I went on a trip to the Beara Peninsula with two of my best friends – the bad bitches Kim and Vicky – two years ago.
We stayed in a gorgeous old house that opened at the back onto the sea (they filmed Ondine next door, a few years earlier) and ate breakfast watching the boats pull into the harbour. We ran together in the morning, the salt air curing our hangovers; took the ferry to Bere Island and picked blackberries by the side of the road; ate homemade bread and drank wine; went to McCarthy’s Bar like proper tourists; and marvelled at Kim’s teenage bedroom. It was a really wonderful trip.
When I got back, I couldn’t get the image of a man walking barefoot down the road near Garnish Beach out of my head, and so I wrote a short story around it.
Though I was (am!) incredibly new to fiction writing, having last attempted it many years ago, I entered the story into a competition run in UCC, called Carried in Waves, and it got longlisted, which was an unexpected boost.
UCC 98.3FM (which was 97.4FM when I worked there as a student over a decade ago – some of the best times of my life, like) have recorded all of the longlisted stories, and put them on Soundcloud.
I’ve written other bits and pieces since this story, but I still find fiction incredibly difficult. A big thanks must go to Colm Keegan however, as I finished this story after doing an invaluable short-story course with him at Dun Laoghaire’s DLR Lexicon library in 2015.
He’d probably kill me if he saw how little I’d written since then though – good thing it’s a new year with new resolutions, eh?
Here’s the audio, and the story itself is below.
By Aoife Barry
Bare foot meets tarmac. Bare foot meets tarmac. The road winds, the sun slowly dips. Dusk draws close, the birds start to settle.
Bill walks down the sloping, gently winding road. He’s walking to Garnish Beach, to drown himself.
He’s barefoot, he thinks, so that when he walks in, he’ll feel the sinking sand beneath his feet.
The waves will greet him. His cream cotton shirt will suck in the sea. His navy linen trousers will get heavy. Water will flow through the fabric’s capillaries until it meets its thick borders. Bill will wear the ocean.
The few clouds above him are blushed pink. The wind is light; he can still feel the day’s heat on the surface of his skin.
An hour before this final walk, Bill stood on the soft rug on the wooden floor, glass in hand, looking out the large window in the front room of his home. He swirled the amber liquid, watched the Atlantic crashing white in the distance, noticed the sun shifting itself nearer to the horizon.
That was why they had bought the house, Bill and Seán, to look out the glass and see this part of the vast expanse of the peninsula stretch around them. To see nothing but nature, to watch nature transform throughout its seasons.
He used to look out at the land and the sea, the unkempt green fields, the hand-made stone walls, and feel the possibility of vastness and the beauty of emptiness. He used to find inspiration in the infinitesimal changes in the peninsula as summer bled into autumn.
But now he looked out and that vastness frightened him. The house, sitting on its own with its back to the hill, felt isolated and exposed. For 383 days now – Bill had counted – that emptiness had begun to take form. After Seán died, their welcoming, warm home became infested with a new sense of loneliness.
Bill felt the darkness encroaching on the big, lonely house. The shadows that the craggy hillside cast looked demonic. A strange paranoia came over him. He rarely saw his neighbours.
Every gravel crunch, tyre skid or exhaust pop on the road nearby brought the scent of danger to his nose. But when the sounds dissipated, it was the loneliness that came and punched Bill in the face.
Bill knew the only place he would find peace was in the sea. He needed its roar in his ears, to feel it on his skin: a companion. That was why he had left. To feel less alone.
Bill stops, pulls a piece of sharp gravel from the ball of his left foot. Continues on.
As the road steepens, he slows. His knees start to ache. 65 years of walking on God’s earth will do that to your joints, Bill tells himself. Time leaching your bodily power from you as it pulls you through the decades.
He walks on. The road begins to turn again. It’s another mile to the beach. He thinks it through: He’ll walk down the wide concrete pathway, past the bright white bathing shelters with their hard wooden benches and sand-smeared tiles, turn the corner and step onto the sand.
He’ll see the Atlantic stretch before him, the greens and browns of the Beara landscape, the lumps of seaweed slopped on the sand, the footprints of the visitors from hours ago. He’ll reach the shoreline, and he’ll keep walking. He’ll walk into the sea at Garnish Beach and he’ll keep walking. And when he can no longer walk, he’ll surrender himself to the blue, collapse into its arms.
That morning, when he awoke, Bill had put his arm out to the other side of the bed again. Still empty. 383 days.
He rounds another corner. Ahead he sees a large black car, its front lights on full, the engine purring, the driver’s door open. He nears it tentatively, squinting to make out the scene. He didn’t need his glasses for his walk into the sea.
Two figures are crouched near the front of the vehicle, illuminated by the bright lights: a man, and a small chubby person lying down.
No, not a person. A dog. A large hairy dog.
“Hey! Sorry – are you from around here?” The man, wearing denim jeans and a red polo shirt, is on his knees by the canine.
“Hello?” The man stands up and calls over to Bill again, this time more urgently. “Sorry – this dog is injured… I didn’t even spot him, he ran out in front of us. Can you help?”
Deep breath. Bill nears the man and looks down. The mutt is the colour of day-old cream, shaggy fur, no collar. Panting hard. One leg twitching.
Bill kneels down, strokes the dog’s back. The dog’s left eye scans Bill’s face.
“I used to have a dog like him,” Bill offers softly, still stroking the heavy fur.
Noise emerges from the car. The man in the polo shirt calls towards it: “Carla! The doggy is OK, Daddy is looking after it and this man will help him. Stay in your seat.”
The driver gives Bill an apologetic look. “She’s six, she got as much of a shock as I did. We’re on holidays, we’re out for a little drive, I don’t even know the place. He just ran out in front of us.”
The dog whimpers.
“What’s your name?” asks the man.
“Bill, I’m Jonathan. We need to get the dog some help. How come you’re not wearing any shoes?”
When they moved to the peninsula, Bill and Seán, they brought Josie with them. Their only child, they’d joke, all five hairy, smelly, slobbery stone of her. They’d take their golden retriever for walks to the beach, then bring her home, sodden with seawater and sand, which she’d scatter with abandon all over their hardwood floors.
She was three when they moved to the Beara Peninsula, and 10 when she died. Seán was 60 that year. The pair were out on one of their ambles in Allihies when the car came towards them.
The pair of tourists inside were confused by the winding road. The car sped around the road too fast, ploughing into Seán and Josie. They didn’t stand a chance. 383 days ago.
“I live up the road. I can take the dog.” The words are out of Bill’s mouth before he knows what he is saying.
Don’t bring an injured dog to your lonely house, Bill tells himself. Don’t go back to your lonely house.
“Are you sure? You don’t think it’s going to die, do you? I can give you a lift. Are you sure?” Jonathan rubs his right eye with his palm, relieved.
Bill nods. As he lifts to scoop up the dog, who’s now panting softly despite what looks like a broken leg, the left-hand side passenger door of the car opens and a little girl, all brown curls and red cheeks, climbs out.
“Daddy! Daddy!” she shouts. “Can we keep the doggy, can we? Can we keep him?”
She looks at Bill.
“Daddy, why has the man got no shoes on?”
Bill clambers out of the car with the dog in his arms. Carla jumps out after her dad, runs to the red door of Bill’s house.
“The keys are under the mat,” says Bill to Jonathan, nodding towards the door. Jonathan finds them in a large brown envelope, tucked inside a sheet of paper with a few handwritten lines on it. “Throw the paper in the bin over there,” Bill tells him.
They enter the home and Bill gently places the dog onto the rug on the living room floor. Jonathan turns the lights on. In the distance, the Atlantic crashes white. On a counter in the kitchen sits an empty glass.
The dog gives a soft bark. I’m home, he tells himself.
I’m home, Bill tells himself.