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Authors: Matt Bondurant

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BOOK: The Night Swimmer
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I came back to the surface and allowed myself to drift. Bigger seas would require more care or I could find myself swimming for Spain. I swam a quarter mile out into the open ocean and looking southwest saw nothing but the wide bend of the horizon, thousands of miles of water ahead. Fastnet was a spindled finger in the distance, whitecaps breaking on its rocky shore. I was suddenly winded, a slow ache in my shoulders.

Raising my head I saw I had drifted south a few hundred yards, so I set off back for the point of Pointanbullig on the eastern tip of the bay, my stroke going into efficiency mode, the long reach, roll, and pull, giving my heart some rest, till I reached the bay mouth and the bottom rose up. I did a few laps across the Ineer mouth, another mile, before coming into the inner bay, reaching the quay steps after two hours. The bay was still quiet and empty of people and I took a moment and enjoyed the heavy, blood-rich pull of my lungs as I sat on the mossy steps, breathing stentoriously, shaking out my arms, the faint sun warming my skin. Yes, I thought, this is going to work out well.

After a shower and some tea and crackers in my room, I stepped out for a walk. Out front a pair of Welsh corgis darted from under the hedging and bounded about my feet. The corgis led me away and up the hill to the east, leaping over each other like a circus act, occasionally checking to see if I was still following. An old crone stood in a doorway watching us pass, later an old man puttering around a garden shed raised his head and squinted in our direction. They returned my waves with quick flips of their hands and stony faces.

Before we reached the end of the road the dogs took a sudden turn, slipping through a narrow break in one of the stacked-stone fences. Across the field rumpled bracken, deep russet and gold, and the ocean whitecaps beyond. There was a dull, grating sound underneath the roar of wind, and over the next rise I could see the blades of an enormous wind turbine slowly rotating.

This was the highest point of the island, a place so windy that not even grass could grow there. The turbine was at least two hundred
yards tall and stark white against the black rock and green hills, a small cinderblock power collection house at its base. The dogs led me right underneath the turning blades, which moved with that terrifyingly deceptive speed of large things, seeming to come slowly from far off, then gaining speed as they neared, until they passed overhead furiously, each tip maybe thirty feet from the ground.

Down to the right of the wind turbine the corgis leapt like salmon going upstream. The ground, dried and blasted from salt and wind, developed a honeycomblike structure, with deep holes and pits hidden under the reddish thorns of the gorse and brambles that eventually gave way to grass again as we came down the undulating hill toward the sea.

The dogs ran ahead and disappeared around a patch of high bramble. I stumbled into a grassy patch, almost stepping on the corgis who crouched low, tongues lolling in the fierce wind, facing the sea. We stood at the edge of a vast drop of sheer black rock that fell away over two hundred feet to the crashing waves of the Atlantic. The cliffs of Cape Clear are like that; they could appear at any time, suddenly, as if the sea was always at hand and the island a continual twisting set of precipices.

*  *  *

The following morning the ferry chugged into the North Harbor on schedule, and I filed on with a half dozen others and took a spot at the bow of the ship. As we cast off Fin Cotter came zipping down the quay on his bike, hair flaming behind. At the very end of the dock he performed a quick stop and twist, spinning in place, and then sprinted back up the quay. The sun hung over the island, shrouded in faded sets of clouds on the horizon, casting Cape Clear in a baleful glow. I told Nora I'd be back in a week, after the Nightjar opened. I knew I wanted to come back and spend time on the island, to get in that glorious water, but mostly I wanted to be back in Baltimore with Fred.

Soon we were past Sherkin Island and into Baltimore Harbor, and I was pushing through the doors of the Nightjar, the tables
empty and the floor swept, walking behind the bar to put my arms around the broad back of my husband, who was turned away from me and struggling with the coffeemaker, who turned in my embrace and kissed my forehead, holding a coffeepot in one hand and saying, hey there, E, my sweet, sweet E.

Chapter Three

T
he Nightjar opened in October to little fanfare. It was a typical West Cork fall day, slate skies running to granite over the hills, a misting of rain, a chill that emanated from the ground. Fred dispersed flyers about town and on the islands, but when he opened at noon there were only two men standing in the street. One was a runty man badly scarred about the face and hands, and the other a strapping, straight-backed American in a Red Sox cap, a fanny pack strapped to his waist, grinning like Teddy Roosevelt. Fred set them up with a round on the house, and it was clear that was what the little fellow was expecting as he set to his glass of Murphy's without a word, wrapping his ruined hands like penguin flippers around his pint. The American's name was Bill Cutler, an ex-marine and now a novelist living on Cape Clear.

Nice to have another Yank here, Bill said, pumping his hand, damn fine.

Bill Cutler was a generous, friendly sort who always greeted you with a hearty bellow and a full-arm wave. The little man's name was Dinny Corrigan; he worked the ferry for his uncle Kieran Corrigan. Dinny seemed to have a certain quiet kind of ownership of all things in Baltimore and out on Clear, as he routinely drifted in anywhere he wanted, helped himself to whatever was available, without so much as a word. He was the kind of person who would be in a room long before you noticed him. His hands were ropy with scar tissue, his ears white hunks of cartilage.

Bill Cutler and Fred set to talking about writing and books while I puttered with the coal pellet fire. Bill had written a novel, a thriller about an illicit trafficking operation that ferried drugs through Cape Clear. He also had a sailboat,
Ceres,
a J/105 that he kept in Baltimore, and soon Fred had bought him another round on the house. The runty Corrigan sniffled when he wasn't included and left the pub without a word.

Don't mind him, Bill said, he's always out for a free one. But a decent chap.

You must come see me on the island, Bill said to me. Most days I'm down at the harbor store in the morning. Some interesting sites on the island; it's the oldest part of Ireland, Neolithic burial mounds, standing stones, the site of Ireland's first church and the birthplace of its first saint. Lots of stories to tell.

Bill agreed to take Fred out for a sail the following day. He finished his beer and arranged his fanny pack at his hip, and strode out the door.

We didn't have a single customer the rest of the afternoon and closed down at ten.

*  *  *

We decided to keep the rooms above the pub rather than move. I knew that I would be spending a good bit of time on Clear anyway, and Fred had set up an office, his garret, he called it, in the spare room with the sloping ceiling that neither of us could stand up straight in. Fred kept the small window propped open and the breeze from the harbor would make the pictures and poems that he taped to the walls flutter like leaves. He had nautical charts, books on navigation, sailing techniques, which he pored over while listening to techno music on his headphones. He was writing a novel.

I'm gonna learn to sail as I write it, he said. Bill's gonna help me.

What's it about?

About us, he said, like
Revolutionary Road.

He stroked his Vandyke beard and grinned.

Except we actually make it, he said, we follow through and make it happen.

There were two other pubs in Baltimore, the Jolie Brisée, which everyone called the Jolly Brizzy, and Bushe's. Fred and I had been to these other pubs, and each seemed to have its regulars. When it was announced that we were the new owners of the Nightjar, we were welcomed enough, greeted not as adversaries but rather as companions upon a voyage, sharing the hardships. Plenty of business to go around, the other pub owners said, especially in the summer when the tourists show. We were told by Albert the winter season would be scant, and this was reiterated by everyone we met in Baltimore. We only had to survive the winter and come spring, only eight months away, all would be well.

It seemed that in the off-season a regular night might include only a half dozen customers, more if you happened to snare a gaggle of bird-watchers coming or going from the Cape. Fred gave a free round to each new customer, and in those first few days I think every man in Baltimore came through for that free drink; the vast majority of them we never saw again. Bill Cutler remained true, as well as Dinny Corrigan, at least that first week. Bill told us with some regret in his voice that he would not be able to frequent the place once the weather got rough, he needed to stay out on Clear with his wife.

In winter, Bill said, ferry service gets sketchy. I'll be out on the island with the missus, hunkered down, working on my new book.

Fred ordered a copy of Bill's novel, which was out of print, and read it straightaway. I could tell by the way he muttered and shook his shaggy head as he read it that he didn't think it was good. Fred never hid his disappointment well, but he maintained it was a well-conceived suspense novel, adeptly executed. But it was written in the third person, and Fred felt that all the voices sounded too similar.

The trap of omniscient narration, Fred said. That's why I do first person only. It's the true light into the interior of a mind.

My favorite John Cheever stories are invariably in the first person. But the first person also often has a tendency to melodrama, the feeling the narrator is clutching you about the collar and begging for attention. I don't know how Cheever was always able to execute that marriage of tone and emotion. I wish that I did.

In the mornings Bill began taking us sailing, an enjoyable experience despite the banging and slapping of the choppy seas of Roaringwater Bay, and the momentary disasters of tacking in heavy wind. I stayed up on the middle of the boat, rail meat as Bill put it, working from side to side for weight adjustment as the boat heeled over. Bill and Fred rode in the back, where Bill tried to explain the multitude of ropes and sheets that snaked back into the cockpit. It was amusing to see Fred with his handful of ropes, baffled by their purpose, his face wrinkled like a bulldog's. When we returned around noon to open the pub he would be flushed with excitement, and in the evenings he shut himself up in the garret and tapped away at his laptop, building his imaginary universe populated with people very much like us.

*  *  *

The Five Bells pub on Cape Clear was full for lunch the next Friday, the builders with their cash payouts crowding the bar and a clutch of bird-watchers in for the weekend gabbing at the tables, comparing journals and drawings. A young woman named Ariel doled out the sandwiches and soup from the back and washed glasses as Sheila poured a steady stream of beer.

After a bit of screechy tuning the portly fiddler at the next table leaned far back in his chair, his lips pursed, and arranged his instrument under his ample chin. He slowly wandered into a set of soft reels as Ariel brought me my bowl of lamb stew and soda bread. Her fingers wrapped completely around the bowl, extra long at the final joints, like the soft appendages of a gecko. She returned my smile, revealing teeth the color of weak tea and arranged at odd angles. Back behind the bar she plied her flanges into the recesses of a glass with a rag, washing with an absentminded air, her head tilted to the sound of the creaking fiddle. She had the globed, glistening eyes of a medieval Madonna, heavy-lidded, blinking slow and languid.

After a few minutes Ariel began to sing. She had a voice as slender, frail, and ancient-seeming as she was, and it began almost as a whisper,
a muted whistling as she dried glasses, her eyes downcast, and the various patrons at the pub quickly went quiet. Everyone began to look away and take their attention elsewhere, as if by acknowledging her singing the spell would be broken. Her voice, clear and precise, slipped in and around notes like wind. The bird-watchers sat in their silent groups, their heads bowed, pawing their journals, Sheila standing at the end of the bar and gazing out the window at the rushing sea, the fiddler rhythmically sawing, boot padding the floor, his eyes closed and a smile on his lips, even the builders in their crusted coveralls set their glasses down with silent care, their faces averted reverently. Then the fiddler seemed to grow weary, or the song was coming to an end and the tune wavered, and Ariel's voice trailed off into silence.

Sheila brought the fiddler a fresh pint and he smacked his rubbery lips in anticipation, his face sweaty from effort. He put his fiddle in a burlap sack and took out a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers. He caught me watching him and grinned, his face flush and ruddy.

'Fraid I can't carry a tune in a bucket.

He bent close to the table, tapping his chest with one fat finger.

Got the heart, I have, he said. But little stamina for it. Some only have a few songs in them. What can you do?

He took a big drink and plunked the glass down.

Well, you aint no birder. Unless pe'haps you a puffin, are ya?

Sorry?

He made wavy motions with his arms, his cheeks bulging as he held his breath.

I seen you swimmin', he said, slippin' off the rocks like a puffin at Blananarragaun. Thought you turned into a seal. And me, sober.

His name was O'Boyle, he said, and he quickly wanted my surname. I told him.

Ah, he said with an air of satisfaction, rubbing his whiskered cheeks, that makes sense it does.

How?

Lemme show ya.

He shifted his bulk, scootching his chair over to my table, pushed
my bowl and plate aside and took out a pen from his shirt pocket. He wore enormous floppy rubber boots and the general disheveled appearance of a character from a Balzac novel.

BOOK: The Night Swimmer
7.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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