The Sea Between
“He’s dead.” “He’s not.” “Ah, love – he is.” Christ – she’s sick of saying it. He’s not dead. She’s in the supermarket – she’s run into his sister. They’re next to the pasta. Jesus, she thinks – he used to make a great carbonara. “Look,” she says, “He’s grand.” She should have gone to the post office first. She nearly did – only, she wanted to take her time, posting the letter. She looks forward to it every week; putting the letter in the slot, hearing it drop. She didn’t want to rush it. So – she’d gone into the supermarket. And she was looking at the pasta, deciding between the fusilli and conchiglie, when she felt it – the tapping on her elbow. She’d turned. Now, his sister is just looking at her, the grief plain on her face. She looks well, Clodagh – it’s good to see her. Talking to her, though, is hard. She doesn’t want to do it. Clodagh tells her – “We’re worried about you, love.” “Ah – there’s no need. Just – look, it’s good to see you.” “Don’t do that. Here – will we get a coffee?” “No, no. I have to run.” She can see his face in hers. They have the same nose – they got it from their father. “Well – will you call?” “I will. I will, of course.” She won’t. She can’t. If she calls – it’ll get in the way. Them, thinking he’s dead, and her, knowing he’s not; they can’t talk around it. She leaves. Back on the street, she breathes easier. She didn’t get her shopping, but she’s going to post her letter. She started a fresh page of stamps this morning, and she used a new pen to write the address. The envelope looks great. But she can hear Clodagh now, telling the family – “She’s the same as ever, poor thing. Still can’t accept that he’s gone.” They just can’t get away from it. She doesn’t hold it against them; she understands. If she didn’t know him as well as she did, she might think he’s dead, as well. She had tried, at first, to explain it. She had wanted to spare them the pain, and the cost of the funeral. She only upset them, though. They said she was making it harder on everybody else. They said she was in shock. He’s not dead, though. He’s grand. He’s writing his book. She doesn’t think they’ll ever understand it. That’s okay. It was between him and her. It must be very hard on them, thinking they’ve lost him. They were all very close, his family. She remembers his mother fixing his hair the morning of the wedding; she was beaming. She was proud of her son. Their wedding – that was a great night. They had a do. She remembers everybody up, dancing to Tom Waits. She remembers the best cigarette of her life – her first as a married woman – outside the reception hall (the GAA club) between dances. The summer night cool on her flushed skin and the gravel crunching beneath her heels; her new husband smiling at her, tie loose and collar open. She knew what he was like. Meeting him, she knew it straight away. The intensity of him; the size of him. She remembers thinking he was too big for the room. Not in height – he was a nice height. More – there was so much of him, needing somewhere to go. In line at the welfare office – he was in front of her. The zip on her purse was open when she took it out of her bag. Coins clattered on the lino. He crouched to help her. He asked – “One of those days, is it?” “You’ve no idea.” “Losing your money in the welfare line – God love you.” He made her day. She never expected to be laughing in the welfare line. The pair of them – they were down and out. It was the height of the bust; the country was killing them. Neither of them had seen – felt – the romance of Dublin in years. Meeting each other in the welfare line, though, it came rushing back; boom and bust. They took the winter on together. They rented a basement room dirt cheap on Conyngham Road. That room, the damp cold of it, has never left her; she hasn’t been properly warm since. She doesn’t mind. She likes having it with her, the room; that winter. They got night work so that the coldest hours were spent in places warmer (anywhere else). His shifts were eight to eight, hers ten to ten; she’d get in in the mornings and he would already be in the narrow bed, asleep under the thin duvet and his coat. She’d climb in beside him, taking off only her shoes, and they’d sleep till hunger woke them. Daylight never disturbed them in the basement dim. They lived on bread and water. Sometimes they had tea, but never milk for the tea. They were all each other had; each the other’s warmth and food. In the room, he wrote – pages and pages every day. She remembers he would take her hand in his, and his hand would be smudged black from the page. She knew – she always knew – that he should never hold her with clean hands; she must be held, kissed, after he had written, and never before. It was only right – his clean hands on her skin would have felt like a stranger’s. They, like others, left. There wasn’t anything else for it; there was nothing for them at home. He got a call from a friend in England who had a floor they could sleep on. They ended up living around the corner from his sister. Things got better for them; the next winter wasn’t so hard. The cold room on Conyngham Road was well behind them then. The thing is – his family were never in that room. They never felt that cold. They couldn’t have understood what it was like. The way the two of them were together – it was in the gutter. They were looking up at the stars. Up on the street, though, it was different. They didn’t know themselves. He wasn’t himself, out of that gutter. He wasn’t writing. There was no black on his hands. His hands still caressed her, still loved her – but when she saw they were clean, she understood. She understood that he was miserable. In one way, he’d never been closer to Joyce, to Beckett and Behan, forced to go like the rest of them; Dublin having broken his heart just the same. But he wasn’t Joyce, Beckett, or Behan. He could’ve been; he was a giant. Greatness was in him. Only – he couldn’t quite bear it. He wandered the length of England, looking for Dublin; it wasn’t there. The accents, he could find, yes, and a decent pint of plain – but not the welfare office where her coins had dropped on the lino. They found his stuff – his bike, his wallet – on a beach on the west coast of England. A sunrise swimmer saved it from the tide, then rang the police when no head rose to break the surface; the police phoned her. They gave her a note they said they found pinned under a stone. She never looked at it; it wasn’t for her. See – she knows why he went to the beach that day. She knows he waded in looking for the shock, the bracing cold of the sea he remembered from Irish summers. He was looking for the cold of the basement room on Conyngham Road. He was trying to get back to what he knew; that was all. The letter in her hand is addressed to Conyngham Road. She writes him every week. He’s not dead. He’s home. She never worried. Sure, on clear days you can see Wales from Dalkey; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have swam home to Dublin from a stretch of English beach. He’s a strong swimmer. He hasn’t written back. She doesn’t expect him to – he’s busy writing. She knows he hasn’t time for anything else – not when he’s Dublin. She’ll go herself, one day. She hasn’t yet – he needs a bit of time for his writing. But one day, she’ll go home. She’ll get the boat over – she’ll take a late ferry. When she gets back to Dublin the early morning light will be just as she remembers it. It’ll be winter, she knows, and she’ll go back to Conyngham Road wrapped in a worn coat with balling sleeves. She’ll open the door and find him asleep in the narrow bed; she’ll climb in beside him. In the freezing cold of that room, she’ll be warmer than she’s been in years. She’s looking forward to it; to seeing him. She’s looking forward to him putting a hand on her cheek; the hand black from his pages. When she sees him – she’ll get him to write to his sister and let her know he’s alright.
Beth Storey is a 21-year-old writer from Dublin. Her work has been published in the Dublin-based literary journal, The Martello, and is forthcoming in an online flash fiction magazine. She currently lives and works in Dublin.