeder, her kids are still in front of TV-munching crisps now, fists stuffed into the bags, rattling them.
There were four women in that hospital room, with the ominous number thirteen spat out in black on the door. She hated the room she was going to die in-she was sure about that. But first she would faint. To faint seemed worse.
The doctors said there was nothing wrong with her, The inner eardrum wasn’t affected, neither was the vestibular nerve. They might have to send her somewhere else. Where she would crack up, she thought. Screened off by iron bars. Helpless in the talons of white predators.
When the final cricket stops... This line had obsessed her.
A voice had pleaded with her at night. The pleading became stronger until, one night, Lestmore appeared. She didn’t tell the doctors about Lestmore.
The black speeder hurls itself into the deep south, roaring and hissing. The waiter rattles his trolley down the aisle, vibrating cups and cutlery, pushing swathes of good smell ahead of him. A nice cup of tea and a Danish pastry, that’s what she needs now. She digs into her coat pockets: loads of money, coins and banknotes. Cute. For once in a lifetime, she managed to be cute.
She hands the waiter a five-pound note and when he returns the change, she tips him two pounds.
Uncomprehending, he gives the money back to her.
She remonstrates, ‘It’s fine.’
The waiter stares at her, shrugs. No smile. Wheels his trolley down the row of seats, serving the people at her back. She clasps both hands round the steaming cup. Funny chap.
A memory, like a treasure island, emerges. Going down to Dublin with Granny. She must have been eight, a timid little thing, always feeling guilty about something. But not so with Granny. Granny managed to take her out of herself. As a treat, they went to Bewley’s where Granny sat her on a couch, under stained-glass windows. It was like in a church, the cafe awash with coloured light. She had hot chocolate with two buns and Granny had a cup of tea, and sometimes Granny would take a modest bite out of one of her buns.
The day out with Granny had been a Christmas Day in full summer. Never repeated. It ended with the train ride home to Sligo. Soon after, Granny died.
In Cork, she walked down Patrick Street, her holdall once more on her left shoulder. A lot of children were in town, streaming down the broad street, coloured balloons swaying above their heads. The sky resembles a rapt garden in bloom with the balloons soaring upwards beyond the clouds into mother-of-pearl.
Shouts and laughter, whole families out enjoying themselves, grannies calling children off the street.
She herself felt like a salmon going upriver, going home. Not once had she had an attack of vertigo. Everything was fine.
She left the crowds behind and dipped into a cool alleyway, cornered narow side streets that opened up before her with a compelling strangeness. From open windows she heard people talking, settling disputes. Once she heard a sigh resounding between the walls like water swilling about rocks at Streedagh beach, late at night. She marvelled at all the lives behind those walls. Probably all lived in three-piece living rooms, like her own way back in the colder north.
Finally, she stopped in front of a shop window that displayed all kinds of fishing gear. She cupped her eyes with her right hand to be able to look into the interior because she heard sharp, raucous calls. Birds. She listened to the calls, some familiar, some alien. She couldn’t make herself enter the shop.
There was a time when she watched birds through binoculars. An excursion with the birdwatchers. Cars driving on and on until they came to the lake where the Whoopers from Iceland touch down in spring. The pristine lake near the Atlantic, the Whoopers in ecstacy, rocking their bodies, tossing their heads, dipping beaks into deep water to ritualise their homecoming, trumpeting.
Cygnus musicus. She even remembered the Latin name. The birdwatchers had powerful binoculars. In the strong lenses the birds were the world that came running towards her, until they were united, knit together, herself and the world. In kinship.
Afterwards, they drove on to Mullaghmore for a pint. Those were happy, black pints with shamrocks set on the cream-white tops.
What puzzled her now was: with whom had she been there? Had she been on her own? Totally on her own? So it was before her marriage.
A sharp, delightfully cold feeling rippled her skin, a shudder was playing on her spine, pouring down into her groin.
When the swans had taken off, their heavy bodies cleared the water effortlessly, until they were airborne. Now, she knew it. The important thing was to stayairborne.
The alleyway filled up with twilight. A mauve and bluecanyon in a deep world. What had terrified her most during her attacks was the flatness of everything. The bed, the table, even the nurses and the doctors seemed to be cut out of cardboard. Flat. No content.
Tonight she would be reunited with Lestmore, him whispering his messages to her.
A room in blue, even the quilt was blue. The tiny landlady had smiled at her, called her lovie.
Later, propped up in bed, she had opened the holdall and looked at its contents.
‘Rubbish,’ her husband would have called the items she spread out on the bedcover. The truth was, she had forgotten why she had taken these things along with her, while leaving towel, toothbrush, hairbrush, her Ellen Betrix nightcream behind.
Her memory had failed her lately, but then other memories had emerged. The smell of the turf fire in Granny’s kitchen, evening sounds in the fields, the enormity of the ginger tomcat, Granny chuckling when she said that she was her ‘cute, wee, scut’.
She hadn’t been cute in her marriage though. Her husband considered her ‘terribly quiet’. Daft and dumb, that is.
A seashell. She lifted it from the bedcover, sniffed at it. A blue bottle. Where did she get it and what for? To put a message in for Lestmore? An old-fashioned fountain pen. And scraps of toilet paper with something written on them.
She switched the bedside lamp on. A nice, red glow, a sunny warmth, enveloped her.
In the kitchen the landlady was baking now. She caught the whiff of rich, warm soda bread. She reached out and raked the scraps of toilet paper together. Somebody had scribbled on them in an unbelievable scrawl, the letters stumbling, falling to the left:
Lestmore came back he was so near he is a voice and touch he told me what his name meant less and more I understood his message I’m more or less
Call he said if you don’t call nobody will answer
I’m racking my brain what does he mean
It happened I called my skin called my hair called my cellscalled I called for Lestmore
I’m not alone
The handwriting wasn’t hers. Her handwriting had always been neat. These letters were burly and too long as if a child had written them. But then, nobody else knew Lestmore.
She put her belongings back into the holdall and set it down on the floor by the bed. Then she pulled the blue quilt tightly over her body, tucked it under her and nudged herself into the smell of freshly washed bed linen.
So she had finally made it to the south where anything could happen. Practically out of the blue.