This story is by Clara H and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Time and Tide
“I can’t believe it! Sally knows I can’t come back. Why does she keep pestering me!”
“Because she loves you Clodagh? Because she knows it breaks your heart to be away so long from your family who love you?”
“Oh stop being so wise Ger!” I fired the dish cloth at her and she laughed, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
I knew how much my darling girl wanted to understand. She closed the lid of her laptop and crossed over to the kitchen area of our cosy living room to encircle me in her arms.
“Come, sit down and let’s talk this through” she said after a few moments, as she reached over my shoulder to take a couple of wine glasses out of the cupboard and then with her other hand lifted the already opened bottle of Rioja from the counter top.
Ger and I have been together for nearly two years now. She started only a few months before me in Sullivan’s Pharmacy on Dagenham Road. Ger is a fully qualified pharmacist, while I work in the cosmetics section. Very conveniently for me she was looking for a flatmate at the same time I was trying to find accommodation nearer to my new workplace. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If I hadn’t lied in the first place it would have been so much easier. It wasn’t planned. My parents had simply inferred that the pharmacist Ger was a man and I hadn’t corrected it. When the relationship developed beyond ‘flatmate’ they were happy for me and wanted to meet him. I think they were already anticipating wedding bells followed by the patter of little feet. Sally only knew the truth because she had come over to London last Autumn for a short break and Ger had come into town with me to meet up. I just had to let Sally know. We had always been close growing up, and I missed the connection very much.
Ger now filled the glasses with the ruby coloured wine and raised hers in a toast.
“I know your Mam and Dad are very traditional and great Mass goers,” she said, “but Sally is so sure they would understand if you gave them the chance. You can’t stay away forever.”
“I know,” I replied. “If only it were that simple! But there is something that even Sally doesn’t know! Something they would never be able to forgive!”
“And this has to do with the anniversary … with Felim?”
“Oh Ger,” was all I could say and the dam of tears, so long restrained, just burst open. All I could add between the sobs, splutters and hiccups was “’Twas all my fault … ‘Twas all my fault”.
It took Ger a while, caressing and gently encouraging me in turn, to draw out the story that has forever haunted me at this time of year.
We had such a simple, healthy upbringing out on the Louisburgh side of Westport town, not far from ‘the Reek’ as Croagh Patrick was popularly known. Once the school holidays came, Sally, Felim and I were wild and free. We could play around the base of the Reek or trek the few miles to Bertra Strand, where we climbed across the rocks, or paddled in the shallow water. We were only allowed to swim, when there was an adult with us.
Although Croagh Patrick was open for climbing at any time of year, people traditionally came by the thousands for the annual pilgrimage at the end of July. There was a grand spot less than quarter way up before the first steep incline. We used to take a big plastic bin up there, which we would half fill with ice and top up with small bottles of water to sell at a healthy profit to thirsty pilgrims on their way back down. We’d take it in turns to nip back down the mountain as often as necessary to get more supplies. It was a great way of getting Summer pocket money.
On that fateful Sunday, Mam and Dad had brought Sally to a concert she was performing in at the Town Hall and so there was only Felim and myself to run ‘the shop’. It was a sweltering hot day. The pilgrims were very thirsty and we did a great trade. By the time we got down to the base, the sky was darkening over but we paid no heed. We were supposed to go to Mam’s sister Eileen for our tea, but instead we headed for Bertra Strand with our satchel of money. We sat on the beach, did a quick check and estimated a generous profit overall. Then we hid our fortune behind a rock with our outer clothes and, feeling the thrill of breaking the rules, we ran towards the water in our undies.
The tide was turning at this stage, so there was a steep decline down the sand. We splashed each other for a while near the edge, squealing with delight, before venturing out further to dive into the gathering waves. Suddenly there was a loud clap of thunder. It was a magnificent storm with lightning flashing on the surface of the water, but I somehow knew it wasn’t safe and that I needed to get back out. When my feet couldn’t find solid ground underneath I panicked. I screamed out for Felim. Where was he? I saw him then, closer to the beach, but when he heard me he turned back and started to swim strongly out towards me. By now I was swallowing big gulps of seawater and flailing about with my arms. Felim managed to reach me, gave me a smart slap on the cheek and told me to stop struggling and let him take me in. He was so strong and self-assured that I somehow managed to relax my body enough to let him do his life-saving manoeuvres. After a while I heard Felim say “You’ll be ok now Clodagh. You can make it the rest of the way on your own.” He was panting for breath and his voice sounded far away. I could at last feel sand under my feet, so I waded back to the beach and ran over to the rocks shivering, my teeth chattering as I cried and sobbed from shock and fear.
Suddenly I became aware I was on my own.
“Felim, Felim”, I screamed. “Where are you?” I ran back towards the water, but he was nowhere to be seen. There was nobody else on the beach and I just couldn’t go back into the water. I sank to my knees, terrified. Such a fabulous day, and now such horror! I finally came to my senses and ran out to the main road still in my soaking underwear. A car stopped and the middle aged couple immediately understood that something was seriously amiss. The woman wrapped me in a rug and phoned the emergency services, while her husband raced towards the beach. I must have passed out at that stage. I woke up in Castlebar Hospital. Mam was holding my hand and whispering loving words.
“Oh Ger,” I confessed, “all these years they’ve believed it was Felim’s fault, because he was older and should have known better. I’ve never admitted that he drowned trying to save me!”
The tears that flowed now were no longer just about sadness and guilt. They also brought release. Breaking the silence and sharing the burden had shifted something. The hard lump in my chest was beginning to dissolve and be released by my sobs.
As the days passed I began, with Ger’s help to face the pain of my experience and the fear of my parents’ rejection that I’d tried to bury for so many years. Gradually I came to understand that it was now time for me to let go of the guilt of the frightened child I was then, and become the adult I needed to be.
I landed at Shannon Airport, where Sally was waiting with her widest smile and warm Failte home. I suddenly realised how much I longed to see Mam and Dad again.
The welcoming hugs were nearly too much for me. My parents clung to me as though I were a long lost soul.
“I have something I need to tell you,” I said as soon as we had settled down with a pot of tea and Mam’s famous soda cake, crisp and still warm from the oven.
“And we have something to say to you,” Dad broke in. “We love you so much and always will. There is nothing you could tell us that will ever change that.”
How could I have ever doubted them!
We visited the grave together, Mam, Dad, Sally and I, after Felim’s Anniversary Mass. And then we had a celebratory meal and shared precious memories of a dearly loved son and brother.