It had been twenty years since they last met. Thirty eight year old Eoghan O’Dullach was nervous inside; and in his brain he was running through past experiences of the, in the end, failed relationship. Those experiences which caused him emotional pain; and would they, him and her, be able to see with considerable hindsight how immature, emotionally, they both were back then? He had moved back to Ireland after a few years of working away in London and recently added her on Social Media – whereupon she accepted the request and they got to chatting and decided to meet. He walked to the hotel as the insipid, mongrel dog of anxiety ran riot in his head sniffing at the bleak doubts, ‘What if there is a row and she storms out?’ ‘Am I mature enough not to drag up the hurtful stuff which she did to me, and what about the stuff I put her through back then, is all that stuff forgotten about?’
The mid-summer afternoon was pallid, sticky, yet, darkening squalls of cloud were formulating in the western skies above Lough Swilly nearby. He had brought his good quality rain jacket – just in case – if there was one thing which these past two decades had taught him, that was, is, to be organised. And if rain broke out, then he was fine and it was only a two minute walk back to the house.
She was in strappy suede sandals. Her feet were tanned, clean; her toes, and finger nails were painted a light purple almost of an Amethyst variation – possibly similar to the ‘heliotrope’ flower colour he had seen on a horticultural website (Eoghan was still learning about plants, and the Latinised names for plants, which pleased him, a hobby which was growing with interest as he had gotten older) – these were the noticeable attributes, to him, of a woman who knew how to extenuate her femininity. She hugged him closely and kissed him on the cheek. It gladdened him to see that she had not changed much since he had last saw her but he understood that to be superficial was ephemeral and what mattered, and what had always really mattered,was connection.
They went through the hotel’s bar and out to the beer garden whereupon an older man in a softly spoken Irish accent came and took their order: Eoghan order tea and she an Americano. The tea, when it arrived, was spoiled by the full-fat milk, the blue-top and the fatness of the milk left the tea cloying; and a kind of fatty floating funk circumvented the surface of the white china cup and this was displeasing to his palate; and so he shucked the rust-coloured liquid gently through his teeth as took one more mouthful before turning it away on the wooded slatted picnic table, leaving half-a-cupful.
The rain came on and quickly darkened and flecked the concrete flagstones of the hotel’s external seating area where they had tea and coffee; Bláthnaid took from her handbag a lime-green pashmina – like a shawl – to cover her chestnut-auburn hair, to keep the rain off. Then they both ran into the hotel due to the rain’s commitment.
Standing together in the hotel’s atrium, they chatted for a while and even though the winds of time had blew their fanfare, she still had that nice warm-side that he had remembered and that she often showed him when they were very much in love wandering together through the brightening young fields of love. Her peach-flesh coloured eyes softened as they chatted and she smiled easily. ‘Will we go for a drive?’ She asked, before adding further, ‘you’re not doing anything today, are you?’ He wasn’t. He was volunteering these past few weeks at a Backpackers’ Hostel as he looked for work in the charity sector (the sector where he felt he was doing something, anything, to help humanity).
She drove and he sat passively in the passenger’s seat – with his fingers calmly interlinked and he rested his clasped hands in his lap – of the silver jeep she was driving and they chatted about whom they remembered from way back and where some of those people were now: some married, some living elsewhere in the world, and some lost to the desolate tundra’s of failed memory. They drove and it felt nice and sedate, the conversation and they agreed on many topics before finally arriving near Ballyliffin and they got out under a bank of grey cloud which had sailed in to disrobe, to drop its flooding curtains and fragment its curling draft to run aural rhythm(s) with its wetting notes.
There was a stillness and silence on the strand between the booming, at one end, Atlantic Ocean and the sand patter where the rain fell, once it began, as they walked together taking in the scene. The sand was unblemished, undisturbed in some time by human footsteps or human intervention of any kind; and it was deep, this sand, tonally, and it hummed with a dark, honeycomb-yellow resonance of time which was outside human being’s consciousnesses – it was as Kant had stated, ‘time and space are external’ to the human comprehension. The landscape was sprawling and prehistoric – a litany of black jagged rocks lay reposed throughout, as if they were dinosaurs which once settled down, turned to stone, to, possibly, rise again one day when the final fall of man came around. Way to the immediate left, were Paul Henry skies which were full of tangible, Donegal white clouds, cumulus and cumulonimbus forms, and how they promised a silent utopia, to Eoghan where one could live in complete peace and harmony under their vaulted, promising softness.
He looked to his right and fore-front now, under the pelting rain, and thought that out past the waves, which were repeating, wave after wave, out beyond the break, infinity lay in the salt water’s unknown dialectics; and, indeed, to him, the North Atlantic was a mathematical equation which linked into other swirling equations which no one could even conceive or calculate as the seas were always shifting, turning, returning anew.
She stood in a small rockpool which had sand at the bottom but she said there were stones under the sand and they were warm and asked Eoghan to feel, so, he put his hand in and felt the spa-like hotness and she smiled at him and he smiled at her in affirmation.
He was alone now. They had left off their conversation hanging and two weeks had crawled past; she hadn’t messaged and he hadn’t messaged as he did not desire to be seen as too ‘pushy’ and he understood that she was protective due to a not a healthy, well, a couple of past rocky relationships which she told him about and them, and then of course, Eoghan and Bláthnaid, they too had a shared past and which came to a fizzling end where she went her way with someone else and Eoghan went off with many and ended up on a pathway which saw him walk along the Styx, and whereupon he considered giving the Boatman his two coins in perpetuity of a non-verbal agreement; but decided, in the end, not to. It must be clear: it was not because of his and her former relationship that he was tired of life, but rather, he had not the logic or rationale to learn to love life and for a long time he was lost and that ‘lostness’ stared back at him like mouth of a dying trout with the drawn-out gawping which needed to be immersed in water.
Now he walked along Lough Swilly’s water’s edge as the stones rattled under his boots. The stones, in their own integrity, in a way were tensile, but, yet, light, similar to shells, but some of the stones were bigger but held no real density of weight and it was if a pencil factory had exploded and sent out the graphite detritus all over shoreline and further, and which fell easily away under his boots, piling up in grey-silver glittering heaps only to move and fall away as he strode along the water’s yielding, slopping edge. Seabirds were nittering and nattering in the distance skiting across the surface of Lough Swilly. Recently, a bird he had heard in a hedgerow making noise like a stiff tap being turned on for the first time in a while made him laugh.
Beside Lough Swilly foliage swayed; a scramble of summer gnats held mid-air; Sea Pink, Armeria maritima bloomed. He soon arrived at Inch castle. It wasn’t Naxos. It wasn’t the library at Babel. It was a fifteenth century castle ruin. Inch castle’s walls, the stones, were immense; and there was a cellar there at the bottom with a lintel stone, on its side, and Eoghan peered at and into the small black square and he wondered at all the people who were in there in years gone by tramping the Neolithic, muddy cold floor, and here standing on a grassy hillock, he remembered a prescient line from a Seamus Heaney poem, ‘I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’
On the far-side of Lough Swilly, near Speenogue, he noted a scurry of knocking green canopies and headed for it. In the small copse, a small tributary where brooklime and watercress philandered easily upon the surface, but in a clearer stretch, the water was free of flora; and just then, a ray of light struck the stream and his attention was caught as a flash zipped across his retinas, a blaze of sparking alchemy, s-shaped and it, whatever it was, slithered and slid in the water. He realised that it was an eel but this was no ordinary plum-coloured snurfplodder, no, it was an eel, and a golden eel no less which now lay before Eoghan on the bottom, on a pale sandy mount on the floor of the stream’s water and it glittered bright due to the sun flickering through the trees. He decided to pluck the bounty from the water to get a closer look: slowly immersing his strong arms into the water, he then, calmly, edged his hands under the eel and then snatched it up in an instant into the sun.
Eoghan gulped as he looked over his quarry, this wasn’t the salamander with star bursts on its black and yellow trunk but it sure was an evolved derivative, a lonely freak and akin to Eoghan’s own outsiderness which he felt all his young life: the Camus introvert of lonely wanderings never quite fitting in. It had albino-pink eyes and it had such muscle-rigidity, coil-like fixity and relentless strength, it was like if he was Hercules and he had one horn of the Cretan Bull in his grip. It shook, writhing in his firm clench; he got onto his hunkers and rills of cold water ran off its gleaming body onto his light blue jeans leaving dark marks like freshly made punctuation.
He had read from Pliny, Aristotle and the Talmund about the Fire Salamander which had the ability to burst into fire, or quench a fire if it happened to be in one, or live in a fire and continue on, and if it fell in a well, it could poison the water, but regardless these were mere mythologies or were they? It reminded him of the Golden Salamander from the Spanish Armada treasure, from the Galleass, the ‘Girona’ he had seen in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, in its enclosed glass case, which was itself entombed in a concrete gloom – oppressive, brutalist architecture – Eoghan could always smell the concrete dust which penetrated the air in a poured concrete building; the museum sat tucked away on the corner of Botanic park.
Recalling an incident from his childhood when him and his cousin, Sonny O’Shea, came across three aquamarine eggs in the rim of a car-tyre in a shed, and they picked up the eggs and handled them but soon became worried when Sonny’s mother latterly said that the mother bird could smell humans and she would not sit on the eggs, so Eoghan decided to do what the environmentalist in him always wanted to do: not interfere in nature’s laws and so he lay on the bank lay, and lowered this magnificent creature into the water where it gulped in the cool water to its throat and its system and welcomed the former’s liquid tenancy and slide on in eagerly to the trinkling brook. Its golden rake-like presence was soon gone and had, seemingly, slipped off into another spiritual plane – one filled with sibilance and swirling abstractions – where a golden gleam in a black shoal would become the twisting, bending arrow of the gods.
Eoghan made his way out of the small woodland and grew to realise the anxiety which he was suffering from for the past ten years had gone, yes; he checked in with himself and felt a calmness which filled, radiated around his whole being. It was as if the experience had severed a purpose: a primal, universal one, and one which brought him to inner-peace, finally. He made a pact with himself and the natural world that he would tell no one of what he had just experienced – this was for him and only him and that was the way of it.
After he picks his way along the rocky shoreline, Eoghan then fishes out his phone from his pocket and selects Bláthnaid’s number, and dials – it rings three times before she answers. As he navigates along the shoreline of Lough Swilly, talking on the phone, it was noticeable to the watching sheep that he had a filigree of assorted flora tasselling his walking boots.
By Neil Burns