This story is by Cal Smith-Sheerin and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The front bar of Oliver’s in Cleggan gently hums with chatter. It’s not a riotous Friday night, but there are punters scattered across the round tables that line the edge of the room, their hands digging into split bags of crisps, salt-clad fingers clutching interminably half-empty glasses.
Denise and her husband, Paul, are sat on squat, cushioned stools, while their friends, Claire and Richard, perch on the end of the bench seat that stretches from the sticker-plastered panes of the window. They’ve known each other since university, and Denise, a vet, was delighted when the other couple relocated to this fishing village at the brink of the continent, close to where she grew up. Paul finishes an anecdote about an unusual workplace incident. There’s an incredulous response, followed by a comfortable lull, cut short when Richard leans in, adopting a hushed tone,
“I see the fella at the end of the bar whenever I’m here… Always alone. What’s his deal?”
Denise’s dark eyes gleam, yet she contrives not to look too eager to impart her gossip,
“Oh Cian? I know him,” she peers over her shoulder before shuffling her seat closer, “I used to, anyway.”
Their subject is oblivious to the attention. He appears well-groomed for a loner. Wavy hair has been tamed with product and his patchy beard is neatly trimmed. Claire places him in his early thirties. His gloomy sage eyes whisper of new-found pessimism, and remain fixed either downwards towards his glass, or on the rear window, looking out over the harbour. A green mound looms over the boats from across the inky channel and she wonders if he can spot campers’ torches flickering along the island paths.
“We were in class together at school. Friends, but not super-close. I’d see him in pubs during uni holidays, too. I can’t remember what he studied,” Denise ruminates over a mouthful of sharp, dry wine, “Business… something. Anyway, after university, he’s working in Galway, has a lovely girlfriend, and we’re often bumping into them and having a catch-up.”
She glances again, wondering if his ears are burning. “Then, we don’t see them for ages. I’m all over the county working, and I keep thinking I spot him at petrol stations, or driving past me. I assume I’m mistaken, because he works in an office. One day, a package arrives, and he’s there, at the door, asking me to sign. He seems embarrassed, and mumbles some pleasantries before he’s off. I ask some friends who know him better, and, apparently, he lives alone in a bungalow down the road now. Seems like he had a breakdown.”
Cian seethes at the remaining third of his stout, he’s reached the threshold past which he could no longer nurse the drink; it’s almost warm. As he leaves, he spies Denise, but she has her back to him. Descending the steps into the marina, he watches children on the jetty sweeping at the blackened swells with nets. Light is fading as he slumps into his van. Soon, he’s on the scratchy gravel surface that leads home and he savours the sound of stones crunching and popping into irrelevance beneath the wheels. The night’s silver-speckled blind is drawing over the dusk’s royal blue. In the day, the verdant bushland radiates, but now it’s a colourless bog separated by sparse patches of wire fence. Aside from sporadic flashes of headlamps, the only illumination comes from glimmering stars, beacon-like porches and the smouldering glow of cottage windows.
It’s now dark, and the snoring of the engine soothes Cian, his thoughts drifting as he follows the curving track. He remembers the counsellor in Galway, and telling her about the dream, how real it feels. When he remarked that inevitable extinction rendered all life as futile, she smiled wryly,
“True, but you can’t control that.”
“GAD.” She ordained. General Anxiety Disorder. “Very common,” he just needed to practice breathing techniques. Within the hour he was back at work; they never minded you popping out on an errand. At home he tried the exercises, but nothing stopped aside from his social life. The dream returned every night and, during the day, its description remained lodged in his throat. On the few occasions he managed to force it out, he received reassuring lectures on nightmares and anxiety. To insist that it was something bigger would only alienate him further.
Work suffered. If what he dreamt was true, it didn’t matter.
“We’re not closing the door on you, but we need the old Cian back. Call us when you’re ready.”
When he told Shauna he’d been fired, she was sympathetic. She didn’t care about rent: they could move. She didn’t worry about savings: they’d start again. Burdens have a way of crushing patience, though. He could see her resolve crumbling, and he couldn’t say anything.
When he drank too much, his trapped words and shame fell into his stomach and became bile. He spewed judgements, ranting about Shauna’s behaviour because he couldn’t explain his own. She went to her parents’ for a while, coming back to an empty home and an envelope stuffed with money. If he couldn’t share it, it was better to be alone.
A sudden crescendo of tires grinding in the groove between road and driveway jolts him alert and the motor lets out one last sigh as he twists the ignition. He trudges up to the glass porch and through the door, passing a chair positioned to overlook the rugged terrain and shadow beyond. Kicking off his shoes, he turns on a lamp, softening the harsh edges of the spartan, stony lounge with a pillowy glow. A collection of interviews with psychics is lifted from his table and slid back into the gap on the shelf alongside a dusty tome on asteroids. Cian enters the kitchen, shaking a scaly kettle and flicking its switch. He opens a beer and the gasp of the bottle against the backdrop of boiling water sends a fond tingle down his spine. Tipping the malty liquor into his mouth, he plants his exhausted eyes on the garden. There’s washing to bring in, but the kettle gurgles and clicks before he acts on it. He ignites the stove, dropping a meagre nest of noodles into a pan with a splash.
Three minutes pass in silence, save for the gentle simmering of dinner. Shaking seasoning into the mix, he stirs. The meal is dumped into a bowl and a fork is cast into the broth before Cian drifts to the porch to sink into his seat. He gathers a mouthful, his breath brushing strands of steam back like hair. The first bite scalds, so he waits and halfheartedly rotates the food while gazing upwards. Orion is clear, but the other stars remain mysteries. He’s taken to sitting here, drinking in the world and obsessing over infinite details for so long he’d sometimes find himself being awoken by the throb of the morning sun, his dinner in his lap.
Cian gulps down pilsner and marvels at the stillness of constant motion. He ponders how a bodiless ocean seems confined merely to gaps in the globe and he affirms to himself that obliteration is easier to comprehend than the sheer scale of existence. He sees present nature: grass, rocks, bugs, as part of a chain, reaching back into primordial nothing. The products around him: windows, beer, vehicles, manufactured to cover the harsh, exposed metal with something softer to grasp, this idea that our comfort and survival was somehow of cosmic importance. In sleep, Cian holds the final iron link of this chain, but knows nothing else. Every morning he arises with the same question, “When?”
Years without an answer had extinguished all of his purpose.
Back in the kitchen, Cian sets his bowl in the sink and drags out another beer. The stubborn lid refuses to come off as he meanders back to the porch, so he stops to give it his full attention. A bitter hiss greets his triumph as the deposed cap falls to the floor. He hasn’t spotted the white streak shredding through the night sky, splitting the black cloth in two, but he feels an impact, as if he were standing several storeys high while a lower floor is removed from beneath him. The ground vibrates and, as the tremors accelerate from a trembling purr to a convulsing roar, it feels like cool fluid is filling his limbs. He’s ready now, and looks up, his eyes tracing the scorched trail from above him to where it plunges into the horizon, beyond the Atlantic void. It’s exactly as it should be.
Cian watches patiently as hot, salty fingers of light rise from beyond the thrashing waves and move toward the heavens, tearing at the now-frayed edges of the sky. The black fabric starts to tumble, revealing the blazing, blank canvas behind. He closes his eyes and embraces the familiar, warm cocoon, one last time.