The Solstice

Terminal Five was an assault of gleaming tiles and glass. Sleigh-bells chimed and fairy lights twinkled from the designer stores.

The email arrived as soon as I manged to connect to Heathrow’s free Wi-Fi.  I skimmed over the invitation in between rearranging my bags, putting my shoes back on and waiting for the rest of my hand-luggage to pass through the x-ray: ‘I heard you’ll be in Ireland, staying at your grandmothers, tomorrow. Do you want to meet there for coffee?’ Still dazed from the overnight flight from Miami, during which I got tipsy on two glasses of wine and caught snatches of sleep in between romantic comedies, I rolled my eyes to no one, stuffed the phone in my pocket and trundled off with my suitcase.

Terminal Five was an assault of gleaming tiles and glass. Sleigh-bells chimed and fairy lights twinkled from the designer stores. It was a long way from the shabby carpets, vacant units and dusty souvenir shops at La Aurora International in Guatemala City, I had departed from 14 hours previously. The sign leaving security could have read ‘Welcome to the First World.’ With another two hours before my final connection to Dublin, I distracted myself from the pending reply by meandering through thronged shops selling overpriced Slytherin scarves, Gryffindor pyjamas and plastic wands lined with imitation phoenix feathers. The pre-Christmas frenzy was in full swing and I soon succumbed to the lure of a pair of overpriced, but practical, mittens in preparation for a winter I had not experienced in three years.

My consumer urges sated, I edged my way around tables and discarded suitcases in one of those airport food courts where hundreds of strangers eat together, avoiding each other’s eyes by staring into space or at a screen. Unsure whether I was due breakfast or lunch, I ordered porridge in a cardboard cup and the strongest coffee on the menu, then found an empty table in the least populated corner. Only after my belly was full and the caffeine had chased away the worst of the transatlantic lag, did I take out my phone and consider the invitation. The options were reply later, just say no or ignore it altogether. In the end my response was economical but polite: ‘Sounds fine, see you there.’

I did not, however, make it to my grandmother’s for coffee the following day. S_, who was due to arrive in Dublin on a later flight, missed his connection. Neither his gringo nor Mexican visas, nor the ample documentation he provided on every aspect of our trip, including copies of bank statements, credits cards, onward tickets, and my cousin’s wedding invitation, were enough to convince the Spanish migration officers to let him through without a fuss. He was held back an hour for questioning and the airline did not consider it worth their trouble to rebook a flight for a mere Latino. So S_ spent an unplanned night alone in an airport hotel on the outskirts of Madrid, slicing a day off our already short vacation. Everything in our minutely planned itinerary had to be shuffled around and coffee got pushed back to dinner at my aunt’s house in Kerry, where we had already arranged to stay that Friday night. The aunt in question was the peacemaker: she got along with everyone in a family where the siblings constantly alternated loyalties amidst a permanent state of low intensity warfare. Her house was neutral territory.

We were over an hour late for dinner. I texted ahead, blaming my lack of driving practice and the difficulties of navigating the unfamiliar and, often deadly, hairpin bends along the road that drops from Annascaul to Castlegregory. I did not mention we spent nearly an hour chasing waves at Dunquin harbour, thrilled and terrified by how easily we might have been swept away by the deadly swell. Nor our lingering roadside stops to watch the earliest sun set of the year behind the Blasket Islands. I left out our brief detour through a dark and deserted Dingle so S_ might try his first hot whiskey from the town’s most illustrious public house: Dick Macks.

Despite the multiple delays, however, we were the first to arrive. We deposited our bags and were led into the living room, where we waited, perched on the edge of the sofa, while my aunt and uncle asked S_ polite questions about his first impressions of Ireland.

When my father finally showed up with his wife and excuses about traffic we all stood to greet each other. S_ had already realised the Irish were generally more reserved than Guatemalans, where an embrace with an optional kiss was expected between friends and relatives, and stretched out his right hand for theirs. I edged behind him, placing his body between my father and I, so I might avoid any possibility of being forced into a hug. They settled for a nod and forced smile from me. His wife remained at the door with her arms folded, saying little. Before we could linger too long in silence my aunt announced that dinner was ready and we followed her into the kitchen.

At the table S_ acted as a buffer once more, sitting in between my father and I, fielding all his nasal self-aggrandisement. The tip of my nose prickled each time I caught the enthusiastic rise of his voice, or the affected drawl and gesticulated explanations of his research which, no doubt, would change the shape of anthropology in Ireland, if not the world. I focused instead on chatting with my uncle who had married into the family and was known to have ‘delicate nerves’ for which few took him seriously. But, I had always liked his sing-song voice and his fluttering hands and he seemed genuinely interested in our life in Guatemala and my owns plans to pursue a PhD. S_ nudged me once or twice for translations and I obliged. It was the least I could do considering he was saving me from the necessity of any real engagement with my father, other than the answering direct questions it would have been too rude to ignore.

The deadline for Brexit was looming, and everyone wanted to know what insider information my aunt had gleaned from her job at the Ministry for Finance. This allowed us to avoid more sensitive topics such as the fact that I had not spoken to my father in three years. Or why, on my last visit home two years previously, he had ignored my email invitation for coffee. I wondered what was behind the sudden impulse for contact. Did he actually want to see me or could he not bear the idea I would leave him out of the itinerary of family visits? Since he remained as pointedly disinterested in my life and wellbeing as I was of his, I had to conclude it was the latter.

Neither the prolonged estrangement, however, nor simple courtesy to my aunt who had put on quite the spread, were enough to keep my father at the table all night. Between the main course and desert he disappeared to attend a Christmas party at a local pub, with the excuse that he just could not be missed. His wife, a member of the same club, did not feel the same pressing need to abandon the dinner and so remained at the table with us. My father reappeared for the aperitif, regaling us with highlights from the Christmas raffle and who was there, what they said and how pleased they were that he had made the effort to go.

One by one we began to drift towards the sink with dishes that needed washing and then to bed, until it was just my father and S_ left at the table. I became increasingly suspicious at their apparent camaraderie and regretted having accepted the invitation. I was clearly not ready to share space with my father or even engage in the most superficial of conversations. With an overwhelming sense of deja-vu, having tried and failed at this father-daughter dance many times already, I hovered around the sink and washed the remaining dishes. S_ produced a sample of the books he had brought, both his own and those he had edited, designed, printed and bound of others. My father took three before we finally retreated to bed.

‘He paid for them right?’ I could not help but asking once we were alone. ‘You didn’t just give them away, did you?’ S_ might have been a great poet and editor, but he was a terrible businessman, and probably gave away more books than he ever sold.

‘No, don’t worry he bought them off me.’

‘So… what did you think of him then?’ In the four years we had been together, S_ and I had swapped many stories about the multiple ways our fathers had hurt us before disappearing out of our lives. Still, he and my father were both artistically inclined and while S_ could be standoffish, with a sensibility that was hard to impress, my father could be incredibly charming when he wanted. I suspected they would either click or immediately hate each other, but I was not sure which would be worse.

‘Buena onda,’ said S_. My heart sank and he must have noted the disappointment on my face, because he did a slight backtrack. ‘Or anyway, he seemed nice enough, but then I remembered everything he did to you and your brothers and, carajo.’

Carajo was perhaps the only appropriate response. I could not expect S_ to be his enemy for my sake alone, but I could not abide the thought they might become friends either. In the end they never had the opportunity to test their potential bond further, because my father and his wife were gone the next morning before S_ and I, still terribly jetlagged, dragged ourselves out of bed.

The lack of a goodbye was no surprise. I was relieved I did not have to dredge my limited capacity for small talk even further. My aunt and uncle prepared a suitably greasy Irish breakfast and we chatted about our travel plans and their retirement plans, while everyone avoided mentioning the early departure of the other house guests. With the excuse of vanishing daylight we did not stay long over breakfast and set off for another day of sight-seeing along the Wild Atlantic Way. Instead of continuing North towards Clare and Galway, I made a detour back west and drove into the Slieve Mish along the Conor Pass. It was still early and we passed almost no cars on the road. I parked half way up, not daring to venture any further along the narrow mountain pass, and eager to take S_ to the first sight on the day’s itinerary. I led him away from the car and up a stony path that traced around huge boulders. ‘It’s only ten minutes,’ I assured him. ‘And totally worth it.’

We reached Loch a’Duin, or Peddler’s lake as it is known locally, only slightly out of breath. The glaciers which had passed over the Kerry mountains thousands of years previously had carved out an almost perfectly spherical amphitheatre sheltering a pristine corrie lake. Little more than a ripple disturbed the water’s surface. We gave a whoop and heard our joy bounce across the rock face. Turning back to the road the valley below, stretching across to Mount Brandon, sacred to both Celts and Christians, and down to the sea, awed us into silence. Except for the usual cloud on the summit it was a perfectly clear day, the hills around us were sharp with the expectation of precipitation.

Completely alone, we horsed about at the lake edge ten or twenty minutes. The frozen bog cracked under our footsteps as we ran about skimming stones and taking photos to send back to S_’s mother in Guatemala. It was a perfect moment, perhaps my most cherished memory of our three week holiday. But, I could not help admitting my father was the only reason I knew the lake existed. The first time I had been there, 24 years previously, I was eleven and my father had recently relocated from Dublin to Kerry. It was our first Christmas we spent in the Kingdom. The hills were dusted with a light snowfall and my brothers and I delighted in picking icicles from the frozen streams running off the lake. It became a favourite spot of his to take visitors and I had never tired of making the trek up there with friends and relatives.  

What did it mean then, to be standing there with S_, the night after a failed Solstice encounter with a man whose presence I could barely tolerate, and whose estrangement had lasted more than 11 years? Though it is hard for me to acknowledge, there things I could be grateful to my father for introducing to my life. These, however, are overshadowed by the understanding that it is easy to entertain children with trips to the swimming pool, afternoons in the cinema and treks up mountains when you only see them for two weekends a month. Or that my drawings, paintings, clay figures and other attempts at making art were not so much for my pleasure as to please him. Or, that a cultural and academic snobbery lay behind the insistence on reading the right books, listening to the right music, watching the right films and studying the right course at the right university.

I wonder would it have been better to avoid the natural beauty of Kerry altogether in favour of the less emotionally charged, but equally spectacular, landscapes of the Burren or Connemara? There was so much to see in Ireland and so little time to see it in, so why take S_ there of all places? It might have been too soon to confront my father but, perhaps, it was time enough to confront the landscapes long haunted by his shadow and create new memories with new people?

About Aisling Walsh

Aisling Walsh (she/her) a queer and neurodivergent writer based between Ireland and Guatemala. She writes across genres, with stories and essays featuring in Electric Literature, Catapult, Literary Hub, Barren, Rejection Letters, Púca and others. Her short story 'A Creeping Ulcer' won the 2022 Michael Mullen Charity Fund writing competition and her essays ‘The Centre of the Universe’ and ‘Misplaced Loyalties’ were finalists in the So To Speak (2021) and Phoebe (2022) CNF contests. She is a fiction reader at Anomaly.

Aisling Walsh (she/her) a queer and neurodivergent writer based between Ireland and Guatemala. She writes across genres, with stories and essays featuring in Electric Literature, Catapult, Literary Hub, Barren, Rejection Letters, Púca and others. Her short story 'A Creeping Ulcer' won the 2022 Michael Mullen Charity Fund writing competition and her essays ‘The Centre of the Universe’ and ‘Misplaced Loyalties’ were finalists in the So To Speak (2021) and Phoebe (2022) CNF contests. She is a fiction reader at Anomaly.

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