Thomas was looking at me now.
His brow clear of that persistent frown that had been there since I had fallen first. I had thought it was only a bit of a turn until I started dropping things. He had since moved back from Dublin and taken over what was left of the family business. Fethard had little to offer the young people. But yet again the words alluded me to start to a conversation with him about this. The last time he was here he had left early. I had stared at the plastic table cover thinking that the gaily printed flowers on it were meant to inspire joy but that had served to mock me in my infirm state. Everything was reusable now.
Maybe they thought that I was too.
The death I had previously longed for and subsequently forgotten about, had eventually caught up with me. I had gone on to have a hard but uneventful life since those dark. Sleep as always eluded me and as I gazed down into my twisted and gnarled hands, my mind turned to the many things that I had held in them. The maudling emotions of a man at the end of his days overwhelmed me. I struggled to pace my thought to let them be caught by words. Feeling ensnarled by letter combinations that would never fully articulate the depth of my guilt. I had hid behind my guise of heroism for years. Succumbing to it. Never arguing with people who praised me that I had lost men. That the fault had lain with me the whole time.
It had a name now. It was a thing. When something happens and it burrows so deep into your mind that it becomes part of you. Forgetting it isn’t possible. Nor is forgiving yourself. When you have nightmares and funny thoughts. When you should be happy, but you only are on the surface. On the bit that people can see. It all made sense of course, but at this stage, I felt I had lived with the guilt so long, why bother trying to think about it now. Visible in the grey hair and lined face that stared back at me from the mirror.
There was a place between living and death, and for those three days I thought that I resided there. I prayed for death to come, I would not have shied away from it were it to arise at my aperture. But that was on the island. I was only there in my nightmares now. Now, I hold my faith dearer, as I believe God knows what is ultimately right – during the rescue, I feared that I was existing at the limits of my life.
When we eventually returned, I knew that I had witnessed true terror. It has no sound. I never had thought of it before. It does not swell from the back of the throat as one would expect. It freezes. Hangs. Lingering in the air until it dissipates leaving noise to take over. I had yet to sleep through the night since, and this had subsequently worn a groove in me that I had grown accustomed to. As the stone becomes smooth as the river washes over it, I had allowed time wash over me and had adjusted accordingly.
Three nights we spent on the islands following a failed rescue attempt of the crew of the Mexico. Unpredictable seas and unfortunate weather had meant that some of our crew were lost on the outward journey. Rain water from pools was what we were reduced to, but grateful for it. The irony that we ourselves had gone to rescue the crew in the first place burrowed deep into my soul. Sketching large deep furrows of guilt onto it. Forever altered.
Each time they attempted a rescue, they were beaten back by the sea. A solution found its way, and we managed to get off the islands. I myself stopped the boat sinking on the return journey, forcing the sea out of a hole with a chunk of stale bread. Hesitation had been growing in me about leaving, the urge to stay growing within me as the reluctance to face everyone took hold. I was silently taken aback by my quick thinking, but as much as I didn’t want to go back, it was not enough reason to risk any more lives. I had felt every inch of the rown journey back from the Keeragh Islands. Every splash into the water louder than the last in the chasm of silence that had surrounded the lifeboat.
We had returned to a hero’s welcome. I understood that we had achieved a great feat by coming back at all, so I hid the nagging guilt. The feeling that the base of my stomach had evaporated, left in the air hovering over beach. It had remained as a stain on my thoughts.
I just called it guilt. But it was more frustration. That the weather had been that bad. That we hadn’t brought more food. That we didn’t all have lifejackets.
That we didn’t all make it.
And now I was being told to let it go. To move on from my pain. I doubted if I could exist without it at this stage. They all had looked surprised when I started laughing, a loud peel of hysterical mirth that echoed back to me from the edges of the sparse room.
Concerned faces looming at me from the tips of my mountainous knees. Claims of knowing of my pain, empathetic gestures reinforcing their concern. My mind lurching towards the realisation that if they truly understood my pain, they would also understand it was never going to be as simple as just letting it go. I could only join in this group discussion by way of a shrug and a frown, but it seemed sufficient to allow them to continue their diatribe. Responses of indifference misconstrued with interest.
Four against one, and all trying to get into a place unreachable on their current trajectory. I had battened down the hatches and lifted off the tow ropes. They were on a train speeding happily towards a destination that I would never come to.
Their attempts were not lost completely on me however. As I looked into their faces and ignored the good intentions, I was filled with a love that was not only strong but furious also. Fury over the blows that life had dealt them in their relatively short years. Burning that I could not bear all of them, to save them tears and heartache. Let me get cancer. Let me feel bereavement. Let me carry it all, please. Why couldn’t I just have been able to carry it for them?
After suggestions that it had all gotten too much, I enjoyed the warmth of the contact of another person. That moment of energy so fleeting, yet reviving. The weariness that I felt was tempered with the relief that their actions were motivated in love.
Polite excuses made, they had all made a job of not trying to get stuck in the door on the way out, the quiet seeped out from the walls into the white space. Following the fuss of earlier, it was an artificial quiet that magnified the rustling of the bedclothes to borderline deafening levels. Again, I looked at my hands, out of place in all of the white crisp linen. Subcutaneous dirt defining the lines. I thought about rising to drag the curtains back into place and throw open the window. Fresh air a craving that never left me.
Liz had brought me a picture of home and it was propped up by my lamp, visible when I was lying down. I let the familiarity of it draw me in as I remembered how the roses grew over the crumbling stones and found places for their blossoms to flourish. The picture was of Lily and me, taken when Liz nearly 10. I longed for the simplicity of the time. It was just work and family then. Green paint and oddments from the foundry spread about, I revelled in the memory of the moment watched the dust specks float through the sunlight first thing in the morning. That feeling of a home on the verge of bursting with life was a cherished one, and one that had never made the early morning starts that difficult.
In fact, since my stint on the island, I had grown to be a morning person. I longed each day for the sky to lighten, and the sun to start its ascent into the sky. We are all beings of light, I supposed. To feel its heat on your face is a gift. No matter how hard the day or the events leading up to the night, the sun always rises. Every time, offering a chance of redemption. Should you oblige it.
That reminded me. It was still bright out, midsummer had passed but the autumnal chill that signals the encroaching dark evenings was still a way off. Sun flooded my room and reminded me of the particular type of feeling that is in the air as August floats past. That the day is done, and a good day’s work has been done in it. It brings to mind laughter over the fields as the children chase each other, golden curls bobbing in the sunlight, short fat limbs yet to stretch out and find their true form. Of the adults that they were to grow into, that I am so proud of now.
I struggled with the sheet initially, and made my way to the window via furniture. There is a release in flinging open a window, and I felt the better of it. The light fell across the bed as I turned to settle back to it.
Thomas’ words reverberated around my head as I turned my face to the sun. The heat was a soothing, and I began to think that maybe there was something in it after all. But how could I now, sure what would the point be at this stage.
As the pillow filled up the spaces around my face, I could smell the starch from it. I let my mind file away the happenings of the day and bring to life thoughts of happier times. Fleeting glimpses that I rehearsed daily in the hope that they would never be beyond me. My evening ritual interrupted this time, however, by the conversation of earlier on. As a splinter juts out from the flesh, I didn’t want to touch it, but I had to. Tomorrow maybe. Time is a funny thing, now that I only have a few days left, I feel that I have all of the time in the world.
I lay back and let the ease of the moment wash over me. Tomorrow will do.
Those moments I try to hold onto now, pieces of wreck from a long and fatigued life. I feel no pain now, and hold onto the wreckage as I close my eyes and turn my face to the sun.