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Her gaze rests on his white calves, strangely insubstantial given the expanse of khaki shorts above. The fabric strains a little with each upward movement. He doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps marching up the track, walking pole swinging and dipping in his hand. She can feel a catch in her chest. She is having trouble keeping up.
He smiles down at her, his face pinkly moist under the brim of his Tilley hat.
“Come on Val, just this last bit, then it’s downhill all the way.”
She sucks in through her teeth and carries on. The sun is warm, or so it seems as sweat blooms under her arms and down her back. Around her, the fields are strung out like a botched crochet. Shades of green are interrupted by a thread of grey stone wall, which tacks up and down hills and dips. A farmhouse or two break the pattern, dropped stitches. None of those awful bungalows here she thinks. Not like the West. Not like round Galway and Connemara. No, this time she has to admit that Nigel has picked a good spot.[private]
Val’s something of an expert on Ireland now. Been coming for years. Along with Nigel, of course. They have found some of the most delightful little places: Places that most Irish people have never heard of. Not the Burren or Killarney or other likely tourist spots, but undiscovered gems along the Shannon, round Lough Erne and down here on the Beara Way.
Nigel had phoned in February. Wanted to know if she had anything doing over Easter. Not for the first time, she was tempted to say, yes, she did. She was going to the Mosaicists festival in St Ives or perhaps Reiki Week in Glastonbury. But she held back. Hadn’t she an obligation, really, to do it for Nigel? So, she went along with his plans thinking that maybe, this year, it might not be as bad.
They reach the brow of the hill. The view opens up in front of them, a present. And in the water below, Dursey Island hunkers, black on grey. Val can just make out the top of a pylon.
“There it is, the cable car.”
Nigel is talking loudly. He’s already filled her in on the highlight of the trip. The Dursey Cable Car. The only cable car in Ireland. 1,300 feet of 1.2 tonne cable. Oh yes, she’s heard all about it. Nigel is still talking.
“It’s a 6-Funitel Jig Back, unusual you know.”
Val didn’t doubt it. Even at this distance, the whole thing looks pretty precarious. Feeling a little sickly, she leans against the wall of a farmhouse, dotted with statuary of ducks and lambs and a donkey with real turf in its panniers. Val stares, her mouth forking downward before she gives a snort. Then she sees a peacock standing on a gate pillar. Its tail hangs over the edge sweeping the gravel below in a shock of turquoise and shimmery green. Below the farmhouse though, the sea remains a stubborn grey. Nigel points ahead with his stick.
“Onward,” he shouts and without a backward glance, heads down the hill.
The cable car station is actually a hut with a tiny office and two toilets. Val pops her head around the door marked “Mná”. She returns to Nigel’s side minutes later, her mouth drawn tight, shaking her wet hands.
“Typical, neither toilet paper nor hand towels.”
The office window is closed. Nigel reads the sign aloud.
“Islanders, animals and cargo get preference over visitors…The trip takes 15 minutes… There are six people living on the island…”
“For heaven’s sake Nigel, I can read.”
The window slides back. A man. Grey hair, thin red face. An expression of studied blandness.
“If you’re looking to go over, you’ll have to wait.”
He gestures with his thumb toward a small man who is leading a cow out of a trailer and across the car park to the cable car. They watch as he uses a stick to flick at the animal’s haunches. He whistles, sharp thin sounds, sucking air fiercely through his teeth, urging the animal up to the concrete corral.
“G’yup, suk, suk, g’yup.”
The beast raises its head, rolls its eyes seaward then back toward Val and Nigel. It cranes its neck forward, lets out a bellow and makes a move toward them, legs scrambling on the concrete. Val jumps behind Nigel, who laughs. The farmer takes control, flicking and tapping the cow about the eyes. The animal backs up, head tossing from side to side, into the cable car. The farmer hops in beside it and pulling the door across. There is a loud cranking noise as the man and beast head slowly out over the sea.
Val shudders. Nigel is even louder. “Bloody hell, I can’t wait, looks terrific, doesn’t it?”
They find a spot to sit and eat while they wait for the cable car to return. Val takes a waterproof rug from her backpack, lays it on the grass. Nigel unpacks the rolls and thermos. He places two hardboiled eggs on a plastic plate, and unwraps a small packet of sliced ham. He unfolds a camping knife and sets to making up the lunch. Val no longer tries to argue the point about making or indeed buying sandwiches in advance. This is just one of Nigel’s little quirks. And it’s not so bad. She accepts a cup of coffee from him. In fact, she thinks, this is quite pleasant.
They have a great view of the island and even though it’s starting to mist over, it is still spectacular. Two rusty pylons straddle the sound. The single cable car dandles from thick intertwined cables. The swirl of sea below is dark and viscous. Round the coastline, black rocks jag upward lashed by white edged waves. Val squints her eyes and thinks she can make out a ruined building on the island.
“Is that a church do you think?”
Nigel chews quickly, and gulps a bit. “Oh, I believe so. I read somewhere it was …”
Val gazes back at the island, as Nigel’s words drift over her. She can’t see so much as a tree or a bush just dun coloured low grass. The only movement, the distant surge of sheep, looks like maggots from this side. Here the wind is loud even on this mild day as it funnels round the island dragging Atlantic air with it.
Nigel eats with abandon, clamping down on his ham roll, seemingly oblivious to everything but the sensation of teeth and tongue working together. He even hums as he eats. Val turns her head from the sight of the crumbs which land on his fleece.
He was always a messy eater. As a child he caused havoc at the table, spilling his drinks, sticking his elbows into his dinner, knocking over cereal boxes. Their father in particular could not hide his irritation, but Nigel seemed unaffected by it. Why did she always feel that tug of responsibility? Sympathy? Their parents seemed bothered, perhaps even embarrassed by him, by this evidence of their sexual life, born when they were in their late forties and Val already fifteen. They treated him like…like a curiosity? They seemed fearful of what he might say or do. Val was asked to “occupy your brother” whenever visitors called. On one occasion, Nigel waylaid a guest outside the bathroom and demonstrated the workings of the vacuum cleaner to him for at least half an hour. After that he was confined to his room for social evenings.
By the time Nigel was at college studying engineering, Val had been married and divorced. No children thank God. It was enough having Nigel during college breaks. And to think he’s still at college, a senior lecturer. She often thinks she should have discouraged him from becoming so dependent on her, but once their parents died, well it just seemed easier to go along with him. And between times, she had her own life. She kept busy. Her job kept her busy, too much so. Couples’ therapist. No shortage of clients there. God it was great to get away from it; the tedium of it, the unbelievable repetitiveness and inevitability of the problems they presented with, you’d swear they were the only ones in all the world. Why she could write the script for most marriages. Most ended the same way, like hers.
Val stretches out, shoves thoughts of work to the back of her mind and looks around her again, hears the waves, feels the furl of grass beneath her fingers. Grounds herself. She reaches for a small spiky yellow plant, bog asphodel. A little early she thinks, pleased with herself for recognising it without her guide book. Perhaps she could keep a wildflower journal. Most people never noticed what was right there in front of them, blooming before their very eyes. It’s just a question of opening yourself up to things, to paying attention.
A sheep stares at her as it trips past, its blue tattooed rear swaying, fastidious in its gait. Nigel has moved away and is looking at a sign beside a stile. Frowning now.
“Look Val, it says dogs have been shot here in the past.”
He pauses, staring at the words.
“Oh come on Nigel, it’s because stray dogs worry sheep.”
He glances at the retreating rear of the sheep.
Val shrugs, packs her things and waves her arm at him.
“Cable car is nearly back.”
Nigel slides the door across. There’s a screechy tinny sound, and then a whiff of cow smell or grass or…Val looks inside. Splodges of wet brown excrement cover the rusty floor. Two wooden benches on either side. She sits down while Nigel fumbles with the latch, a flimsy thing like you’d find on a cupboard. She curls her hands around the edge of the seat. Pasted to the wall is a yellowing sheet of paper. Psalm for Protection. And now she can see what is dangling on a length of twine from a hook beside the window. It’s a plastic bottle in the shape of the woman. The Virgin Mary she thinks, judging by the blue crown or bottle top. Quaint, really, these old superstitious ways.
The cable car lurches forward, the pulleys screeching above her. She feels a distinct swaying motion as it trundles out over the ocean. She glances again at the Psalm.
Nigel sits opposite, beaming.
“Mind if I open the window? I’d like to see how this works.”
“Yes I do mind Nigel, you’re rocking the damn thing.”
When she can bring herself to look again, the island seems to be moving toward her, ethereal in a light misty gauze. Nigel is looking at the floor, pointing.
“Look, there’s a hole.”
The metal is corroded, and through a gap the size of a fist she can make out the sea below. The perspective is odd, disorientating. She pushes herself back on the bench and clasps her hands together. Nigel brushes his hand on his shorts. His booted foot is tapping.
“What is it Nigel?” Val’s voice is querulous.
He looks out the window and plucks at his fleece.
“See, Val, the thing is, I’m, well, actually I’m getting married.”
And he’s smiling at her, beaming like he has handed her a precious gift. Val stares. Nigel, married. It simply wasn’t possible.
“She’s a post-grad student, from Duisberg…”
She just couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t imagine him with a love life, and certainly not a sex life.
“…Monika. I think you two will get on really well. She loves the outdoors as well and…”
Married. She’d actually thought of him as asexual, neither one thing nor the other. Has he had other relationships and not told her or is this his first at thirty-five?
“Val, what do you think?”
The cable car has reached the halfway point. The wind is loud now, rattling the metal, vibrating along the cable.
“Are you sure? It’s so sudden.”
He laughs now, a ripple of happiness. She feels it, like a lash.
“Oh, no, not sudden. We’ve worked together for over a year.”
The rusty pylon is moving toward her, filling the small window. The island slipping away behind it dimming in the swathe of mist.
“You’ll have to come with us now, share our holidays…”
The cable car cranks under the frame of the pylon and seems to hang there for a long time, creaking, while only the black jagged edge of the island is visible squatting beneath the cloud.
And then it lurches forward again.[/private]
About Laura McKenna
Laura McKenna, from Waterfall in Cork, has a Masters in Creative Writing from UCD. In 2012 she won the RTE Guide/Penguin short story prize, and was a runner-up in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen short story competition. Her poetry won the Edmund Spenser Poetry Prize in 2011, was shortlisted in the 2012 Fish Poetry competition and has been published in New Irish Writing in the Sunday Independent, and in The SHOp this year. Her novel Forfeit – set in Serbia during WW1 - was a winner in the 2013 Novel Fair competition at the Irish Writers Centre. She was awarded a Literature Bursary by the Arts Council in 2012.