I can barely make out Richard´s handwriting on the piece of torn paper.
“Second left” I say, looking down at the words. “After the farm…with eh, the eh, big stables.”
“I think we just passed it.” Richard says, looking behind him.
“Eyes on the road dude!” I shout. “Please!” I´d almost reached for the wheel. “After the farm. So, the second left. Not signposted. Look! There! There there there! Second left! Second left!”
Richard takes a glance at the rear-view mirror, indicates, decelerates, and turns off the winding, narrow country road.
“This is it,” I say, turning down the music.
“This might be it.” Richard says.
The boreen is a long tunnel of trees. Sunlight flickers through the thick leaves overhead, giving the passageway an intense golden-green glow. Stray branches and brambles tap, knock and scrape against the windshield, and drag against the worn-out body of the car, as we’re bumped and jolted gently in our seats. Richard is quiet, his forearms resting over the steering wheel, his fingers interlaced. We’ve been driving since morning, across the smooth new continuous sedation of the M7 motorway, from Dublin to Exit 27. But now, nearing the end of our journey, I’m becoming curious again as to where I´m being led.
Richard sits back and steers the car slowly from out under the trees and into a sunlit clearing. In front of us, behind a low, grey, moss-mottled stonewall, squats an old shrunken cottage, tucked up in welcoming silence. Richard turns the key in the ignition and the rattling engine shudders and shuts off with a sigh.
Once through its small front door, we begin to explore the dark little habitation. The air inside is cool, cavernous. Rough flagstones, slightly uneven, line the ground. Whitewashed stonewalls loom close in the wan daylight which struggles in through the deep-silled elfin windows. For some reason I was expecting a stifling humidity, a trapped reek of old country rot and neglect to greet us.
On the right is the kitchen. A deep white porcelain sink and dim countertops domesticated with wooden containers, a red kettle, a wooden bread-bin, a blue cup-rack, and a stainless steel dish drying rack. From the ceiling of an arching alcove hang a confusion of copper pots and pans over a blackened range. Ahead, at the far end of the room, stands an old round pine table and three pine chairs. Behind that, and in front of a larger day-lit window, is a red cushioned, two-seater couch and small mahogany coffee table. To either side of the couch, tall leafy plants, dark and evergreen, creep up out of the farthest corners, as though the trees outside had somehow broken in. On the left wall is a small black stove and, beside it, an empty wicker basket for firewood.
I follow Richard down the narrow hall that leads to two bedrooms, their open doors facing each other. In the smaller room I see a framed print of “Men of Destiny” hanging on the wall. Behind the last door, at the end of the hall, is an old grimy bathroom. I step around Richard and take a look inside. Its green-tiled gloom and old dirty white shower-curtain remind me of something out of a horror film.
“She must have had someone in to do the roof,” Richard says, walking back down the hall and looking up at the newly restored wooden beams.
“She keeps the place well, your aunt,” I say, following him. “I don’t know why I’m so surprised.”
“What you think?” Richard asks, looking around.
“I love it,” I say, “It’s perfect.”
Richard looks at me.
“Do you good to get out of Dublin anyway for a while,” he says. “Clear your head.”
“You have no idea, Man.” I say, looking at him. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“No worries,” he says, spinning his car-keys around on his finger. “Right. Let’s make this place our own.”
Out back, in what we could reclaim for a garden, after I´d sheared away some dead dried branches of a gooseberry bush and Richard had strimmed some of the long grass, we share a light lunch at a small wooden table, sitting on two loose wooden chairs.
It’s a fine spread. Various cured hams. Gorgonzola and Camembert cheese. Black pepper crackers. Green pitted olives. Sundried tomatoes. Crisp brown bread and a beetroot, grated carrot, broccoli and hazelnut salad for which Richard has whipped up his delicious honey mustard and Irish whiskey dressing. To top it all off, I´ve opened a none-too-chilled bottle of steely Chablis.
In the warm summer air, we take our time and eat slowly, swatting wasps and midges away from our food and from our faces. I’ve had to move my chair out of the sun and into the shade more than once. I don’t want to get burned. The garden surrounds us. The creeping brown briars. The exhausted trees and their shade. The tall dry grass. All so overgrown. So still. So dense. So close to us. This is true summer seclusion. I look around and enjoy a deep sense of peace. This is our place now, to do as we please, to idly rusticate in, undisturbed, for a week.
Richard is sitting back in his chair with his blue denim shirt open, sunning himself and chewing on a piece of bread. Under his straw hat he wears Aviator shades and with his Van Dyke goatee he is nothing if not the epitome of summertime cool. He smiles broadly at me and looks like he’s about to say something, or is thinking of saying something to me, but then just goes back to admiring his surroundings, leaning back on his chair. I drink my wine and listen to the insect hum in the grass, and in the trees all around me.
“You know what?” Richard says after a while.
“I found a bag of MDMA in these work shorts.”
“I think it must have been left-over from the barn-party in Kilkenny.”
“That was some night,” I say, reaching for my pouch of rolling tobacco, suddenly nervous and certainly thrilled on hearing that night now being finally brought up again.
I fumble with my rolling papers and with the tobacco. Part of me wonders if it´s true, if he’d really found it, or if he’d bought some especially for this trip in the hope of recreating something of that night, of that morning. Either way it’s welcome news. In fact, it’s exactly what I want to hear, what I’d been hoping for. I tap my rollie on the table, smiling, then light it up.
Settling back down into my own skin again, I feel at ease. Recomposed and in control. I look at Richard as he takes a drink of wine and rests the base of his glass on his flat brown stomach. Then, with a finger, he lowers his shades, looks at me from under an arched eye-brow and, in a mock paternalistic tone says,
“I was debating, you know, on whether or not I ought to tell you.”
“Well, you’ve blown that now haven’t you? And sure why wouldn’t you have told me?”
“You said that you wanted to get some work done down here.”
“So did you.”
“Ah, but that’s different.”
“How is that different?”
“Mine is just the monkey work. I don’t want to be a bad influence on you and, you know, hamper, or dampen, or darken even, your…” He searches dramatically, airily, with his free hand for the right word, “…your cogitations.”
“My cogitations? Or do you mean, my brooding contemplations?”
“Your country ruminations?”
“Oh, my rural cerebrations?”
“Well, you won’t. Besides, I don’t plan on writing much. I’ll be reading, mostly.”
“Mostly,” Richard says, smiling. “You brought enough books down with you anyways.”
“I always do. Usually too many,” I say. Then I add, with a smile, “I just don´t know what I want sometimes.”
Tapping the ash, I pass the rollie over the table to Richard.
“You still only writing the short ones?” he asks.
“Yup. And still only for myself and for the entertainment of my friends.”
Richard blows smoke in the direction of some midges.
“Too right. Nothing worse than a poet who publishes. So go on then. Give us one before we go back to work.”
“Alright. Do you want a happy one? A sad one? A funny one? Or a sexy one?”
I take my glass and raise it for a toast. Richard sits up, leans forward and raises his glass too. I can imagine that behind his sunglasses Richard has closed his eyes, cleared his mind and is making himself suitably receptive. Sitting up straight in my crockety chair, I look at him and say, in my smoothest voice.
“I find myself again, cast into the ancient gaol of love. But this time I´ll remember that the cell door is always open, and the guards are always drunk.”
“Beautiful” Richard says. “I was transported”
“I’m sure you were.” I say, smiling.
“I want more.”
“You’ll have to wait.”
“Well then, in the meantime,” Richard says, “Here’s to a poetical and festive week in the country.”
We clink glasses.
We clear the table, bringing our plates, glasses and bowls back inside. My eyes have to readjust to the sudden cottage darkness. Sun-dazzled, and a little drunk already from the heat and the white wine, I find that I´ve wandered off in the wrong direction and start laughing to myself, at how disorientated I am. This is a crazy little domicile I’ve found myself in. Blinking and stretching my eyes wide open, now I´m standing by the table. I look down at my stack of books, at my notebook and my pens, all neatly laid out. There will be time. Plenty of time. I can feel it building already. Some good work is going to get done.
Richard has plugged his phone into the speakers he’s brought and is playing a compilation of Italian Renaissance lute music. Its gracious simplicity fills the air around us with a homely sophistication. I put the two plates with my emptied wine glass down on the countertop and stand beside Richard at the sink. He washes. I dry. We listen to the music and fall into an easy rhythm. I notice that he’s even brought his own little bottle of organic washing-up liquid.
“Man, that wine is choice.”
“Goes down easy.” He says.
“Too easy.” I say, smiling. “So, time for a little daba-daba?”
“Ha! You dirty drug fiend. I have to get up into those trees now…”
“You doing that today?”
“Better to get it done now,” he says, looking out the window. “Then I can relax.”
“True,” I say. “Best to wait…To wait. To wait.” I add with a deep sigh. “Such exquisite restraint you display.”
“All the better to torture with, my dear.”
Richard smiles and hands me a rinsed wet plate and I come back to myself, dreamily, to the task at hand.
“Will I open another bottle or do you want a beer?”
“I think I’ll have a coffee,” He says, pulling the plug in the sink.
“I’ll make it for you,” I say. “You go out and get started.”
At the side of the cottage, I bring Richard his coffee. He points up at some low overhanging branches.
“These are the ones she wants me to cut back I’d say,” he says.
“How long will that take you?”
“´Bout half an hour or so. But there’s probably more to do around the place.”
“Well, I’m looking forward to helping out,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” says Richard, “There’ll be plenty to do.”
We step over the orange extension cable and Richard’s chainsaw, his clear-plastic goggles and his pair of old, dirty, heavy work gloves.
“Bringing the hammocks was a great idea,” I say.
“It was, wasn’t it?” He says, grinning. “We’ll put them up later. One there…and one…over there. If you could strim some more between those two trees that’d great.”
“Yeah. No worries.”
“And I was thinking of digging a little fire pit too, over there, for later on. If the nights are going to be as nice as they say, might as well stay outside for as long as we can.”
“When was the last time you lay out in the night and looked up at the stars?” Richard asks.
“I can´t remember,” I say. “There was even a time there when I couldn´t look up at them for long. Sometimes, I don´t know, it was just too immense. I´d get the fear, and have to look away.”
At the rear of the cottage near a little back-gate we stop at a gap in the boundary trees. I look down over a field of high, lush green grass. Shielding my eyes from the sun I see the hazy banks of a river, more fields, other country houses, and mountains far in the distance.
“We’re not too far from Ardnacrusha, are we?”
“No,” Richard says, lighting a rollie, “It’s a few miles down to the right there.”
“We should go for a walk then later, if you want?”
“Sounds good,” Richard says. “I’ll get cutting.”
On a narrow pathway, along the bank of the river, we walk in the direction of Ardnacrusha, passing my hipflask of whiskey back and forth. The calm country scenery, the cooler evening air and the sound of gravel pleasurably crunching underfoot mellows my thoughts. Up ahead, Ardnacrusha Bridge arches over the river. Nearing sun-down, the shadow of the bridge ripples on the orange and purple water.
“So you’re serious…about leaving your studio in Callan, and never painting again? Say it ain´t so, Man.”
“Well yeah, that´s the idea.”
“Just had enough?” I ask, passing the flask back to him.
“You saw the last work.”
“I did. And I really liked it. Very zen. One fluid movement across the canvas. I always thought it looked like a tusk. You sold a few too.”
“Not good enough I´m afraid. No, it´ll never leave me, but I need to take a step back. Or a step forward. I need to get out, get moving again.”
“Where you thinking?”
“The Camino first. Then maybe Mexico, for a while. Bring my ukulele.”
“And write some songs?”
“Write some songs and find my way. At the moment I think I´m being drawn to horticulture.”
“Really? That actually makes a lot of sense,” I say, taking the flask back from Richard.
“Yeah,” Richard says, “I think so too. Tend a garden and…”
But I’ve noticed something up ahead. The diminutive form of someone standing up on the bridge. I pocket the flask and gaze on, thoughtlessly, not even wondering until, suddenly, that same body falls clear from the bridge and splashes into the water. I stop and grab Richard by the arm.
“Did you see that?”
“Did someone fall in?”
“I don´t know, Man. Either fell in or jumped.”
Without another word Richard starts to run ahead. I keep my eyes on the water and watch as an arm, then a head, comes up to the surface, and disappears again. On the bank of the river Richard begins rapidly undressing: shirt off, boots off, jeans off, socks off. He looks back at me, desperate for some sign of warning or encouragement. But I’m dumb-struck. Helpless.
I stand back and watch as Richard dives into the water. Gathering up Richard’s still warm clothes, I hold them close to me, and keep my eyes on him as he swims out and dives under. Coming back up, he looks around, and dives back down again. Each time he disappears, I hear myself mumbling,
“He’ll be ok. He’ll be ok. Come on. He’ll be ok.”
I walk backwards to keep up with the displacements of the current. From the river bank all I can to do is focus on maintaining a line of living endurance between myself and Richard. Somehow, through my undivided attention, a fierce observance, I feel that I can transfer all my available energy and strength to him. That this will keep him safe. That this connection will keep him alive.
Thrashing the water Richard struggles back to the riverbank, pulling the still body of a boy, a teenager, behind him. At the water’s edge I bend forward and grab hold of Richard. Once he’s up on the bank, I reach out and get a hold of the boy, grabbing him under an arm. I pull and drag him, with Richard’s help, up and out of the cold water. Richard collapses on the grass and turns on to his back. Grunting and gasping for air, he covers his face with his arms and struggles to speak.
“He…He’s got something…in his pockets…weighing him down…”
But before I can gather my thoughts Richard rolls off his back and gets himself up onto his knees. He leans down over the kid, tilts his head back and blows into the boy’s mouth. Richard stops, gasps, listens, and looks down. Nothing.
Again he blows again into the boy’s mouth and I watch, horrified, as that chest rises and falls under his soaked, black t-shirt. Nothing. I turn away. All I see is the rushing, swirling brown surface of the river, and all I can think is that there must be more bodies in there, more bodies like this one, lost in those damnable depths, helplessly flowing by.
A sharp and sudden intake of breath from the boy’s mouth startles me. Richard falls backwards onto his hands. We both watch as the boy’s body spasms and contracts on the grass. His eyes open wide as his pale hands clench and tear at the grass. He coughs and gasps painfully for air as dirty greenish rills of foul river-slime runs down the sides of his mouth.
On our way back to the cottage nobody says a word. We trod through a field, having forgotten to take the easier pathway back to the cottage. Richard strides through the waist-high grass with all of his reach and strength, and still only in his boots and wet underwear, determined to get away from that river as fast as he can.
The boy staggers behind me as though drunk. Lost to his surroundings. From the corner of my eye, I think I see him dropping stones out of his pockets. I think I hear them falling to the ground, one by one. I look his way but his head is down, staring into the grass. Mesmerized. Twice the boy snaps out of it to look up and take notice of where he is. I hear him gulp and catch his breath.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
But the kid says nothing.
Our cottage appears up ahead from behind the cluster of trees. Up beside the chimneypot is a rusty TV aerial and a warped weathervane leaning silhouetted against the clouds in a fading purple and orange sky. Richard opens the barely hinged back-gate and the kid follows us around the side of the cottage. We enter through the small front door, one by one.
The kitchen and living room smell of cool country evening air, coffee, and freshly cut firewood. Richard’s shaking, and without saying a word, walks down the hall and into the bathroom. Still holding Richard´s clothes, I pour a glass of water from the sink tap and put it down on the table for the boy. I ask him to sit, and he sits.
“I’m Stephen.” I say. “And that’s Richard. What’s your name?”
Sitting there in front of me, silent and stunned, he’s a rudely revived corpse shivering in his dripping clothes. Around his plain grey canvas runners, strands of slimy green river weed are still coiled. I try not to stare but can’t take my eyes off his narrow, mean-looking face. His long, thin arms are pale and his short dark hair is flattened to his head. He can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen.
“You should have a shower when Richard gets back.”
A long silence passes between us before he says anything.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m here,” he says.
“Don’t call anyone.”
“Swear?” He says.
“I swear. What’s your name?” I ask again.
“Daniel.” He says, looking at the glass of water on the table. “My name is Daniel.”
Richard returns in a long grey woollen jumper, fresh jeans, and in his bare feet. He hands Daniel two big fluffy grey towels and walks him down to the bathroom.
“There´s hot water,” I hear Richard say. “Try and get warm.”
Daniel closes the door.
Without looking at me, Richard goes into his bedroom and shuts his door. I go and sit down at the table and place Richard’s clothes on the seat beside me. I take my hip-flask from my back pocket and I drink from it. But the whiskey doesn’t taste right. It’s watery. Silty. I put my pouch of tobacco, filters and lighter on the table and just sit there, looking at them, without appetite, but it’s not even the pouch of tobacco that I see.
All I see is Daniel, standing in his clothes under the hot shower, waiting to feel warm again. Then peeling off his wet clothes, like layers of a painless, un-protective skin. Runners. T-shirt. Socks. Jeans and underpants. Drenched, they fall and slop to the floor. Heavy. Sodden. And sad. I see him sitting down in the bath, under the showerhead, in the steam, his eyes closed. A tiny dot of darkness, peaceful and unthinking. And warm. Warm for a while at least. Until the water starts to run cold.
In the living room candles are lit and pots of food simmer on the kitchen’s range. A fire rages silently in the stove. The mahogany table, on which Daniel´s clothes have been laid out to dry, has been pushed closer to the fire. Richard and I are busying around each other, almost as though we’re putting on a little show of domesticity for Daniel, who sits quietly at the table, in warm borrowed clothes.
Richard opens a bottle of red wine while I lay out three plates. We’ve insisted he eat with us. There is no talk about today. Nothing. Richard pours wine as I spoon out steaming pasta shells and meatballs. Passing an aromatic roll of garlic bread around, I feel that me and Richard are doing our best, our utmost, almost telepathically, to make Daniel feel included and welcome at our table.
Instinctively, I go to raise my glass for a toast but correct myself, and cover it, by just taking a small sip.
“Tuck in.” says Richard. “Its good. It’s warm.”
We all eat slowly. Small mouthfuls. We try to eat. There’s warmth and healing goodness in the food but there seems to be no real depth to our hunger. Still, we persist in silence. Shadows flicker close around us on flame-lit walls. Daniel´s shadow flits and frets on the wall behind him. When he burps, I think I get a phantom, silty taste of muddy water in my mouth. Daniel pushes the food around on his plate, then cuts a meatball into small manageable bites. Richard nods and sighs as though talking to himself in his head.
After chewing on a piece of sauce-soaked bread for what seems like a very, very long time, Daniel coughs, clears his throat and looks up at me, then at Richard. In a soft, hesitant voice he asks,
“Ye both…ye both from here?”
“No,” I say, and clear my throat. “No. I’m from Sligo originally, but I live in Dublin now and Richard’s from Kilkenny.”
Daniel nods and looks down at his plate.
“Are you from Clare?” I ask.
“Oh right. Where abouts?”
“My aunt owns this place,” Richard says finally. His voice is distant, as if it were coming from somewhere behind him.
“We thought we’d just come down and do some work around the place,” I say, “Help out his aunt, you know?”
“Just the two of ye?” Daniel asks.
Daniel looks at Richard, then at me. I feel like he’s going to say something –
“Would you like more sauce?” Richard asks, moving the ladle around in the pot. “There’s some left.” “No.” Daniel says, pushing his plate away from him. “I want to go home.”
“We’ll take you home after this,” I say. “Please. Try and eat something.”
Attempting to lead by example, I try to eat but have to stop after a few mouthfuls. I sit back in my chair and turn my wine glass around by its stem, observing the marks left by my lips and the tiny bits of food on the rim. I’m unable to look at Daniel directly. I can’t watch him go through those mechanical movements of eating all alone. A density, of something incommunicable, hangs around him. It´s emanating from him. He saw nothing down there, in the murky underwater. No premonitory flashes or flickers of an afterlife. Nothing in those last moments but the shock of it, and the struggle against it. A last taste of terror before release. I watch as my wine glass becomes misty. Candle light flares into golden, watery shards. I turn my face from the table and discreetly wipe the welled tears from my eyes.
We drive in the direction of Castleconnell in silence. It’s late, but not so late that Daniel’s parents might be worried. In the back seat Daniel sits in his own damp clothes.
“You should make up something about today,” I say to him. “Say that you went out to Ardnacrusha for a swim. And eh, a group of lads or something threw your bag of clothes into the river and you had to swim out after them, to get them, you know, and you nearly drowned. And that’s why, if they say you look shook, that that’s why you look shook, you know?”
“And you just went to a friend’s house then, afterwards,” Richard says, looking back at him in the rear-view mirror, “To shower and to calm down or something. But now you’re home. Safe and sound. And everything´s ok.”
I turn around and look back at Daniel.
“You know what we mean? Like a cover story.”
“I know,” he says.
“Practice it in your head for a while,” Richard says. “Convince yourself that it’s real.”
We park outside Daniel’s house, a huge, warm-looking, many-windowed Bed and Breakfast just off Station Road. Cars pass by on the road beside us, their headlights shining in on us intermittently. I think about giving Daniel my number, but I don’t know how much more I can help. Then it just seems like a bad idea. Richard turns in his seat and looks back at Daniel.
“You alright?” He asks.
“Yeah.” Daniel says.
But he just sits there. Waiting. Part of me is expecting him to say sorry to Richard, or to the both of us. Part of me is expecting him to say thanks. Part of me is expecting him to break down crying and part of me is expecting him to go absolutely ape-shit now. To start kicking and punching the back of my seat and screaming. Screaming that we tried to abduct him or kidnap him or…But he just sits there. Waiting.
After a while he opens the door, gets out and slams it shut behind him. He doesn’t turn around, or say anything, once he is out of the car. We just sit there and watch him as he walks over the cow rail and makes his way up to his house.
“What’s the name of the B&B?” Richard asks, taking out his phone.
“Glenville B&B,” I say. “Why?”
“´Cos we’re coming back here tomorrow. Or calling them.”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”
But I don’t say anything. I’m watching Daniel as he walks up the long, steep driveway to his home. All I can think about now is what it’ll be like for him when, after he rings the bell and waits in the cold, well-lit archway for his mother or father or brother or sister to come to the front door, and they see him standing there, pale and shivering and alone. They won’t even have to look in to his eyes to know. Daniel. It’s Daniel. Something has happened to him.