From the shortlist of ten for this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, read The Shape On The Strand by Katherine Duffy...

A remote island, an ancient language, and a feathered hat...

The Shape on the Strand

The translator is surprised to find a man's hat on the top shelf of the wardrobe. She’s standing on a chair, scrabbling for her sun-hat which she tossed up here with a neat frisbee-throw when she was unpacking on the first evening. Her own hat is a rather romantic straw number trimmed with a pale green ribbon. Maybe a bit young for her now but who’s here to judge? She’s free to wear what she likes. 

This other hat is an old-fashioned, dark brown trilby with a little green feather in its band. Too warm for this climate. It must belong to whoever had this room before her. A forgetful old gent from some northern provincial town, maybe. She imagines him tipping this hat with endearing formality to the ladies he passed on his evening promenade by the sea.

Downstairs, reception is mobbed by a fresh coachload of middle-aged Germans. The translator leans over the desk, waving the trilby. Along with a bit of glowering from the check-in queue, she attracts the reluctant attention of one of the receptionists. She begins to explain about the hat. The receptionist nods impatiently, snatches the trilby and slots it into a recess under the desk.

Now the translator feels light and free. She walks out into the warm evening and starts down the hill towards the sea. She needs air. She needs food. Her brain is sore from grappling with that damned novella.

The trip had been a last-minute bargain, booked on an impulse. It was just what she needed to move the work along, she had announced, to herself and to friends. Now, on day three, she has to concede that all the problems she’d had with the project at home seem to have travelled safely with her. To make matters worse, she hasn’t been sleeping well. The bed is comfortable enough but someone in the next room has a serious cough and has been hacking and gasping deep into the night. She’s thinking of asking for a change of room.

The translator passes cafés and cocktail bars, mini-markets and souvenir shops. The season is just beginning so the little harbour town has a pleasant bustle without being uncomfortably crowded.

She slows her pace outside a restaurant with elegant furniture and attractive shrubs. A waiter appears, as if on cue. 'Por aquí, señora, I have the perfect place for you,’ he coaxes, extending his arm towards the terrace in a proud gesture. She hesitates, then nods and follows him.

The translator rests her eyes on the winking, darkening blue of the sea. Bread arrives. Wine arrives. Gambas pil pil, meatballs and green beans arrive. She thanks the waiter and begins to eat.

All his life, the writer had made it clear that his work was not to be translated. He wrote in the old language, he said, and if people wanted to read what he wrote, they would just have to learn it. The inaccessibility of his books, combined with the high praise of those who could understand them, imbued his work with an intense mystique.

The writer had never married and, when he died of chronic lung disease in his sixties, without having made a will, his many relatives indulged in a long, savage skirmish over the rights to his work. He had left little else of value. Eventually, a grand-niece emerged victorious, and not too long after that, she declared his work should be translated into English. Brushing away reminders of what the writer had wanted, pooh poohing accusations of greed, she said she wanted the whole world to appreciate his genius.

The translator’s career had begun many years ago with quite a flourish. One of her own grandparents spoke the old language. This gave her a head start, an almost flashy fluency that the laborious learners from scratch couldn’t equal. She took her Masters in applied translation studies with ease and work flooded to her. She quickly gained a reputation for doing a fast, excellent job. Words seem to stream through her and convert, like a currency.

In recent years, though, things have changed. The marketplace has become more crowded as more courses spring up, and more translators are specialising in the old language. Younger colleagues are mopping up juicy assignments and garnering praise for their innovative methods. Work no longer falls into her lap. She has to network and lobby and sometimes even grovel for it.

So she was overjoyed when the company who won the translation rights to the writer’s work asked her to take on ‘The Shape on the Strand’. Although only novella length, it has the depth and richness of a much longer work and is considered one of his greatest achievements. This piece of work could bring her real acclaim.

Sometimes she can’t resist picturing herself at the annual translation awards ceremony, several pounds thinner and sheathed in damson silk, making her acceptance speech. She would say something about how good translation can ferry the riches of the old culture across to the shore of the new.

She pays her bill, bids the waiters good night and sets off back to her hotel. In her room, she puts her keycard in the power slot and the surge of light reveals the brown trilby, sitting in the middle of her bed. ‘Oh for crying out loud!’ says the translator, out loud.

She is woken at least three times during the night by the fitful coughing next door. Around eight, the trundling sounds of housekeeping start up in the corridor outside. She blinks open sticky eyes, and the first thing she sees is the hat on her bedside table. The sight of it is somehow oppressive.

The translator jumps out of bed, grabs the hat and throws open the door. The small, dark woman standing beside the linen trolley looks startled.

‘Not mine,’ the translator says, in English, presenting the hat to the woman as if on a platter. ‘Please take it away. Not. Mine!’

‘The Shape on the Strand’ is a detective story that is also a love story. It’s a love story that is also a ghost story. It’s set in the wind-scoured landscape of the west, where the old language is still sporadically spoken. At its heart is the death of a young local woman whose body washes up on a lonely beach. The consensus is that she fell from a cliff and drowned but one man is convinced that there is more to her death than meets the eye.

Today the translator tackles a piece in which the man goes to an eerie cave at the foot of the cliffs, trawling for clues. Not just clues to the young woman’s death but to the meaning of life itself. He’s a philosophical type of fellow. An observant type too. The rocks he clambers over to get to the cave, the different kinds of seabirds that wheel raucously around his head, are all described in exquisite detail. The writer is famous for using words that have never been captured in dictionaries. The translator inches along, word by wild, resistant word.

Later, on her evening walk, she dodges the restaurant touts with their garish pictures of pizza and paella. She walks further along the waterfront than she has gone before, towards the pier that juts out into the open sea. When she sees the car rental office she stops. In the dark office, a heavy man with a gold chain around his neck rears up to greet her. ‘Señora,’ he says, extending his hand. You will not be sorry you come to me. For you I have the perfect car.’ The translator smiles cynically, but takes a seat.

While he’s tapping on his calculator, adding God knows what extras onto the price, she rummages in her untidy handbag for her driving licence. Amid the muddle of receipts, dog-eared brochures and old shopping lists, she comes across a newspaper cutting. It’s a few months old, an article on the writer: an opinion piece on the ethics of having his work translated in view of his well-known stance on the subject.

There’s a picture of him at the top of the piece. He has the lined face of a man who has suffered and smoked a lot. His eyes are dark. Dark with disapproval? Dark with hatred? She shakes herself. It’s probably just the gloom of this office that makes him look so sinister. Or maybe it’s that his eyes are shaded by the brim of his hat. A dark, distinctive hat. Is that a little feather in the band?

‘Señora? Señora, you are well? It is too hot in here. Here is some water.’

‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ she babbles. ‘Actually, if anything I feel a little bit cold.’ But she accepts the plastic cup of icy water. She sips it and breathes, and musters enough composure to sign off on the deal.

She feels much better when they are outside in the sun again, standing beside a red car that is so small it seems more like a large toy than a real vehicle. The car-hire man hands her a glossy, simplistic-looking map. He has marked a route on it in black.

‘Oye, you must go to here,’ he says, pointing, ‘and you will see the beautiful sun. On the ocean! And then to move on a little this way, you will find a small village. Very pretty. If you wish to eat in the village, go to this place: El Asador.’ He hands her a card. ‘Very very good!’

‘Okay,’ she says, weakly, getting into the car. ‘Okay. Thank you.’

She moves gingerly back through the town, craning her neck at the map which lies open beside her and at traffic lights and signposts. Soon, she pulls away from the dusty outskirts and is beetling up into the mountains. She feels a tingle of adventure. Behind her, the sea flashes a metallic blue, calm under the spell of evening. The further she gets from the town and her trials the more her spirits lift. The little car climbs long hairpin bends towards the pass marked on the map. If she’s reading it right, the village the car-hire man mentioned won’t be too far from there. She’s beginning to feel hungry – she hopes the restaurant he mentioned is as good as he says.

Despite herself, her mind returns to her work. Where will she find the English names of the seabirds in the passage she was working on today? There are at least three that she’s sure she actually knows but the words are playing cat and mouse with her, scurrying away every time her mind glances close to them.

Just as she crests the pass, she hears a sound above the warm hum of the engine. A sharp sound that seems far away and yet distinct. A cough. Then there’s a sort of quick, dark shimmer on her peripheral vision. She swivels around to look. The brown hat with the green feather is there on the back seat.

When the translator turns to look forward again, she sees that there is indeed a magnificent sunset on the far side of the pass – a glory of pink and yellow splashed across the sky. Far below her, the radiant sea curves into an almost perfect crescent of cove. She sees also that the car has left the battered grey surface of the road and is flying, then bumping, then tumbling down a sheer rocky slope. Like a seabird, she thinks, and the words she has been chasing all day give up the game at last.

Katherine Duffy was born in Dundalk, but has lived in Dublin for many years. She worked in Dublin Public Libraries and later in the Translation Section of the Houses of the Oireachtas, before taking early retirement in 2019 to concentrate on writing. She has published poetry collections with the Dedalus Press and Templar Poetry. Previous short stories of hers have won Oireachtas awards and the Hennessy Award.  

This is one of 10 stories from the shortlist of the 2020 RTÉ Short Story Competition.  Read the rest of the stories here, tune into an Arena special at 7pm on Monday 28 September when the judges will announce their overall winners, and listen to a story from the shortlist on air every night from Monday 28 September to Friday 9 October at 11.20pm on RTÉ Radio 1. 

The Shape on the Strand will be read by Jane Brennan.