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FICTION (April 2018)

The Sea Hospital by Angela Graham

Until now I have only seen a blue like this in a stained-glass window. You know the trick: you’re looking up at a window, so-called, though it doesn’t let in much light –  for a window. It’s in some trendy, modern abstract mode so there’s a lot of near-opaque, dark stuff and then  ̶  a punch of colour through the murk, a crimson, blood-gout red, pulsing at you out of the void. Life! it grins gleefully. Coming to get you! And higher up, there’ll be a blotch of unapologetic green, holly green, old and knowing green, swimming along about its own mulchy business and then, way, way up there, a cobalt, mineral but alive, shock-charged with utter blue; the heavens in a bleb of glass.

Here the sea has caught exactly that vivid, light-filled colour. Between this shoreline and the island opposite, and around to the right –  the passage out to Scotland –  the sea is a thoroughfare of blue, brilliant as enamel. I fill my eyes with it, against next winter’s dearth.

We sit in Harry’s conservatory: tea, cake, the amazing springtime sea beyond the glass. I listen as Harry and his mother talk. They’re something of a unit, as he never married. They both have it, that gift of conjuring pictures. They paint scenes of their lives. I see another house that Harry has his eye on, a house at the heart of a seaside town, not, like this one, beyond the edge of a village. I see a sketched-out, post-retirement life. I see the double-fronted desirability, the good sense.  Harry at eighteen, circumspect. Harry at forty-eight, shrewd.

Let me adore all efforts of this kind: this planning to be content. I adore as someone amazed at a thing she can’t really comprehend.

As I leave, Harry’s mother sparks up about my uncle. He lived a few miles away. With the frankness of age, she says of him, Odd wee man. Aye.

Uncle Hughie’s house was comfortless: a bilious green inside, with him sputtering around in it, a hampered, frightened spirit, hoping that jokes would do the trick of letting him pass for a happy man. He tried so frantically to keep death at bay that there was hardly room to think of anything else. He favoured jerky calisthenics and long walks that took him out past Harry’s house.

Did nobody ever tell him? Just a hint at how to live? But it gets so that nobody knows where to start. So much to undo before you could build it up again.

It takes some nerve to take a stand, I think, to… But the roof of a car is glimpsed, higher than the hedges, and here are the Missouri Yanks arriving. We open the gates for them to drive in. How large they are in chino-fawn and roomy polo shirts. How thrilled, and  ̶  yes – only just got to it and they’re enquiring if Harry’s holiday let is for sale. Well. They’re planning content. The woman hugs a pile of sheets. She beams. A rental week of bliss. They’re planning content.

I think (as they mistake the Polish gardener for Harry’s brother) I think: it takes some nerve to take a stand and take a risk and say, to this one or that: You’re wrong. Don’t. Don’t − whatever it is – don’t keep us all at bay with quips and riddles; don’t jog in the kitchen while you’re talkingyou’re as doomed as the rest of us; don’t think we can’t see that you feel unloved and don’t know what to do about it. I think that to say those things would be brave and kind.

Other people’s wounds. I used to think it went like this: wounds are displayed, pity evoked, poultice applied. But now I wonder if it isn’t rather that there should be a calling out – like Lazarus from the tomb; a summoning up of serum from within the wounded ones so that they learn to live from deep within themselves. It’s someone else’s voice that calls but it’s Lazarus who has to find it in himself to move. He could have stayed put, because at least he’d got the measure of the status quo, even though that was death. Which was more frightening a prospect: staying where he was or venturing on (what must have seemed to him) the impossible?

Parp! The Americans’ huge car slots into place beside the Salt House door. Harry made a ruin into this comfy niche, tucked into the black, shallow steps of rock that face east. Such a view. The edge of Ireland’s north. And such a history. Scotland seems touchable, out at sea.  The Sons of Uisneach were lured away from there by the false promise of an Irish king, and Deirdre of the Sorrows stepped ashore among them, equally duped, equally hoping against hope. The Americans are practically fainting with awe; itching, I bet, to send the news back home. Harry’s mother urges blankets For the nights are cold yet. Harry’s quick to say, Central Heating as he leads them to the door.

Such a harsh remedy here, before. He’ll be telling them the story there inside. How, since the sixteen-hundreds, that blue, flexing element was rendered to astringency in the salt pans out of doors – natural basins formed in these shelves of rock – and how this place became a kind of hospital: fevers and madness swathed in briny, saturated sheets and dropped into the whirlpool’s mouth – Yes, a whirlpool, out there beyond. Don’t cross those rocks at night! he’ll joke, not joking.  Where those rocks slope up out to the sea, a huge hole opens at your feet. You’ll see the water swirling and turning way below. Aye. They’d tie the patient to a chair then lower it, down into the gap.

Gee, why

Well, he’ll say, would you be thinking about your symptoms? A shock to the system. Frightening the patient back to life, d’you think?

As a child, I used to teeter on that brink, watching the churning suck-hole far below. Even to look was brave. But I’m on a lawn now. Safe. These gardens are a marvel: nooks and sunny spots and all the flowers that can live in such salty air. What an amount of work has gone into this, creating a pleasurable place.

The air is cooling in the swift spring twilight and the sea is an undulating navy serge. Going to see Uncle Hughie – it was a challenge. You’d see the curtains twitch in the house of death. He might or might not let you in. The neighbours’d be looking, the kids in the street calling out, astonished, Mammy! There’s a woman going in! You’d have to step over the gate because he kept it locked. But once inside he’d be fizzing with manic energy, keen to show off his bargains – multiple tins of soup or how much money he’d made from burning all the family photos and selling the albums. If he stopped, he’d die. Did he even sleep? He’d pull you down if you didn’t keep your head.

The door open just a chink and a chain-lock on: that generation on my father’s side. Quick to laugh, if that’s what they thought would get them by, but it never reached the eyes; intelligent, shrewd eyes. People alert, knowing they were begrudged what good they got; ready to be snarled at and turned on, expecting the rebuff and the smart put-down. One aunt would leave the receiver lying and walk away from a phone call rather than grapple with a yes or a no, wary of being trapped, of all that other people might expect or want. I got cut off, she’d say, blandly, later. Planning survival, not content.

There’s laughter from the Salt House and they all emerge. The Yanks are beaming. Up into the vast car and away for supplies. I take my leave by the door that gives onto the beach where the whirlpool lurks. Colour has drained away. Ahead, the island, like a stencil on a wall, presents itself in blocks of black. The strand to the left is grey; the village it leads to, a distant dark mass on the promontory; beyond that, a silvery veil of sky with a hem of cold light touching the sea.

I climb up on to the rickety wooden walkway that leads out to the whirlpool, over boulders and gaps. As a child, the thrill! It was a walk to Doom, clinging to the one hand rail, daring to glance between the cracks in the boards at the wavelets darting and retreating below. And then, a leap, to land on the great outcrop itself. And the sound! A booming, threshing roar from underneath; the spurt of white spray bursting through rock, grabbing the air and falling back, defeated – this time. There would always be a next.

But not for us. I know that now. There is a photograph of me as a toddler standing at this spot. I frown, all pudgy in my seersucker bathing suit, with a bow in my hair. I frown. My hand is in my father’s hand. That’s all of him that the photo shows, his hand and arm. He’s long, long dead. That swaying sensation at the brink. You know? Down in the chamber the sea rushes in and funnels and spins and races away, a chain of demons, roaring: Face your worst fears, my dear. Face us and live. Hold back and die. Such a seductive choir. I could just go, let go, give in and cease. My heavy head could droop, tipping the balance and I’d fall, slowly…

Throw me a rope, haul up on my chair! I mustn’t drown! Must I?

Which do you fear more: sickness or health?  the demons cackle and sneer.

I am perched for a fall. Fling me out now! Be merciless. Kindness can kill, keeping everything unchanged. Let the sea salt my wounds. Then, with clear eyes, I will plan my content. I will!

Who am I babbling to? It must be to myself. I step back from the edge. I turn to look at the way I’ve come. The cliff that backs the strand is enormous, looming, and the sky over it starless and cold. The waves discuss the beach, over shingle, endlessly but they can’t be seen and I can’t make out the end of the walkway. The hole behind me chuckles and thuds. I baulk at the thought of the journey back across the rocks. Then a sudden tiny brightness flares, low down by the shore, like a mercury-silver gash in the darkest pane. Life! it giggles. Coming to get yooooo! The Yanks back for the night.

I have to laugh, stranded here with that hole at my back and that cosiness ahead. The wind catches my attention. It must have been seeping through my clothes, more like liquid does than air, for my skin, every inch of it, flinches, as though drenched all at once.  I’m sharply aware of my shape in the darkness, my shape that the wind must negotiate if it wants to get ahead and of my need to move, for I’m no rock! So here goes. And I have to laugh at myself, slipping and wavering, cursing and sploshed. Very heroic.  I pitch forward and grab something, and shells slit and skin my hand. Instinctively to the mouth it goes. A salty tang. Blood and sea.

When I make it to the beach-end of the walkway I sit down and I cry. It has to go. What? What has to? The family skin. I have to zip it off and let it go, stepping out of it somehow. I must unwrap myself, calling myself out of the devil’s maw. That’s no name for yer Granny! my uncle’s voice quips instantly, quick to belittle any serious stuff. Cover it up, quick, quick, or we’re all done for. The thing is never to look and see, he advises, nervily.

No. I must look. I must see. I must choose Life that’s coming to get me. Life, silly and tragic.  Waving in the darkness, Harry’s daft, doomed, beautiful, what-the-hell roses reach for the sea over his garden wall.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Graham has a great respect for the dead and has written about them often. She looks forward to joining their ranks in due course. Originally from Belfast, she’s had a long career as a documentary-maker, cinema producer and screenwriter. She completed a short story collection, A City Burning, in 2017 and is researching a novel set in Northern Ireland. Her website can be found at angelagraham.org

(Angela Graham wishes to acknowledge the award of a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Wales for the purpose of completing this work.)