On Maghery Beach


She woke with a gasp. Shakily she reached for the alarm clock; four in the morning again. Twenty years had passed and the place still haunted her. She lay, listening to her heartbeat slowing, trying to remember the name of it. Then, as always unable to resist tormenting herself, she found herself in her mind’s eye, helpless in that vast place, in the dark, running, searching. The lowering mountain, the endless beach, the dunes, piled higher and higher by the storm winds sweeping endlessly in from the Atlantic . Oh, that wind! Enough to flatten a sheep. Who had said that? And at the foot of the mountain, the cave, dank and dripping with slime but, all the same, somewhere to shelter from the wind. Until the tide came in. The horror of the tide, trapping you in the cave or on a bank of sand. To be lost there and nobody there to help. Nobody in all that huge expanse, nobody on a hot summer day, much less at four o’clock in the morning. All hope of sleep gone, she stumbled from her bed; she’d make a cup of tea, do the ironing, something finite, manageable, mundane; something she could cope with.


In those days, although she hadn’t felt it at the time of course, she had still been so young. A young matron, people might have remarked, holding hands with a handsome little boy. Not that he ever wanted to hold her hand, she’d suffer years of tennis elbow from his twisting and pulling. No, all he’d ever wanted to do was run, run twirling in the wind, in those days. In the time she had come to speak of as ‘before’. She’d developed the habit of automatically dividing people into those in the ‘before’ and those in the ‘after’. ‘Before’ people believed that bad stuff only happened to others.  She had trouble getting along with them. But everybody hit the rocks at some point it seemed. She took comfort in that.


Afflicted from childhood by depression, she had still, in those days, been capable of hope; almost wantonly given over to it at times. And it had been in this spirit, in the grip of a fierce upsurge of optimism, that she’d set off, herself and Joe, in spite of her husband’s warnings that he’d be working, that it was pretty remote, that there was no television.   That she’d have to fend for herself. She’d scoffed at that. When had she ever done anything else? For all the time Martin spent at home, she might as well have married a travelling brush salesman. And as for remote, wasn’t that exactly what she was in need of? A bit of beauty and peace instead of that terrible urban grind. She wanted Joe to hear the waves crashing, the lambs bleating; that was the proper soundtrack to a childhood, not drunks shouting in the street and the continual wail of police cars and ambulances.


Martin had shown her photographs of the cottage, lovingly restored, freshly thatched and whitewashed. There were three or four more about a hundred yards away, he said, you couldn’t see them in the pictures, but theirs was at the end of the track, nothing between them and the Atlantic. She’d regretted the existence of the other cottages, so convinced was she of her need for splendid isolation, but the view, which Martin had also photographed, delighted her. The cliffs, the sea, Ben Bulben in the distance. She’d gone into raptures. Jennifer, he’d said, trying to bring her down to earth again, Jennifer, don’t expect too much, don’t expect it to be all mod cons. There’s no heating apart from the range, he’d warned, you’ll be hauling turf night and day. Rubbish, she’d said, it was April, wasn’t it? They probably wouldn’t need to light it except for the odd evening. Well, take a jumper anyway, he’d said. And your thermals. She’d laughed and rumpled what was left of his hair. He was such a fusspot. She could look after herself, couldn’t he see that?


He’d set off a fortnight before her, to set up the production office and find decent accommodation for the stars. They were a couple of legends, famous for a very protracted and, in Jennifer’s opinion, unnecessary sex scene in an otherwise dull film made ten years before. They’d not worked together since, although at the time there’d been talk of a torrid love affair. The truth was they couldn’t stand the sight of each other and had accepted this film because both of them had been out of the limelight for a while and were missing it. Because of the sex thing their reunion was bound to attract publicity no matter how bad the film itself turned out to be. However, they were already causing problems; she wanted a cottage, but it had to have a room, painted a particular shade of yellow and with a sprung, wooden floor, for yoga. And she was a vegan, which was an unfamiliar concept in the West of Ireland in those days. He, on the other hand, had to have a suite in the best available hotel, which happened to be thirty miles from where the filming would take place, and an unending supply of Evian water in which to wash his hair, which he had dyed red for reasons of his own. The fear was that the peat in the local water supply would react with the dye and turn his hair green, which all were anxious to avoid.  He was offered Ballygowan, but regarded that as an unknown quantity, so the Evian had to be flown in from Paris, leaving a considerable hole in the already stretched budget.


All of this Martin relayed on the telephone to Jennifer at night when Joe was sleeping and she was settled on the sofa with a glass of wine. She’d make sympathetic noises, but what she felt was envy. Deep burning envy of this man with his outside life, his interaction with the stars, his important work to do. No matter how many times she told herself that raising children was the most important job of all, she couldn’t make herself believe it. She loved Joe with every fibre of her being, but that didn’t make it any less boring. He was the child they had longed for, she’d waited so long and been so wonderfully happy in her pregnancy. Then the birth had been awful, such a mockery of her carefully thought out plan. The music and scented candles had been hastily replaced by drips, consent forms and panic, the birthing stool was the last thing she saw, sitting unwanted in the corner of the mother’s suite as they raced the trolley into the corridor, pushing, running towards the operating theatre like medical students on some rag-week stunt.


Still, they’d got through it. At least the baby’s fine, that’s the main thing. That was what everybody said, and yes, it was the main thing, but she’d been left with a deep sense of having been wronged. The hospital had been in the grip of a staffing crisis and had missed all the early signs that things were not progressing as they should. But she was also left with a sense of guilt, that somehow she should have been more pro-active, taken charge. She should have been able to protect her baby from their incompetence; in her own eyes she’d failed.


Once the scar had healed and she was up and about she pursued the path well-trodden by new mothers, the one o’clock clubs, the NCT coffee mornings, mother and baby sessions at the local pool, but her heart wasn’t in it. Other mothers enraged her with their tales of natural birth, of successfully shoving one out with nothing more than a bit of chanting and a wisp of gas and air. She’d made one friend, Melanie, a big, raven-haired Brummie who worked for the TUC and lived only a few doors up the road. Melanie had pulled her into the pub on the way back from the toy library one day and broken down over a pint, telling Jennifer through her tears that she couldn’t stand another minute of it, while her infant daughter sucked on a prohibited bottle of Ribena. Jennifer loved Melanie. But the other mothers were such liars, with their tales of fulfilment and well-adhered-to routines. Then Martin and Jennifer had moved to the neighbouring borough in pursuit of a bigger house and Melanie had finished her maternity leave and returned to the TUC. After that Jennifer couldn’t summon up the energy to go out and make new friends. All Martin’s work seemed to be in another country; since Joe’s birth he’d worked in America, Africa and Romania. Martin’s phone calls were often the only adult conversation of the day and the glass of wine with which she comforted herself while they talked was generally followed by five more and another empty to stick out by the bin. Time and again she would try to pull herself together, take more exercise, watch less telly, eat more salad. But she’d been watching herself slipping deeper and deeper into the pit of her own misery for a while now; though she prided herself on hiding it from Martin and Joe she knew something had to be done; surely a change of scenery, some good fresh air, just the fact of being out of London, would restore her.



As the journey to Donegal was such a long one she’d decided that she must treat herself and take the Motorail to Carlisle. Motorail passengers travelled first class, and the other passengers were charmed to see the little lad sitting up at the breakfast table eating a croissant. They forgave him the crumbs, the spilt cup of tea, laughed as he slid under the table and ran up the aisle. Jennifer was charmed too. She’d never travelled first class in her life. It all felt right, the good-looking young woman with the pretty little boy, whose daddy worked in films, a well-paid and glamorous occupation to most people’s way of thinking. Martin might complain of the internecine wrangling and endless, freezing cold days standing next to a camera in some boggy field, but try a year of mining the laundry mountain and frying yet another bloody pan of fish fingers, thought Jennifer, then let’s see how quickly you run back to your boggy field.


By the time they reached Birmingham the breakfast had been cleared way and Joe was chasing up and down the corridor, with Jennifer chasing after him. From time to time she would drag him back to the seats she had paid for and try to bribe him, with the promise (regularly fulfilled) of sweeties, to sit still for a minute. She tried holding him up to the window, pointing out cows, horses and sheep without number, mooing, neighing and baaing, but he struggled to get down, only wanted to run. She tried jiggling him on her knee and singing to him but he persistently climbed up her body in an attempt to scramble over the back of the seat. After an hour of this the businessman sitting opposite, who had smiled indulgently when they’d got on at King’s Cross, sighed in a pointed manner, folded his FT and moved away. Uptight so and so, she thought, giving Joe an extra hug, he’s only a child, for God’s sake.


When they got to Carlisle there was a half-hour wait while the car was off-loaded. The thought of the drive ahead disconcerted her; she’d not had an unbroken night’s sleep in weeks and feared dropping off at the wheel. She’d hoped to get a bit of rest on the train but Joe had not slept a wink. However, she cheered herself up with the prospect of a good cup of coffee and something nice to eat as she chased after Joe, zig-zagging at top speed through the pedestrian precinct. Already she felt as if she were in a different country. And look how happy Joe was; so free, you could never allow a child that freedom in Hackney. She pinned him down long enough to buy them both some lunch and headed back to the car, filled with a kind of ecstasy fuelled by overwhelming love for her son and an unspecific and wildly optimistic sense of hope for the future.


Two miles outside Stranraer Joe threw up all over the himself and the back seat. She pulled over and got out. Stupid women, she told herself, of course he’s sick you’ve been stuffing him with food ever since Watford. At arms length she retrieved Joe from his seat, changed his clothes and wiped off as much of the vomit as she could with a towel and a roll of toilet paper she found knocking about the boot. She winced at the prospect of turning up in Belfast with a car and a child stinking of sick. Martin’s mother, with whom she would be lodging that night, had dedicated her life to cleaning and home-making, raising it to the level of art. The first Christmas after Jenniffer’s engagement to her son, she had made her a gift of a hard-back copy of “One Thousand Handy Household Hints”, as if one look at her was all it took to let her know that her future daughter-in-law was a slut. The first visit across with baby Joe had been marred for Jennifer by her mother in law’s raised eyebrows every time she put Joe to the breast. Demand feeding had not been the fashion in Violet’s day and she expressed the view that it and Joe’s frequent posseting were not unconnected. Turning up with a child and a car covered in vomit could only serve to confirm her in her opinion that her son’s wife didn’t know her arse from her elbow. Jennifer covered the car seat with another towel, lowered Joe into it and wound the window down, praying that the ferry wouldn’t be too crowded.


But Violet had been surprisingly sympathetic and turned her cleaning skills to great effect, sending Joe and Jennifer off the following morning in a car that barely smelled at all. She’d also astonished her with a fierce hug when they said goodbye; Martin’s family were not, on the whole, given to displays of emotion.


From Belfast she headed first south, then west. She stopped in Enniskillen for lunch, then following the shore of Lough Erne towards the border. Mile after mile the breathtaking beauty of the land unfolded itself to her, like a mythical feast. In no time at all she had crossed into the Republic, turning north at Ballyshannon and by late afternoon she was parking outside the Best Western in Donegal Town, where Martin was waiting for her.   The following day the small family took up residence in the stone cottage, two miles from the town of Carrick, at the end of the lane above Teelinn on the heather and gorse clad shoulder of Slive Lieghe.


Martin was supposed to be off the first day, but a row had broken out at the unit base; both of the stars wanted their trailers to be nearest to the location, which was set back from a single track road leading to a farm. This could not be achieved unless they were parked side by side, which would obstrudt the lane, to which the farmer objected, naturally enough. So Martin had to drive the thirty or so miles to the location, saying as he left that he’d be back as soon as he could but he couldn’t say when. There was no phone apart from the one in Martin’s car; Jennifer had been hoping he’d take them along, but he didn’t suggest it and she was too proud to ask, so she and Joe were left alone. Not to worry, she thought, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and you’re in one of the most beautiful places on earth, what more could a person want? She tied a scarf around her head to stop the wind whipping her hair across her face, put Joe in his buggy and set off down the lane.


She passed the handful of cottages that made up the rest of their tiny settlement. They were small, double-glazed bungalows; to Jennifer this was a shame; their own cottage was so pretty, it’s new paint and yellow thatch set into the hillside in such a way that it looked as if it had always been there. These others were, frankly, blots on the landscape. Nothing could be done about the double glazing, she mused, but surely a few flowers would soften the look of them. She supposed that, surrounded by so much beauty, the locals had come to take it for granted. She, on the other hand, was transported by what she saw. The lane wound steeply downward with a view across Teelin bay. It had rained in the night and all of creation glistened and gleamed, as if Mother Nature had just given it a wipe down with a damp flannel. Everything was perfect; the sea below, turquoise blue near the land and deep navy further out, the purple mountains rising vertically out of the far shore, the mosses and sedges growing out of the dry stone walls, the fields with their huge intractable boulders around which farmers had been ploughing for generations. Confident that she could not be overheard she burst into an exuberant rendition of “How Are Things In Glockamorra”. She was interrupted by the unexpectedly close baa-ing of a sheep and, peering over the wall, she saw a field full of ewes and lambs. She stopped by the gate and lifted Joe out of his buggy to show him a new-born, maybe only minutes old, being nudged and nuzzled into activity by its mother.

“Look, Joe, baby lambs. What do lambs say, Joe”

Joe made a noise.

“That’s right, my precious baby, lambs say Baa!” Jennifer understood the importance of positive affirmation in childrearing. Joe wriggled to be put down, but the second his shoes touched the road he was off, running down the hill as fast as he could go.

“Oh, no you don’t, my lad.” Jennifer said, catching him and scooping him up. “The road’s no place for a baby, not even this one.”

She wrestled him back into his buggy and struggled to fasten the clips as he, arching and wriggling, tried to make good his escape a second time. She stood up, stretching her aching back and considered what to do next. Teelin, the nearest village, was too far to walk, especially with Joe screaming all the way, and when she got there, what would she do? Reluctantly she pushed Joe back up the hill to the cottage.


But it turned out that Joe didn’t like the cottage. He cried and repeated the phrase “want a carry, want a carry” over and over the whole time they were indoors. The floor was laid with stone flags and these, presumably, straight onto the earth below, so she sympathised, but it made her life difficult, doing everything with Joe, who was a hefty child, tucked up on her hip. The weather was, as Martin had foretold, inclement for the most part. There seemed to be two choices; fine days with a gale-force wind blowing in off the Atlantic or still days when the world was veiled in a soaking, grey drizzle, giving way now and again to an honest-to-goodness downpour. Both days required the lighting of the range and soon she perfected the art of lighting the first turf of the day from the still-glowing embers of the previous night’s fire, so she was, indeed, hauling turf night and day. Joe had to be continually watched in case he burned himself, as there was no fire guard, and she couldn’t stop him running off down the lane if he was outside, so she sometimes had to resort to shutting him in the car, just so she could manage.


She soon found that she was spending the whole day driving from place to place, every day going a little further than the day before. Sometimes she’d drive out to the location beyond Glencolmcille, maybe have lunch with the unit. But though he tried to find time for her Martin was always busy with some emergency or another and she hated to appear dependent on him for company, so she’d ration her visits


Gradually the days warmed up until finally on the last day of April, the sun shone and the wind dropped and the day was genuinely warm.   Jennifer decided on a day at the beach. She’d already taken Joe to the shore at Teelin a couple of times and he’d played on the sand, digging into the dunes like a little dog, but the shore was strewn with bits of old hawser and rubbish from the harbour, so it didn’t feel like the seaside.   There was a beach below the location; she drove towards it, got as far as Glencolmcille and then change her mind, not wanting to feel the humiliation of needing Martin so much.   There were three roads that led out of Glencolmcille, the one that led back to Carrick and the one that led to the location. The other led over the mountain to the North and on to Ardara. She’d travelled a few miles up it one time and seen a turn-off, signposted Port. Locals having warned here not to go, there was nothing there. In spite of or because of this, on this last day in April, she headed out of Glencolmcille up the mountain road and turned off for Port. Where there was a port, perhaps, she reasoned, there would be a beach.   The road wound for miles, round mountainsides and past loughs. Once she passed a house and a sheepdog ran out, but only once. After almost an hour she arrived at the sea. A house stood half way up the cliff, there was a small bridge and the remains of what was once a harbour, now savaged by enormous Atlantic breakers. But this place had a name, she thought. Once people had come from and to this place, embarked and disembarked. She wheeled Joe in his buggy to where the jetty crumbled into the sea and stood, wondering, trying to make sense of it. Then, overwhelmed by panic, she fled back to the car and drove away.


By the time she reached the turning for Glencolmcille it was only still only two in the afternoon and the sun was still beating down. It was, of course, windy up in the mountains, but, she thought, if only she could get low down, with a bit of shelter at their backs, they might get be warm enough. There was nothing to do back at the cottage, so, instead of turning right and down the hillside, she carried on up.   For miles the car climbed steadily upwards through flocks of mountain sheep. Joe was hungry for his lunch and began to complain. She could go no faster, the sheep weren’t used to cars and instead of getting out of the way of the car merely sped up in front of it. Joe began to scream and her nerves snapped. She took her eyes of the road to tell him to shut up and in that instant felt the soft bump of the car hitting something. She slammed on the brakes at once and squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to face what she’d done. After a few seconds she opened them, to see a lamb struggling to his feet, his nose bloody from the impact. Then, bleating, he hobbled after his mother. Joe redoubled his attempts to get food out of his mother and she re-started the car.


After a while the road flattened out and began to descend. Suddenly, rounding a bend to the left, the view opened out before her and she gasped in amazement. The road ahead of her curved for miles down the side of a huge mountain, at the base of which the largest expanse of sand Jennifer had ever seen stretched across what must once upon a time have been an estuary. With the road entirely to herself she felt as if she was the first person on earth ever to see this view. Her spirits soaring, she let the car follow it’s nose down the mountain, at the bottom of which she followed the sign to Maghery Beach.


In spite of the lovely weather hers was the only car in the car park. She’d hoped that the café she saw down the track would be open but it was not and obviously had not been for years. A weathered tin sign advertising ice cream swung backwards and forwards in the wind on it’s one remaining hook, as if to mock her. An ice cream would have been very nice just now. Some fellow human selling an ice-cream would have been even nicer. She pushed Joe’s buggy down the sandy track past a series of brackish reed-fringed ponds and on towards the dunes. She pushed on past the dunes for a few minutes, but the wind soon became unbearable and she turned back. She found a particularly nice dune, sticking up like an enormous child’s sand-castle, on which she sat with Joe, feeding him marmite sandwiches and caramel wafers. As soon as he was fed he wanted to get down and run. He ran around and around their sand dune, with Jennifer chasing after him. This should be fun, she thought, this should be like a scene from a film, with a laughing mother and a giggling delighted child. But he seems not to need me, not to know I’m here. And I’m only chasing him for his safety, it’s not a game. From time to time she would catch him and they’d stop while she caught her breath. He’d scrabble in the sand like a dog, then get up and start to run again. Round and round and round. She decided on an experiment. She stood still and waited. Round he came, then round again, like a train on a track. He didn’t need her, whatever game he was playing, it did not involve anyone else. She sat down and found she was thinking about the lamb. Was he going to be alright? Had he trotted off and recovered? Or was he somewhere, rejected by his mother, dying a slow and painful death? Should she have found the farmer, taken the lamb to him? Paid some kind of compensation? Suddenly she realised she had not seen Joe come past. How long had it been, a minute, ten minutes? She ran towards the sea in panic. No. no sign of him. Thank God. There were caves in the distance where the mountain met the beach, but, surely he wouldn’t have had time to get so far? Or would he? She turned back to the dunes. Hundreds of them and he could be anywhere, behind any of them. She ran round their dune to check, no he wasn’t there; she climbed up the dune, perhaps he’d clambered up to get more biscuits, no, he wasn’t there either. Then, suddenly she spotted him, flying along the track back towards the car. Flooded with relief she tore after him, shouting his name. She was no more than thirty yards behind him when she saw him turn off the path towards on of the ponds. As if she were watching a film she saw him run splashing straight in until the water flowed over the top of his red wellys, filling them in an instant. Then he tripped and fell face down into the water. Seconds later she was in the water too, pulling at the straps of his sodden dungarees. Was she too late? Was he dead? For a second he hung over her breast like a doll, then he stiffened and wailed. She hauled herself to her feet, clutching her soaking wet child, howling with misery and relief.


Later she told Martin of their adventure, laughing and making light of it. Martin was secretly a little concerned that his wife had nearly let their son drown but said it was alright, no harm done, nobody died, sure. She laughed and kissed him, trying not to blame him.   But, deep in the dark, miserable depths of her wretched soul, under a rock, where no light ever shone and no-one was allowed to see, she knew that a child had died that day. The child of her dreams, her hopes, her expectations. The child she thought she knew. And that another child had been born, a child she and eventually Martin would have to come to know. But it was Jennifer alone that took delivery of the new child, alone on Maghery Beach, on the first warm day of Spring.


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