‘If something doesn’t work why go on doing it? What would be the point in that? You have to find another way-‘
We were looking down on the long heave of the big dark sea, the waves rolling in short and strong to smack up against the great bank of stones where we sat. They were sea-stones, knotted and veined like wood, coloured in pinks and greys and mauves, and the breaking swell of each wave coming in was marbled with purest white.
The beach curved away off to the right where it ran into dunes and sheep-grazed sea-turf. The sun had found a space between storm clouds and blazed through, local as a floodlight. Over there the low dunes were sunlit, the grass brilliant green, the sand a rich gold, but above them the sky was slate-black and the gulls rose into it and hung and spiralled, shining like chips of white quartz in the stormy light. There were cormorants coming in off the sea in straggly flocks, and half a mile back the way we’d come a big grey seal had stuck its head and shoulders up out of the water and stared its fill.
Seamus was telling me what to do but pretending not to, making it sound laid back and as though he was just mulling over the options. He’d held off a good while but he was more comfortable with me now, so he let himself. Men seem to think that’s what women want of them, and maybe we do, or maybe a part of us does. I did with Jimmy. I didn’t know what I was doing at all in Jimmy’s world so at first I thought it was great to have someone to ask who would know the answers. Then I found out Jimmy didn’t know either. I wasn’t supposed to notice but I couldn’t help myself, so after a while I stopped asking. He went on telling me anyway and I’d stand looking at him with the rage rising up in me and spilling over into my face in judgement. He must have seen it there but it didn’t stop him. It made him worse.
Now Seamus was telling me to think of the things I saw as some sort of gift. It seemed I was to be thankful for this ‘gift’. I was to stop trying to push it all down – ‘repressing it,’ he called it – and just let it rip.
At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In my book hearing things and seeing things that aren’t there is schizophrenia. If you regress about five hundred years, it’s possession. No part of me could accept, as Seamus did, a world full of beings and things that were as real as day but we just couldn’t see. Even thinking a thing like that outside in the wind and the air with Seamus beside me scared the living daylights out of me. Letting it creep in when I woke at night gave me the screaming abdabs. I’d grab hold of him and go scurrying into his body looking for refuge, only I didn’t tell him that, I let on it was just appetite. The way I was reared, you didn’t say if something scared you, that was weakness. You didn’t let others see your weaknesses, even your nearest relations. That was a secret between you and God.
There was another thing about the way I was reared, and this kept smacking me in the face with Seamus, and the more I tried to wriggle my way around it the more it stood right in front of me blocking the way. My mother was-is I should say, for she’s not dead yet, though I haven’t seen her for many’s the year – my mother was a woman with very strong views on what you did and what you did not do and one of those views was that it was just plain ignorant to remind a Catholic that he or she was a Catholic. Especially if you had time for them. It was something you left unmentioned.
And now here was Seamus, as Southern and as Catholic as they come, and for the life of me I couldn’t turn round and say what I wanted to say, which was that believing there were things in the world you couldn’t see was Catholic, and seeing things that weren’t there was even more Catholic-and I wasn’t. More to the point, just letting go and seeing what might happen would have meant letting go of my very self, it would have been like stepping out from a narrow ledge and plunging down into bottomless darkness.
Suddenly all the comfort I’d had from Seamus flew out the window. He was ignorant and superstitious and that was the reason he’d listened to all my talk about things that weren’t there. I was better off with Jimmy because Jimmy didn’t live in a whole moither of strange notions and half-notions, Jimmy wouldn’t entertain my seeing things for a second, Jimmy had his feet on the ground.
But thinking of Jimmy was as dangerous as walking into the heaving sea, each wave dragging down stones as big as boulders then flinging them back against the wall with an awful force. I hadn’t phoned him or even sent him a postcard and today was the very last day of the time I had said l was spending with Dennis and Anne. I knew in the end he’d phone my mother to find out where we all were, but he wouldn’t do it yet, he’d leave it a day or so longer because he wouldn’t want to admit I hadn’t come back when I said I would or that he didn’t know where I was. You’d think I’d have lifted a phone even then just to cover my back, but I didn’t, I didn’t seem able to act or make up my mind about Jimmy, all I could do was let things drift.
I sat there on that wall of stones with my face turned into the wind and my hair flying back behind me, caught between the devil and the deep and not sure which was which. I stared at the sea. The dog stuck his head under my arm and butted at it, and I knew he wanted sticks thrown but it was way too rough and anyway, I wasn’t in the mood. He had adopted us, I called him Dandy and he was there, outside the door most mornings when it was opened, so we brought him with us and when we came in in the evenings he went trotting away off up the hill by himself. I wanted to feed him but Seamus said no, somebody owned the dog, he just wanted company and a walk and if we fed him he’d leave where he lived and we’d have to take him home with us when we left.
‘We’d have to take him home.’
Not ‘One of us would have to take him home.’
After a bit the dog left off nudging and threw himself down on the stones in disgust. Still I didn’t speak, though I knew that Seamus was waiting. I didn’t speak because I couldn’t, it was as if my whole body was caught between these two men and what they were trying to make me be and all it could do was freeze and refuse to be anything. Then the seal we had seen before came back and stuck its head up out of the water and stared at us. I looked straight into its eyes and it looked straight back into mine. Its eyes were huge and soft, like liquid filling a glass, just about to brim over. The dog sat up beside me and started to mew, then he let a yap out of him and the seal gave us this sorrowful pitying look and slid slowly down under the water. It must have gone motoring about under there because after a while it broke the surface again, only this time it was just to the left of us and even closer in.
It’s the strangest thing, a big grey seal in a strong running sea, for it isn’t like anything that should be in the sea at all. It isn’t fishy or bird-like or scuttling, but a warm-blooded mammal with eyes more human than a dog’s. More human than most humans, if you mean by human full of speech and feeling. Yet it lives in the endlessness of the unbounded seas and you can see that it can handle all that, even the loneliness. It can live down there where the pull and slide of deep water changes all colours and rubs out all edges, it can handle the fish world of swayings and scuttlings and then it can poke up its head and look with over-water eyes at our oxygen world, all fixed and flashing, shining with daylight.
And when it comes in close and swims around, staring, you can’t help but feel that it’s like searching for like: for other warm, milky creatures that know the beat of hot blood and suckle their young. If you speak or sing it draws nearer and raises itself up and its kingdom looks out through its eyes and enters us though ours.
When I saw that seal I wanted to weep for myself for I knew with a strange strong knowledge that did not come from the mind that if I did as Seamus said I should do I might learn to be easy far out in frontierless seas. I might even come to revel, like a seal, in the slide and suck of moving masses of water. But I knew that for any ease and joy I might have out there in that other kingdom, I would always fear it, and I’d never stop wanting to be the one thing only and undivided, I would
never ever get over the awful loneliness of being other.
And I didn’t want to see things or hear things or live under the sea, I didn’t want to be different or special like that, I only wanted to be special to some man who wasn’t broken and hard like Jimmy, to have a small closed world of my own, and sometime maybe another Barbara Allen to hold in my arms. But at that time I couldn’t seem to stay out of the other-world nor find the courage in myself to enter it either. I still can’t, I still live caught between the two, though at least I can swim a bit now so when the otherworld claims me I know to hold my breath under the water and I don’t come up near drowned. Sometimes I’m alright with this half-and-half state, I can go for quite long times hardly thinking about it, but then suddenly I can’t bear the limbo of being neither one thing nor the other any more and I have a desperate half-mad urge either to drown in it or to cease knowing it altogether. I’m like those people in the North who say ‘let’s have a civil war and finish it once and for all.’ Stupid. They know in their hearts it would only make everything worse.
Two weeks ago I opened the door on a woman I’d never seen before and I knew just by looking at her that she’d heard the things people said that I did and she’d come, without hope, for a cure. I knew, too, just by looking at her that she’d been ill so long there was no point me even trying, I wouldn’t get through to her sickness at all, there were too many layers in the way. I brought her in, though I didn’t want to, and I sat her down at the table and asked her what she wanted and listened while she found a few words and laid them out for me to look at with the front part of my mind. But the other part-the part that isn’t mind at all but something else-that part was reaching out in spite of me and moving towards her. And as it did it met with the layers between me and her sickness and they changed into forms, though I didn’t see them as you’d see with your eyes, they were more like figures in a dream that you know from the inside of themselves, not from the outside. I came closer still and I began to name them and each time I found a name the form dissolved and another came forward to take its place.
The first was hardly a form at all, it was all wrapped around in filth and its arms hid its face, so I named it as Shame. Next came a figure standing straight as a die with an awful clear stillness about it, and I knew that suffering had made its stillness and I named it as Courage. Then came Despair, naked and huddled over, entirely turned in on itself. And behind Despair was a demented figure, wild-haired and shaking with rage, and I knew I was looking at Pain. Then there was something that came forward sobbing, the tears running down its face, not caring who saw, and I named the form as Self-Pity and it was gone. Then I could stand no more so I closed myself down and I told the woman that I could not help her.
She looked at me, a weary derision in the look, and she got slowly up from the chair and began to button her coat. Shame seized me, but the shame was drowned out by anger, though I don’t think she knew what she was doing to me, I don’t think she had any idea. If I could have let myself go on seeing and naming I might have got through to her sickness, but I couldn’t. These figures were too familiar, I’d lived with them most of my life, though I’d never seen them strong and clear like this and I never wanted to. I must live with what I am, though it has driven me from the world I was reared to, a world that has condemned me as surely as she is condemned by hers because she is sick and cannot recover.
So I could name them as they came forward but each time I did so I lost some of myself. To touch sickness you have to know darkness yourself, like must touch like, though your darkness may not be physical. And you’re vulnerable, just like the sick, and what is available to you is limited and your courage is already sorely tried. And the worst of it is that each time you refuse you have less.
And that is now, after all these years of the underwater world, but at the time when I sat on the stones with Seamus I knew nothing but what I was reared to. I was like a child who has never been allowed outside at night, who has only ever seen the things revealed by daylight-never the moon or the stars-and doesn’t know that in darkness you lose what is near but you see beyond into galaxies.
I remember looking up at Seamus from a long way off, and he got to his feet and stretched down and pulled me onto mine and we tramped off over the short springy grass which he said was called machair, with Dandy dancing alongside and the sheep getting up and moving off at the sight of him, sheep with curling horns like my skull on the windowsill, and arses dyed indigo blue. Boredom and fear belong to the mind, and pain and exhaustion belong to the body, but the spirit knows none of these things, the spirit knows only light. So we moved off and the movement must have jogged me out of the mind and its fear and into the body which still glowed with its discovery of Seamus’s, and maybe into the spirit as well for it is amazing, looking back, how easily I sloughed off the seal and its dark warnings, and went skipping and dancing like Dandy, into Achill’s shifting light.