I’d promised Sam whales, a substitute for his Mum who was off on holiday with her new boyfriend. Sam knows all about whales. He’s most fascinated with the larger ones; the blue and the humpback, the narwhal too, with its unicorn tusk. So, I did the research and chose Iceland.
A few days in, we take our first whale spotting trip. The old whaling boat sets its course perpendicular to land, straight out to open sea. Reykjavik quickly disappears. The passengers’ chatter dies off as the sea becomes rough and, despite its size, the boat is tossed about. I wrap my arms around Sam and grip the metal rail, my knees tense and give way with the dip and rise of the boat. We spot the tail fins of a couple of minke whales. On the PA system, the captain says that, in the old days, the minkes were spared because the whalers believed they were sent by God as protectors. Over the next half hour the wind builds and the sea swells until he announces that it will be difficult to spot anything in the choppy waters and we head back to the calm of Reykjavik harbour.
The winds reach gale force during the night and in the following days the whale spotting boats remain tied up at the pier. We decide instead to drive out on the ring road, past Mosfellsbӕr and Grundarhverfi to the old whaling station Hvalfjörður, situated at the top of the fjord. The fjord got its name from the number of whales that came in to shelter there and Sam is hopeful.
The North Atlantic recedes and the sea stills as we follow the fjord inland. Since leaving Reykjavik, the hamlets have become sparse and though we pass a red-roofed house now and then, it’s been half an hour or more since we’ve seen anyone.
We reach the disused works. The natural sides of the fjord run into studded walls and a slipway that slopes to the water. There are low concrete buildings with corrugated tin roofs and, scattered about, rusting metal drums as big as houses. But for some broken windows and an emptiness that hangs about the place, it’s easy to imagine that a door could open, men stream out and work begins again in an instant. It’s not that long ago that they dragged whales up here; their dull weight no match for the power of the winch of metal rope.
I’d expected an industrial area but the buildings are simple like the tools they used. We’d read about it at the museum, how the first processing was done on the slipway, using flenses with wooden handles and thick, scythe-like, blades. The men sliced and carved whale flesh into large rectangular slabs that could be lifted with long-handled metal hooks. A hose was used to rinse the meat, red water running down to the sea.
‘Can I throw stones?’ Sam’s voice breaks the silence, his body tilting as his hand scrambles amongst the pebbles. A nod and he’s off towards the water, the blond hair he got from his mother flopping up and down, his boots sliding on rocks that are smooth with algae.
The ground shifts as though the ghosts of whales are stirring beneath our feet but it’s only a flock of oystercatchers that rise as Sam draws near. They’d been invisible until they’d lifted, but now low sunlight catches the white of their under-wings. They fly close to the shingle and settle a few yards along; their fine curved bills pull aside seaweed as they forage for food.
Their movement unsettles me and I shout to Sam to come back. My words are caught on the wind, like the lost echoes of the machinery, the calls of whales and the voices of the people who’d worked here, who’d hauled and skinned and sliced in bitter cold, when the days were so short they were hardly days.
I turn towards the car. The sun moves in and out between the clouds. In the sunless moments, the mountains darken and bear down, as though it is their job to hold us here. The car is grey against grey stone.
As I look, a shaft of light picks out the front windscreen and I see her sitting in the passenger seat, so still, looking towards the disused works. It’s not the first time I’ve seen her, but today she’s in her fifties, the age I remember her best, when we were more friends than son and mother, about to head off for a walk on the pier, followed by a cappuccino in one of the fancy new coffee places she loved. The loss of her fills me up, like it did in the first weeks after her death.
My sisters often talk of my mother’s continued presence in their lives. They see her in the white feathers they find in their paths. I envy them the softness of the angel they imagine her to be. For me, she sits in cars, waiting to be brought home.
I walk towards the car and she turns to look at me but I’m too far away to read her face. As I come nearer, a cloud obscures the sun and, as suddenly as she was there, she is gone.
I turn and call Sam. Again, my first words fall into the wind so I pull air deep inside me and shout.
‘SAM.’ Am, am, am, the echoes bounce off the far side of the fjord and he runs towards me, red spots on his cheeks, the steam from his breath before him.
In his hand, a white bone, silky smooth. It’s possibly the thigh bone of a bird. There’s a small knuckle at the end, like a miniature head. I hold it. It’s light, picked clean. White.
I take Sam’s hand and we move towards the car. I slow the beating of my heart so it matches his steady pulse in the palm of my hand.
‘Maybe it’s from the wing of a great auk,’ says Sam. We’d been to the Natural History Museum and seen the penguin-like bird that swam so fiercely but walked like a man, its tiny flightless wings tucked in at its sides. We’d read how trappers had killed the last pair for an exhibit, one of the men had stumbled, smashing the solitary egg with his boot.
‘Probably an oystercatcher,’ I steady my voice.
‘Will you mind it for me?’
‘Sure.’ I put it in my pocket as we reach the car.
‘Hold on a sec.’ I open the driver’s door, look inside, then in the back. Nothing.
As Sam hops in and starts to buckle his belt, I turn to look one last time at the low cairns of grey stone at the edge of the road.
It’s all in your head. I remember my father’s voice from when I was about Sam’s age, angry because my mother had once again left his bed to place a warm hand on my forehead to soothe me when night terrors struck.
It is all in my head. That’s the problem.
My eyes flick from rear view to side mirrors as I start up the car. The relief at driving away from this desolate place gives way to the fear of leaving her behind. I pull the handbrake and, with the engine still running, step outside to scan the landscape once more.
I call out:
‘You can come.’ Um, um, um…
Sam laughs and leans out the window to join in.
‘Who are we calling?’ he asks.
‘The bird that owns the bone, of course!’
We drive west. The brown, rain-soaked grass eases on to the road, reducing it to a thin strip of tarmacadam bordered by fluorescent snow markers set every few yards. The buildings recede in the rear mirror. The flock of oystercatchers rises as if to usher us out, settling once more in the place where, for some moments we had stood, as though neither we, nor the whales, or the men and women who’d worked this place, had been there at all.
The road passes beneath the wheels like it moves, not us. Here and there, a holiday house is tucked deep between two hills in a spot where steam rises from the ground. We pass small groups of low concrete houses lined up near the road, or a farmhouse surrounded by hard-won fields. There are sheep but no people. The wooden door of a simple church with a white steeple looks like it has been shut a long time. We drive past small lakes, the impossible blue of the trapped water gathering the patterns of scudding clouds. Moss softens the hillocks made from ancient lava deposits so that, in places, the landscape looks like the pocked skin of a sleeping giant.
Last night we read the story of the Nykur, ghost horses that live in these lakes, their hooves turned backwards, the water haunted by their cries as they search for fodder in sodden fields. When the lakes freeze and the ice cracks, you can hear them neigh.
I’d woken in a sweat from a dream of a Nykur who carried me at speed towards the still water. Once you mount them, you can’t get down and they’ll take you below. The spell will only break if you call out their name.
A blast of cold air fills the car as Sam lowers the window to shout NYKUR at each stretch of water that we pass.
‘When we get back to the hotel, can I skype Mum to show her my bone?’
‘We’ll see, Sam. We’ll see.’
Soon Reykjavik is in sight.
‘Now he’s from the west,’ says the Icelander in the petrol station. I realise he’s talking about the wind. Like sticks and stones, hills and lakes, the wind is personified. All things are named, a litany like a prayer. Hvalfjörður, Mosfellsbӕr, fossar, fuglar, ís…
The wind carries us east and we stop off in Dublin on our way home.
I go alone to visit my father. The house is no longer recognizable as the home I grew up in. He lives on his own. He’s got rid of all the beds but his, so no-one can stay.
Each time I visit, it’s harder to recall my mother in the kitchen, the smell of boiled potatoes in the air, the plastic-clothed table set for seven and the condensation running down the aluminium-framed windows. The film of silence is tangible like the dust that’s settled on the ceiling light where two of the five bulbs have blown.
There’s no longer a sofa in the living room. My father has used the faded cushions to build up the height of the scattered armchairs. Each chair has a mat in front, so your feet won’t wear the carpet that will long see him out.
I sit like a healthcare professional on a home visit, taking in the plastic box of tablets and vitamins on the kitchen table, the glass with the squeezed teabag ready for re-use, the single carton of milk in the fridge and the half-empty jars of jam. I know that there is still a stack of mismatched dinner plates in the cupboard by the cooker, as though at any moment my mother will grab a few and set them out, side by side, and dish up dinner.
On the draining board, a side plate rests, propped on a cup.
Wind whistles around a sheet of hardboard tacked over the small window in the back door. It had been smashed a few nights previously.
‘Bloody Tinkers. They thought they could just put their hand in and open the door,’ he says.
The robbers had fled when the alarm sensor had gone off.
‘They didn’t know who they were dealing with,’ he says. ‘I’m not past taking them on.’
I think of him getting up in the night and grabbing my mother’s old walking stick that he keeps by the bed, making his slow progress down the stairs, as ready to wage war as ever.
Forgive those who trespass against us.
I don’t forgive him.
The curtains are open, but not fully so I pull them back. A shaft of sunlight picks out a path across the carpet, ending in the door to the hall. On the tall hedge, a blackbird pulls its head back and calls out in the post-rain stillness of the garden.
‘Do ye hear that fella?’ he says. ‘Do you know what that’s all about?’
I remember my father on late spring days, when the first sun had warmed the plastic roofed lean-to where his aviary was. He’d stand amongst the birds, stripped to his singlet as he cleaned out the large cage, never gentler than when he lifted a fallen fledgling back into its nest or wrung the tiny neck of a finch half plucked to death by the others.
‘He’s the big fella, defending his territory.’
I think of the oystercatchers lifting into the sky and returning to their place on the stony beach once we’d gone, the fine-boned birds rising, as one, on the wind.
It feels like the house is sinking. Moss has gathered in the corners of the windows and weeds push through the gravel in the front driveway. Though my mother is long gone, her plastic flower pots remain, cracked and petrified.
‘I’m just going to the toilet,’ I say, leaving the room quickly before he can object. He won’t like me going upstairs. Out in the hall, the carpet feels spongy underfoot, as though it’s waterlogged. At the top of the stairs, the door to their bedroom stands ajar. My mother’s wardrobe draws me in. I take quiet footsteps to reach it, catching the reflection of my pale face in the mirror of her dressing table.
Five years on and her clothes still hang on metal hangers, the necks of unworn cardigans stretched and longing. A pair of shoes, echoing her feet, stand side by side on the dusty floor of the wardrobe. I poke my head between her clothes searching for the smell of her. The hangers jangle. I wait for him to call out, What are you at up there? But all is quiet.
My heart pounds, but I will have something of hers. I slide open a drawer. Downstairs, a floorboard creaks, sudden, certain. I grab a scarf and stuff it in my pocket. Below I hear the shuffle of his feet on the carpet.
The handle squeaks as the living-room door opens. I turn to check I have left everything as it was, then move quickly and quietly, reaching the bathroom just in time to pull the flush as he calls out.
‘What’s keeping you?’
I open the tap and water splashes against the porcelain.
‘I’m coming,’ I say, his child again, re-arranging my brazen face in the bathroom mirror.
Over a cup of tea, I distract him by asking about his ailments. And then he tells me about his latest project. He’s bought a new album and filled it with photos of just the two of them, before they had children. He flicks the pages.
‘You’ll be off so,’ he says, coming to the end and slowly getting to his feet.
I stand to leave too. He seems to have shrunk since my last visit, his upper body sloping forward from his hips. The sight of his bald head, mottled with age spots softens something inside me. I move to hug him. But, as I near, he takes a step backwards. Nothing has changed.
I reach into my pocket for the car keys, they snag on the scarf and it almost comes out with them.
‘What have you there?’ he asks, his eyes narrowing and the blood suddenly rushing to his face like it did when I was a child and had stepped out of line.
My throat tightens as my fingers scramble deeper. They close over the smooth bone of the bird. I proffer it on my palm.
‘Sam found it. In Iceland.’
‘Not that.’ His hand darts out and pulls the scarf from my pocket.
‘I have nothing of hers.’
‘You have no bloody right. Snooping ye were.’
‘She’d have given me anything.’
‘You don’t know everything,’ I say. ‘She wanted to come home. Towards the end. She knew there was nothing else the doctors could do.’
‘Rubbish. She’d have told me.’ He lifts his head and his chin juts forward.
‘She was afraid. Not of dying.’
I turn to the front door and feel his knuckle in the small of my back – the bony thrust of it.
‘You never knew the difference, did ye? Always the liar with your made-up stories. No wonder your wife left ye.’
The sting of his words is like the smarting imprint of his open palm after a smack. But instead of hurting, my skin tingles like every cell has sprung to life.
I’ve put words on what needed to be said, named what should be known.
I feel the power of the Nykur beneath me, rising from the lake and carrying me clear of the water.
I turn the hired car in the driveway and head on to the main road, my hand raised in farewell.
The plane lifts and lurches after taking-off from Dublin. Wind hits us side-on and we are rocked like the fishing boats that are specks on the sea far below. Ireland’s Eye sits amongst the white-topped waves. The pilot announces that we’ll head towards London then veer right across the channel, to land in Brussels in an hour and twenty minutes.
Beside me, Sam draws page after page of the bird of his bone – rainbow coloured birds that spread their wings to the edges of his notebook.
As the house gets used to having us back, it stretches and creaks. During the night, the wind rises, a late spring storm with gusts that make the doors bang. I dream of ships tossed on stormy seas and great narwhals that move deep beneath them. Sam wakes in the night and climbs into the bed beside me.
‘I miss Mum,’ he says, sniffling.
‘I know, Sam. I miss her too. Will I read you a story to help you go back to sleep?’
He nods, and I open H.C. Andersen’s fairy tales.
There came a soldier marching along the high road – one, two! one, two! He had his knapsack on his back and a sabre by his side, for he had been in the wars, and now he wanted to go home….
Two more sentences and Sam is asleep. I close the book and lie beside him, following the slow in and out of his breath with my own.
In the pink-tinged light of morning, before Sam wakes, I see her again. This time she’s in the driver’s seat of a blue Ford Fiesta parked outside the neighbour’s house. She’s looking ahead along the cobbled street towards the park. The car’s reading light is on and haloes her face. I rap the kitchen window. She turns and smiles and raises her hand to wave. I run downstairs and out of the house in my shorts, but by the time I reach the street, the car is turning the corner, jauntily, as though she is heading into town, to meet her friends for coffee.
The ‘For sale’ sign in the front garden has blown over. I lift the post and wedge it back into the soft earth. Everything is fresh and wind tossed. Last night’s storm has bent the waterlogged roses towards the earth. A brood of sparrows have vacated the nest that’s tucked under the eaves of our roof. The rose bush provides a perching spot for the clutch of young sparrows who grip the thorny branches. It’s not so far from their nest and yet far enough to know they can’t return.
Old habits die hard and while the others move off, one of the fledglings squats low so that it appears to have no legs. It fluffs its feathers out and the wind ruffles them. It pulls its head back, opening its beak wide and calls to its parents to feed it. It waves to and fro on the branch, the thorns red against green shoots. It calls and calls. But no one comes.
The ground is soft with rain, the terrace criss-crossed by the tracks of snails. The fledglings’ eviction has been well timed, the vegetable patch is dark with turned earth. There is food, worms and bugs and greenfly washed from the roses. But still the fledgling squats and waits.
A bird hovers nearby, it lifts from a post to land on a branch, then from the branch into the air as though to say ‘See, this is how it’s done.’ It must be one of the nesting pair.
The bird lifts higher into the sky and I imagine our patch of grass seen from above: the garden shed, the roof of the house, the adjoining houses with their small stamps of grass. Higher still it rises and my home is hemmed in by more houses, apartment blocks, offices, roads and then motorways filled with slow moving cars heading into the dense centre. Train tracks converge then split and head across Europe. There is a rare flash of water, a fountain or maybe a park pond. Higher still, until the bird will at last see the short stretch of wide flat beach dotted with the remains of dilapidated German bunkers, the grey North Sea so far out that it seems to draw away from land into itself, hardly a sea at all but for the whiff of salt in the air.
I watch until I can no longer see the speck in the sky. When I turn back to look at the rose bush swaying in the wind, the fledgling is gone. I scan the hedge and terrace and then the taller trees in the neighbour’s garden. There is no sign. Against the brick wall separating our two houses, a fat tabby flexes its paws, lengthening its body out as it stretches in the sun.
I want to name what lies between here and there: Ghent, Oostende, Folkstown, London, Liverpool… to join the dots that lead back to the place I came from. But further still, beyond Ireland, across the swell of the North Atlantic with its memory of Viking boats that carried the first settlers from Norway and the southwest of Ireland to Iceland, onwards to a place that does not know me at all, a sea-filled place where I could stay a while.
Soon my father will be gone. Someone will buy the house for the site, for its long garden. Pebble-dashed and damp, it will stand for some weeks as the papers go through. My sisters will talk of going there to sort through stuff.
A few pieces of furniture might be salvaged, a picture or two. Then a skip will be dragged up the driveway to be filled with sagging armchairs, broken wardrobes, rugs and mats, plastic sunloungers that no-one has sat in for years and the last remaining bed with its stained mattress.
When they pull the house, when the road is like the curve of a mouth with a front tooth missing, I’ll fly back, to stand and take a picture of the gap. Because the gap is where, for a time, I was.
Short Story Competition Second Place 2016
- Anderson, Hans Christian, ‘The Tinder-Box’ in the Complete Illustrated Stories, trans. H.W.Dulcken, (London Chancellor Press, 1983 ) pp.18-24
Anne O’Brien left her job in the European Commission in Brussels to pursue her passion for creative writing. Since then, she has gained a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is currently working towards her PhD. In 2016, she won the Bath Short Story Award and came second in the London Magazine Short Story Competition. Her short stories have also been shortlisted/placed in many competitions including the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition, the Bridport Prize, BBC’s Opening Lines and the Fish Short Story Prize. Anne’s work has appeared in several anthologies and magazines and has been translated and published in Vietnamese.