James Casey drove off the top of Rally Pier. His two daughters were on the back seat. The tide here falls out through the islands and away west. It runs at a knot, sometimes a knot and a half at springs. Listen and you will hear it in the stones. This is the song of lonely places. The car moved a little sideways as it sank. And afterwards great gulps of air escaped but made no sound. I know these things, not because I saw them but because they must have happened. The sky is settling over Rally and the hills. It is the colour of limestone, a great cap on the country. Ten miles out the sky is blue.
I heard it on local radio, suicide at Rally Pier. I knew who it was.
You cannot see the pier from my house. I got up and put my jeans and jumper on and climbed the hill behind the house, through heather and stone, to where I could look down. Bees sang in the air. Watery sunshine filtered through thin clouds. When I turned after ten minutes of climbing, the whole bay lay before me, the islands in their pools of stillness, the headlands like crude fingers, boats pair-trawling a mile or more apart but connected forever by cables attached to the wings of a giant net. James was on the boats once. He it was who explained all that to me. I saw the police tape on the pier head, a tiny yellowness that was not there before. If he left a note, what did it say? Suddenly the song came into my head. Donal Óg. Even as the first words came I knew what it meant for me. You took the east from me and you took the west from me and great is my fear that you took God from me.
When the song was finished with me I walked back down home. I was accustomed to think of it like that – not that I stopped singing but that the song was finished with me. I made up the bed with fresh sheets and put the soiled ones in the washing machine. I washed out the floor of the bathroom. Why do we do these things when we are bereft? Then I had a shower and put on dark clothes. I got out the bicycle and pumped up the leaking tyre. My father had shown me how to mend punctures but I could not remember now. I still have the same puncture repair kit, a tin box, but now I keep hash in it.
Then I wheeled the bicycle down to the gate and onto the road and faced the hill to the house where the dead girls lay.
They closed the door against me when they saw me turn the bend. Cousins make these decisions, but I leaned my bicycle against the wall and knocked and then they had to let me in. Perhaps it was inevitable anyway. People around here do not shut their neighbours out. They showed me into the front room where the two girls lay in open coffins. Three older women sat by them. I did not recognise them. Aunts, most probably. They had their beads in their hands. I did not bless myself. I go to neither church nor chapel and they all know it. I stood for a long time looking down on the faces. When old people go, death eases their pain and their faces relax into a shapeless wax model of someone very like them. People say they look happy, but mostly they look plastic. But when a child dies it is the perpetuation of a certain model of perfect beauty. People would say the girls looked like angels. There was no trace of the sea on them, no sign of the panic and fear that bubbled through the ground-up sleeping tablets that their father had fed them for breakfast yesterday morning. According to local radio. His own prescription. He had not been sleeping for months.
When I stopped looking I shook hands with each of the aunts. Nobody said anything. I went out of the room and found the cousins waiting in the corridor. I asked for Helen and was told she was lying down. The doctor was calling regularly all day. She was on tablets for her nerves. She was very low. I was about to ask them to pass on my sympathy when a door opened upstairs. It was Helen herself. She called to know who was there. It’s your neighbour, one of the cousins said. She could not bring herself to name me.
Helen came unsteadily down the stairs.
Her hair was flat and moist. She was wearing the kind of clothes she might have gone to Mass in, a formal blouse and a straight grey skirt, but she had no tights on. Her bare feet looked vulnerable and childish. She stepped deliberately, stretching so that at each tread of the stairs she stood on the ball of her foot like a dancer. She came down like someone in a trance. I think we all wondered if she knew who she was coming down for. And if she did, what was she going to say.
Cáit, she said, is it yourself? Thank you for coming.
Her eyes were flat, too. There was no light in them.
I’m sorry for your trouble, I said, taking her hand. I held the hand tightly as if the pressure could convey something in itself.
Helen shook her head.
Why did he do it? she said. Even if he went himself. But the girls . . .
Helen, will I make you a cup of tea?
One of the cousins said that. She was by Helen’s side now, she would like to take her arm and lead her into the kitchen. They did not want her going into the front room and starting the wailing and the cursing all over again. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it would terrify you to hear the things she said. And here she was now talking to Cáit Deane like nothing had happened at all.
There was cake and several kinds of bread and honey and tea and coffee and a bottle of the hard stuff and stout and beer. The house was provided against a famine. They’d need it all by and by. This is the way things go at funerals.
He always spoke well of you, Helen said.
We were childhood sweethearts, I said.
He always said you should have trained professionally. He said you had a great voice.
I shrugged. I heard this kind of thing from time to time.
He said it was pity what happened to you.
I felt my shoulders straighten. I was fond of him, I said, everybody was.
He said you had terrible bitterness in you.
I moved towards the door but there was a cousin in the way. Excuse me, I said. The cousin did not move. She had her arms folded. She was smiling.
He said you were your own worst enemy.
I turned on her. Well he was wrong there, I said. I have plenty of enemies.
Helen Casey closed her eyes. The only thing my husband was wrong about was that he took my two beautiful daughters with him. If he went on his own nobody would have a word to say against him. But now he cut himself off from everything. Even our prayers. If that man is burning in Hell, it’s all the same to me. I hope he is. He’ll never see my girls again for they’re not in Hell. And the time will come when you’ll join him and no one will be sorry for that either.
One of the cousins crossed herself and muttered under her breath. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The doorkeeper unfolded her arms suddenly and stepped aside. I opened the door. I was taken by surprise to find the priest outside preparing to knock.
Oh, he said.
Excuse me, Father.
I pushed past him. I noticed that the tyre was sinking again; it would need pumping but I could not do it here. I turned it to face away from the house. People say I’m cold. A cold-hearted bitch, some of them say. They say such things. The priest was watching me. He was smiling. The new man in the parish, most likely he did not know who I was. They’d fill him in on the details in the front room with the two dead girls and the old women with their beads. The cousins would know everything. It was how crows always knew there was bread out. First came a single bird, a scout. There was always one. Then they gather. Before long they’re fighting each other over crusts. You can knock fun out of watching them and their comical battles in the backyard. But the minute you put the bread out, one of them turns up to check it out and the others follow soon enough. If you dropped dead on your own lawn they’d be down for your eyes.
I swung into my bicycle and launched myself down the tarmac drive and out onto the road and I turned for the hill down home but that was not where I was going.
I met the car at the place where the road was falling into the valley. There was no question of slipping past. I braked hard and dragged my foot along the road. By the time I stopped I was by the driver’s door and there was a drop of a hundred feet on my left-hand side. He rolled the window down. It was James’s brother Johnny.
You’d think the council would shore that up, he said.
The crows are gathering.
The priest was at the door.
He nodded again. He looked at me silently for a moment, then he said, He could have asked for help, Cáit. You’d have helped him, wouldn’t you? I would any day. All he had to do was ask.
Johnny, I said, you know very well I was the last one he’d turn to. And the last one who could help him. And anyway, there is no help.
You could but you would not.
No, I said, I just could not. You know that very well.
Do you know what, Cáit Deane?
I probably do, Johnny.
He looked at me, frustrated. You were always the same. You’re too sharp for around here.
My brother James, he said, you destroyed him.
He destroyed himself. I didn’t drive him down to the pier.
Why did he do it if not for you? You took him. You took him and you wouldn’t keep him and then you left him. Why else would he do it?
I got my foot on the pedal again and faced down the hill.
Spite, I said. He was always spiteful, like a spoiled child.
I launched myself forward and went clear of the car. In a moment I was past the subsiding section. Fuchsia speckled the roadsides with their first bloody skirts. In the valley the last of the whitethorn blossom. The river at the very bottom gleaming like concrete in a field of bog iris. And ahead was the bay and its islands and the vast intolerant ocean.
I chained the bicycle to the stop sign outside the funeral home. The street was a long one that ran into a steep hill; the funeral home, the graveyard and the church were all at the top of the hill so that the dead could look down on the town, and the townspeople when they looked up from the pavement saw death looming like a public monument to their future. People joked that it was the only town in Ireland where you had to climb up to your grave. To make matters worse, the funeral home was owned by the Hill family. There were several Hills in the parish and naturally the funeral home was called the Hilton. They say that the only people making money out of the economic crash were accountants and funeral directors. Even the bankrupt had to be buried by somebody. At the door in a plastic frame was a poster with a picture of an anorexic bonsai plant and the words: our promise to you, phone anytime, day or night, you will never get an answering machine.
Funeral homes are always cold. There were pine benches in lines like a church. They had been varnished recently and there was that heady smell. It reminded me of my father’s boat, the wheelhouse brightwork newly touched up. It was the smell of childhood.
James Casey lay in a plain wooden box at the top of the room. I could see immediately that the brass handles were fake. Someone had examined a funeral menu and ticked cheap. I went to look down on him. I thought I had nothing to say but when I was standing there I had plenty.
You stupid bastard, I said, you stupid murdering fucking bastard.
There was more like that. I surprised myself at the flow of anger, the dam-burst of fury. After a time I stopped because I was afraid I was going to attack the corpse. And then I thought I might have been shouting. No one came; perhaps funeral directors and their secretaries are used to angry mourners. I stepped back and found my calf touching a bench. I sat down.
They’ll all blame me, I told him. They already blame me.
Then I cried.
James Casey looked tranquil and unperturbed. In real life he was never like that. After a time I got up. I looked down at him. His eyes were stitched closed because when he was pulled from the sodden car of course they were open. They are not very expert in our part of the world; I could see the stitches here and there. The funeral director knows from experience that the eyes of dead people do not express emotion but he knows that his clients would see fear in them. Nobody wants to look a dead man in the eye. It’s bad for business.
Fuck you, I said.
I turned on my heel and walked out. A tiny sigh escaped when I closed the door, like the seal opening on an airtight jar. My bicycle lay on the ground in its chains. They knifed the tyres while I was with James. I was not going to give them the satisfaction of watching me wheel it down the street. I was going to leave it where I found it. Do not slouch, my mother used to say, stand up straight, put your shoulders back. But I slouched just the same. How many years since I first loved James Casey? I pulled my shoulders back but I kept my eyes on the ground. The thought that I had done something unforgivable was always there in the dark. Things come back in the long run, the way lost things are revealed by the lowest tides: old shipwrecks, old pots, the ruined moorings that once held steadfastly to trawlers or pleasure boats. There are no secrets around here.
Photograph © Eamonn Doyle/Neutral Grey