Cliff walking

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One day Fiona didn’t go home. She didn’t get on the northbound train. She didn’t collect the car from where it had been parked by the school, drive to “Sunshine Corner”, receive the daily report on her children’s doings, take them home, unpack their school bags and start the dinner. She crossed to the opposite platform and boarded the train going south.

As she passed each station – Lansdowne Road, Sandymount, Sydney Parade, Booterstown – she felt an invisible elastic stretching and stretching, tighter and tighter, until it didn’t snap but seemed instead to be on a reel, unwinding her ever further from her life. The sea outside the window reached away towards Wales.

At Bray the train stopped and Fiona got out. She left the station on the side nearer the beach and walked down across the road and the esplanade onto the shingle. She removed her shoes and tights and walked knee-deep into the sea. She took out her phone and dropped it into the water by her feet.

“Can we go now? When is Mammy coming?”

“Mammy’s coming very soon. She’s just a little late. – Marie, has James and Leah’s mam called us?”

“No, nothing. No calls. Another minute and she’ll owe forty euro of late fees. Do you need to go home?”

“I’m grand for another…well, I need to go at half past. Do we have their dad’s number?”

“She’s never been late before. We should ring her before we ring him.”

“I tried her number ten minutes ago and it went straight to voicemail.”

“I’ll look in the file. But we’ll leave it a little bit longer, don’t want him to worry. – No, pet, Mammy still isn’t here. Will I make you a sandwich?”

Fiona walked barefoot along the esplanade, carrying her shoes in her hands, making herself ignore the stray sharp pebbles lying on the concrete. She wanted to move quickly. When she was sure her feet were dry she rubbed the dust and sand off on the grass and put her tights back on, then started up the slope into the cliff walk, panting slightly, pushing her pace. The sea below was tinted with the shadows of clouds and cliffs, greener blue in azure, but Fiona kept her eyes on the path.

“Hello, is that Mr Walsh?”

“Yes, who is that please?” Paul clutched the phone under his chin so that he could type while he was listening.

“This is Marie from Sunshine Corner. Mrs Walsh hasn’t arrived yet to pick up James and Leah and we can’t get through to her phone. It’s getting late and the children are upset.”

“What? I guess I’d better come and get them – just let me – no, I’ll be along as soon as I can. And you can’t get through to her?”

“We’ve tried her phone several times.”

“I’ll be along as soon as I can.”

Paul swore as he put the phone down. He didn’t need this, this week of all weeks. What could have happened to Fiona? He grabbed a file of papers and stuffed it in his briefcase, before hurriedly shrugging his jacket on as he left the office.

The children leapt on their father, James tearful, Leah angry, both questioning loudly – “Where’s Mammy? Why are you so late? Why didn’t she come? You left us here!” Paul looked strained and tired; Marie didn’t mention the late fees. Paul thanked her for her time and tried not to show how anxious he was, for the kids’ sake. On the drive home he immediately agreed to demands for television and pizza. He couldn’t think straight over the clamour of the children, the lingering details of his work project, the mystery of Fiona; he needed a quiet voice, he needed some sane advice. He thought of Roisin, who lived four doors down. She would know what to do.

The sun set as Fiona walked along the cliff path. By the time she reached the final stretch into Greystones she couldn’t see the surface under her feet, and the heels of her unsuitable city shoes kept slipping painfully off the ridges and pebbles. It was October; a sharp rising breeze found the gaps in her clothing, chilling the sweat on her skin. The first lights of the little town ahead offered safety and a new kind of danger. She knocked on the door of the first B’n’B she came to, right by the harbour front, and parried the woman’s widening curiosity at her one small bag and scuffed feet with her cultured accent and credit card. A single room was available. Fiona sat on the bed and wondered if she wanted something to eat.

Fiona is at the kitchen table, looking through bills and bank statements. The insurance is due this month on Paul’s car, the phone bill is inexplicably high, the gas bill is low because they haven’t had the heating on, they gave up the health insurance two years ago. The school books, uniforms, swimming lessons and compulsory voluntary contribution to the school building fund have all been paid for. The credit card is not maxed out yet. The mortgage is eye-watering. The fees for Sunshine Corner, combined with travel, almost cancel out her earnings, but her job is secure, whereas Paul’s, though better paid, isn’t. Fiona plans the meals, calculating exactly how much she will spend; Lidl has an offer on chicken breasts, so she’ll buy three packs, one to cook and two to freeze. James and Leah are fighting in the living room but she has another five minutes before she’ll need to intervene.

“If she’s in the hospital, how long would it take for someone to contact me?”

“I don’t know. When Erin O’Leary was knocked down the Guards were round to her mother’s house within the hour, but it happened right in front of the school. What would Fiona be carrying that would have your details on it?”

“Apart from her phone…well, she’d have her driver’s licence, which would have our address on it. She might have a diary in her bag with some details. ”

“Have you reported her missing?”

“No, not yet. It seems…drastic. I mean, she might just be late or something.”

“Has she ever been this late? Look, would you like me to ring the Guards for you?”

Paul rubbed his face and didn’t answer. They’d put the children to bed, telling them Mammy was sick; Roisin had read the story in as cheery and comforting a way as she could. Her own teenage children were happy to be left home alone (she had split up with her husband a couple of years before).

“Paul, has Fiona been…alright? I mean, has she been unhappy lately?”

“No, she’s been just as normal. She just goes on as normal. I never really know what she’s thinking, she just seems fine.”

“And you haven’t had any quarrels? I’m sorry to ask but, you know…”

“No, it’s ok. But nothing like that.”

“I think we should report her missing. If she is in hospital they’ll find her there, and otherwise, well…”

“I…it’s hard to explain, but I can’t do that yet. If she’s not back, let’s go to the Guards in the morning.” To report her missing was to let in all the words he couldn’t face – words like abduction, rape, murder. He could more or less manage accident.

Fiona decided she did want to eat. She crossed the railway line to the main shopping street, where she found a late-opening Supervalu and bought a toothbrush, plasters for her blistered heels and spare tights. Sadly they did not sell knickers; she would have to wash the ones she was wearing in the sink and hope they dried overnight. She picked a restaurant and ordered salmon terrine and an asparagus and pea risotto with parmesan shavings, followed by raspberry cheesecake. Sitting by herself, she felt invisible; shreds of other people’s conversations flowed through her. She ate slowly and carefully, picking up every crumb.

It’s the start of the week. Paul and Fiona are lying in bed; Fiona wants to sleep but Paul needs to talk. He is anxious.

“Honestly I don’t know if this project is going to come together. I’m the wrong person for the job and I think Sean knows it, but he’s asked me to do it anyway. Sometimes I think he wants me to fail so that he has a reason to sack me.”

“I’m sure you’re not the wrong person, you’re being too hard on yourself. Didn’t you do something very similar in July?”

“Yes, but there I had a full brief. This time they don’t just want the system, they want the design behind the system, if you see what I mean. I’m a programmer and they want me to rework their whole sales process. That’s not what I do and I’ve got to do it. By yesterday, for preference.”

“Can you draw on the brief you had in July?” She so desperately wants to sleep. She was up half the night before with Leah, who’d had a stomach bug.

“I guess so…it wasn’t the same kind of firm. I did have another look at those files. But Sean should have put Orla or Emma on the project with me to handle that side.”

“Sean is under pressure himself, isn’t he? I’m sure that’s why he’s hard to get on with sometimes. He recruited you, he must have some confidence in you.”

“I think he’s regretting his decision. I can’t ask for help because that would just confirm his opinion.”

What can she say to this? “You can’t do any better than your best. Focus on how you’re doing your best and doing the right thing. Believe in yourself.”

“I just wish I did believe in myself. If only I had a better contract, I’d be in a position to fight my corner better.”

She really, really needs to go to sleep.

Fiona woke before dawn, chilly-shouldered with no nightgown between strange sheets. Lying naked in the dark, heart racing, she considered routes. She could catch a train towards Wexford. She could go to Rosslare and take a ferry to Wales or France. She would take out a couple of hundred in cash and make it last as long as she could, so there’d be no trail of transactions in the online banking record. There was no possibility of going back to sleep now, but her watch revealed it was only 5.30; she dressed and left the house, shutting the door as quietly as she could, making for the station to check the timetables. The next train south was at 10.37, hours away. She couldn’t sit and wait; it would give her nothing to do but think. She retraced her steps and once more headed for the cliff path. A seep of colour was beginning to appear from the east.

Paul took the day off work and got the children off to school in mismatched socks (what had happened to all the socks?) and with jam sandwiches in their lunchboxes (what did Fiona usually give them?). He told them Mammy had had to go away unexpectedly, because she was sick. “Is she in the hospital?” asked James. Yes, she was in the hospital. Could they go to see her today and take her a present? Not today. Paul wondered how long he could keep this up.

Back from the school run, he met Roisin, who worked Saturdays but not Fridays, and they went to the Garda Station together. He had chosen a photograph of Fiona, one from two summers ago, showing her laughing on a visit to her ex-pat parents in Spain. He wondered for a moment if anyone would recognise her from it, two years of Irish paleness later. But they didn’t have that many photos of Fiona that were just of her, and close-up, and smiling. The photo had to plead her case: here was a person worth finding. Paul felt curiously guilty and vulnerable going to the Guards, as though he were making it all up. He was glad of Roisin at his side.

It’s the day before. In her bag beside the desk where she is tediously reorganising a database of student enrolments, Fiona’s mobile buzzes. It’s a text from Paul: “Major problem has come up in project. Said I’ll work Saturday. Hope that’s ok. Paul.” She texts back “Yes, fine”, but even as she sends it she thinks: but on Saturday he’s supposed to be taking his mother to her school reunion in Drogheda – Paul’s mother, though not especially old, has poor health and needs to be accompanied – and so now I will have to take her, and I was going to help out at the church sale, and come to think of it I needed to arrange something for the children for that afternoon. If I ring Louise maybe she could have the kids – but no, she’s away this weekend. Roisin’s working, I can’t ask Catherine again, so I guess it’s a babysitter. And I will have to beg off from the sale. And check what all the arrangements are for the reunion.

It’s no big deal really, but she sags at the thought of all the admin, and the asking, and the annoyance at the church where she is trying to make friends and be useful. She remembers when she and Paul used to go hill-walking at the weekends, or when she used to do salsa dancing and enter competitions. There’s no time for any of that now. She feels as though she’s turned into a walking assemblage of appointments and lists, with no personality at all.

It was no good. She was thinking. And what she was thinking was: what the hell am I doing and why am I here, on this cliff-top, watching the astonishing liquid gold of dawn disperse into shimmering day? She had no excuse and no good reason, no tragedies, no secrets. She ought at least to be in despair, ready to jump from the cliff, but no, her feet clung stubbornly to the safe side of the path. She supposed this was what it was like to have a breakdown, but it was Paul who was under strain. He was so busy she was even having his breakdown for him. How could she go back now? Could she look ill enough, or mad enough, for them ever to forgive her? She should have some revelation, some life-changing encounter. Something to justify this. The sea, the shining sea, pushed her back.

“They obviously think she has just run off. You could tell from the questions they were asking.”

“They have to cover all possibilities, I suppose.”

“I guess it’s better for her to be gone than…harmed.”

“I’m sure nothing really terrible has happened and they’ll find her soon.”

“But if she’s left me…”

“When Niall left, it was a slow business. You could see it coming a mile away. It was like very slowly walking under a truck.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, he was irritated by everything I said. We hardly talked any more. We certainly didn’t have sex any more. The routines kept us going, but it was just automatic, waiting for the energy to run out. And eventually it did, and he left.”

Paul had never heard Roisin talk about this before. “Fiona and I…sometimes I think she hardly hears me. I speak and she answers, but I don’t know if she actually…heard. If that makes sense. She says what a magazine column would say, or a stranger on twitter.”

“I don’t feel bitter now,” said Roisin. “It was terrible at the time but for the best in the end. I suppose I didn’t expect to be alone, but I’ve got the children. It’s ok.”

“Yes, the children….I don’t know what I’m going to say to the children.”

“They may find her today. She might be back by home-time and waiting for the kids to come in. If she’s in the hospital, they’ll find her in no time, sure they will.”

“She’s left me, hasn’t she? Roisin, she’s left me.”

Roisin made a wordless shushing sound and took him into her arms. Allowing himself to be mothered, he noticed the firm plumpness of her body, smaller and rounder than Fiona’s, its warmth, its sweet unfamiliar smell.

It’s 5pm on Thursday; Fiona is leaving work for the station. In the street she passes some white-clad young men who’ve got a hat down for loose change and are showing off their circus skills. One is balanced upside down on the shoulders of the second, and the third has a spinning plate on a pole on each hand. And Fiona thinks: what if I give the pole a push and smash the plate. What if I smash all the plates. What if I simply break them, because sooner or later I am going to drop them, and I can’t bear the strain of waiting. What if I just smash everything. How bad can it be?

Fiona’s sore feet carried her steadily back to Bray and back to the northbound train. She would go home, she would try to make it up to her children and her husband. She would see a doctor, maybe take some sick leave, or give up work. She would try to rebuild their love and trust, because she loved them, she truly did, and it was only a temporary desperation, a terrible wobble, a seizure in her love that had sent her running that one and only time. She didn’t know what to say, but she would say it, and keep saying it, as beautifully as she could.

The October sun slanting through the windows caught the hanging dust-motes in the air, a gently shifting curtain across the bed where Roisin and Paul were making love.

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