In the market yesterday I picked up some cod cheeks and octopus and forgot to put them in the fridge. That’s what I thought when I woke. Could I smell it? The fan was still whirring in the corner. I could hear the ribbons flicking like tentacles as it turned. The last tenant had attached them to the grill. I stared into the shuttered dark. Yes, I could smell it. To get up now and secure it in the cool, or turn and think it dream and sleep again.
I woke again to the sound of the shower upstairs, then, sometime later, Azalea from upstairs going out to work, her boots pounding across her floor, her door pulled shut, her boots again on the stairs, then the door to the apartment block singing on its hinges, the echo in the stairwell as the lock clunked. It must be 8am, if she’s on time. She’d be skipping across to her little Clio, tearing up the street to get on the road into Victoria. The sun was coming through where the shutters don’t quite meet. It already felt like thirty degrees. I’d slept naked under the sheet, which had become balled up at the bottom of the bed. I reached forward and pulled it towards me, and up over my head, and closed my eyes. But it was too late. I was awake.
Straight for the shower. That’s for the best. I cranked the handle and let the cold water fall on my thin hair and down my back. My eyes were closed. Was I still asleep? Almost immediately my bladder released a long, lovely stream down my leg. I held my cock and aimed in what I thought was the direction of the plug hole. I could hear the piss gurgling down the drain. I could feel myself beginning to smile, the relief of this, the pleasure of a full-blooded piss, my cock a little firm. How many beers had it been? And spirits too? I realised I couldn’t remember the walk up the hill from the beach. But it had been fun. There had been a lot of laughter. George’s son Luis had played his guitar after hours of goading. He’d looked beautiful with the moon behind him on the water, on his high stool at the edge of the terrace.
I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my waist and went through the bedroom into the kitchen. The fish was in the fridge, the pink suckers pressing like veiled eyes against the plastic bag. What time had I put it in there? I pictured it sitting on a chair next to me at George’s. I took out some tomatoes and sliced them on the countertop while the kettle boiled, then went out onto the balcony. It was only about a metre deep and a couple wide. Most people in the block used it for storing mops and buckets and hanging out a few towels, but I’d fitted a small table against the railing and there was just enough room to bring a chair from the kitchen, so I could sit and write in the sun, the racket of the cicadas knocking their knees in the dry field opposite. Every so often a car or van would roar past and curve up the road behind the huge statue of Christ that looked down on the town. I sat and drank my coffee and forked a few slices of tomato into my mouth. I was sweating already, itching under the arms.
I considered going back to bed. Take some pills and get under the sheet. Or go straight to the beach, swim to the lighthouse and back. But I had an article about the new brace of Maltese poets to complete for the Irish Times and a short piece about last week’s gay pride in Valletta. I watched a farmer bringing a small flock of sheep over the stubbled field. The tomatoes were hitting my stomach. I went back into the dark apartment, almost slipping on the tiles as I headed towards the bathroom. But the queasiness stopped. It would pass. Just breathe. I caught sight of myself in the tall free-standing mirror which the previous tenant had decorated with shells and bits of driftwood. Slightly stooped, thin-haired, warts, freckles, sunspots. Just the beginnings of a paunch. Arms hard though I’d stopped lifting years ago. Nothing to be ashamed of for a man my age.
I could hear Eoin’s voice like he was in the room with me: Not bad for an old fucker!
He would have loved the pride festival, all the colour, all the boys. I lay down on the bed and thought of the time we’d been invited up onto a float by our friends and how different it all looked from that height, awkwardly waving at the crowds. Then I got up and went to the balcony to write.
At four I put on my swim shorts and a light shirt, shoved my goggles and towel in the tote bag that had my wallet, notebook and pen, and pulled the apartment door firmly behind me. I already felt lighter, walking down the hill past the apartment blocks and the mini market, the quiet building sites with bars of scaffolding spiking through unfinished windows. The sucker punch of the heat. How Eoin loved it. That zombifying heat, he called it. Just got to enjoy it, no point in fighting it.
I turned down Triq Ulisse and could see the water, its dark blue just a tone darker than the cloudless sky, clutched in the horseshoe of the harbour before stretching out into the horizon. The terraces along Triq Il-Port were already busy, waiters crossing the road from the restaurants with trays of beer and wine. Television screens attached to the poles of canopies were showing a football game. I went right along the waterfront towards the main town beach and the harbour. George was setting up tables outside his restaurant. He waved across at me, “See you later?” and then, “Enjoy the water.”
I laid out my towel on the concrete and put my tote bag at the head like a pillow and unbuttoned my shirt. There were a fair few people in the water, mostly locals, doggy paddling in groups and chatting. Snorkels pierced the surface like periscopes. Kids, released from school, were running around at the water’s edge with buckets and spades and coloured nets with bamboo poles. Above them the limestone buildings reached up the hill, the sun licking the heads of the tallest ones. It would be going down before long, but still its heat radiated across the town. I put on my goggles and climbed down the steps into the water.
It’s as warm as the pool at home, Eoin had said that first time, joy on his face.
I picked a direction away from the crowds, towards the other side of the bay. There was a string of coloured buoys like a giant rosary blocking off a nest of fishing boats. I selected a yellow one to aim for, dropped beneath the surface, straightened my legs, gave a first kick and was away. One, two, three, four, breathe. One, two, three, four, breathe. Fish darting in the water, blue sky, small rocks and weeds, blue sky. I could feel my body loosening, all the nausea that had lingered since the morning passing away with each stroke, shoulders uncurling, heartbeat quickening. I reached the yellow buoy and clung to the rope and looked back at the beach and the heads bobbing in the water, the children running and screaming, the men coming with trays to the restaurants. Then I breathed deep and plunged and swam back towards the harbour.
I lay down on my towel to dry in the sun. There were others lying on the concrete and sitting on the harbour wall. An old lady sat in a garden chair, book in her hand, dozing. I closed my eyes and listened to the noises of the seaside town, the sea slapping up against the harbour wall, the conversations in English and Maltese, French and German, the faint music coming from the restaurants on the other side of the water.
And then something else picked out from the general hum, a surge of children’s voices, giggling, shouting, talking over one another, talking at breakneck speed in Maltese. And feet around me, small feet running on the harbour.
I opened my eyes and sat up. The boys who had been at the water’s edge with their buckets were now on the harbour, boys of six or seven or younger, skinny and brown, mops of black hair slick with sand and salt. They were at the edge looking down into the water, talking incessantly. Then one of them, the one who’d maybe set himself up as ringleader, who’d led the charge across the beach and along the harbour, and with the ease of one who’d done it many times before, dipped his bucket quickly into the sea and out again, walked a couple of metres from the edge and tipped a jellyfish onto the concrete with a sloppy thwack.
It lay there like an ill-baked panna cotta, palpating on the hot concrete. Nearly a perfect disc, a few inches thick, its edges white, almost see-through, darkening to a deep autumnal brown at its centre, speckled with purple blood vessels. The boys were cackling and jumping around and dancing, and another boy came running up, his bucket splashing over the edges until he dropped it and another jellyfish slid out and flopped over on the concrete. They danced around their prizes like bacchanals.
I’d no idea what they were saying. What I knew of the language couldn’t compete with their lightning-speak. The boy who was the ringleader started to poke at one with his spade and then to put the spade under it to try and flip it over. Then he grabbed one of the crab-nets off another boy and stabbed the jellyfish with the bamboo stick. He stabbed it and stabbed it stabstabstabstabstab while all around they laughed and clapped. He pierced the other one at the side and pushed the bamboo through like a skewer.
They were feet from me, and I was frozen. I should get up and do something. I should stop them. Eoin would have known what to do. What to say. At least stop them from catching any more.
What I really wanted to do was walk away, to shuffle backwards, to watch it from afar and then to not see it at all.
One of the boys was now slicing into the jellyfish with the front of his spade like he was going to remove a triangle of cake.
“Why? Why do you do this?” A voice, a sudden adult presence standing next to them, to me. It was a French woman, one of a group who had been sitting on the harbour wall. She was tall and slender, in a green swimsuit with a Turkish towel wrapped around her waist. Her long hair was matted from the day at the beach, slung around one shoulder. The boys stood in silence, looking from her to the jellyfish.
“Why have you done this? Why have you killed it?”
The ringleader said something in Maltese, something quiet, then looked down at the jellyfish again. The others’ faces were scrunched in confusion. Could they not understand what she was saying? Or was what she was saying just madness to them?
“You stabbed it with your stick,’ she said, holding her hand in a fist and recreating the motion. “Stab. Stab. Why?”
They shrugged and looked at the ground, and then at each other. One was waiting for another to say something, to take them away from this stranger’s scolding.
“Do you eat it? Do you eat the jellyfish?” She brought her hand to her mouth and mimed eating.
This they understood, making yuck noises, turning up their noses, holding their little pot-bellied stomachs with sickly grimaces.
“Then why do you kill it?” She pointed down at the jellyfish with a long index finger, a white palm. “This is life. It is life.”
A man came up the steps out of the water. He was about my age, with a belly hanging over his shorts, and wore a black swimming cap that shone like a snooker ball. “What is going on?”, he asked, his question directed at the boys. Perhaps he was related to them, but he didn’t seem to single one out specifically.
“These boys,” the Frenchwoman said, turning only slightly towards him, keeping her keen gaze on the unrepentant children. “These boys have killed these jellyfish.”
“So?” he said.
The boys, hearing in that So their vindication, ran off in an instant, shouting and chattering, back along the harbour towards the beach. They would probably have already forgotten the Frenchwoman by the time they hit the sand.
“So,” she said, now facing the man, staring down his glare. “Why do they do it? It is life.”
“It is good. They are dangerous. Every year people have to go to hospital. Terrible.”
What she wanted to say was why should our pleasure in the water take precedence over their life, but I could see in her eyes that she knew it was pointless: the man could be reasoned with as much as the boys could.
But they are not poisonous, I thought. They barely sting. I wanted to say it, I wanted to join in. Eoin would have. He would have done what the Frenchwoman did, as soon he saw the first one land on the concrete.
“They are not poisonous,” I heard myself saying, before realising I’d said it loud enough for them to hear. They both turned to me, conscious that they had an onlooker, even though there were so many onlookers. I found myself standing up, taking the few steps towards them.
“They don’t sting, these ones,” I said, “They are fried egg jellyfish.”
“They do! Every year, hundreds of people sent to the hospital. People die.” He was exaggerating, yet there was a fierce belief in his voice. I was suddenly wary of him in a way that can happen when that close to another man, barely clothed, the belly I’d noticed earlier in ignorance of the width of his shoulders and his couple of inches in height on me, or that he was actually about ten years younger. Maybe the Frenchwoman saw what I was thinking, saw an inevitable squaring off between males, for she tutted, shook her head, and started to move towards where she had been sitting. I went that way alongside her. I could hear a splash as the man dove back into the water.
“Why do they do it?” I don’t think she was asking a question, or even speaking to me. Her question was bigger than this island.
“Like flies to wanton boys,” I said.
“You are Irish?” she asked, stopping and turning to me suddenly. She had tiny creases around her eyes from looking into the sun, light brown freckles on her cheeks.
“Do you know Glen of Antrim?” She had changed the subject so abruptly, as if the jellyfish incident was now firmly in the past – it was time to move on.
“No. I mean yes, I know of it. The Glens. But it’s the wrong part. I’m from Dublin. In the south.”
“I swam in a bay there once,” she said, looking out across the water, “many years ago. In the glen.”
“I’ve heard it’s very beautiful,” I said, but she didn’t answer, and paced back towards her friends, a man and two women, sitting on the harbour wall.
I thought it was time to quit and head to George’s. Not too early by any stretch. I put on my shirt and gathered up my things. As I was leaving I thought I should turn and nod to the Frenchwoman but then thought that I shouldn’t – I was no ally of hers, I was the closest to the incident, I should have stopped it happening. Should have stopped it getting worse.
George put a smile on my face, as he always does. I took a table that wasn’t underneath the parasols, so George could keep those seats for the ‘three-coursers’ and I could catch the last hint of the sun. He brought me a glass of beer and some olives.
“How was the swim?”
“Fraught,” I said, chuckling.
“Well, winter is around the corner.” He thought I meant it was cold but before I could explain he was away whistling, straightening chairs and waving at passing cars.
I took out my notebook and pen and tried to write, but there was too much bustle on the promenade. The lights were already coming on, slung between the awnings of the restaurants. Groups of people walked past, mostly tourists, enjoying the calmness of the late afternoon. They’d been home after the beach, showered, snoozed a bit maybe, put on their good shorts for the long warm evening sitting out. A clan of young Gozoan lads came boundering down Triq Ir-Rabbat in white T-shirts and denim shorts, flicking the back of one another’s heads, play wrestling. I watched their brown legs as they turned left on Triq Il Port.
The restaurant was filling up with couples and families. Children, on best behaviour, the menus huge in their hands, leaned in conspiratorially to suck straws from their cola, knowing they’d been told to make it last. I called George over and ordered a burger and fries and another beer. His son Luis delivered it about ten minutes later, his upper arm muscled like a goose egg where he held the tray.
“Not playing tonight?” I asked as he set down the glass on the table.
“No,” he smiled, “Not tonight. I tell papa he needs to pay me better.”
“Ha! Well, I’ll see if I can bend his ear.”
“Ah, thank you!” He slipped the tray under his arm. His black T-shirt pressed against his chest. “But, no. Last night was the last I play this summer. I am back to Malta on Tuesday for University.”
“Well,” I said, looking at him like he was already on the ferry, growing distant, “I shall look forward to hearing you again next summer.”
“Thank you, sir. We shall see.”
The courteous Sir. I’d scared him off. Old perv.
I watched as he walked back down to the counter, spinning the tray like a thaumatrope between his thumbs and fingers.
“Not eating jellyfish?”
I was startled from my thoughts by the voice suddenly beside me. I looked up. It was the Frenchwoman.
“Not eating jellyfish?” she said again, emphasising jellyfish, as if I’d already forgotten our earlier encounter. Her smile slackened slightly, as if my initial non-reply had made her think her joke ought not to be a joke but an accusation. Why are you not eating jellyfish? Everyone hunts them in these parts. A delicacy.
“What?” I said, then smiled. “Ha. No. There was none fresh today. The chef’s boys were stopped from bringing home their catch.”
There was a small mischievous curl at her lips. Her eyes moved to my plate, around the table, back to me. She was fifty, maybe, but looked younger. I had an image of Yeats’s Eva Gore-Booth, a gazelle sprinting across the Serengeti, graceful and balletic, and intelligent. She had thin-framed black glasses on which she hadn’t earlier when she was squinting on the harbour.
She sighed suddenly, as if to get to the reason she had come over.
“Thank you,” she said, placing a finger onto the table. “For earlier.”
“Thank me? Why? I should have done something.”
“Thank you for at least bringing some facts. I looked it up after. It’s true. Not poisonous.”
I didn’t know what to say. Well, I did, but she stopped me from saying it. I could see her friends across the street, glancing over, anxious to get going. Then I said it: “Would you like to join me?” I gestured to the empty seat opposite, then to my plate. “This has just arrived. And they’re quick here. George’s service is the best in Marsalforn.”
“Sure,” she said. “One sec.”
She paced across the road to her friends. I watched them talking, her friends looking with concern from her to me and back to her. I ate some fries with my fingers. They were probably telling her not to be daft, I was a complete stranger, an old man who swam alone. But she was braver than that. And they knew it, so their protestations had the obvious air of show. They were already thinking about just the three of them, a night without their ringleader.
She came over and slinked into the plastic chair and picked up a menu.
“It’s all good,” I said, signalling to George who was already on his way, smiling like I was a sly dog, though he knew which bowl I drank from.
“You come here often then?” she said. That roguish smile again. She ordered a glass of white wine and the grilled seabass. I was halfway through my burger.
“Here,” I said, pushing my plate towards her, “Have some fries.”
She picked up a couple and nibbled them.
“It’s all good here.”
I was being confident, trying to be charming. She smiled at me, her brown eyes suggesting she’d made the right decision, to ditch her friends.
“Rachel,” she said, extending the hand that had just fed her the fries. I reached across and shook it.
“Well, Fergus, it is nice to meet you.”
Luis arrived with her meal, saying nothing. She barely looked at him. She tucked into her seabass, chopping off the head with precision, coaxing out the cheeks. I sipped my beer, watching her eat. She gulped some of the wine.
“You are married?” she said. She nodded towards my left hand which when I looked down I saw was resting on my notebook like a juror’s on the Bible, my wedding ring dulled and burnished.
“Yes,” I said. Then: “Well, no. My partner died.”
I looked down at the ring on my finger on my notebook, deciding. Deciding the same thing since I was fifteen. To take the conversation around the corner.
“Eoin. He died. Last year.”
I raised my eyes. Hers were on her plate, feathering fish from bones.
“We would come here every summer. Nearly all summer since we retired. I got here in May. Will cling on to October now.”
“You have a house here?”
“No, I rent an apartment. At the top of the town. We used to rent a different one but—. It was too hard to go back there.”
She stopped eating and sipped her wine. She chewed, washing the meal around inside her mouth. She nodded.
“I had wanted to scatter his ashes here. Up at Wied il-Għasri. It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
I looked across at the banks of restaurants tapering around the bay, the lights reflecting on the water. She put her knife and fork together with a chink to bring me back.
“And did you? Scatter the ashes?”
“No. Yes. But not here. In the end we did it in Ireland. The rest of the family wanted to be there. You know.”
George came to take the plates. He asked how it all was, to which she said delicious. Great as always, George, I said. He asked her the questions I had not: where she was staying (Lagoon Hotel), where she was from (Marseille), how long she was here (the week), had she been before (only to the main island, years ago). He said she must go to Victoria and see the walled city and she said yes, she planned to do that, but was clearly done with his banter, “More wine?” she asked, “More wine?” looking at me. Before I could reply George saidm “One more wine, of course, and Fergus, more beer?” and he was off without my answer.
As soon as he’d gone she said, “You are writing?” She nodded again, at the ring on the finger on the notebook. The notebook.
“No. Though sometimes. No, this notebook is for writing poems.”
“You are poet?”
“Yes. I write poems.”
“Yes. A few books. Back in Ireland. And I write articles, reviews, that kind of thing.”
“Can I read it? What you were writing?”
“No.” Immediate. Always my response. “It’s not finished.” I could hear Eoin’s voice: it’s never finished. She made a face of faux-miffed. Or maybe she really was miffed.
“You can find some online. If you like. I’ve got some online. Fergus Crawford.”
I’d only meant it as a salve, something she could think of later, on the flight home when I was already a memory, but she unclipped her handbag and flicked out her phone. “Fergus Crawford.” She was googling. Then reading something. Maybe I had known this would happen. The slightly nauseous flicker of delight coursed through me.
“What are you reading?”
“Shush.” Her left hand cutting the air.
“What’s it called?”
“‘The Cave’.” Her brow was ridged in concentration.
I left her to it. The screen was caught in the lenses of her glasses. Of all the poems to fall on. She put the phone down on the table and picked up her wine.
“It’s sad,” she said before drinking. “Are all of your poems sad?” She leaned forward with a grin. “Are you one of those sad poets?”
“I am not a sad person,” I said. “But when I write it comes from a place of sadness.”
“Are you a pretentious prat?!” she shot back.
I spat my drink and started laughing. Her use of the word “prat”. Her serious face. Then she started laughing too.
“Yes,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I probably am?”
“Probably?” That set me off again. Her eyes lit up. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Fergus Crawford, the pretentious poet.”
“Who doesn’t sting,” I said.
“Who doesn’t sting.”
It was hours later when George brought the bill and two shot glasses of limoncello.
“Look,” I said to Rachel, “have you been to the beach at Qbajjar yet? On the other side of town? I often go there in the morning. It is beautiful. The water is so clear. You go in off the rocks. Would you like to join me there tomorrow morning?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I will check with my friends. But yes.”
“Brilliant. It really is a perfect spot. Less crowded than the beach here.”
“And no jellyfish?”
“Ha ha. No jellyfish hunters anyway. They’ll be in school.”
Azalea stopped in her clackity tracks when she saw me on the stairs, going out ahead of her. I hadn’t drunk too much the night before. And I was feeling buoyant as I went down the country lane beside the prickly pears. A farmer was pushing a rotavator through the dry rubble of a field. The huge eroded tor of limestone shone in the early sun like honeycomb. When I got to the water I looked around for Rachel but I couldn’t see her. Had I not given good enough instructions? Nonsense. It was easy. And she had Google. Maybe her friends had other plans. A day trip into Victoria? Not to matter, we’d not exchanged numbers.
I pulled off my T-shirt and dropped it on the rocky platform with my stuff. I could see the bottom of the sea, the sand and scattered boulders, gold and green fish sucking on the weeds. The tiny needlefish moved across the surface, leaving their miniature wake in Vs on the water.
I went down the steps and straight into a front crawl, fast, I needed to go fast today, arms slapping the water, one two three four breathe. Eoin would always beat me in a race, even doing his breaststroke. Like a swan frantically pedalling below the surface. Even when I went fast like this, turbo-charged my shoulders, his hand would reach the rocks on the other side first, and he’d smile, barely without breath. Knackered, he’d say.
Oh, to swim and not to think of him…
One. Two. Three. Four. Breathe.
I stopped and turned in the water.
I could see Rachel’s head above the surface, coming towards me like a beaming anaconda.
“I made it!”
She was thirty metres away, shouting, coming fast on her breaststroke.
“You were right! It is beautiful!”
I swam towards her like a waterboatman, thinking how odd I must look in my goggles, above the surface.
“You made it!” I said, panting.
We met by the rope of buoys. Her hair was in a ponytail, pulled tight so her whole forehead was visible. She looked so different to last night. She was laughing. Not laughing like she had last night. It was new. Unheld. She was laughing at the joy of the place.
“Follow me,” I said. I swam breaststroke, then front crawl, back towards the rocks where we’d left our clothes. I could hear her behind me. When we got to the rocks I stopped and pointed into the cave. The water was luminous blue. It was clear and yet blue. The blue of the sky. The blue of toilet blocks, Eoin had joked once.
“Incredible,” Rachel said, looking into the water, catching her breath. “Incredible.”
We lay on the golden rocks to dry.
“It brings you pleasure?” Her voice to my left, its ring of mischief. To my right the gentle gurgle of the water in the caves.
I smiled, the sun floating in my eyes. It must have been more than a smile, for she sensed it.
“What?” she asked.
“It was our wee joke,” I said, “Eoin and mine. Eoin swam for pleasure. I find pleasure in swimming.”
“Something like that.”
“My son was a swimmer,” she said. It was the first time she had mentioned him. First time she had mentioned any family, in fact. Save for last night’s conditional I know. “He swam for his school and then at the University.”
I opened my eyes. The sky was pure blue. As if she could hear my eyelids unlatching, she said, “He’s dead now. Gone eleven years.”
I sat up and looked at her. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes were shut and twitching in the sun, her hair swept behind her. I watched her lips move: “I don’t know if he swam for pleasure. It would have been good for him here. To swim in paradise.”
It was too hot. I knew as soon as we set off. And I’d not eaten. Had she? Maybe she’d had the hotel breakfast with her friends. Her friends who she’d not once mentioned – she was mine for the day. Or I hers. After we’d lain in silence for an hour I’d suggested the walk to Wied il-Għasri and she’d snapped it up with her breezy “Sure.” We left the far side of the bay and climbed up the road that ran along the Roman saltpans. The intricate pans stretched along the cliff top like fields in a model village, their dry stone walls sheltering the glistening crop. Old men sat outside the troglodyte caves, dozing and chatting next to put-up tables with the little plastic bags of salt they had for sale. Rachel took photographs on her phone, her arms stretched straight out in front of her, the camera held in landscape. We went along the dusty road, the cliff of smooth limestone to the right curling like a wave about to tunnel, to our left the scar of the saltpans and the azure sea. Soon we turned off the road, followed the quad-bike tracks that ran between the different pans. Up ahead scuba divers were pulling on their suits at the back of a Land Rover, canisters lined up in a row like Skittles.
“You have walked here often? You and Eoin?”
“Yes,” I said, “and it has changed so little in twenty years.”
As I spoke I realised how out of breath I was. The temperature must have been in the mid-thirties by now. Idiot, I thought. How old can one get and still not learn? I had to tell her, it wasn’t too late to turn back, we could lunch at Qbajjar and set out again. I drank some water from the bottle I had with me. It was already half-empty. She had been gulping at hers. Did she have another one maybe? She was a few metres in front of me, looking up and ahead, out towards the sea, a few big tankers far off in the shipping lanes, looking out to the horizon. And then what? Sicily? Crete? Islands where people walked like us past scars of antiquity, measuring the present moment in denominations of the past: twenty years, eleven years, one year, this morning, last night. One, two, three, four. Twenty years since we’d parked the car and decided to walk. Hot as today. The sea shimmering. The men raking over the salt. Twenty years ago. Eoin in his trunks, the loose T-shirt hanging over them. His Moses sandals. His sun hat. Walking at our usual lanky pace. We could never take it easy. Twenty years. And Eoin saying Come on, it will be worth it, wait until you see. There’s a place where we can swim and wash all of this off us. We can wash it all away. The salt. The heat. The secret. We were mostly a secret. In paradise we were mostly a secret too – but free.
I started to cry. Slow salt tears at the edge of my eyes, a tremor inside me. I put a hand to my cheeks. Then a low clucking, a choking, catching my breath. She was a few feet ahead and turned suddenly, “What? Fergus, what?”
And then I erupted and went to her and cried into her thin shoulder. I shook with tears. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“What? No. What is it?”
“It’s, it’s. It’s just.”
Still holding me she moved us towards some boulders and eased us down. I choked, my throat clicked.
She gripped her right arm around me and grabbed my hands with her left hand. I put my shoulder into her. “I’m sorry.”
“Listen,” she said, sitting up straight. “Look.”
She took her water bottle from her bag and drank the last inch in a determined gulp. She put her hand down to the scratchy earth and scoured the bottle along the surface, filling it with dry soil and little stones and the pale desert dust.
“Come,” she said, standing up, reaching down for my hand. She nodded her head towards the sea. “Come on.”
I lifted shakily to my feet, gasping for breath, keeping down the sobs. Air was all I’d eaten since last night. We walked forward hand in hand to the smooth limestone edge, straight as a block of butter. A boat went by with divers hunched like Special Forces.
“You do it,” she said, passing me the bottle. I took it from her hand. My own hand was shaking. I turned my other upwards like a cup and poured the dust out onto it. A small handful. I looked at Rachel. Her eyes were focused straight ahead, out to sea. I thought I should say some words, say something. But I let the ashes fall through our silence, fall through my fingers, there was not a breeze, they went straight down, over the lip of the rocks and into the water. I poured another handful and threw it out in front of me and watched it fan across the surface. I put the bottle on its side and let the rest drift out like a potion, wisp away on the breathless air. We watched it catch something – a pocket of air whipped up by a seventh wave? – and it rose and drifted for a second above the water.
Rachel turned and walked slowly back to the rock we’d been sitting on and I followed and joined her. My legs were aching. I held them under the thighs. We watched the water for a while.
“Thank you,” I said.
“My son,” she said, soft as sand in the throat of an hourglass. “He was like you. I tried to tell him how okay it was. He never listened to me.”
She pushed herself up from the knees and slapped her hands together to get the dust off them. Or to say, that’s that. Or to say, let’s go. Or to say nothing. She started to walk again, the same pace, heading north towards where the cliff would curl into the canyon at Wied il-Għasri. I watched her go, her thin back and long legs, a deer panting for the water. I pushed myself up, wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, and followed her. It was hard going. The smooth surface became chopped and cracked, tumbled with small boulders and scratchy vegetation.
I ran a little to catch up with her. “Listen,” I said to her back, reaching out to try and touch it, but too far away, “I’ve got some fish in the fridge. I bought it the day before last but it should still be all right.”
She didn’t answer me. Or maybe it was too hot to talk. The cliffs and the salt and the blue sky and the dark blue sea – be zombified. Think of nothing. That cicadas make so much noise and don’t go mad with it. Imagine that.
We reached the cliff edge of the canyon and I almost grabbed her, even though she was a good three metres from the edge.
“Don’t go too close,” I said, “the land slips here.”
She took it like bait and stepped forward, so there was only a hump of soft limestone between her and the air.
“Look!” she gasped.
I came down and joined her at the very edge. Beneath us, in the gorge, the sea was full of jellyfish, like the skin of a child riddled with chicken pox. There must have been a thousand of them. A bloom, carried against their will by a ghost current. You could see them breathing, so gentle, as if one heartbeat compelled them.
Michael McKimm is an Irish writer living in London, England. A graduate of the University of Warwick Writing Programme, he has received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors and was 2010 British Council Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa. His publications include the poetry collection Fossil Sunshine (Worple, 2012) and, as editor, The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods & People (Worple, 2017).