From the back catalogue: desperate and insignificant men in the West of the Ireland.
Having watched ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ the other night, I thought I'd re-post this short story, which also features some desperate, maudlin men who are confronted by their own insignificance.
[Quick preamble for readers: A long time ago, after she read the Seamus Heaney poem ‘Postscript’, my mother, sitting in the family kitchen in Dublin, remarked that we’d all collectively spent hundreds of hours on the Flaggy Shore in County Clare (as very close friends lived in New Quay) yet none of us had ever lifted a pen and tried (even vainly) to capture the modest magic of the place. She was impressed (awestruck even – it’s a pretty good poem, like), not jealous or bitter. But her initial wonderment planted a seed – maybe there was (or could be) an envious local who resented an outsider immortalising, in verse, a geographical place that was, hitherto, not on anyone’s map. Maybe there was (or could be) someone who thought ‘that bollocks – sure he didn’t even get out of his car!’ So, back in 2002/2003, while living in Hanoi, I wrote this piece of satire, which was first published by Barcelona Review and later anthologised by some nice folk in Australia (the below version was rewritten a few years later). Now, it’ll read quite differently to anyone who is only familiar with my Vietnam stories, but hopefully that won’t put too many of you off, and for anyone who is familiar with the Flaggy Shore in County Clare, the story is not based on any kind of reality, and set in an entirely invented place with an entirely imagined community.]
The tide was half-way out the day he pulled up in his Vauxhall Viva and lingered by the shore. A few of us were down by the water, skimming stones into the Atlantic, or simply dreaming of women in faraway places. We’d heard his car coming before we saw it. We turned our heads to see it slowing to a halt. Then we turned the rest of our bodies around to see him clambering out. What’s this fella up to? We didn’t trust him from the start. I swear we didn’t. Most folk don’t take this coast road and few stopped to take the air, and why would you, when the sea is mostly dull and grey, and the wind promises nothing but a spiteful change of weather. So, we eyeballed him warily, even if he didn’t do much at first. He just shoved his hands into his trench coat pockets, and stood there, happily buffeted by the elements.
But then, as if following a curious scent he caught on a breeze, he ambled down onto the shore. What’s this fella up to? He kicked his way through the seaweed and nameless debris, picking up the odd rock or shell and staring at them as if he’d found a nugget of pure gold. From time to time he closed his eyes, as if he were listening to the wind whisper secrets, secrets that we ought to know for ourselves. As he passed by, not too far from us, we noticed he had a regal air about him in spite of his fairly agricultural head. His cheeks were flushed from the wind and/or the drink. He had a tousled mop of greying hair and an unruly pair of meat-chops on his cheeks. He sported superior looking tweedy clothes, but nothing too outlandish. It was when he pulled out a red jotter from his coat pocket and started scribbling something down that we should have stepped forward and had a word. Just to put a bit of the fear in him, send him scuttling back to his car and out of our lives forever.
The youngest lads among us had more innocent thoughts and after losing interest in him, they went back to skimming stones. As they released each stone they shouted the names of faraway places: “The US of A!”, “Hawaii!”, “Atlantis!” The stranger was standing close to us now, and we saw that he heard this. The corners of his mouth curled upward. His head tilted downward. The jotter was then reopened and he scribbled some more. What’s this fella up to, like? Then, as if remembering he had somewhere else to be, he wheeled around on his heels and tramped back to his Vauxhall Viva. Back on the road, we saw him encountering Mickey Clancy, a wizened old fella now dependent on a cane. They exchanged greetings and started to converse, warmly it must be said, while leaning into a wind that threatened to blow Clancy down the road. The stranger must have been asking questions as Clancy pointed this way and that. In turn, the stranger seemed grateful. He shook Clancy’s hand with vigour and then clambered back into his car. There he sat for a few minutes more, I’ll give him that. Perhaps as many as five minutes passed. Let that be on record. When he started up his motor, we turned our backs to the road, and soon the stranger was both gone and forgotten.
After that, well, time trundled along and days strung themselves together as they tend to do. Sometimes the worst of the rain came before and after the dinner, sometimes before and after the tea, but to use the term ‘rain’ is ignorant enough. As old Jackie Murphy has often proclaimed over pints at night: “Eskimos have forty words for snow, but sure we fair folk must have a hundred and one for the way it rains.” So it could have been piddling, drizzling, or spitting. Or it could have been lashing, bucketing, pelting or pissing down. At its best it’d be soft. At its worst it’d be manky, filthy or rotten. And if accompanied by a belter of a wind, it could be driving, hooring, or coming at you sideways. Even when it wasn’t raining, you’d hear someone say, “Sure doesn’t it want to rain.” And it always did.
Then, on a day when the precipitation was so fine that you could barely see it but somehow you ended up soaked down to your y-fronts (we call that ‘wet rain’) and when the tide was right in by the road, most of us were snuggling up to a pint in Patsy Lynch’s bar and old man O’Dea reassured us: “On a day like that, you’re in the right place.” We were raising a glass and drinking to that when the bauld Derek Dooley came barging through the door – right shoulder first, bucket-shaped head second, left shoulder third – gasping for a smoke and a pint of the good stuff. When he had composed himself with a couple of puffs and a healthy slurp, he explained he’d just come back from the city where he’d struck up a conversation “with a woman.”
Somebody cheered, someone else congratulated him; another told him he reeked of it. There was much approval all around. “No, no – there was none of that. We were just chatting, like, and when I told her where I came from she put her hand on my knee…” We looked around in a state of confusion – someone told Derek Dooley that if he didn’t realise she was after the ride, he was a bigger fucking gobshite than he looked.
“No, honestly, she just wanted to chat. She said, ‘Well if that’s where you’re from, you must have read Proinsias O’Madáin’s poem The Splurgy Shore, it’s inspired by the shore right next to your home’.”
This was a lot of strange, perplexing information all at once. We leaned back and searched for a knowing look amongst the bar but not a soul had a notion of what he was on about. It took Derek Dooley the best part of a quickly gulped pint to get the message across that a poem had been written about the shore (our shore) by a man named Proinsias O’Madáin. Those of us who’d be on the shore that day instantly put two and two together, and after everything had been explained to those who hadn’t seen the stranger and his jotter, old man O’Dea cut to the chase: “So what’s the sneaky bollocks written then?”
Derek Dooley rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a notebook, in which he had the poem (the city woman had memorised it by heart and written it all down for him). He passed it to O’Dea who held it at arm’s length. He looked over his spectacles and down his speckled nose and read out a line: “You might pause a moment to stop while driving along this splurgy Shore…” We all scoffed, and someone snorted, “A moment? Is that all we’re good for?”, “Splurgy!? What the feck does that mean?” The notebook was then passed on from person to person and more lines were read aloud: “The weather conceals its next identity…”, “The elderly locals hide indoors from the buffeting breeze…”, “Only the young brave the shore…”, “Facing the ocean, a stone is skimmed and a wishful destination is summoned…”, “For little does keep the young folk’s hearts here…”
It went on (not that long, to be fair) but we’d heard enough. We were infuriated, even if some of us weren’t quite sure what any of it meant, but whether it was good or bad, the point was this: who gave that shite-hawk the right to drive out here and write a poem about our shore? How could anyone write a poem about anywhere, if they only paused for a moment? And seriously, what the fuck does ‘splurgy’ even mean?
“Sure, I saw him that day – he didn’t even get out of his car,” muttered someone.
“No, in fairness he did, but only to take a piss,” shouted another.
“Even if he was here for 10 minutes, what gives him the right to write for posterity?”
“Fucking charlatan…”, “Fucking chancer…”, “Fucking fucker…”
We soon found out more about the stranger. A mini-biography feature Derek Dooley salvaged from a Sunday magazine in Galway spoke of the poet’s down-to-earth wisdom and rural roots in spite of his scholarly credentials. He wrote with “mud in his nails”, the magazine proclaimed; he was the pride of rural communities, we were told; he was our country’s unofficial poet laureate, we were assured, and yet a humble man of the people. It all sounded like bollocks to the likes of us. But not everyone was in a foul humour about the shore’s newfound fame. Patsy Lynch senior wondered out loud should he spruce his pub up for any poetry-reading-tourists that might soon be turning up. When somebody explained that poetry didn’t have that sort of pulling power, Patsy’s face crinkled in confusion.
The rest of us tried to forget we’d ever heard of the poet and toddled on with our lives as best we could. But something had changed. There was a restlessness in the air and even the young ones felt strange and self-conscious when skimming stones. Now when we thought of faraway places, we imagined the people in such places pitied us, knowing there was nothing for us to do.
The odd time a car took the coast road and slowed to a halt, we’d leer threateningly as if to say, don’t even think of clambering out and cozying up to our sea breeze. But then, when they didn’t get out, we’d curse them.
Then, on an afternoon when big gobs of rain were splattering the windows of Lynch’s, big burly Derek Dooley burst through the door – right shoulder first, bucket head second, left shoulder third – and when he finally caught his breath, he said, “You won’t fucking believe what I just heard…”
We leaned forward, once again anticipating a smutty tale from the city – this time, surely he must have got the ride. “That poet Proinsias Whatshisface is coming back here… to live,” he said, pulling out a folded paper from his duffel coat’s pocket. “It says somewhere in here that he’s finishing up a collection of poetry and he believes that there’s something about this shore that…” Dooley scanned the article to read out these mystifying words: “‘Stirs his lyrical soul’.”
Derek passed the paper to O’Dea, who summarised the rest of the article in a grave voice, as if we were all now surely doomed, “He’s going to stay here for an indefinite period. Apparently he’s renting a house…”
We swivelled on our stools to stare at old Ned Considine, the proprietor of the only nearby house available for rent. He sat on the far side of the bar, legs crossed, cigarette burning in the ashtray, his eyes dancing from side to side as if contemplating whether he should take a sip from his pint or alternatively his wife’s hot port.
“What are you letting that shady fucker stay here for?” someone growled.
“What am I supposed to do?” Considine scowled. “Am I supposed to refuse good money?”
Nobody had an answer to that but we still felt betrayed. How could he not breathe a word to us? We never trusted that poet fella from the start. Considine knocked his drink back and prepared to make his exit but he couldn’t resist having a pop at us as he stood by the door.
“Yiz might just learn something from this fella, you know,” he said. “Look at the state of yiz – a pack of good-for-nothings and bowsies, who’ll be remembered for nothing.”
There was no warm welcome for the poet. Truth be told, we barely noticed him. He kept himself to himself in his rented house, save for the odd evening stroll he took to consume and digest the poesy-powering magic of the shore. On occasion, we’d see him in the distance and watch him taking in the air, no doubt mulling over his day’s thievery. He never lingered for long. Every time he’d suddenly wheel on his heels and head back to the house, back to his jotters and his typewriter; back to forging his immortality, cementing his place in history, back to claiming ownership of our shore, which we were already convinced could not be mentioned anywhere in the world without someone talking about the “Great Proinsias O’Madáin and his poem the Splurgy Shore.” We’d shake our heads at the thought of this and stroll to the pub, muttering nothing but contemptuous things.
Despite his designs on immortality, he was human and had to eat. We’d got wind that he’d been into Halloran’s grocery store to purchase the necessaries – “tins of beans, bread, eggs, bacon, spuds, cabbage, teabags, crackers and cheese, that sort of stuff,” said Tommy Halloran with a shrug in the pub. “Nothing out of the ordinary, although in fairness we don’t stock anything out of the ordinary.”
We didn’t distrust him any less, in spite of his man-of-the-people-diet. We wanted to know if he talked much, and if he did, what did he talk about…
“Mostly we just chat about the weather.”
What did he say of it?
“That it’s true that there’s a hundred and one ways of describing the weather around these shores.”
Who told him that? We all looked around accusingly. There were clearly traitors in our midst disclosing localisms. Questions would have to be asked.
“He’s quite a charming man, I have to say,” added Tommy Halloran.
We eyeballed him with disgust. “Fraternising with the enemy,” someone grumbled.
Those of us who hadn’t been hoodwinked into liking this chancer started to resent the lack of gossip, or at least peculiarity, about him, but that didn’t stop us speculating.
“He’s a hermit… there’s something that’s odd about that.”
“A man of that age with no dependents, driving from town to town…”
“You’d have to wonder what else he gets up to…”
“Well, I think he’s rather handsome, and alluring …”
That last voice came from the far side of the bar. It was Nuala Moloney, sitting amongst a motley crew of mother hens and womenfolk.
“Alluring?” one of us repeated, and it sounded even odder when repeated, possibly as the word had never been uttered in public. There was something else about the way she spoke. The whole sentence had a vague dreaminess about it – alarm bells were ringing at the sound of it all.
“What the fuck Nuala… don’t tell me you’ve fallen for that old bollocks?” someone howled.
“Yes, there’s something sweet to his modest manner,” she said.
“Mrs. O’Mahony says he’s a gentleman and a half,” aded her friend.
“Girls, come on t’fuck – he’s an absolute chancer.”
“And be careful, he might be after something he didn’t bring with him.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“That’s human nature.”
“I reckon he’s quite the catch.”
“Oh, this is just the fucking icing on the cake,” young Davy O’Dea wailed. “He’s stolen the poetic rights to our shore and come back to rub our faces in it and now he’s sweeping the womenfolk right off their clunky feet!”
“Well, we’re here for the sweeping!”
“Don’t be desperate.”
“Desperate? A successful award-winning, acclaimed poet, his veins throbbing with romance as opposed to you lot – useless layabout louts and maudlin men!”
And just like that, a schism was formed. He was the Almighty Bard and we were good for nothing. Husband’s now came home to ‘dinner’s in the fridge’, if there was a dinner at all. The poet was untouchable and destined for anthologies and history books whereas we would not even be worthy of footnotes. Our lives would be acknowledged solely by a sporadic State census. We loathed him now more than ever. We eyed him with vicious intent when we saw him on the road but he was oblivious. Heaping salt onto our wounds, we noticed how some of the local women were even stopping by his house with some bread, berries, and the odd apple crumble. It wasn’t a big stretch of imagination for us to think he would soon be riding the arse off someone’s wife or sister. In the pub, we could overhear women analysing his poems – someone had picked up a few of his collections on a trip to the city. It did not escape the men’s attention that some women were walking along the shore with their hair down and at a slower pace than usual. The men didn’t bother to shave and drank even more. If this was a civil war, it was one we were losing. It could not go on. It would not go on.
It went on. For some weeks. And maybe we’d nearly resigned ourselves to it all. But then on a rare clear-skied night with the moon on the wane, the men were all downing pints in Lynch’s when the door swung open and who should stride in but the great bard himself, that poesy-thieving scoundrel.
“A pint of the good stuff when you’re right, please,” he said with a warm grin, oblivious to any animosity that thickened the air.
We were desperate to act naturally, but conversation floundered. The sound of a pint being poured seemed louder than usual. The poet stood by the bar looking like he wasn’t afraid of striking up a conversation, if anyone was game, but still nobody spoke as his pint settled, and he smiled, as if to say, don’t be shy, I won’t bite…
Lynch the junior placed the drink before him and slipped away before he might be hoodwinked into any sort of banter. So the poet looked around to see Nuala Moloney and all members of her coterie waving at him and gesturing to an empty stool beside them. He smiled as he made his way over and bowed as if the honour of sitting with these country women were all his. As soon as he sat down, our heads dropped. The womenfolk took turns showering him with compliments for what seemed like an eternity. His poetry had inspired a number of them to write their own. Would he be so kind, they implored, to share some of his wisdom. The poet was only too happy to oblige, and when he spoke, the womenfolk arched their backs, leaned forward and gazed longingly. It pained us to hear that spoke with a delicate lilt and with a warm, dulcet tone. It was the kind of voice that would make some folk want to stroke their wireless while listening to a radio play. A few of us might have harboured a faint hope that he’d bore the women with highfalutin poetry talk but soon there was nothing but laughter and shrieks of delight as he worked his magic. The men sat in impotent despair. The women gushed and giggled. What could we do but drink and smoke and smoke and drink? But some of the old fellas among us had seen and heard enough. Their mutterings soon took on a rhythm and a meaning of their own. “That fecker has overstayed his welcome if you ask me.”, “He probably finished his poems weeks ago – he’s fishing for something.”, “Up to no good.”, “Making us look like a pack of gobshites.”, “It’s time he packed his bags.”, “Might need some help with that.”, “Some gentle persuasion.” , “Someone could have a wee word in his shell.”, “Set a few things straight.” , “You’d have to be careful.”, “He’d try and outsmart you.”, “Invite you for a drink or two.”, “Wheedle his way into your affection.”, “Best be a blunt dialogue.”, “A straightforward imperative”, “Tell him to pack his bags.” , “Or they’ll be packed for him.”, “Should be someone with a bit of size to him.”, “Someone unafraid to scare the bejesus out of him.”, “One of these fine young fellas.”, “One of ye could put the fear in him.”, “Something must be done.”
The old fellas finished their drinks one by one and for the first time in history they left before their wives and daughters. Some patted me on the back and tipped me a wink as they left. They said nothing. But I knew that I had got the nod. I soon left with the rest of the lads but outside I would wait and wait for the poet to emerge. The ladies trickled away making him the last man in there, but eventually Lynches senior and junior closed up the bar and out he came, tottering off in a meandering line, having enjoyed a few whiskies too many. I followed him, matching his pace. When he stopped, I stopped. After he stepped down onto the rocky shore, I stepped onto the rocky shore. When he picked up a stone in his hand, I picked up a stone in my hand. He tried to skim the stone he picked up, and cried, “To Atlantis!” When the stone plopped once, and once only, he laughed and tried again. He skimmed a few more stones (without success) before he noticed me to his left. “Oh, are you here to challenge me to a skimming contest, boyo?” The stone in my hand was too big to skim.
“Did you ever think, on a night like this, you can see thousands of stars that died long ago but yet we can still see them here on earth tonight,” he said, inviting me to look up to the furthest of faraway places.
“Even their fading light will outlive us,” he added.
As he peered deep into the universe, I slowly raised my hand and struck the back of his head with the stone. His body slumped silently to the ground without a fuss, stone cold, not stone dead. From there, I acted quickly. I pulled off my boots and stripped off whatever clothes I didn’t need then I waded out to one of the moored boats dragging his body along. I turfed him in and then I rowed out as far as I dared to go. After tipping the body into the ocean, I jumped in myself, and overturned the boat. Then swam back to the coast, where I gathered my belongings and scurried all the way home.
So here I am, my heart beating out of my chest, hammering out these words with a pen and some paper. For posterity? No, only as a confession, if one is needed. People will come looking for him. Relatives, police, reporters. They will all have questions. Others here will say what they know. He had been one of the last to leave the pub, well past closing time. Lynches senior and junior will say they saw him walk in the direction of the shore, four sheets to the wind after umpteen drinks. Someone else will point out that Mickey O’Mahony’s boat had gone missing that very night. People would speculate the poet had made a mad drunken decision and rowed out to sea. The police will look, and fish, for a while. We’ll even help. There’s a fair chance nothing will be recovered, if the currents and tide are in my favour, but even if his body turns up, the story will stick. The coroner’s report will confirm that he drowned and people will be left arguing whether it was suicide or death by misadventure. We’ll tell everyone who asks that he was a kind-hearted man who kept to himself most of the time, adding that he must have been fierce lonely – and wasn’t a little too fond of the drink? Eventually, life will return to normal. We’ll drink our drinks and the women will settle for our meagre passions. Life will be nothing more, nothing less.
Every now and then, a car will slow to a halt and someone will linger. Maybe they’ll clamber out of the car in a brightly coloured raincoat to soak it all up, whatever it is. Perhaps some arts council busy bodies from the city will make a proposal to commission a sculpture of the poet by the ‘Splurgy Shore’. Imagine – a chiselled, bronze statue of that chancer, forever soaking up all the elements and poesy that the shore has to give. We’ll surely see that for what it is. A last-dash attempt at immortality from beyond the grave. Over our dead bodies! And sure, maybe there’ll be a whisper or two in his academic circles that perhaps his death was no accident. Close friends will tell whoever wants to listen that the poet never went out on a limb like that. Something just didn’t add up. For months, if not years, they’ll claim the police didn’t do enough, that there were too many questions left unanswered, and sure then I’ll be a little mystery lurking in the footnotes of history, and that’s more than enough for me.
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