Fiona Billie Lawlor

Fiona Billie Lawlor is a Kildare based writer. She has had some of her poetry and short stories published in The Irish Times,The Guardian and The Irish Independent. COLLECTUS, a collection of short stories, is still available on Amazon. Her first novel, The Callow Land, is currently placed with a London based literary agent. She is now completing her second novel. Fiona Billie has completed the Creative Writing for Publication and Advanced Writing courses in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. When she is not writing, she is a full time paramedic in Dublin.

 

The Draw of Water

He descends the final granite step. It touches the water. The River Liffey
rises here and surges past, unyielding, brackish.
Brendan hesitates, then pulls on yellow oilskin trousers over his jeans. He
tucks the loose ends into wellington boots. Stands upright, raising his chin to
the sky. His eyes narrow, straining to read the unsettled weather.
The sky is pewter, scattered with violet rimmed clouds. Seagulls and
cormorants, large and dark, shriek harsh ugly sounds. The wind, cruel and
wintry blows down the Liffey, chopping its surface. He turns, facing right into
it and his eyes stream. Brendan rubs at them hard, blinks rapidly, clears his
vision.
Brendan’s face looks out from a woollen hat and layers of waterproofs that
had fit him once. At his neck the skin is rumpled, weathered and chafes
against the collar of his coat. He straddles land and water. A foot rests on
the step, the other in his boat. He steps onto the craft.
The boat dips, taking his weight. It attempts to moves away, constrained only
by a length of rope which is coupled to a metal ring set into a stone wall.
He likes this vacant part of the day best. Early morning, being solitary and
alone on the water while the city revives itself.
Brendan upturns a wooden crate to sit on. Leaning forward, he turns the key
twice, both hands purpled by the cold. The engine splutters to life. The small
boat, now unfastened, moves along the water. Brendan steers, looking
straight ahead. He scans the river which is malachite, cloudy. In places it
ripples, in other parts a taut skin disguises churning darkness below.
O’Connell Bridge is visible in the near distance. Glistening rock, its three
sepulchral black mouths gape. Either side of the bridge, traffic is steadily
building, as is noise.
Just before the shadow of the bridge, Brendan shivers against the wind. He
turns the boat in an arc. Now, it chugs gradually towards the port waters,
which lead to the jaws of Dublin. Beyond, that, Poolbeg, the Irish sea.
Some minutes later, he switches off the engine. The boat concedes to the
water, carried by the swell and fall of waves. Brendan, legs sprawled, feels
for a sandwich, wrapped earlier in silver foil, and a milk carton in his canvas
bag. He sets them down in another crate beside him. Seagulls circle. He sups
milk, staring into the distance, seeing nothing. Throws crusts from where he
sits, the birds catch them mid-air. To his left, where the tide is receding, there
is a rusted pram embedded in silt, the remains of a traffic cone, a broken
chair.
A bitterly cold rain starts. The wind increases, loud and rough. Waves lap
against, then over the edges, on to the boa floor. He squints, turns his
face to the sky. The weather matches his mood. Despite the milk, his
mouth is dry. The boat is propelled downwind somewhat swiftly. Lurching
forward, wind biting his face, he restarts the engine.
Brendan angles the boat, steering his way to the far side of the river. He
slows down, stopping at North Wall. His eyes skim the water, examining and
noticing everything. Here and there, he pauses the boat. He pokes into
obscure depths of the Liffey with a very long, pared stick. Delving into the
depths, disturbing reeds and sediment, making muddy swirls. At the edge of
the river are a set of steps which lead from the quay down into the deepest
part of river. This is where she was last seen entering the water.
For six days he has persevered, trying to locate his nieces body. There was
no funeral, just a service of remembrance for Rita. The authorities had looked
for three days but had not found her body, nor anything that could be
connected to her.
A madness had come upon her, her mother said. They knew she had left
work on a Wednesday, went home and hacked her hair to the scalp. Left a
long dark plait on her bed. Everyone asked if she had left a note. Meaning
that a note would explain why. But, she had not left a note. Her mother said it
made no sense, that her daughter had always been terrified of water, even
as a small child. And she had never learned to swim.
Brendan however, understood. Rita had come intentionally to this lonesome
place, knowing she could not swim, aware she could neither relent nor
save herself.
Brendan sees something rouse, shift. Barely discernible below the surface.
His heart hammers in his chest. Peering over the side of the boat he finds
nothing but the sleek turn of a weighty fish. He stays humped, overhanging
the small boat, prodding against the current, watching the water being
agitated, stirred.
When his back pains him, stiffened from bending, he stands upright. His feet
are wide apart.
He thinks of his own mother and slumps down on the crate. Oddness ran in
them, it was known. His mother, a mournful, silent woman shied away from
others all her life. His father, however, was a complete charmer. Peerless in
rhetoric when fuelled by drink, taciturn and sullen without. Brendan was a
lone son, having two sisters. He too has always had trouble assimilating, in
making small conversations, preferring to be alone. Taking after his mother
he supposes. He discovered fishing and boats in his twenties. It was only on
water, where stillness and quietude met, he found solace.
Brendan steers the boat to the middle of the river, dropping a ballast to hold
him in place. The wind has become caustic. He shudders, tying the strings of
his hood tighter, only his eyes are visible.
If Rita was nearby, she would be blue and bloated, engulfed in silt, mire. This
he has seen before. Perhaps she has been dragged out to sea, unseen, by
forceful currents or the trail of ferries to England. The weather worsens.
Waves grow, furiously biting the sides of the boat. Invisible rain stings his
face and hands. He flattens his palms on the edges, leaning over so his face
almost touches water. Brendan stands, pokes again with his stick, pulling it
free of brown viscous clay. He wipes his hard hands on his oilskins. There is
a strange lull, a quietness. No birds above that he can see. The sky purple,
darkening, as if to rain even harder. Cold air stings his face, reddening it in
patches.
Brendan has no wife, no children, not even an animal relying on him for his
return home. When he thinks about this, he is unsure if he has everything or
nothing.
He remains perfectly still, allowing the small boat to waft back and forth on
the water. The movement reminds him of being held by his mother, perhaps
once when he had a fever. His mother, who one day left the kitchen table with
floured hands and apron on. She had walked into the lake that she had spent
her whole married life observing from the scullery window. She too was afraid
of water, yet it had called to her, swallowing her whole.
A fierce rain and hail continues harder, wilder. The boat sways, pitching
crookedly into the gale.
Despite the now violent movement of the boat, he finds it strangely peaceful.
Brendan stands, unsteady, arms hanging weakly at his sides. He knew if he
withdrew the weight, set adrift now on the open sea he would not survive.
Strangely, that thought offered comfort not dread.
He had passed over the loss of his mother and niece in a stoic silence,
appearing to mourners as stony, untouched. Further evidence of that familial
oddness. Internally though there burned an inexpressible anguish,
bewilderment tending towards rage.
Brendan wants to find Rita, to bring her home to her mother. He understands
the melancholy, the agonies the girl must have borne, as he too had borne
them. He resists a peculiar urge to sit and stand at the same time.
Steadying himself in the leaning boat, slowly he stretches to his full height.
The hail has stopped. Now a fragile sun shone, casting the shadow of his
shape on the water. Inhaling petroleum fumes and cool, damp air he surveys
the river. There is a shadow just under the surface of the river. An outline of
a face, a face the colour of the Liffey. Brendan balances on the bow and
reaches into the river the water up to his elbow. The river parts to receive
him. Brendan staring into the chasm. Then it closes again, impenetrable. He
struggles to retrieve his arm feeling it stuck, being sucked from him. He loses
his balance, floundering on the boats floor. Brendan grips the wheel,
manoeuvring the boat in the direction of the wharf wall, where he ascends the
iron ladder, breathless.
From there, Brendan observes his boat. Unmoored, it stirs, sweeping and
bowing into the broadening span of the Liffey. It lurches past the bareness of
Dublin’s ragged coast, the peaks of small islands. In the end the boat
disappears into the wide-open sea where pitiless waves lash against it and
the wind cries for all that was lost.

© 2020 Fiona Billie Lawlor