Read a story from the RTÉ Short Story Competition shortlist 2022: listen to The Coast of Africa by Julie Cruickshank above, and read Julie's story below.
Julie Cruickshank is originally from Galway and now lives and works in Dublin. Her story Beneath The Trees, Where Nobody Sees, was shortlisted for this competition in 2020.
Julie says: "Lough na Fuaiche, or Loch na Fooey, where my story is set, is on the border of Galway and Mayo. Apparently millions of years ago, an ocean closed up and brought the two halves of Ireland together. The lake and its surrounds are beautiful in a bleak way; there is something both unsettling and compelling about the stillness of it all."
The Coast of Africa
Late morning the motorway to the west is empty.
The boy sits in the front, his spine at an awkward curve, runners on the dashboard. A stretch of flat road disappears into pale sky. He types the name of the lake into the satnav. A lake with a beach. It is on the Galway/Mayo border, about an hour north of where his mother came from. He zooms in on a spindly network of roads and follows a thin white line with his fingertip until the screen becomes a grey mist.
After the junction for Galway his father puts on his music. Raw guitar and frantic drums. Music from before the boy was born. "Your mother would kill me for smoking in front of you." His father blows the smoke out the window with a screwed-up mouth, and turns up the volume.
The B and B is a peach coloured bungalow, set into a rocky mountain. The landlady's toes collapse on top of each other over the lip of her sandals. They follow her down a carpeted corridor and the boy tries to ignore the sound of her thighs rubbing against her trouser legs. She has two sons in England. She nods towards the boy, "Cracked about football."
"Three times a day now, there are flights into Knock, but they work very hard." The door swings open. Two single beds with a formica locker in between. On the wall the remains of patches of dried Blutack.
"Good complaint," she says. "To be that busy." She is at their heels, all the way back to the car.
"What brings you here?"
"My wife told me about the inland beach." His father smiles in that stiff way, the same as when the neighbours make a fuss, bringing round apple tarts that don’t get eaten. "She used to swim here when she was young." The boy watches the landlady’s gaze move around the car: the wet suits on the back seat, the mess of sandwiches and tinfoil, the cigarette butts, the dust on the dashboard. He waits for her face to change; that faint, familiar drop.
The lake is oblong shaped, the surrounding mountains stacked like shoulders. At the narrow end a rough track leads down to a small beach. The sand is coarse and cool under his feet. Jumper, t-shirt, shorts fall behind him as he runs. His squealing, shrill and childish even to his own ears.
"Cold enough for you?" His father stands at the shoreline. The boy runs in and out; screams louder, higher. It gives him a warm flutter in his stomach to hear his father laugh.
At breakfast the following morning the landlady lectures them about the lake. "It’s deceptive, not as calm as it looks." His father barely looks up. He reads all the time now, slowly working his way through the books in the downstairs bedroom. A few months before she died, on one of the days when she couldn’t sit still, the boy’s mother had arranged them, grouped the spines into blocks of colour. She had seen it in a magazine. "Feng Shui. Positive vibes." After she had gone to lie down the boy had walked his fingers along each colour, shelf by shelf. He listened to her moving around upstairs, the flush of the toilet, a gentle creak on the landing. Now she exists in the spaces between falling asleep and waking up, late at night when he wakes for no reason, or very early in the morning when thin light bleeds around the edges of the window blind. Fragments of her: hair tickling his face when she bent down to kiss him good night. How her clothes sometimes smelled of cigarettes. She loved Knock-Knock jokes. Soft hands. Sometimes he squeezes his legs to his chest, afraid of forgetting.
The landlady pours orange juice into an eggcup sized glass. "Are you for confirmation this year?" The boy shakes his head, his mouth full of egg and toast. A yellow dribble runs down his chin.
She grabs a dishcloth. Cracked, dry fingers graze his skin. She doesn’t ask if he minds. Down here, children are not asked. Things are different down home, his mother used to say. She was always a little cranky and distracted after the holidays. "It’s hard to explain. It’s a sense of belonging." At her wake, he and his cousins had chased each other in the back door of his grandmother’s house, down the hall and around the coffin. Old men he didn’t know ruffled his hair and stuffed five and ten euro notes into his jacket pocket. His father stood at the end of the garden, lighting one cigarette off another, then back to his position at the head of the coffin. She was buried in the local churchyard. He overheard the end of a conversation on the way to the pub. "With her own people."
Six months later, his father paid for a local man to carve her name on a piece of granite. On the way back to Dublin they stopped at the graveyard. The boy had copied a poem from one of her books. Afterwards, he ran his finger along the grooves made by the two dates until his father asked him to please stop.
After breakfast, the landlady hands them a bag. "Just a few sandwiches. And a treat." She winks at the boy. Inside, a packet of neatly folded grease-proof paper, two bags of crisps and a bar of chocolate.
This time they swim together to where the lake floor dips sharply away into darkness. The water is dense with green and brown plants that brush against his stomach, entangle his arms mid-stroke. His father looks back at the beach, struggles for breath. "No further out than here."
The boy watches him swim back. His head is all wrong, his arms awkward. No rhythm. The boy knows his father does not enjoy swimming, or food shopping, or talking to the teachers, or arranging play-dates. Pretending. Doing things you don’t particularly like so other people feel better. Part of becoming a grown up, his mother might say.
The swimming had been the father’s idea. Something to give them routine, get them up and out in the morning. The boy had promise, everyone said. His mother loved the water, and it was she who had taught him to swim, her hand on his belly, laughing, while his father thrashed up and down the pool. "Just look at him. All that fuss for nothing." She taught the boy to glide just underneath the surface, head down, to rotate his body to one side, not to be afraid of going under.
For all her talk, she was a quiet, graceful swimmer. The boy loved to watch her swim lanes, the water splitting evenly in front of her, trailing her like liquid glass.
For the past two years, three mornings a week, his father’s voice had woken him at half five. Usually, parents stayed in the viewing gallery, but his father always stood at the side of the pool. Watching. There was talk of teams, regional finals, trophies. The boy usually lingered until the ropes were pulled and the water became still. Then he went under. The pool had a glass ceiling and on sunny mornings the light made the blue and green mosaic tiles swirl. He kept himself submerged for as long as he could, arms wrapped around his knees, everything in suspension.
After the swim, they eat their sandwiches, and lie on the rug. The boy puts his head on his father’s stomach. If his mother was here she would be full of chat. She was a teacher and she knew something about everything: poems off by heart, song lyrics, why things were named the way they were. She would definitely know the names of the mountains, some myth about how they were formed. She would have noticed how they cast huge shadows on the lake, how creepy it felt. She might use a word like 'eerie'. They had watched a documentary together about how in ancient times huge chunks of the earth had split apart and floated far away from each other. Afterwards she had taken out his school atlas and ran her finger along the coasts of Africa and South America. The shapes still there, raw. After all that time.
When his father smooths his forehead, the boy doesn’t pull away. Sometimes he wonders where she would fit if she did come back.
On the last evening, the landlady offers to do a wash. "I know well what it’s like with boys." The boy does not want to give her his underwear but his father laughs and pulls the boxer shorts from his hand. A few hours later the clothes are left on his bed, ironed, and a pile of old football magazines sit on the locker. "I don’t even like football!" He flings the bundle into his rucksack, kicks it under the bed.
The following morning he is at the car before his father has finished breakfast. He hears the creep of rubber soles on gravel and the landlady rounds the corner of the house, drying her hands on a dishcloth.
"One last swim." She rubs at a spot on the side mirror.
The boy pounds the stones with the heel of his sneaker, runs his toe around the tyre.
"You’ll ruin your shoes."
Her feet make him nauseous; the toes trapped underneath each other, the blackened nails. A large bump underneath each big toe. His mother had shown him her own feet once, told him the word for those bumps. "See there?" She ran her finger around the slight curve. "I’ll get them, for sure. You too. Runs in our family."
Bunions. Such an ugly word.
The landlady, again. "I hear you win competitions."
He pulls at the handle of the car, wishes his father would hurry up.
"It’s great for boys to have a sport. You should keep it up."
"I s’pose." A kick to the tyre.
When she pulls him to her, he inhales fabric softener and cigarettes. Other smells too, things he cannot name. He shoves her back, cries out, but not before his body has given way momentarily, softened into the watery belly, sensed the frailty of her bones. She ignores his protest, lowers her head, fingers digging into his arm, her breath moist on his cheek. Something cracks in her throat, "You’re a great boy. You were robbed."
The wind is stronger today, the water choppy. His mother used to say that things can find you if you are open to them. People have found wedding rings on beaches. "Miracles do happen!" That kind of talk drove his father mad. Especially near the end. Healers, herbs, positive thinking. The whispered fights, drifting up the stairs. His father crying to someone on the phone. "It makes it worse."
When he surfaces the second time, he sees his father on the beach, gesturing for him to come in. A heaviness comes on him, drains the feeling from his hands and feet. He treads water, looks around. Sharp diagonal shadows slice the mountains in two. A shaft of sun illuminates the area directly below him, where the growth is sparse. He plunges down, right to the lake floor, puts his two hands flat onto the glittering sand.
Seconds pass, maybe a full minute, but nothing comes; no sign, no glimmer works its way through the dense vegetation. There is only his own arms and legs curled tight against his chest, the immense weight of the water above him. He imagines his father’s desperate charge towards him, his terror, the slap of his hands on the water. All that fuss.
His legs kick down, unmerciful; his arms reach up. Around him giant stalks quiver. Silk fronds caress the soles of his feet.
On the shore, hunched like old men, the mountains wait.
The Coast of Africa by Julie Cruickshank was read by Peter Hanly.
The series continues on Late Date at 11.20pm each night from 10 to 20 October (except Saturday 15th).
This will culminate in an Arena/RTÉ Short Story special which will go out live on air at 7pm on Friday 21 October 2022 from Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, with all 10 shortlisted writers in attendance. Judges Lisa McInerney, Ferdia MacAnna and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne will discuss the art of the short story and the stories from this year's shortlist with host Seán Rocks, there'll be live music and performances from leading actors, and we'll find out who's won the top prizes. Why not join us in person? Audience tickets are now on sale at paviliontheatre.ie
And for more about the RTÉ Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus, go here.