This is when the struggle is at its height, with the relentless march of autumn gnawing ever deeper into summer’s weakening resolve. Now, in late September, hostilities peak as light and dark vie unto the afterglow of each shortening day. But the writing is already on the walls; it’s on the pathways, on the beaches, on the cliffs; it’s in the fields, in the woods, and in each squiggle and ooze of shadow that lengthens to nothingness beneath the weary visage of a battle-bruised sky. Only the sea emerges unscathed from the conflict, her strengthening waves all the warmer for the precious weeks of sunshine she has absorbed and stored within her timeless turquoise depths.

            The summer visitors are long-gone: scattered to the four winds. Back to work or school; to college, crèche or care home; their footprints faded, their shrill sibilance stilled. Even the neighbourhood dog-walkers have given up the ghost, leaving me to wander alone where footballs were dribbled; where new love was kindled and old love remembered, and where ecstatic barefoot toddlers had splashed, shrieked and stamped in shallow foam.

            Nature’s voice has reclaimed the shore. Only the Morse-code peeps of drowsy waders now challenge the ripple and roar of wind and wave, while the exhalations of furtive subterranean creatures percolate unheard through the sighing ebb of every flow. The tidal cycle has already cleansed much of our human detritus from the sand: the pees and poos of short-taken youngsters; the puke, the cans and bottles of partying teens; the spent protections from liquor-fuelled liaisons; the scars, scabs and slime trails of every plot, tryst and rite of passage. Released from the mocking merriment of others’ transient joys, my heart is temporarily inured to the pain of today, the poignancy of yesterday and the pointlessness of tomorrow.          

            A sickle of moon creeps above the clifftop, its hesitant glow greatly encouraged by its reflection from the water’s surface. New shadows emerge to assume tangible form: the skeletal stalagmites of eroded rocks, the fractured ribs of a skinless naomhóg, and the geometric rigidity of the lifeguards’ redundant hut. I can discern the little row of sturdy wooden benches at the base of the cliff. There are five seats in all, rallying points for generations of ice-cream and periwinkle slurpers, many of whom will later return to savour home-cut ham sandwiches and flasks of tepid tea.

            “Excuse me; sorry… ” I’m taken aback by the disembodied female voice. There is a hint of movement on the middle seat: a foraging animal; a waving arm? Intrigued, I alter course. “Sorry,” the voice is clearer now; “have you got a light?”

            “Of course,” I say, as a vague outline inches to the left. Interpreting the move as an invitation, I fish out my lighter and ease onto the other end of the seat.

            “Sorry,” she repeats, “but could I borrow a cigarette, as well, please?”

            “You’re welcome to a cigarette,” I say, rocking to my feet, “but that’s all.”

            “Thanks,” she says, accepting the cigarette without further comment. I lean towards her; she cups her hands around mine to protect the faltering flame.

            Although illuminated for only the briefest of moments, and partially obscured by shielding fingers, the face is hauntingly familiar. I resume my seat.

            “Thanks, again,” she says, swivelling her head to blow a stream of smoke over her left shoulder. “I’m sorry; I don’t… I thought you were somebody else.” She takes a deep drag. “I had quit,” she says, her cigarette tip dancing like a firefly as she exhales towards her knees, “I’ve taken up vaping… but… ” She stifles a sob.

            Instinctively, I extend my hand towards her shoulder, but almost instantly redirect it to the cigarette pack in my shirt pocket.

            “Sorry; I’ve interrupted your walk,” she says, springing up from the seat.

            “Not at all; stay, please.” Hastily lighting up, I can sense the intensity of her gaze.

            “Have we previously met?” she asks. I shudder, it’s as if she has spirited the words directly off the tip of my tongue.    


            If we had met, it might have been in Dublin, on a Friday morning, almost three years before. Again, I’d checked my wristwatch against the Heuston Station clock, and although still thirty-nine minutes short of my train time, I was three-quarter way through one of the longest waits of my life. Again, I’d flicked through the lead stories in a discarded tabloid newspaper. Bold though the headlines were – scandal, after sensation, after revelation, in heavy black print – they paled in comparison to the newsflash that looped continuously inside my head. 

            “I’m going out for a smoke; want to join me?”

            I’d been only vaguely aware of the girl seated beside me; it wasn’t until I tried to focus on her that I realised how blurred my vision had become.

            “Come on,” she urged, opening her handbag. “The sun is shining.” 

            I hadn’t smoked for some time: my girlfriend had disapproved, but I no longer had a girlfriend.

            “I’m sorry,” she said, half-turning back from the exit; “I shouldn’t… ”

            “Not at all,” I assured her, grabbing my rucksack and starting towards her, “but I haven’t any cigarettes; I’ll… ”

            “It’s OK; come on. It’s only a cigarette; it won’t break the bank.”   

            My delight at learning that she was waiting for my train was short-lived: she had reserved her seat; I would have to take pot luck. Once we had scoured the bottom of the proverbial barrel for clichés about the unseasonably pleasant October weather, a self-conscious silence had begun to coagulate between us. By the time I’d finished my cigarette, we were standing almost back to back.

            “Well, take care,” she said, mercifully breaking the ice. “Have a good journey,” she added, gliding past me to re-enter the station.

            “You, too,” I forced a smile, “and thanks for the cigarette.” After a pathetic attempt at aping her little arcing wave, I loitered for several minutes before returning inside. A canoodling teen couple had claimed our seat and, although I dallied until the last possible moment before joining my train queue, she did not reappear.  

            The train was thronged. Having expected to remain in Dublin until the bank holiday Monday, I had totally forgotten about the Cork Jazz Festival. After running a four-and-a-half carriage gauntlet of backpacks, instrument cases, elbows and knees, I finally spotted a vacant seat. Mumbling apologies to the territorial teenage girl I’d had to clamber over, I squeezed into what little room her sprawl allowed me. Unmoved, she remained glued to her iPhone, probably texting, tweeting, or posting Facebook rants about the ignorant old fogey who had invaded her personal space. When my reluctant neighbour eventually decamped at Thurles, I briefly considered gambling the luxury of my double seat on a final search for my erstwhile smoking partner. I was to regret my cowardice at Limerick Junction as, through the window, I watched her sneak a swift smoke on the platform before boarding the Limerick/Ennis connection.


            “I think I’ve owed you that cigarette for a while.” I hear myself say. “Does Heuston Station, almost three years ago, ring any bells?” Although her expression is inscrutable in the gloom, her posture tells me all I need to know. As if a valve has been released somewhere in the small of her back, her body shrugs free of the final coil of shackling tension.

            “Three years ago? Oh, I did take the train one weekend; I’d left him my car for a few days. Actually, I do remember you – even if I did mistake you for somebody else. You appeared upset, as I recall, like you’d had some bad news. I didn’t want to intrude, but I’ve often wondered if someone close to you had died.” She stubs out her cigarette on the base of the seat.   

            “Sorry,” I say; when I startle her with an involuntary snort. “It wasn’t quite that bad. My relationship had just ended… well, a few hours before.” I brace myself for the customary pang; strangely, it doesn’t come.

            “Oh, sorry; I didn’t mean to pry…”

            “It’s OK,” I shrug, “’twas a long time ago…” Eerily, the ache is still absent.

            “Had you been together for long?”

            “Seven years,” I say, wondering how it is that three years can suddenly seem so much longer than seven.

            “The seven year itch,” it’s almost a guffaw. “I’m sorry,” she says, instantly sobering, “but my relationship ended three weeks ago… after seven years…”

            I know I should say something, but all I can manage is a slow, silent nod.

            “God, I don’t envy you that journey…” she says, with an audible shiver.

            I remove my waxed jacket; she doesn’t object as I drape it over her shoulders. After a brief pause, I offer her a cigarette.

            “No thanks; I… Well, maybe one for the road. Thanks.” She accepts a light.  

            “Do you have far to go?” I ask, feeling it’s time I said something.

            “I’m staying in my brother’s mobile… on the cliff… taking some time-out.”

            “You don’t have to explain… ”

            “No, I’d like to… if you don’t mind…”

            “Of course not, but… ”

            “You’re easy to talk to; I haven’t really spoken to anybody… since.” She takes a long drag and exhales noisily before resuming. “We’d got engaged at Easter. Then, three weeks ago, I had an unexpected work thing in Dublin. I didn’t tell him, thinking I’d surprise him; take him out for a meal.” She forces a hollow laugh. “But it was me who got the surprise! I let myself into his apartment. I could hear them from the hallway: they were at it – at six in the evening – they didn’t even notice when I opened the bedroom door. She had him pinned on the candlewick bedspread I had bought for us! I tiptoed to the kitchen, removed my ring and left it, and his keys, on the table – beside her bag. I hot-footed back to my car and, after a quick sandwich in An Poitín Still, I just drove. My phone rang several times before I reached Limerick; I didn’t answer. I deleted all his messages and texts as soon as I got home, and then blocked his number. So, here I am. You are a great listener. Thanks, I really appreciate it, but I must go.” Already on her feet, she begins to wriggle out of the jacket.

            “No, keep it on. I’ll walk with you; I’m going that way.” It’s only a white lie.

            Though cheerfully lit, the little town is surreally quiet. As we pass the padlocked amusement arcade, and my parked car, a fatigued street yawns before us.

            “It’s weird,” she murmurs, “but today, just as I arrived, my rearview mirror fell off. The garage man said it’s an omen: it’s time I stopped looking back.”

            My thoughts awhirl, I detour to the pub across the street and peer through the window. She is at my side in an instant, her long dark hair cascading against the glass.

            “The Starfish,” she mutters absently. “Our holiday local… but it’s so… so empty.”

            “I used to play here – in the noughties. Maybe you caught one of my gigs?”

            “Ah,” she says, smiling for the first time, “that’s it; that’s why you seem so familiar. You had a beard, and you sang a rather risqué version of Alice. Am I right?”

            “Guilty,” I mirror her smile. “I’ve had worse revues, and thanks for not mentioning that I also had a full head of blondie curls. Hey, do you fancy a quick drink?”

            “Thanks, but no; I’m going.” She unzips the jacket. Above our heads, a string of tattered bunting flaps in the stiffening breeze.

            “No, you keep it on; sure, you can drop it in to Eddie… or anyone in The Starfish … whenever you’re passing.”

            “Or,” she says, a twinkle brightening her hazel eyes, “I might wear it to the beach tomorrow; say, about seven?”  


Neil Brosnan

From Listowel, Ireland, Neil Brosnan’s short stories have appeared in magazines, such as Ariel Chart, print anthologies, and in electronic format in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the USA. A winner of The Bryan MacMahonThe Maurice Walsh, (four timesand Ireland’s Own, (twice) short story awards, he has published two short story collections: ‘Fresh Water & other stories’ (Original Writing, 2010) and ‘Neap Tide & other stories’ (New Binary Press, 2013)

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