At Kinnego the light was silver, the sea and sky grey, and the wind that snatched at her breath had a sharp, almost metallic, edge. Anytime he had spoken of this place he had always spoken of the light and now, early morning, the beach deserted, she understood what he meant. They had travelled from Dublin the day before but had left late, then stopped too long in Derry, so that it was dusk before they drove north along the Foyle. The sea was already slipping into darkness then, the cabin lights of a boat carried like a lamp up the estuary, and as they passed through Quigley’s Point, Moville, Greencastle, small dark shapes cut the air above the water: birds, perhaps, or bats from the trees that grew along the shore road.
Waking that morning in his brother’s bungalow, she had pulled back the bedroom curtains to get a proper look at the sea and had found herself staring at a concrete wall, roughly plastered, set no more than three or four feet back from the house. Beneath the window, filling the space between it and the wall, was a tangle of orange netting, half a dozen crudely cut lengths of galvanise, and a stack of plastic boxes stamped with the logo of a fisherman’s co-op.
‘It’s a boat shed,’ he said from the bed, and she had turned to see him raised on one elbow, watching her in amusement.
‘But why here?’ she said, gesturing in disbelief to the wall, ‘why block out the sea, the light?’ It was cold in the bedroom, her breath misting the glass as she leaned closer to the window. The net held remnants of the sea: strips of black, leathery seaweed, thin as bootlaces, and a handful of barnacles. ‘Imagine,’ she said, conscious of his eyes on her as she shivered in her nightdress, ‘what a view like that would be worth in Howth.’
He had laughed, patting the pillow next to him. ‘You’re not in Kansas now, Dorothy,’ he said, and as she climbed back under the blankets, he put his hand on the jut of her hip and pulled her close.
They drove to Kinnego first thing after breakfast, before anyone else was up. They parked at the top of a rocky headland and as she stepped out of the car, the wind almost pulled the door from her grasp. Below them the bay lay wide and empty, the cliffside a tangle of green, bushy vegetation sloping to the water. She held his hand as they descended the steep path to the beach. ‘A ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked here,’ he said, putting an arm around her waist to steady her, ‘an old Venetian trading ship, converted for battle.’
She stopped and tucked her hair down the back of her jacket to keep it from blowing about her face. ‘Did many people drown?’
He nodded. ‘Aye, and the locals ate the ones that didn’t. Or so we were told as children.’
‘That’s a myth, obviously,’ she said.
‘Wait until you’ve met the locals.’
‘You’re a local,’ she said, but already he had dislodged her from the crook of his arm and was striding ahead of her across the sand, over to the tidal pools where rocks, black and sleek, broke the surface of the water.
A dog was loose on the beach, a long-haired black and white creature, and now it came tearing across the sand towards her, its ears flat to its head, its tail swinging like a rudder. It skidded to a halt in front of her and, opening its mouth, dropped something at her feet. ‘What’s that you’ve got for me?’ she said.
It was a crab, the shell a buttermilk colour with a sprinkling of green, like mildew, and a darker green along its scalloped rim. It wriggled as she held it between thumb and forefinger, its greyish legs slow and jerky, like the legs of the old men in bathing trunks at the Forty Foot on Christmas mornings. She tapped the shell and the crab stopped wriggling, drew its legs up into its belly.
The dog leaped in the air, snapping at the crab. ‘Now I get it,’ she said, ‘you want me to throw it.’ The dog whined, skittered back and forth on the sand. ‘That wouldn’t be very nice, would it?’ she said. She held the crab above her head with one hand, ruffling the dog’s ears with the other. The dog barked. ‘You don’t understand, do you?’ she said. She walked to the edge of the waves and, bending down, released the crab into the water.
The dog yelped and tore into the spray. When the crab was carried back in on the next wave, he seized it and dropped it again at her feet. ‘No!’ she said, snatching it up, ‘Bad dog!’ The shell was slimy with dog slobber and a crack had appeared, running top to bottom. This time she took a couple of steps into the sea, her new suede boots wet to above the ankle, ice cold water seeping through to her socks. She flung the crab as far as she could in a high, curved arc and once more the dog charged after it.
She was coming out of the waves, her boots heavy with water—ruined, she thought, the salt would ruin them, they would never be the same—when she saw Jonathan walking towards her, his shoulders hunched against the wind. His stride was long and easy, and he had his hands in his pockets, his hair blown back from his forehead. He reached her just as the dog emerged from the sea, dripping and victorious, and deposited the crab at his feet.
‘What’s this?’ he said, ‘some sort of Dublin pastime? We mostly use sticks here.’
He tried to kiss her but she pushed him away and bent to pick up the crab. The dog retched a couple of times then coughed up something small and grey, and she saw that it was a crab leg. ‘Scram!’ she said to the dog, and she stamped her foot, ‘Shoo! Go home!’ but the dog just barked and hurled himself at her, almost knocking her over. The crab was split open, pearly-white flesh visible where the shell was lifting away from the body. Two legs were missing, another hanging from a sliver of tissue.
She handed the crab to Jonathan. ‘You throw it,’ she said, ‘it needs to go further out.’
He inspected the crab as it lay motionless on his palm. He poked it with his finger but still it didn’t move. ‘I’m afraid it no longer has any needs,’ he said. He tossed it over his shoulder, where it shattered against some rocks, and the dog was away like a rocket, snuffling around in shallow pools after bits of shell, pieces of leg.
The tyres spun on wet grass as she reversed the car onto the road, and they headed back towards Greencastle, past the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, past an old schoolhouse, converted now, hanging baskets straggling with last summer’s flowers. Looking down at the beach, she glimpsed a streak of black and white: the dog darting back and forth along the water’s edge. Though it was autumn, the cliffside was still lush with greenery, fuchsia bright in the ditches, heathers blooming rust and orange in the bogs beyond. It was almost too beautiful, she thought, the colours too pure, the light too fantastical. It was as if she was driving through the landscape of a computer game, the steering wheel her console, and the walls of the too-white cottages might crumble as she passed, revealing dark, monstrous creatures with the gristle of Spanish sailors between their teeth. She glanced at Jonathan in the passenger seat beside her and for a moment she did not know him, and Dublin, her home, the university, all seemed very far away.
His brother’s bungalow stood with its back to the sea in a sloping field of briars and reeds. It was accessed by a narrow side lane and there was no fence, only a ditch and where the field met the shore, a scattering of black rocks. There must once have been a gate but only a pair of hinges, thick with rust, remained, set into wooden posts on either side of the entrance.
‘I’d knock it all down,’ he’d said, when they arrived the night before, ‘all’ as far as she could see, being the bungalow, a concrete shed with a domed roof which turned out to be the boat shed, and a wooden coal bunker. ‘I’d level it and start again, take it closer to the water.’ Everywhere they went, this was what he did and she had come to understand that he couldn’t help himself. He was an architect, one year out of university where they had met in his final term. He saw derelict outhouses, boarded up petrol stations and, almost instinctively, ghosted up their future, measured it out in his head in steel and wood and light.
Outside the back door, a blue Fiat without tyres or windscreen was raised on a platform of concrete blocks. Its roof was covered in a mulch of dead leaves and rust dappled the paintwork. It’s the salt that does that, she thought, pleased that she understood, it’s the salt that causes the rust, because how often in Howth had she listened to her father complain about the very same thing, although the rust on her father’s car was never as deep an orange, never as widespread.
Pauline, his brother’s girlfriend, had been in bed when they left the house that morning. Now she was at the cooker, frying an egg in a blackened pan. She was heavily pregnant, one hand resting on the small of her back, the other shaking the pan, sliding the egg back and forth. ‘Come in quick,’ she said, ‘and close that door. It’s wild cold the day.’ She tipped the egg onto a plate where it quivered in a pool of grease, and then she filled the kettle at the sink.
She was good looking in a raw, violent sort of way: black hair loose about her shoulders; thick, unplucked brows. She wore a check shirt and tracksuit bottoms and, although it was late October, a pair of flip-flops. Her toenails were crudely cut, the skin of her heels hard and yellow. She reminded Sarah of the girls from the estates in Castlebar when she went to visit her cousins in the summer; girls in the backyards of pubs after closing time, resting half-finished pints on empty kegs; girls propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets.
There was a table in the centre of the kitchen covered with a square of blue-check oilcloth that barely reached the edges. A pot-plant, dense and woody, with dark-green variegated leaves sat on a lace doily. Pauline lowered herself into a chair and began to eat her egg. Her shirt was too small and when she reached for the salt it rose to reveal a dark line, like a dorsal stripe, running from her bellybutton into the waistband of her tracksuit. ‘Your brother’s away to Killybegs with the van,’ she said, ‘he’ll be back later.’ She patted her stomach. ‘I hope the wee babby doesn’t take a notion to come early.’ As she spoke, her stomach shifted of its own accord, broke into a furious bulging and rippling.
Sarah sat beside her and slipped off her wet boots. Jonathan was making tea, taking mugs from the draining board, a box of Sainsbury’s teabags from a shelf in the corner. Whatever the bungalow’s architectural failings, he was at ease inside it, opening press doors, rooting about to find sugar and biscuits. ‘The baby won’t come early,’ he said, ‘and anyway, if it does, I’m here.’
When Pauline laughed her front teeth were white, but slightly crooked, one edging in front of the other, the way Sarah’s had done before she got braces. ‘Towels and hot water, is it, Johnny? No offence, but I’d have it in the field first.’
‘I meant,’ he said, joining them at the table, ‘that we’d drive you to the hospital.’
He went to pour Pauline’s tea, but she waved him away. ‘Wild bad heartburn from the tea,’ she said.
A window looked out on the narrow lane to the side of the bungalow, while another overlooked the rough ground to the back. Though it was barely noon, the sky had darkened and a bank of cloud was forming above the estuary. A clothesline ran from a hook on the boat shed wall to a pole in the field, and the wind tore at a pair of blue overalls, whipping them into a frenzy, arms and legs flailing. Sarah unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the back of her chair and as she did, the scarf around her neck slipped to the floor.
Pauline noticed it first. She picked it up but instead of returning it, held onto it, rubbing the fabric back and forth between her fingers, stroking it. ‘Burberry?’ she said, inspecting the label, and she raised her dark eyebrows.
Sarah felt herself blush. ‘ Jonathan gave it to me,’ she said, ‘for my birthday.’
‘ Jonathan?’ Pauline said, looking at him across the table, and she laughed. ‘Well, Jonathan, your taste has improved. They must have taught you something down in Dublin.’ She slapped him playfully in the face with the scarf and laughed again, more softly this time. ‘Very nice, Jonathan,’ she said, repeating the name as if it were a joke, ‘nice, but wild dear,’ and she put the scarf down on the table.
Sarah drank her tea and listened to Jonathan and Pauline talk about people she didn’t know, people with strange, improbable names like Jimmy High Boy, Larry the Wren, Frank the Post. She heard Jonathan’s accent shift little by little to match Pauline’s, until it became something different, something foreign. And as she listened, it seemed to her that the border they had crossed and uncrossed the night before, the black line cutting through villages and sitting rooms, was little more than artifice, a nod to some semblance of containment. It was a belt slung loosely, land and sea spilling over it like paunch, because here, here too, it was a different country.
A white Hiace drove up the lane, trailing exhaust fumes, and turned in at the bungalow. It parked next to the blue Fiat and a man, tall and thin, got out. They had not met the night before, but she knew it was Jonathan’s brother as soon as he went by the window. He had the same high cheekbones, though his were veined and ruddy, and he walked with the same long stride. He paused on the doorstep to take off his boots. ‘Alright, Johnny?’ he said, and he winked, ‘state visit is it?’ He was in his early thirties, hair so tightly shaved it was barely a shadow on his skull, fair eyebrows disappearing into his face. He crossed the kitchen in his socks and slapped Jonathan on the back. He held out a hand to Sarah. ‘I’m Aidan,’ he said.
Under his arm was a parcel wrapped in plastic and secured with blue twine. He placed it on the table and began to untie it, his hands red and scarred, one finger ending in a round, pink stub just above the knuckle. When he peeled back the plastic, a pile of fish spilled out. He picked one up, a black, monstrous thing over a foot and a half long, cartoonish in its ugliness: a wide mouth studded with teeth; white, wiry filaments protruding from its forehead. Pauline reached for it, sliding her fingers through the red flap of its gill. ‘There’s a beauty,’ she said, and she nodded at Sarah, ‘I bet you haven’t seen one of these in Dublin.’
‘She hasn’t seen one here either,’ Aidan said, and they all laughed, everyone except Sarah.
‘Och, what harm a few fish?’ Pauline said. ‘Pure sinful to throw them back and half the world starving.’
Aidan parcelled up the fish again, tossing them one on top of another in a black, slippery mound, and put them in the fridge. He took out a packet of cigarettes and offered one first to Sarah. When she refused, he lit one for Pauline and another for himself.
Pauline settled back in her chair, her hands resting on the dome of her belly, smoke from the cigarette curling towards the ceiling.
‘Your Uncle Seamus rang this morning. He says he’ll leave the wee outboard tied up at the pier in Moville.’
‘Aye,’ Aidan said, taking a pull of his cigarette, ‘that’ll do rightly.’ He didn’t join the others at the table, but remained standing, leaning against the kitchen wall.
Pauline blew smoke out the corner of her mouth. ‘You’re not taking a wee boat like that out tonight, surely?’
‘I’m not going far, just off the shore in Shroove.’
‘Is Seamus going with you?’
‘I’m going on my own.’
Pauline tapped ash into her empty plate. ‘What sort of a job is it anyway?’
Aidan put a hand to the back of his neck, kneaded the skin as if soothing a sore muscle. ‘Trouble with the nets,’ he said.
Pauline stared at him. She said nothing for a moment and then she looked away. She reached past Sarah and picked up a copy of the Derry Journal that lay at the end of the table. ‘That’s not a job for this kind of weather,’ she said, opening the newspaper.
‘It’s not a job for any kind of weather. It might as well be tonight.’
Pauline shook her head. ‘Only a fool would be out by himself in a wee boat tonight.’ There was silence in the kitchen apart from the crackle of the newspaper as she turned the pages.
Sarah became conscious of the in and out of her own breath, the soft drumming of someone’s foot, perhaps her own, on the kitchen tiles. She thought of gathering up the mugs, taking them to the sink to wash them, but before she could do anything, she heard Jonathan say to his brother, ‘I’ll go with you.’
Aidan’s hand left the back of his neck and began to caress the bony contours of his skull. ‘You’re maybe accustomed to a different kind of boat these days, Johnny,’ he said, ‘it’s not a yacht, now,’ but this time, nobody laughed.
‘I sailed the half-decker to Tory the summer Dad died,’ Jonathan said, ‘And I sailed it to Rathmullen the time of the Oyster Festival the summer after.’
All of the years he had lived in this place before he met her, all of the time they had been strangers to each other, unaware of the other’s existence, settled upon Sarah, heavy and impenetrable. She felt a small, quiet panic rise up inside of her. It was the panic of a swimmer who has drifted out, little by little, on a rogue current and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore. She had a sense of something slipping away from her; it was something she could not quite identify, but she could feel its ebbing none the less.
‘That was a long time ago,’ Aidan said. ‘You haven’t been out since. Likely you’ve forgotten and maybe you’re better off.’
‘You know rightly there’s no forgetting.’ Pauline stubbed out her cigarette and stood up. Her belly swung low and heavy as she walked across the kitchen to the hot press and switched on the immersion. ‘I’m not feeling well,’ she said, ‘I’m going to take a shower and then I’m going back to bed, and you boys can go to Shroove or to any damn place you like.’
And as Pauline left the kitchen, Sarah had a sudden image of her naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders. She saw her in the small, dark bathroom in the shadow of the boat shed, standing under the shower as the water sluiced over her, a sea creature lured to dry land.
Out on the estuary, a trawler had dropped anchor for the night, light from the engine room pooling on the water. As she drove along the narrow coast road, Sarah saw matchstick figures moving about the floodlit deck. Beside her, Pauline emerged from the grip of a contraction and sank back in the passenger seat. She pushed her hair, damp with sweat, from her face and took out her phone. ‘I’ll try him again,’ she said. They were a mile beyond Greencastle, past the Fishery School and the holiday homes clustered in the shadow of the Fort, heading towards Shroove.
On the other side of the estuary, a string of evenly spaced lights, brighter than street lights, ran along the edge of the peninsula. Sarah had asked Jonathan about them the night before as they took their luggage from the boot of the car. ‘Is that a hotel?’ she said, and he had laughed, shaking his head as he walked towards the back door. ‘That’s Magilligan prison,’ he said. Later, he told her how as a child he had gone there with his father to visit a cousin. ‘What was it like?’ she said, but he had been unable to remember much, only some Nissan huts from the war and a soldier walking four or five dogs on a chain. The prison glittered now across the water, its perimeter lights threaded like a string of bright beads along the ragged coastline.
Pauline swore as Aidan’s phone clicked once more into voicemail. ‘Likely they’re still at that job,’ she said, ‘and if they are, they’ll not hear a phone. Or if they hear it, they’ll not answer.’ She reached for the holdall at her feet and hauled it onto her belly, rooting through nightdresses and slippers until she found her cigarettes. ‘Try Jonathan,’ Sarah said and she began to call out the number, but Pauline cut her short. ‘I already have,’ she said. She lit a cigarette and rolled down the car window to let the smoke out.
Her hair appeared blacker than usual against the pallor of her skin, her dark brows like slashes of war paint. ‘My Daddy’s a fisherman,’ she said, ‘my Granddaddy too, same as Aidan’s.’ She touched a hand lightly to her stomach. ‘And there’s days I’m standing at the end of the pier and I could swear that this wee babby knows. I can feel him straining for the sea, the same as if he could see it or smell it.’ She took a drag of her cigarette, blew out a mouthful of smoke. ‘But it’s a dirty business, fishing. Dirty and hard. You’re lucky, with Johnny.’ She tossed the cigarette out the window and clutched her stomach. ‘Here comes another one,’ she said, and she doubled over, resting her forehead on the dash.
Coming out of the boglands, they were forced into the ditch by a small car that careered towards them in a blaze of headlights. It bounced off the road, temporarily airborne, then sped away, a boy in a dark hoodie sunk low in the driver’s seat. ‘One of the Shaker Sweeney’s from the Malin Road,’ Pauline said, and Sarah waited for her to say more, but she leaned back and closed her eyes. In the rear-view mirror, the tail lights of the receding car flickered red and were gone, extinguished, the road returned to darkness.
Pauline didn’t speak again until they passed the sign for Shroove. A pub rose out of the blackness, an oasis of light on the otherwise desolate stretch of coast. ‘I had my debs there,’ she said, ‘four years ago last summer.’
Sarah had thought of Pauline as older—not older in the way that her parents were older, but older certainly than herself and Jonathan. Now she realised they were practically the same age. ‘Did you take Aidan?’ she said. She tried to imagine Aidan in a tuxedo, a grown man awkward in a room full of teenagers, his hands red and calloused below the white cuffs of a dress shirt.
‘I didn’t know Aidan then,’ Pauline said, ‘I took Johnny. Johnny and I were at school together in Carn,’ and as the lights of the pub fell away behind them, she said, ‘Here! Turn in here,’ and she pointed to a gap in a field.
The grass was littered with cans and the charred circles of spent fires. The field ran to a line of low cliffs, with the sea, dark and choppy, stretched out beyond. Sarah stopped the car. Pauline was bent over, moaning, and when she lifted her face from her hands there were tears running down her cheeks. ‘They’ll be down at the shore,’ she said, ‘tell him to hurry.’
Sarah found a torch in the boot and followed a trail through the grass to the edge of the cliff. Below her, she saw lights bobbing on the water and, when her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the outline of a boat. There was a secluded beach: a strip of white sand, stark against the black of the surrounding rocks. The sea was silvered by the moon and by the lights of Magilligan across the estuary, and as she watched the boat cut ripples through the water, she was struck by how very beautiful it all was, beautiful and unspoilt, and how, if it were not for Pauline waiting in the car, she would have liked to stay.
She began to descend the steep path to the cove, clutching at reeds to steady herself. The slope propelled her forward so that she was unable to stop even if she wanted to, and in the end she half-ran, half-fell onto the small beach. The cove was quiet, apart from the slap and fizz of waves breaking on the sand. The men had cut the boat’s engine and Jonathan jumped overboard, began to wade towards her. He was wearing a dark coloured oilskin, the hood pulled tight around his face. ‘What are you doing here?’ he said when he reached her, and she realised that it was not Jonathan, but Aidan. He had something long, like a stick, tucked under his arm.
‘Where’s Pauline?’ he said, when she did not answer, but she was transfixed by a shape twisting out beyond him on the water, something thrashing and struggling, the sea churning white all around. She thought with sudden fright that it was a body, but then she saw that there were many of them and they were moving slowly inland, ploughing furrows through the dark sea. They looked like divers in wetsuits but as they got closer, she saw that they were seals, black and lustrous. They were rolling in on the waves, disappearing below the water, then surfacing again, moonlight glinting on their sleek heads.
‘Where is she?’ Aidan said again. He caught Sarah by the shoulder and shook her, and she realised that the thing under his arm was not a stick, but a gun.
‘She’s in the car,’ she said, ‘the baby’s coming.’ She jumped back as a wave rushed in, wetting her shoes and the ends of her jeans.
The boat was close to shore now, Jonathan standing at the helm. Another wave rolled in and a seal came crashing onto the beach. It landed with a thud on its back then flipped over onto its stomach. It lay bleeding on the sand by Sarah’s feet and when she dropped to her knees, she saw the hole in the side of its head where it had been shot. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, letting the torch fall from her hand, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’
‘Give me the car keys.’ Aidan was standing over her, his hand outstretched.
‘They’re in the ignition,’ she said, without looking at him, and he turned and broke into a run, back up the cliff path, the gun still under his arm.
The boat was within a few metres of the shore and Jonathan stepped out, pulled it up onto a bank of pebbles. He too wore an oilskin, the hood tight around his face, and waders that reached to the top of his thighs. ‘They’ve got brazen,’ he said, walking towards her across the sand, ‘they’ve been eating through the nets, destroying the catch.’ He held out a hand to help her up but she didn’t take it.
A wave thundered in and, further up the cove, another seal was tossed onto the beach. She left the first seal and ran to the second. This one was smaller—a pup, she thought—its skin a lighter colour. Blood dribbled from its mouth and from a wound in its neck, and all along the edges of the rocks the tide foam was stained a deep pink.
Jonathan had followed, slowly, across the sand, and now he stood looking down at her, his hands in his pockets. ‘Is Pauline okay?’ he said, ‘is it the baby?’
Sarah was crouched beside the seal. It was still alive, a steady trickle of blood coming from its mouth, its chest rising and falling.
‘We’ll take the boat back to Moville,’ Jonathan said, ‘the van’s parked at the pier. You’ll need to change before we go to the hospital.’
She rubbed at her wet jeans, tried to brush away the pebbles and bits of broken shell that clung to them, and saw that they were stained with the seal’s blood. And still the waves charged in, an incessant advance and retreat, and, a few feet away, the body of another seal somersaulted onto the rocks. ‘We can’t leave them like this’, she said. She reached out a hand and touched the seal pup’s head. It flinched but did not pull away, its eyes, black as onyx, beginning to lose focus.
‘They’re almost dead,’ he said, and she could hear the impatience in his voice, ‘the tide will carry them back out.’ He was already walking away from her, towards the boat. ‘Come on,’ he said, as he dragged it to the water, ‘climb in.’
She got to her feet and looked around the beach. The wind had eased, the night sky was clear, and the clean, white bones of a dead sea bird were scattered across the sand like pieces of carved ivory. At the base of the cliffs, a length of timber, slime-green and rotting, was jammed between two rocks. She dislodged it and dragged it back across the sand to where the seal lay dying.
Jonathan shouted to her from the water. ‘What are you doing?’ To the south, beyond the village, the cliffs were lit up by the headlights of a car pulled in on the coast road. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we need to get out of here,’ and he jumped into the boat.
She stood over the seal and raised the piece of timber. She heard the splutter of an engine and saw Jonathan standing in the boat, waiting for her. He did not speak or call and he appeared only in silhouette, his face featureless under the dark oilskin. She looked down at the seal and saw its half-closed eyelid flicker. All around her, the shore glittered like a sequinned cloth, tiny shells and pebbles luminous in the moonlight, even as blood darkened the sand. She stood there, the timber held high above her head, the seal bleeding out at her feet. And all the time the waves rushed in, remorseless, and beautiful across the water, steadfast and unblinking, shone the lights of Magilligan.