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I STOOD with Alicia, the beach at Keem Bay below us.

“God, it’s beautiful, Brendan,” she sucked in the fresh sea air. “I feel like I can see all the way to America.”

I said nothing, still peering below. Her innocent prettiness, attractive at twenty-five, had matured into an incredibly boring empty-headedness. Her mind had never developed, her thoughts didn’t go anywhere. After ten years, I didn’t listen anymore. In a dysfunctional way, it worked.


I did not reply. Yes, I had definitely heard it. The unmistakeable high-pitched laugh, floating up from the sands below. It was Paul. Paul. It must be.

Suddenly, I was back in Sydney 15 years ago. The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Paddington. I was 25 and far from home. No one knew me here. I had bright-pink lipstick, and a sequinned silver dress, adorned with old flip-flops fastened on with paperclips. The ensemble was topped by a triple-brimmed pink hat. A poor-man’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. Suddenly, my hat was aggressively swept from my head. I spun around, ready to punch. Was this harassment? A silver-wigged man in a mini-skirt and white running shoes just looked at me and smiled. Paul. Paul. We spent that night together, and every other, until I left Australia three years later, alone.

Standing on the cliff now, I was desperate for binoculars. I could not pinpoint where his laugh had come from.

I pulled my padded jacket tighter against the wind. Alicia and I hauled the picnic basket, folding chairs, and table halfway down the cliff. February. Sunny, but freezing cold.

We set up the folding chairs and table. Alicia unscrewed a thermos flask. “Oh, Brendan,”  she made a clicking noise with her tongue. A strong smell of coffee wafted up. “I’m so sorry, we’ve only got coffee. I forgot to bring tea.” Ten years and I had never, ever drunk coffee. Only tea.

A sudden gale sprang up. The open thermos jerked out of Alicia’s hand. Boiling-hot liquid scalded my sandaled foot. I screamed in pain.

“Oh Brendan, I’m so sorry. My hand slipped, the thermos was wet. Are you all right?” She rummaged in the picnic bag for paper towels.

I left our picnic place as quickly as I could, walking downwards towards the beach.

“Wait, let me clean you up!” Alicia waved the paper towel roll at me. I did not break step, but continued down the walkway. A gust caught me, and I stopped, turning back once to see Alicia’s form by our table, silhouetted against the sky.

Stepping onto the sand, I removed my sandals and socks. The foot still smarted. I stood still, moving my head each way, like a lighthouse. Paul’s voice had stopped.

I turned left, walking between the small breaking waves of the sea and looming brown rocks of the shore. Still nothing. I strode faster, listening, peering into all crannies between the rocks.

Then suddenly, on the other side of a large jagged boulder, I heard an off-key adenoidal voice crooning “Danny-Boy”. The singer missed all the high notes by a mile. It was Paul. Paul.

He appeared from behind the boulder, grey-haired, with a beard stubble. Paul. Did he still smell of fresh, clean soap? He kept singing as he walked, gazing at the beach ahead. He didn’t notice me.

Then I sneezed, the cold water, something. In Sydney, I had often sneezed at the sun. Our joke. My Irish soul must be allergic to Australia, Paul had said.

Paul turned suddenly. Everything was still. The ocean waves stopped, distant beachgoers were silenced.

Then a seagull shrieked, and a wave splashed, sending icy water up to the seat of my trousers.

“Brendan.” A flat statement. As though Paul had almost expected me to be here. And now of course, here I was.

I let out my breath and began to concoct questions. Ten years with Alicia had instilled me with caution. Then freezing water splashed my legs, harder and colder, sharp drops piercing like knives on my bare skin. I cried out. No! No more. Not again! No more missed binoculars, missed opportunities. New lines in Paul’s face. Fifteen years. Not this time. I reached my arms forward to embrace him.

“Cooee!” The cry pierced the air before I could reach Paul. It was Alicia, three hundred metres up the beach. Knowing I had spent some time in Sydney, she often affected this Australian shout. Its gauche unsuitability in Ireland always made me squirm.

I dropped my arms, continuing to stare at Paul like a starving man. I noticed his legs were thin and wasted. His face was hollow and pale. His full mop of unruly black hair was almost absent.

Alicia arrived where we stood, her plastic smile spread over wind-swept features. “Brendan! I wondered where you’d gotten to.”

Paul gazed from me to Alicia, and as he had in the old days, immediately understood.

She turned her polite look on Paul. “We were just going to have sandwiches and coffee. Perhaps you’d like to join us?”

“No, no, sorry, I can’t. ” Paul barely moved his face. “I have to be going soon. Meeting in Galway this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“Well, perhaps another time,” Alicia said to Paul. She turned to give me a hard look before her smile reappeared. “Don’t be too long then,” this said over her shoulder as she marched triumphantly back up the beach. “We want to be off before dark.”

I turned back to Paul. “There’s something wrong,” I said to him. “Isn’t there? Isn’t there?” My voice rose higher.

He looked at me neutrally.

“Are you ill?” I asked him.

“Ill.” Paul gave a wry smile. “Ill. Yeah, I guess ‘ill’ covers it and then some.”

I stood silently. Paul bit his lip and pulled at the cuticle on his thumb. I waited. Then quickly running words together, as though reading a shopping list he said, “Lungs. Stage 2. Lymph nodes, no distant spread. Biologicals working well at the moment.”


Paul just looked. Tears filled his eyes.

This cannot be, I thought. Not be. He had never smoked, always led a healthy life. Carrot juice for breakfast every morning, for Christ’s sake.

And then suddenly the rage of lost years welled up in me, rising from deep in my gut to the throat. I was furious, so ragingly furious I couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream. Then as though a dam broke, tears spilled onto my arm, onto Paul’s shoulder, closer, my nose was running onto his bare cheek.  Howling, soggy. A caressing hand in return. His familiar touch, familiar rhythm. Paul.

Everything suddenly clicked into place, feeling right. Peace. Affinity. Calmness. Ease.

After a few minutes, or an eternity, my nose became itchy. I moved away and pulled out a coffee-soaked handkerchief and blew.

And with that, the rest of the world — sharp wind, jumping waves, icy water — suddenly existed once more.

“Are you married?” I blurted out.


I smiled hugely. I was married to another person with a job, a house, and a mortgage. Paul had cancer. How could everything be all right? But it was.

“Give me your phone number,” I said, no longer the unconfident youth of 15 years ago. “Give it to me.” I looked at him meaningfully. “I’m here. I’m here now. And I’ll be there. There. Yes. Both now and later.”

Paul stared back and asked me.  “Do you have any children?”

“No, of course not.”

Paul shrugged his shoulders, and said, “But you’re married. Have been for a long time, it looked to me.”

I shook my head, as though he had spoken of an incidental buzzing fly. “So?”

“Well, so you always were a bit, a bit well…versatile.”

I gazed at him, smiling. I couldn’t stop.

“I’ve got to go now,” Paul said. He started to turn his back and walk away. “That appointment.” 

“No!” Sharply. The wind was cold. I had started to shiver.

Paul faced me again. “And what do you mean, no?” It was the seldom-seen rough side of Paul. “I’m leaving now, or I’ll be late in Galway.”

I grabbed his arms, holding him still. “I mean the rest is just crap. There was always only you.”

Now Paul grabbed my arms. Not hard, no strength in them, but I could feel his anger, his rage. He began to shake me weakly. “You left. You left me. You wanted a ‘normal’ life, to be the big man. Successful. ‘Just like everyone else’.” The last said in a high-pitched, mocking voice.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve paid for that,” I looked straight at Paul. “I paid the highest price anyone can.” Paul wrenched forward to go, but I held onto his arm. “Paul. I’ve had no joy, no life, since I left you. Only years of living death.”

Paul snorted again, stronger this time. A sort of final snort. He then turned and stalked quickly away.

I ran after him. This time, this time it would work. It must. Bubbles of words streamed to my brain. Mountains of eloquent, sure-fire pleadings that would convince him and fill a book.

Paul walked quickly back towards the carpark. I ran, finally catching up with him. The wind roared in our ears. The small white froth, of the blue-green water on the shore splashed. Paul stopped and turned to face me. And once there, I said nothing. Nothing. Just listened, feeling. The bond, the flow, the reality between us. It was there.

An hour later, I returned to the cliff alone. Alicia was shaking the last drops of coffee out of the thermos and stuffing all the empty plastic sandwich bags into one for the recycle bin at home. Five-thirty, starting to get dark.

“Well?” she turned to ask me. Her face was for once not cute nor falsely appealing. It was blank, as though washed clean of all make-up. And at this moment, I really looked at her, seeing lines at the corners of her eyes and traces of smeared black streaks on her cheeks.

I was vibrant, high after seeing Paul. And suddenly no longer annoyed with Alicia. After ten years, this surprised me. I continued smiling and shook my head, far away.

The indifference must have shown on my face. Alicia nodded, as though she got it. I loaded the fold-up table and chairs into the boot of the car and got into the passenger’s side. We drove away without a word.

After a few minutes, other large green hills, now turning somber in the late afternoon, rose up in front of us. The wind sung outside. Keem Bay was gone.

We arrived at the Diamond Bakery carpark. It was deserted. I remembered eating a delicious carrot cake there on a warm day last July. Now a “Permanently Closed” sign hung on the door, no display of tempting cakes, the building inside empty of tables and chairs.

Alicia stopped the car. “Get out.”

I looked at her.

She raised her voice. “Ooooooouuuuut! Now.”

And she was right.

I watched her drive away, then took out a knitted hat and thermal gloves from my pocket. Two hours and 40 minutes’ walk to the nearest bus stop, my phone said. Next bus due at 8:30.

I trudged forward, the future uncertain. Alicia would undoubtedly clean me out, probably take the house. I’d be skint. But I knew whatever happened, Paul, Alicia, cancer, the sky, my gloves, my hat, I was what I was and could never go back. I stepped forward, pushing my body against the backward-driving wind.


Image Valerie Nichols

Valerie Nichols’s poetry has appeared in A Year of Mondays—24 Mayo Writers. Her short story, “Monet’s Garden”, has been published in The Sandy River Review. She has recently written and performed the script The Adventures of Soldier Juan Álvaro Rodriguez at the Kelder van Gent Theatre in Utrecht, Netherlands. She is co-organizer of the Eindhoven Creative Writing Group. For more information.