As we come into dock the boat shudders. Jet skiers ride the leading edge of the ferry’s wake, cutting inwards to the centre of the back wash. They turn in midair, submerging in the rough edges of wave. I keep count to see how many surface, before going to the foot passenger exit.
My husband Martin and I were that active. Sometimes I let myself remember. Now I can sit for hours. I will look at the clock and it will be evening. Back then I might have preferred to stay at home on weekends too. I was good with my hands. We had a house that required modernisation but ended up getting tradesmen in. Martin’s time cost twice as much as theirs. I understood the logic, but never the reasoning. When we had a boundary dispute Martin drove in stakes. The neighbour tore them out. Martin called the land registry. A letter came to say he was right.
‘I never argue unless I am.’
We rarely argued. Maybe our children knew this, tolerating outdoor pursuits as something we should enjoy. It did keep us together as a family. It was good for us. But often one or other of them would turn to me and say:
‘Tell him to let us go home now. Please.’
Some years ago I sat in front of a woman to seek help by sharing this kind of detail. When I couldn’t find words, she asked:
‘Are you lost in it? The story?’
At Fishguard I find the café just off the road to St David’s. John chose it. It doesn’t get ferry passengers. I know he would meet me at the dock but I walk to shake off the feelings of the boat. There is a moment when we pull back from Rosslare that I hope never to see it again, then a moment when I step off at Fishguard when I want to be back in Rosslare.
I pass the grander houses of Fishguard built to take Victorians who took the sea air. Martin and I sold our version of these in Wexford town, making a profit from the renovations others did on our behalf. We got out before the economic fall.
On the walk up to the café I think this might be the year I don’t want food and don’t want to see him. Seeing John has the same effect each time. I feel nauseous in the seconds before I open the café door. As soon as I lay eyes on him I settle into a calm.
‘Susan,’ he stands up and holds both of my hands with warmth and no pressure. The lady behind the counter has a different apron but the skirt is the same one she had on last year. Her tablecloths are still blue and lemon check. I breathe a sigh of relief that she got rid of the artificial flowers. Those things empty me out.
It’s always the same. I think I am never going to eat the scones and tea and jam. I eat the lot. I haven’t an appetite at any other time.
I know I’m speaking because I’m hearing John’s replies. Whatever I’m saying mostly I am noticing the changes in him in the intervening year. He has gone greyer, his shoulders are still the kind that jackets and sleeves ride up on, leaving his wrists bare. There’s a light patch of skin on his left one. He’s removed his watch. Last year he kept glancing at it. I thought all of that day this would be our last time.
As I was leaving again he took my hands and his palm skin felt like rocks. His work must be hard. I don’t know what he does. I know he stopped driving for a living. What does anyone do? I never think to ask about jobs anymore.
‘I’ll be here next year,’ he told me then.
And he is. And it’s the same feeling: his body not fitting his clothes, his lined and kind face, the way he holds quiet until I come through with words. People don’t give me long enough. My words aren’t close.
‘How’s Martin, still working hard?’ He always asks one question about him. ‘Tireless.’ Suddenly I can hear myself again. Martin’s name still makes me try harder. I know he’s doing well, even though I no longer know him.
‘You’re looking good Susan,’ The only lie John ever tells. I see myself in windows sometimes. My eyes are too big for my face. I don’t keep mirrors. Other people’s fragile inner ghost is hidden; mine has become who I am. I reach into my rucksack.
‘They’re beautiful.’ He takes them from me, considers both. This year’s colours are deep skies close to night. I used yellow thread as a contrast, running a shoal of swimming stars and it’s this you notice first, but the depth comes from the darkness pushing the light. I spend the hours I can’t sleep weaving, then unravelling and weaving again. My mind is soft and sometimes I can’t see them anymore. My fingers reach a better understanding of my children. I’ve used woollens for the first time from their jumpers. I didn’t know how to use them before this year; the colours in them were so dark. Then the skies that were in their minds came to me. I’ve tried to give them those again.
The year I first brought tapestries John put his face in his hands for a long time. But when he looked up his eyes were dry. Later I wrote him a letter. I had no wish to put you into any further distress. I used to be good with my hands. He wrote back reassuring me. Later I also got a letter from John’s wife. I had no right to put him through this. Did I see what I was doing to her and their children? Did I see?
The following year after receiving their separate letters I changed the date to my children’s shared birthday, catching a taxi from the port. John was waiting for me at the holy wellspring.
‘How did you know I’d be here today?’
‘I’ve been every day this month. I’d knew they were May children. Did you bring any more of the cloths? I can tie them for you.’
I’ve let him ever since. He ties them among the other votive rags hanging on the branches, each representing a wish or a longing. Then we drink water so cold it would make you faint, so new to the air it has the taste of soil in it. Water the saints drank to replenish their tired souls and give the tired people who followed them new purpose in its blessing.
I’ve come on their birthday ever since. He tells his wife he is working and she’s chosen to believe him.
There is no more tea in the pot. I hug the last drop. The café owner has a habit of ignoring me and talking to John when he pays. They chat in Welsh. It sounds like a song poem to me. All that language. It’s comforting that I don’t understand and am not required to join in.
‘Ready?’ He puts my rucksack into the backseat. They’re there. Fresh, fragrant and dying. They empty me out. I want to ask him not to bring them, but he is so good.
We drive along the old pilgrim route into St David’s, a tiny place made a city by its sacred reputation, past the Cathedral which at this time is chiming for prayer. For thousands of years people have walked this way, carrying sunset shells to indicate hope that once their prayers reached the city shadows would fall behind them. The shells were left in holy wells. This area is full of them, dedicated to many saints. Fragments still surface today of shells cast and cloths tied to branches when a pilgrimage here was worth the same as travelling to Rome. A tapestry of broken people and their long dreams, woven over thousands of years. The well of St Non’s, mother of David, is on the city outskirts. When she was pregnant she had a vision and fled to Brittany to raise him, dying there because she could not go home and watch her son fall on hard times. She raised him to his own choices.
We go to her statue and I hold her weeping hands, their plaster bubbling with the effect of winter storms. I take off the snails crawling up her robes and across her face looking for shelter from the salt winds. The water by her feet speaks asking to be drunk. I do so, after John has given my offerings; braided from all that is left, from the clothes that had no time to become memories. There is never a trace of the tapestries I left last year so I like to think Sean and Leah collect their emblems from the branches and carry them to where they are now. People have been tying cloths here for so long. There has to be a reason.
Then I can sit here for hours, without moving. Sometimes I will look at my watch and find it’s evening, John still beside me.
‘Ready?’ He asks only when I move.
After St Non’s Well I can only think of being in that place. As we drive, I know it’s right to leave the tapestries with her. I weave what they might be in a new life. This road, to Caerfai Bay, is where they lost all they might be in this one. A laneway that cars struggle to pass on. Hedges on high banks obscure the sea view and stoned fields. Still. Even after all that death. I see the tree again.
Martin, Sean, Leah and Susan. We were on holiday. The expectancies. The bickering. The constant noise from the children they were. I want to wince, to flinch, to pack too much for days that were too full as Martin pushed for strong memories that made our lives justifiable. The tears grow cold on my cheeks they are so slow to come. I am free to feel pain. I become the mother I was: rubbing her face with stress, chastising children. I start to see them. We park near the field gate. John opens it. I am looking at the cold sky. John takes his bouquet from the back seat.
There are times when I feel I was never a mother at all. I would not know what to do now. I would have to learn all over again. Behind the hedging John has placed my quartz boulder by a thin wellspring, one not governed by a presiding saint. My heart is grey-veined now, as stone as this is stone.
Martin and I had meant to stand it in the garden we never landscaped. In Wales you can’t make roadside memorials. I never thought I would want one. I used to think of them as garish. But Sean and Leah are here more than anywhere. When I returned home after their death, when the house was stone in its silence without them, I sat in the garden with my back against this rock and did my grieving. And after a year of that it had become my heart. And I could only leave my heart in one place.
I wrote to John and asked if he could have it placed if I had it shipped? He made all the arrangements. The farmer who has a second gate to his field, where my car crashed into his hedging, agreed to let us put it there, once it was not marked in any way and not seen from the road.
Now it stands with a hidden meaning in a landscape littered with such things. But those stones are granite. This quartz, it speaks for the children they were and the place they came from. For millennia Wexford quartz has been brought to holy waters by means of worship. I am part of what is known as St David’s Stream, the pilgrims who put their pain and hope into the waters. But I have left all of mine here.
As John places the flowers in cellophane among the wildflowers of Pembrokeshire I think again they are as misplaced as he is in his formal clothes. I know I am also alien. Pilgrims don’t belong. They leave their prayers and take their story with them. I am lost in mine. I do not exist without this event. For one day a year when John and I mourn together the children he and I killed.
I don’t come on their death day. That will always be a month earlier.
John is singing a Welsh hymn. Outside this time I know he is a good man who lives for music. I have no more details and don’t want them. I never ask him what the words mean. I just listen. Your life gathers around things that went wrong, things that shouldn’t have happened, things with if attached to them.
Martin had his work and all its occupation. Sean and Leah had each other in closeness beyond anything I’ve known. I felt alone in my family. It was as if they all knew they were going to leave me in the end. If I had been less willing to please, or more willing to please. If I had been more myself. If I hadn’t given the children the choice of getting out of canoeing on a damp day, on an angry sea. If I hadn’t been a creature of compromise even when I fought with my husband, promising to pick him up when the other canoeists were driving back on a shuttle bus.
The days were damp, sleeping in a tent was excruciating. Sean and Leah were laughing when I told their father I was not going on the water because we’d slept in it. I snapped at them I would never go on a family holiday again. They said I said that every year.
‘I can still hear it,’ John has finished singing, speaking to me with cut eyes of blue. I know he’s waiting for me to answer, but I’m seeing it all again. I’m seeing him without grey hair, slighter built, less crags on his large forehead, his eyes less blue and wider. As he was ten years ago.
I’m seeing Sean and Leah, me turning to chastise them out of their bickering. John was coming in the opposite direction. And he met me, not concentrating, head turned. Nowhere for him to go. Nowhere for us to go. The hedging was too high. Sean and Leah screaming. The tree just watching.
I can still picture Martin canoeing on the swollen sea, being right.
John and I are united in the sound of collision. It leaves you deaf to other sounds. It can only be described as the roar you hear in dreams sometimes. I heard my collar bones snap and the roof cave into my head just behind my ear, like someone starting up a chainsaw.
Then a silence broken only with a snipping circular cry. Sean’s Gameboy insisting on attention. The children making none. They were not yet eleven. That was next month. There was a long time waiting looking at the cold sky before they gouged me out. I feel there were hands pulling me out. I feel they were John’s hands. But he was already in an ambulance.
On the ferry this morning I met a woman with a small baby, a toddler and a pushchair.
I didn’t take the boy’s hand on the staircase, I took the pushchair instead. I am not capable of certain acts: driving, keeping company, holding the golden hands of other children.
Martin buried ours without me. I got home to find their grave full of fresh cut bouquets that had withered and some gaudy artificial flowers. I stared at their shared birthday and death date on the wooden cross and I couldn’t relate to this squared plot holding my children’s remains.
‘There is no necessity to visit where they died. You’re only visiting your own guilt.’ Martin only argued when he was right.
So I went alone on their first anniversary.
John was there with his bouquet of flowers. I understand roadside memorials now. This is where the last breath happened. I wish it had taken mine too. Each year I hope my breath will stop, but it continues.
‘Ready to go,’ I say it to John though I could stay there with him every day until I finally die.
It’s a silent journey back to Fishguard. John drops me to the dock and I don’t look back or I’d never leave. On the ferry home I watch mothers wince at prices and the noise of their children. I have not seen Martin for eight years. He sent me e-mails and cards at one time. That has stopped.
There was only one occasion I stayed in Wales overnight. John wrote beforehand to tell me about a concert at St David’s Cathedral. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams: I know it will move you and hearing it has been of benefit to me.
I am not capable of certain acts and don’t enjoy the disappointments I create. But he never put any other request. I thought I could help him by pretending it helped me.
The Fantasia caught all the whispers of all despair, heard and held by the medieval stone. It caught mine. I saw the children watching me, in the time where they came to an end and I came to an end. I wanted to turn to John and ask him why have you brought me to this? But I saw Martin’s face in the music suddenly. I saw his struggle not to hate me. When I woke in the hospital he was by my bedside, having already been to the morgue.
‘The driver of the van says it’s his fault.’
I told him what he most hates to hear. So he took my children home and buried them without me. While I recovered in the Welsh hospital I had one visitor, who kept me company each day, for one hour. We spoke of nothing. We sat together. It was the first of the remembering.
Then in one great note the music took us out of the pain to the dreaming. I saw the chaos of the world made serene by the distance a sky provides. I watched my children, lifted off the suffering road into the skies in their minds.
I thirst for a chance to catch sight of them as adult beings, progressing into futures, taking on burdens. I walk with their loss as mine. It is a loss I cannot put down. I listened to the music holding their lost souls and felt mine held too.
John turned in the long silent moment after the music and gave me the mourning in his eyes. It has made them bluer. He takes me to the well each year because he doesn’t want me to get lost in the story. He says he will always visit Sean and Leah, but he hopes one day I won’t have to, that their memory will be enough. That my life will bring more.
These are its remains. I live each year for one day. I ask myself if John disappeared would I make the same pilgrimage? It means more with his presence. We shared the darkest moment and we continue to share it. For one day I am not silent.
On all others I want to tell every mother I meet I was one too.