We met before I was tired. It was at an exhibition in that gallery on Dominick Street, the one with the white maritime paint and deck board floors. With those panel windows that face across the street to more modern windows gazing heartsick back.
The exhibition was food-themed and artfully wrong. You were invited to taste things straight after reading menu-card descriptions that put a hop in your throat. The challenging swallow of heron neck, jellyfish noodles, brutalist ice cream and fourteen allergen layer cake.
Back then I’d go places on my own just to notice stuff, gathering texture for the paintings I’d make on weekend mornings in the damp brick shed behind the house. So I was standing there in the gallery like a buoy untethered when a bearded man in a black apron came along, poured a shot from a bottle and placed the cold glass in my fingers. He poured another and handed it to someone behind me, saying, ‘Have a try of that.’
And from over my shoulder, in a cedar-warm voice, Gael said, ‘What is it?’
I turned to see him, the first time I ever saw him. He was stupidly beautiful. There against the white gallery walls, he looked like a saint in an old oil painting. One who might before long be expiring in religious ecstasy. Some of the liquor had spilled down over his fingers and I thought about sucking them clean.
I turned back to the man in the apron, pleased with the privacy of my thought, and he passed me the bottle so I could read its label: Ní Anocht.
I laughed, and Gael stood next to me. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It’s in Irish. It means, Not Tonight.’
‘It’ll knock the horn off you for a week,’ the man in the apron said as he went away from us.
‘But it is alcohol?’ Gael asked.
‘I think so,’ I said, and took a quick whiff of my glass. ‘Yes, definitely.’
He leaned in to read the small print and I read it with him, the cashmere sleeve of his jumper making soft static at my bare shoulder.
Made with Mashua, a South American tuber the Inca used to stop their warriors thinking about sex when they went into battle.
Gael looked at me, held up his glass, his fingers still slick with liquor. ‘Do you want to?’
‘Yes,’ I said, though maybe in answer to another, unasked question, and tilted the shot to my lips. I watched Gael watch me, his own glass slowly draining, and felt the languid burn of the alcohol fan inside my chest.
We left together, and I kept expecting him to make some excuse and head off in a different direction, but he didn’t. He stayed with me as I wandered the grubby streets of late summer, hanging baskets gone leggy and the canal soup-thick with algae. Into a spell of intense silence, where I thought I was losing him, I threw, ‘And how long have you been in Galway?’
He blinked, coming back to me. My blood went hot with relief.
‘It will be four years this autumn,’ he said.
‘Was it for work, or…?’
‘No. It was a holiday. I was due to stay for one week, but then I didn’t leave. I think it felt like home for me here.’
‘God. That’s highly Spanish.’
‘In what way do you mean?’
‘The Armada, you know. They stopped off in Galway, and lots of them wouldn’t go back on the ships.’
‘Ah. Yes, I remember, there is the Spanish Arch, of course.’
‘And you can see it too, if you look hard enough, lots of dark haired, dark-eyed Galwegians. Your lads really left their mark on us.’
‘Me? What about me?’
He stood in my path and took a lock of my red-blonde hair between two careful fingers. ‘This is not very Spanish.’
He was grinning, and the heat of his wrist by my jaw made me want to feel his pulse hop under my tongue.
‘Oh, well I come from a long line of very stubborn women.’
We ended up on Grattan Road, down on the beach. And after the sun had gone in and the moon was plump and yellow over the tender hills at the far side of the bay, I waded in up to my knees while Gael stood waiting on the sand.
‘We should go for a swim,’ I said, throwing my hands up to the moonlight as it came slinking across the water, my shins tingling from the Atlantic cold.
‘I am not a swimmer,’ he said, and I turned to him.
‘You can’t swim?’
‘I know how, but I don’t. At least not in Ireland.’
‘Madness,’ I said, wading back to him, the dipped ends of my skirt clinging to my knees. ‘Why not?’
He took my cool hand in his warm one, and my skin fizzed with the thrill of the difference.
‘It is much too cold for me. I think I would die.’
I smiled, squeezed his hand. ‘Actually die?’
‘Yes, most likely.’
He was beautiful, washed in moonlight, his brow serious as he brought his hand to my face, pressed a gentle thumb to my cheek. And I knew he was going to kiss me, though I didn’t really believe it. Even when it was actually happening, with my toes sinking into the cool night sand, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe my luck.
He invited me back to his stuffy flat where I let him exhaust me on the sofa next to a silently flickering electric fire. And in his final moment, when he threw his head back, he looked just as I’d pictured him the moment I met him. The dying saint. But better, because his lips were making a prayer of my name. And the way he said it, ‘Delma,’ with a D so soft it got lost somewhere between an S and a Th.
Gael still likes to talk about the liquor we drank in the gallery that day, how they must have messed up the formula, because for him it had the opposite effect. After he drank it, sex was all he could think about.
I used to agree, I used to say that the effect was long-lasting as I pinned him to the bed and made him late for work. Even as all my half-started paintings never got beyond half-finished and began to blacken in the damp of the shed. I used to agree, until I couldn’t remember how to paint. How to even begin. Until I got tired.
Now, almost two years on, the earth tilts and settles as I heave myself out of a hired car in front of a remote Icelandic hotel. A weekend away to mark our anniversary. His idea.
I’m minutes awake, fetched from the forest of some dream by Gael’s hand coming warm to my waist. I slept the entire drive here, saw nothing of the landscape or the sky. A full five hours from Reykjavik, and I’m still shattered.
I feel like that little toy giraffe I had when I was small, elastic threaded up through his hollow limbs, how when I’d press the round button underneath his stand, he’d collapse. For years, I hardly thought of him, but now he comes to me regularly, and the careless way I’d make him fall and stand, fall and stand.
I look to Gael sliding the cases from the boot and it takes me a second to notice the mountain behind him, but once I do, I can’t understand how I didn’t before. It’s immense. Darker, blacker than the other mountains around it. Its surface is all ruptures and bulges from the madness that created it, the shaking and lava and fire. There’s a glacier wedged on top that has a little curl of ice jutting up at its peak, like a buried woman’s finger beckoning the sky.
‘It’s impressive,’ Gael says, pulling our cases towards me, their wheels thud-thudding on the paving stones. ‘No?’
‘Yeah,’ I say, although it’s not the right word. There must be one somewhere between impressive and terrifying. Magnetic, maybe.
Gael passes me and carries the cases into the lobby. I follow him, but glance back at the mountain as I go inside, feeling a wash of relief when it’s still there, like it might have shimmered to nothing while my back was turned.
Inside, a wooden staircase winds to the floors above with a reception desk nestled in its crook. Gael approaches the open-faced woman seated behind it, and I slouch into the next room where coals glow in a two-mouthed fireplace. The place is crammed with red velvet chairs and sofas that invite me to splay my limbs across them and sink. I think about the struggle to get up again if I do, and drag my gaze instead to the windows overlooking the grounds behind the hotel and the ocean beyond. Rough grey hills sawtooth along the peninsula like monstrous cresting waves, ready to crash down and wipe us all out. The sea—the real sea—roils at their feet, blasted by gusts that don’t seem to make it ashore. The grass just outside the window is unnaturally still.
I imagine the mountain behind me having this same view, but in the foreground there’s this tiny white hotel, with even tinier people cowering inside.
I would once have been able to work this mild terror onto a canvas, excise it from my body with a pallet knife and brush. But it’s getting harder now to remember what that was like. How that used to feel.
‘Delma,’ Gael says, standing at the threshold. ‘I’m afraid there is no lift.’
‘Oh,’ I say, looking out past him to the staircase. It’s so steep I’ll probably have to sleep again straight away after I climb it.
‘But,’ he says, ‘they will have dinner starting in ten minutes, so I will take our bags up and be back.’
‘Okay,’ I say, and watch him stride off, carrying the cases up with irritating ease.
I swallow my envy and go to finger the promotional fliers next to the reception desk while I wait for him. Aurora tours, whale watching, museums, hot springs. 4×4 Glacier Treks & Ice Cave Tours, one says, and there’s a photo of a group of people in matching blue snow suits posing beneath that great icy finger on top of the mountain outside. Behind them is the topaz blue entrance to an ice cave. I flip the flier open and the words, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ streak whitely across the top. Snug amongst the columns of text there’s a photo of the mountain that, from the angle, must have been taken from right outside this hotel.
‘Now,’ Gael says, so suddenly next to me that I snap the flier shut. ‘Ready?’
The dining room walls are painted white and the floors and furniture are stained oak. It reminds me of the Dominick Street gallery. But instead of panelled windows framing more windows from across the road, these are huge single panes, almost floor to ceiling. And through all of them there’s the mountain.
The wind creaks up under the eaves and vertigo tilts me. I plant my palm on a table top and gaze out at the sun shining uselessly on the mountain’s black flank.
‘You are okay, Delma, sit.’
Gael takes my elbow and plants me in the nearest chair, my back to the windows. I slouch, feel the chair dig at my shoulders, and think about the mountain behind me. I put my fingers to the back of my neck to shush the tiny rebel hairs and nerve endings. Gael sits across from me, smiling, and I lean forward and take his hand; the warmth of it brings me back, steadies me.
As we eat, I watch him slice venison and fold it into his mouth. He really is beautiful, the fine dark hairs on his forearms, how dexterous and precise his hands are, the softness of his throat as he swallows. But mostly it’s how he’s so light, when I feel so heavy.
I turn in my seat and look through the windows at the near-farawayness of the mountain. The sky has gone hazy and a candyfloss tuft of pink cloud is snagged on the finger of ice on the peak.
‘You love that mountain,’ Gael says.
Love isn’t the right word, but in the absence of the right one, I say, ‘Yeah, I really do.’
‘Good news for you. We have a view of it in our room.’
I turn back to him; his lower lip is wine-stained, and I could honestly drink him.
I wake in the almost dark, not slowly or suddenly; I just surface. It’s so easy it feels like dreaming. I turn on my side and watch Gael sleeping on his back beside me, the dark crescents of his lashes, his face passive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sleep before. His hand is flat on the space below his navel and his little finger is dipped under the sheet covering his legs.
The gap in the blinds above the bed is casting a stripe down across his fingers. I place my hand on top of his, feel the coolness of his sleep, and watch the strange light span sweetly on my own fingers. Under the sheet Gael’s dick twitches, and his face settles into a sleeping frown.
Kneeling up, I draw back the blinds, spill the light into the room. It’s not sunken sunlight as I’d imagined, but frills of green and pink light, shifting and changing high above the dark mountain. There’s a rumble somewhere inside or outside myself, the sort of vibration that settles stones into slots. I put my hand to the glass and watch the light paint my arm. I pull off my T-shirt, let the light paint me all over, invite it under my skin, inside the hollows of my chest. Harlequin coloured and delicious.
I look down to Gael, and he’s watching me now. His hand’s gone beneath the sheet and is moving in a slow rhythm. He moves up to meet me at the window, mouth on my throat, hand at my waist, trying to lead me into lying back down. It’s not what I want, so I guide him, persuade him, have him kneel behind me, press up into me. I lay my two palms flat on the window holding the mountain inside the triangle gap between my outstretched hands. I want to fill it. I want to press inside it like Gael is pressing into me, only more, more of myself.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes.’ And I feel my shoulders lift, my spine ease, and every ounce of weight sail from my bones.
I wake to the sound of Gael showering and singing something unrecognisable. Something Spanish. The blinds above my head are closed and the sun is burning through. I’m afraid to move, because lying here I can imagine I’m light, like I was last night.
Gael comes in drying himself, rubbing the towel into all of his lovely creases. He really is beautiful. The way the muscles in his shoulders swoop and curve. The way his chest is soft with a happy patch of hair.
‘Good morning,’ he says when he sees that I’m awake.
‘Hi,’ I say, still working up to thinking about getting out of bed.
‘Tell me,’ he says, sitting on the bed next to me, laying his palm on my hip. ‘Last night, was it me that made you wake up? Maybe I was snoring?’ He’s frowning, concerned.
‘No, I don’t think anything did. I was just, awake.’ I shrug and touch the shower-damp hair next to his ear. ‘Are you complaining?’
‘No,’ he says and grins. ‘Definitely not complaining. But I thought you would sleep longer this morning. I was planning a drive, and then to come back for you.’
‘Let’s go together,’ I say, realising I’m completely awake, even though I’m horizontal.
When I move to get up, I feel him press back against my hip. ‘We did so much travel yesterday, even before last night. You must be tired, no?’
‘I’m actually wide awake.’
‘Just like last night.’
‘Just like last night,’ I say with a laugh and slide out from under his hand.
When I get up, my body doesn’t hinder me. I stand and my head doesn’t swim. I shower and dress without once thinking about sitting down.
‘So where are we going?’ I ask, as I zip my coat up.
‘I was going to see the wreck of a ship on a black sand beach. But I’m worried you will not be okay to walk on the sand for very long. It can be difficult. So maybe we should go somewhere else.’
‘I’ll be okay,’ I say. ‘It sounds great.’
The road to the beach takes us around the mountain, closer to it. The gentle movements of the car don’t lull me to sleep like they did every other time. I sit forward and watch the mountain, thrilled at its vast closeness. As we pass through a fishing village, there’s a tall stake driven into the roadside to mark out a turn inland. I follow the swoop of the gravel and see two worn tyre tracks wind up and out of view. A road up the mountain. It must be where they go up for the ice cave tours from the brochure. The car sails on and I lose sight of the road behind wisping stalks of grass. Gael gives my thigh a fond little squeeze and I rest my hand on top of his for as long as the road allows.
On the beach, the sand is black and heavy, like a sea of miniature buckshot. I pick some up and let it fall between my fingers, but it doesn’t all go. Some of it sticks to my palm and won’t be loosed by smacking my hands together.
Gael is photographing white seabirds swooshing from the cliffs. I walk back in the deep trail of our footprints, around to where the rusted wreckage of some disaster lies strewn. The sea is fizzing into the sand a few paces behind me as I stand and stare up at the mountain from this fresh angle. There are serpentine furrows where lava stopped mid-flow, when it had decided it had gone far enough and froze in place.
A grain of sand has all but embedded itself into my fingertip. It’s black in the same way the mountain is black. I scrape it off with my teeth, catch it on my tongue and swallow.
‘Delma. Come see.’
I follow Gael’s voice to a cove sheltered by sharp black rocks, and find him standing with his back to me, his hands on his hips staring at the ground. He looks over his shoulder as I approach.
‘Do you think I can lift it?’
At his feet there’s a row of five stones, each bigger than the one next to it, and he’s eyeing the biggest of all.
‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘Give it a shot.’
He takes a dramatic stance and bends his knees, then rocks the stone into his palms before straightening up. He’s beaming through the strain of the weight, and I clap for him as he eases the rock back to the sand.
‘See,’ I say. ‘It’s not only me who feels stronger here. This place is magic.’
‘Super powers.’ He flexes his arms, displaying himself for me. ‘What would you like to do now?’
It was too cold on the beach, he said, but the running engine of the car is enough to keep him warm. We parked somewhere nearby and just as deserted. In the back seat, he pushes my T-shirt up and takes my breast in his mouth, his eyes softly closed as I move in his lap. He still has sand embedded in his palms and nestling in at his hairline. Through the rear window I feel the mountain’s eyeless gaze, and I stare back and think about the power that’s down inside it, the black burning heart of it.
Gael’s tongue changes pattern and an orgasm swamps me. My vision greys at the edges, but in the clear centre is the mountain’s top, the smooth curled finger of ice, the promise of the cave beneath it, and of the crater below that again. I want to be inside it. I want to climb inside the mountain, push myself into the tightest deepest gap I can find and lose myself to it.
Gael’s breath sharpens and I’m brought back to the car. The squeak of the suspension, the fake pine smell of the air freshener. I take his dark hair in my fists and pull his head back, tipping his face up. His eyes are still closed.
‘Look at me,’ I say, and he squeezes them shut harder. ‘Look at me.’
They snap open, and I can see surrender in them.
‘I want to fuck you into the ground. Right down into the earth,’ I say, and his hands grasp at me, the tendons in his neck stringing tight. ‘Do you want that?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Oh god, oh yes.’
At the hotel, I come back from the bathroom to find Gael still in the lobby, deep in conversation with a tawny-looking man in a faded green duffle coat. I float nearby, and gather they’re talking about the wreckage we saw on the beach. Losses and timescales and the rescue effort. Gael pinches his chin with interest, and I turn away. I see the receptionist, coolly serene behind the desk, the blue light from her computer monitor paling her round face. She looks up as I approach.
‘I was wondering,’ I say. ‘I saw the flier, about the ice cave tours. Is there one this evening? Or tomorrow morning?’
Her eyes scan the screen. ‘I don’t think there’s one until next week,’ she says, ‘but let me phone the operator.’
She lilts Icelandic down the phone. I hear her goodbye, and after she hangs up, she says, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Not to worry,’ I say, a little chasm opening up inside me. ‘Thanks for checking.’
I go and stand in the empty dining room and gaze at the mountain from the windows. I picture us driving away, the mountain shrinking in the car’s mirrors. I expect it to hurt, to wrench, but it feels like something else. It feels unlikely.
The drive up the mountain is steep, and I can see the grit of Gael’s jaw when I glance across at him, his face buttered gold in the gloaming half-light. I’m not sure if it’s the incline that’s bothering him or the fact that I’m driving. He didn’t want me to, but I eventually persuaded him to trust me. It made me feel a bit cruel, but if he’d driven, he would have turned the car around by now.
I could have come alone, slipped out in the night, but I want Gael with me, even if it turns out to be nothing but a disappointment. I want the joint discovery to be like a silver thread between us.
The road levels out at last and ahead of us is the glacier’s snowline. Tyre tracks left by 4x4s making single-file pilgrimages reach out across the snow and I barrel towards them.
‘Oh God!’ Gael says, bracing himself against the dashboard as the car lurches forward.
‘You all right?’
‘Mm-hm,’ he says, tightly.
‘It won’t be long. We just follow the tyre tracks to the cabin to meet the guide. Remember?’
‘Yes, I know. I’m not stupid. But can you slow down?’
‘Sorry,’ I say and ease up on the accelerator.
‘Thank you,’ he sighs.
Above and ahead of us the sky is pink and amethyst and ink, orange clouded, and I follow the tyres’ path until the glacier’s curled finger comes skewering into view. Up ahead, the tracks slither away downhill, probably to some parking area to be hiked from. I turn the wheel instead towards the finger, towards the cave. The snow crunches louder beneath us.
‘This is the wrong way,’ Gael says, his goose-down coat rustling as he turns in his seat to look behind.
‘Oh,’ I say, glancing in my mirrors. ‘Really?’
‘Delma, stop the car.’
‘Stop!’ he says in a tone that’s new from him.
‘Yeah. Of course, ‘ I say, and pull to a stop.
‘Jesus,’ he says, rubbing his face.
The cave’s entrance is right there; I can see a slice of blue, feel its pull on my cantering heart. The blood and bone draw of it.
Gael wakes his phone. ‘There is no reception. We should turn around.’
‘Hang on. Let me hop out and see if I can spot anything,’ I say, and unbuckle my belt before sliding out of the car. I thought Gael would follow me, but he sits there, watching me through the windscreen, as I put my hands on my hips and look all around. I shrug at him and then go to the window on his side and wait for him to wind it down.
‘Maybe I got the day wrong,’ I say.
‘We should go back to the hotel. It’s a mistake to be up here without a guide.’
‘Yeah. You’re right,’ I say, and then glance around again. ‘Photo before we go? Seeing as the evening’s so nice?’
‘All right,’ he sighs, and at last he levers the car door open and joins me on the char-streaked snow. He shudders and stamps his feet as I line us up for the photo with the cave behind us. I take a couple of snaps and then take him by the lapels and kiss him. His lips are already cool, so I press myself against him, breathe warmth down into his collar.
‘Come on,’ I say, and take his hand. ‘Let’s check out this ice cave.’
‘Oh. Oh no. Are you joking?’
‘Because you are crazy. You can’t just walk into a cave on a glacier, Delma. Be real.’
There’s a flash of derision in his expression, and I drop his hand. Anger spikes under my breastbone, forks up across my scalp.
‘I suppose I’m going on my own, then.’
I turn away from him and pace towards the cave’s entrance, but my muscles itch. Walking isn’t fast enough. I break into a jog and my feet find all the right spots in the snow. I feel so light I might just lift off. I can hear Gael behind me, swearing, and I think, following.
I can see the sapphire blue slit in the ice, the entrance, just like the picture from the flier. But better, because there’s no one else here. The wind comes in brisk strong gusts across the summit and I gasp it in until my teeth hurt. The cave is glistering in the lowering sun, and all I want is to be inside it.
‘Delma, wait,’ Gael says, breathless, his hand at my elbow. ‘Wait.’
I stop and turn to him. His breathing is ragged and he blinks at me, shaking. Oh god.
‘Are you crying?’ I say.
‘What? No. I’m just really fucking cold.’
‘Well come on into the cave, then. It’ll be sheltered.’
‘But you’ve come this far,’ I say. ‘It’s only a few more steps, sure?’
‘No, I said. We must go back to the car. It’s getting darker.’
‘Just,’ he says, clearly frustrated, and then lunges for me, tries to grab my arm but I’m too quick, hare-brisk, and dodge him.
‘What was that?’ I say. ‘What, were you planning to drag me back? Put me over your shoulder?’
‘No,’ he says, shamefaced. ‘Of course, no.’
He really is beautiful, even now in his limp embarrassment, his eyes cast down to my feet, his lips frigid blue.
‘Come with me,’ I say. ‘Please.’
He shakes his head, holds out a hand for me to take, and I think of the day we met, and the sweet tilt of his lips as we held up the anaphrodisiac liquor. How the thought of deadening a part of myself that trilled with life seemed so impossible as to be laughable. How I gave two fingers to superstition and drank back the glass, and how I drank back Gael until I was so drunk I could hardly stay awake.
I turn from him and wade through the snowdrift at the cave’s bright entrance. He doesn’t call after me; he just quietly repeats my name.
Once I’m inside I can’t hear him anymore. I can only hear the earth’s deep creak, the echo of my own body, the whist of dry snow. I notice everything. The countless ways the blue light shifts and glows and fades. Ice-crystals suspended in air like silent glittering dust. Sulphur, barely there on each in-breath. Prickling cold progressing to an ache in feet and fingers and cheeks. And for the first time in however long, I know how to paint, how to work these things into art and take them outside of my body. There’s so much I can use. So, so much. Like the gorgeous, painful deep-down blues that surround me as I duck and shuffle and squeeze my way though, following my heart into the dark.
This is the final story we are publishing online this week to coincide with the publication of our Galway 2020 edition. The five stories have been selected by the issue’s guest editor, Lisa McInerney. Publication of the stories and the issue is in association with Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. The other stories are:
David Tierney – ‘Black And White-head’
Aoibheann McCann – ‘Fumes’
Ciarán Folan – ‘In The Blood’
Mattie Brennan – ‘Make Way Folks, The Mannion Brothers Are Coming Through’