We're delighted to present a new short story by Eoin McNamee, taken from the latest edition of essential annual arts anthology Winter Papers, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith.
They came in from the island at mid-morning on a broken down punt. The island lay half a mile offshore. It was uninhabited with a bird sanctuary at one end and the Haulbowline lighthouse at the northern tip. There were four men and three women. The men wore black suits and looked like street figures from long ago. Lost citizens photographed on the avenues of forgotten cities. The women wore long skirts with embroidery in the hem and tied their hair back from their faces. On the way in from the island the skirts fluttered like tattered ball gowns.
The Lights had been built for the men servicing the Haulbowline lighthouse. Helen had leased it for a season. The doors were wooden, heavy-bolted, the planking studded. In the winter, shingle from the beach was thrown against the seaward wall. The Haulbowline horn sounded when there was fog. There were parts of the winter when whole weeks were given over to mournful sounds.
The house was rented from Patterson. The Lights had been his family home and he had let it to holidaymakers for years. He skippered the pilot boat in the channel between the shore and the island. He said he’d worked the oil industry in the Shetland Islands for ten years to earn money for the boat. He’d called it the Voe after the oil terminal at Sullom Voe. He said that in the summer there was no nightfall. She wondered what a Voe was. She thought of it as a dominion of light.
He said the foreign workers spent a day and night at a time out on the island, gathering whelks and razor fish. They wore torches on bands around their heads and followed the tide out at night to gather the shellfish. When they were finished they waited for dawn in a derelict birdwatchers hut. The shellfish were packed in hessian sacks and were put in the back of a van when they came ashore. Every night Helen could see the lamps moving in the dark.
Patterson came to the Lights every week to collect the rent. He was a lay preacher and spoke in the square in the town on Saturday evenings and he came after preaching. He looked out of the window at the torchbeams moving down the island beach. The night seeded with their light.
‘They’d want to be careful out on that island. The beach slopes then it drops off into the deepwater channel. Put a foot wrong, you’re in the race. All sort of sunk boats down there you could get snagged in. You don’t want to see a body’s been in the water for a week or so.’
‘I saw a few. I nursed in the Royal.’
‘Come to one of the missions,’ he said. ‘There’s all sorts of people there. There’s a social side to it.’
‘If you want to go out to the island I could take you out in the Voe. This time of year you drag your hand in the water and it lights up with plankton.’
‘I have MS,’ she said. She was trying to think of herself as crippled. There would be palsies. She saw herself following people down the street, wheedling.
‘You never said you were ill.’
‘They say I’ll experience fatigue, sudden losses of function.’
‘If you fell in the house, who would know?’
She had a scan in the Royal. The nurses were all new, Phillipinos and Polish. She didn’t know any of them. She was told to remain absolutely still in the machine. When she was small she’d been good at hiding games. She knew that you didn’t go far, that the best way was staying right under their noses not breathing, not moving. She didn’t know that these withholdings had stayed with her through the years of work. The stillnesses of airing cupboards, of shrubberies after rain. Places you could go when the machine rotated, when it made the otherworldly sounds, the bone-noises.
The scan came on a gelatined plate like a negative from early photography. If you looked closely there would be men and women in old-fashioned costumes, sombre with the burdens of forgotten worlds.
There was a storage room under the stairs in the Lights with a shelf of board games and puzzles, Monopoly and draughts, the boxes frayed and repaired with yellowed sellotape. There would be missing pieces, half a deck of cards. There were sun-faded towels hanging from brass hooks. A feel of long-gone summers to the room, sand carried into the house beneath your feet. The smell of sun cream. She opened a shoebox of photographs and newspaper cuttings.
lady captains day at Sand Park golf club
the bride wore a dress in silk taffeta with diamente inset
She knew she was intruding on someone else’s history but she didn’t care. She was tired of her own. She imagined a family coming in off the beach, a summer storm darkening the windows. They would play board games in front of a driftwood fire. There would be laughter, dry lightning in the sky out beyond the lighthouse. She would be wearing a summer dress. She found an embroidery of wild mustangs. They galloped across a yellow stitched background. She brought it out and put it on the wall beside the kitchen.
In early February she went for a walk on the beach. On her way back she sank to her knees in the sand. The tide started to come in around her. The beam from the lighthouse passed her at timed intervals. She smoothed her skirt around her knees. Everything around her was in motion. There were hailstones in the air. Wind swaying the marram grass. Clouds blew across the moon. The night was a dance and she was going to sit it out.
The foreign workers were launching the punt from the jetty. A young woman walked through the surf to Helen. She tried to help Helen to her feet, then she put her arms under her and carried her to the Lights. She could feel the girl’s hands under her thighs. She knew there was muscle wastage. She would feel birdlike, the bones like something from early flight, delicate struts and flexors. The girl had black hair and a blue gaol tattoo below her right eye.
The girl was wet through. None of Helen’s clothes would fit her. Helen pointed to the room under the stairs. The girl went into the room and came out with a faded red and black dress. She took off her top and skirt as though she had been given an order to strip in a room with a single bulb and a metal locker. Helen saw how young she was and thought there would be a vulnerable beauty, an orphan pallor, but there was scarring on the girl’s groin and collapsed veins on her legs. Helen saw the needle tracks when she lifted her arms to pull the dress over her head. The girl went over to the mustang embroidery and stood in front of it for a moment. The wild horses were in full gallop. They tossed their manes. Dust rose from the ground under their hooves.
In May, Patterson set up a tent mission in the field beside the beach. Men and women gathered around a harmonium and sang hymns across the empty beach. Helen didn’t go but one night she walked across the beach to the big tent when all the cars were gone, parting the flap to enter. There was a smell of grass and wooden benches stacked in the middle. Patterson was there on his own. He looked tired.
She asked were there horses on the island?
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s what the gangmasters call the workers. Horses. They need somebody for a job they take a minibus across on the ferry and head east on the autobahn. A few days and they come back with as many as they need.’
Patterson told her about the cities where the gangmasters found their work crews. Edge-of the-world-places, abandoned industries and run-down suburbs. Minibuses waiting outside bars and cafes near mental hospitals and drying-out facilities, snow whirling in the squares, their pale clientele shuffling on frozen pavements.
There were missions in the tent all summer. The voices of the preachers carried to the Lights. She had never been to one of these meetings but she knew that people came to the Lord during them, that they were washed in the blood of the lamb.
Patterson said that the Horses lived in the net store behind the jetty. She washed and dried the young woman’s clothes and brought them to the store. The jumper and skirt belonged to some era of threadbare fashions. The cloth was worn, the stitching was poor, darns under the arms.
The net store had a behind-the-lines feel to it. There were broken pallets on the ground. It smelled of spilled marine diesel. They all looked furtive. She looked around for the young girl but she couldn’t see her so she gave the clothes to one of the older women. One of the men had a cut on his arm and had taped a child’s nappy to it with insulating tape. They were their own crime and their own forensics.
The missions ended but the empty tent stayed up. At night she heard its white canvas crack in the wind.
In June the young woman went missing from the island and Patterson found her body at the lighthouse. He said she’d gone out too far the night before, that she had stepped out into the deep channel.
She was lying on the deck of the pilot boat. Her eyes were open. Helen wondered what she had seen. It would be a kind of universe down there in the black tidal race, plankton going past like pulsar streams. The Horses stood on the jetty looking down on her. There was nothing to be done. There was no loyalty and no betrayal. One calamity was very like another.
Helen wondered if there had ever been a girl walking home from school. A city on the edge of wheatfields. A block of apartments on the outskirts, just beyond the last metro stop.
When they lifted her onto the jetty one of the men took off his heavy glasses and leaned over her, his lips moving slowly as though he was not speaking but letting each word fall from his mouth onto her waterlogged face. No one tried to stop him. There might be ancient words of pleading in their language. There might be expressions of calling back.
A week later she met Patterson at the pier. He was washing the boat’s decks. She asked him what had happened to the girl’s body.
‘Congregation paid for a cremation,’ he said. ‘Plenty more where she came from.’ A Voe she thought was a vast unearthly space. It left no room in the heart for anything else.
She stayed in the house. She was too tired to walk on the beach. The man with the heavy glasses came to the door in the evening. He had a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He was wearing a frayed overcoat and looked like an envoy from a distant country. He looked past her as he handed her the parcel.
He stood for a moment as though there were some message that she might send back but there was nothing. She watched him walk to the end of the path and walk out the road past the mission tent where he was lost in the mist rising off the shoreline fields as if he came from a city that was dreamed of but never built.
She opened the package on the kitchen table. It was the red and black dress the girl had taken from the storage room. She ran her fingers along the hem and felt detailing she had not known was there, thread in faded gold. She went into the room under the stairs and brought out the box of photographs and clippings. Family groups on sun-dazzled beaches. Damp stains on the emulsions, the paper spotted and foxed. Helen thought of the settings without them. The unpeopled beachfronts scoured by the wind, the overgrown beauty spots. Where had they gone, the mothers in angular sunglasses and arcane swimming costumes, the children with concave chests?
She found the cutting she had been looking for. It was dated thirty years earlier.
The honeymoon was spent at the Lights, and for going away the bride wore a loose-fitting coat over a cherry and black dress trimmed with gold lurex thread, and black accessories.
Where was the bride who left her cherry and black going away dress in the Lights, the gold thread tarnished with the years? She wondered if the newly married couple had played Ludo or whist while the darkness gathered, stormlight to the north. She wondered if they laid bets, gamed with each other, what the forfeits were?
She saw the Horses working at a car wash which had been set up in an abandoned garage in the town. They shuffled around the cars in coats and broken shoes, down at heel vaudevillians with buckets and sponges. None of them looked up when she said hello. They could only be sad and remote. They could be rescued from others but they could never be rescued from themselves.
The hospital took more photographs of her brain and sent her cross sections.
There were unmapped worlds.
Patterson had said there were no horses on the island but she didn’t believe him. When they were alone on the island the horses would come down to the tideline at dusk. They would scrape at the frozen ground with forehooves. They would flare their nostrils and their breath would smoke in the cold air.
The tent stood in the field like a tabernacle into the first months of winter. She went as far as the end of the garden using crutches so she could see the beach and the island. The tide going out, the black water flow just offshore. She remembered what Patterson had said about boats sunk in the channel and wondered if there was still passage seaward, if there was someone she could ask to take her to the island. It had appeared close to the shore when she had first come but now it was further away. Late in the winter she started to see lights on the island shore again. The air was clear and she could see faces under the torches, bent downwards as though they prayed at the edge of the sea, as though they knelt to the evensong of themselves.
Winter Papers Vol 4, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, is in bookshops now.