It’s quiet here, on the broken edges of the Mayo coastline. The last of the day’s pale sunlight is bedding down across a bloated ocean. A thin fencing of barbed wire the only sign that someone else once made it this far. Strands of lamb’s wool wave from rusted knots. This is a wild place. There are no streetlamps, but the glow from the oil and gas refinery- an eerie purple fog in the distance- offers constant protest to the muzzle of night. And there will be a moon tonight. The sky is clear. There will be stars.
A man and his daughter walk along the cliff tops. Their steps are tentative, like the ground might give way at any moment. It has been a long time since they have traced this route. They are afraid of what they might recall. Of the things they can’t get back.
He moves older than his fifty-four years. His grey hair and beard are cut back tight. He wears a long mohair overcoat, black, against this ashen colouring. Its turned-up collar hides scars from his own fingernails, from a time when he was someone else. He is cautious out here. The movements of a body still unaccustomed to its own gauntness. He clasps one hand firmly in the other, squeezing his palm as he walks. Sometimes she will pause to touch her fingers to the pads of his drained hand. She’ll smile. And he will smile, and put them back into the pockets of his coat. And they walk on.
She is twenty four and doesn’t feel the cold the way others do. Even through the light white linen of a summer dress. She will always have spent colder nights in colder places. The way the wind whipped through the railings on O’Connell Bridge, peppering her arms with icy Liffey water. The sting of a heavy gold sovereign against her blue cheek; the way the blows exploded in frozen sparks. A painful beauty. Those deep bone chills that cradled the itch on fruitless nights. No phones, no wallets, no fix. When she grips the crooks of her arms, running her thumbs back and forth and back and forth over those crevices, it’s not warmth she is searching for. He knows this now. He knows not to offer his coat anymore.
This is the fourth evening they have spent in Erris, pushing a little further out each time; past the men in scuffed hard hats and neon jackets, staring out through the refinery gates at Bellanaboy; past the giant yellow 8-wheelers, their blackened windscreens like the visored eyes of some great and terrible beast; past the fifty-strong Eco warriors still fighting. Jaws tightened. But more stoic now. Now, after a decade of hoarse protest, the gas will finally rumble and flow, and this life of theirs, this raw Sisyphean kinship they share, will be over. They sit cross legged in the road’s dead centre, some chained to pillars with Kryptonite locks. A crow flies low overhead, before returning to his mate on the wire high above. Worn cloth banners- gold words on a dark background- are held taught around a line of bodies. Over their shoulders, half obscured by the blooming heather and the long grass, nine symbolic crosses look on, tilted by ten years of wind and rain and creeping soil.
Late at night the man and his daughter watch this from a distance. From the windows of their hostel bedrooms. When neither can sleep. They listen for the chanting. Squint to see the candlelight shielded by clear plastic cups. At these moments, they would like to walk out onto the road, into the group. To light a candle and squeeze in beside these strangers underneath an audience of stars. People who have made a home in the eye of a storm. People who don’t feel lost or afraid. But then a cry will stab through this gentle hum, like the first over-eager cuckoo clock in the shop. The picture shatters. A maul of officers- so many for such a forgotten place- will drag the voices to the ditches. Hold them there, bleating, as the trucks thunder on toward the place that was once Sruwaddacon Bay. Where the weary Swans of Lir passed over on their final flight, all those ages and worlds ago.
And the man and his daughter shudder. They see flashes. Of needles and fingerless gloves and canal benches and crooked apparitions and broken glass and rising water. Of a city laughing and crying and screaming at them all at once. And they know that they can’t be a part of all this noise. Not here. They know that they will have to walk longer now, further, higher up the coast line of the Dun Chaochain peninsula. To where the cliffs’ north sides drop vertically into the Atlantic. Where faraway gulls and wind-whistles and the battering of strident waves can’t break the silence. Long and soothing, and fleeting. But it’s a quiet they can barely remember, and they’ll take it for as long as it lasts.
Sometimes she finds herself twisting the cool band of her engagement ring, taken in to fit. The diamond is small. A tiny tear-shaped stone so precious and unlikely that its touch still panics her. As if it might not be real at all. She wonders if her father felt this way when she was born. If this is one of the memories he has lost, carried away with others he has had to banish. All those eroding visions. Currents too strong for swimming, crumbling grains from sea stack walls. She wonders if the new meds can target the splinters and leave the rest of him, the way they couldn’t when she was a child. She wants to know something about her mother. What her voice sounded like when she laughed. What their lives were like before she got sick. Before he got sick. Things she can’t find in photographs. Things she can’t ask yet.
On Banwee Head, some 250 metres above the water, where green and gold grass spreads out over the edge, someone has built a sculpture. Metal poles of different heights, like reeds, with gaps to catch the music blown in from the other side. They stand behind a low stone wall. A small, iron-roofed shelter sits just beyond. Inside there are benches. She kneels on one, and stares out through a slot at the last few paces running up to the precipice.
‘Have we been here before?’ The question escapes her lips before she can stop it. The breeze carries it to him.
‘…Yes.’ His hand reaches out for the rough granite of the shelter’s edge. But he doesn’t touch it.
‘The day Michelle….the day your mother died.’
‘We said goodbye, and we walked up here and we sat on these benches until they came to get us.’
‘And you told me a story.’
‘And I told you a story; to try and help you understand.’
‘About the swans.’
‘And did I?’
‘You…you fell asleep. You were tired. We’d walked a long way.’
‘I don’t…I can’t see her.’
‘You were only a child.’
‘I remember Glasnevin. The gates and the rock and the tower. And all those high stone crosses. And your face.’
‘You hid in my coat the whole time, peeping out through the button holes. They wouldn’t let us stay there, just the three of us; just for a while. Even there, for the one day that was in it, they…they couldn’t leave me be.’
‘I remember you shouting, and crying, I think. And then…’
These aren’t the stories her father used to tell. These faltering eulogies. These hopeless, hero-less tales. But maybe they’re the only stories he has left in him. Maybe that’s another kind of death. And in the moon’s heavy spotlight she can’t hide the itch of tears that this thought brings.
‘Will you tell it again? The swans?’
‘I…I don’t think-‘
‘Please. I need…I’d like to hear it. If you can.’
The man breathes deep into his chest. He stoops to sit down on one of the shelter’s benches and holds each of his knees in a light grip. When he speaks, the words fall slowly. But the story is fluid and clear and his eyes twinkle when he raises his head to look at her. He tells the story of four children, turned into swans by a malevolent force, chained together, condemned to wander the country’s skies for 900 years. He counts out their names on the tips of his fingers, draws their sweeping wingspans with the breath of his arms. She knows this moment. That mania she loved so much, as only a child could. When his eyes glaze and his voice rises. When she loses him.
Except it doesn’t happen. Not this time.
He pauses and cups her two hands in a cave of his own. He points out toward a tiny island and tells her, quietly, that it was there that they landed. Where they turned back into people, where they were reborn and then died; in peace. That’s where it happened, he says, in the story.
Outside the refinery’s entrance, they stand with arms linked; wrapped up in their golden banner. All of them. These people who have lived together in sodden fields. Head to foot in benders and tepees and storm-rattled tents. Who take turns ladling out dinners from steaming pots, sifting through rotten logs in damp Coillte graveyards, chopping firewood with blunt hatchets. Whose decorated windmills never stop spinning, out on this lonely expanse of blanket bog. A young man with three silver ear piercings and two neat scars running through a patched eye gets ready to address the group. His black hair is still tinted with a dark green hue. He looks nervous, until a woman in a ClearView PR t-shirt approaches and squeezes his hand. Her blonde ponytail hangs braided between her shoulder blades. She steps up onto her toes and kisses him. Over his shoulder a line of police, three incandescent men deep, shepherd trucks toward the gates, half foot by half foot. As he finishes speaking, the group start a deep chant, one that rises steady as stray taunts trickle in from across the diminishing gap. A sergeant steps out from the line and calls for silence from his own people. With a navy gloved hand he presses the megaphone against his mouth.
If you do not leave the area at once, you will be arrested.
This site is now operational. These disturbances will no longer be tolerated.
If you do not leave the area at once, you will be arrested.
Crossing back over the uneven fields, the man takes his daughter’s arm as she slips. She holds it there, slotted in snug against him, and leans her head to his shoulder for a moment. They walk on toward the lights.
Somewhere between pleading and jeering, their words spill out in garbled handfuls from the open truck windows.
‘Get out of the fucking road.’
‘Move, for Christ’s sake!’
‘It’s too late, ye’ve lost. Why don’t ye just fuck off?’
The sergeant grips the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, just for a second. Bags like hollowed out ditches sit heavy underneath. Without looking he pushes the device behind him, where it’s swallowed up. The young man with green hair meets him half way.
‘They’re right you know. That gas is pumping, right now, under our feet. This, this whole fucking thing; it’s over. You’ve lost.’
With his one good eye, the young man stares. He winks, and nods his head backwards, toward the banner, now fluttering in front of a line of stomping feet. He turns and puts a long arm over the girl’s shoulder. Faces smile at them, hands lift the banner as they bend underneath.
The moonlight freezes everything, everything, in a silver film. The restless ocean. The pale yellow church with its lost and potted palm trees. The empty camp. The shining eyes of curious livestock. The scattering of sleeping houses. The refinery’s gleaming steel. All of it, held in time.
The man and his daughter watch. The wind has died down, but she is grateful for his coat all the same. The cloak of its warm, damp fug. He holds her to his shoulder. Tomorrow morning they will sit side by side on a coach to Castlebar. And from there, a train will bring them back to Dublin. He will raise a hand to the window as the bus from Aston Quay takes her home to her fiancé. In the room he rents from an old college friend, on the seafront in Sandymount, he will be patient. He will sit at his desk and take out his notebook and write down stories from their old life. Real stories. When two weeks have gone by he will call. They’ll go for coffee together above the post office in Blackrock, where the staff know him. He’ll tell her stories she has never heard, the ones she needs from him. Someday she’ll ask him about the cemetery, or the wedding. And he’ll be able to say ‘yes’ when she does.
But those things will take time. For now it is enough to have these last few minutes. More than enough. Before the sky clouds over and the world shakes off its stillness and the messy clash of lives sounds off again.
They are close enough to the roadside here; the banner’s gilded letters hang ghostly in the air:
‘We Are Still Here’