In yesterday’s chapter we meet a woman who seems impervious to the cold as she swims naked in the sea. Patrick Noone is enthralled by her exotic behaviour and agrees to meet her and learn how to swim….Paul Andruss continues the story.
THE HOUSE BY THE SEA – Part Four – Paul Andruss
Biddy wanted to know why he was soaking wet. He could not tell her about the woman. No, he did not want to tell her. So he made up some tall tale about falling in the woods, getting covered in mud from head to foot, and washing himself in the sea. Biddy stared gimlet-eyed like she didn’t believe a word.
‘Yer stupid get,’ she said eventually. ‘Now get outta them wet things an get some aul newspapers stuffed in them boots to dry them out by the stove.’
That night all Patrick thought about was the strange woman. He wasn’t stupid. He knew no ordinary woman could swim naked in a storm-ripped winter sea. It came as no surprise her name was Muireann. He knew the story of Muireann from school; a mermaid caught long ago in Lough Neagh in the North, who became a woman when baptised by some old saint.
All his life Patrick had heard the old stories of mermaids drowning sailors or bad fairies dragging children down to the green weeds of the river bed. But if she’d wanted him dead, she could a done it there and then. She didn’t need to offer to teach him to swim. No, whatever she was, he was sure she meant no harm.
Saturday afternoon found Patrick on the beach. He had taken off his boots and socks, along with his jacket, trousers and shirt, to stand shivering in the wind off the sea, naked except his oldest patched pair of long underpants. The ones he knew Biddy would never miss.
Muireann did not come from the sea, but walked along the wind whipped sand in an faded dress of spoilt green satin and forlorn lace. It looked as if it might have once been worn by a fine lady a hundred years ago. Its long full skirt swept the sand smooth. Its trace washed away in turn by the tide.
The dress was wet and clung to every curve. He thought it strange as her hair and skin were dry. Her thick dark hair curled unbound to the waist. Sleek and glossy, it looked as if it had been brushed until it gleamed. Eyes, dark and lustrous as he remembered, left her skin pale as ivory; her full lips looked bloodless with the cold. He thought her beautiful.
‘Don’t you look handsome,’ she remarked.
Handsome or not he found himself lost for words, and felt his face colour. He stood watching her watching him, as the cold spray plastered the thin fabric of his underpants to every muscle. Without a word she reached out to take his hands and walking backward drew him into the sea.
‘Do not be afraid,’ she he told him.
‘I’m not afraid.’
‘It feels cold at first but that is the wind on the waves. Take a deep breath and fall to me.’
He closed his eyes and squeezing her hands fearfully, did what he was told. There was a moment of panic as his feet went from under him, but her grip held firm. Under the waves it felt warm, or at least not cold. He felt light as air and just as free. He put his head up to take another breath and plunged it back underwater, opening his eyes to a brief sting of salt. He laughed. The air bubbling from of his mouth forced him to find his feet and stand with the waves crashing from waist to chest.
‘Do you like it?’ she asked.
He nodded, eager; greedy; happy as a child on his birthday.
‘A deep breath,’ she instructed.
He breathed and together they plunged beneath the waves.
They say everyone favours one of the four elements. Some breeze through life with laughter in their heart. Some light up the world around them, though they may be changeable as the day is long. Others, solid and dependable, will not be moved if they know they are right. They thirst for justice and are good to have standing at your side in troubled times. Then there are those, often the quiet ones, who run still and deep. Whether they be calm or tempestuous, they do not give love easily. But when they love… ah, when they love, over time that love of theirs will erode mountains.
On Monday Patrick saw Muireann walking along the beach in another antique dress. As luck would have it, or maybe it was a premonition, he had packed his old underpants in his knapsack. After this they met for an hour each evening on his way home to swim together. With the lengthening days and bursting buds, Patrick realised he dreaded the return of spring. Sleeping under the trees night after night seemed a poor substitute with his new taste for the sea.
In his heart he knew this is what his father felt in his fishing boat: the call of the sea; in all her moods. And perhaps there was more. A dark sinister thought crept in, growing like a worm gnawing at his heart. Perhaps his father had known his own Muireann. Perhaps this was this why he drowned, searching for one such as her? Perhaps this was why his mother left?
Day after day he steeled himself to ask Muireann if she knew of his father. Each time he quailed, afraid of what it would mean. If her people were responsible for his father’s death or his mother leaving; where would that leave them?
One Thursday morning, no more than couple of hours after starting work, Sam the Undertaker’s son burst into the logging camp looking for Patrick. His Uncle Pat was dead. Ron the foreman told him to take what time he needed and he’d try not to dock his wages if he could. Although wages were the last thing on Patrick’s mind.
Biddy later told him Pat had died in his sleep. He knew Biddy and Pat slept in different rooms. Pat’s cough kept her up all night leaving her good for nothing. She’d seen him when she took in with his early morning tea. He was so peaceful; not a peep out of him. She thought it would be a kindness to let him sleep; not realising he was already gone.
As darkness fell Patrick grew fretful. Muireann was expecting him. What if he didn’t show? Would she ever come again? But how could he leave Biddy? She had no one else. Reluctantly he closed the curtains, knowing they would not be opened again ‘til after the funeral. There would be no swimming now, no dalliance, at least for a while. It was no comfort to know he was doing the right thing.
The funeral was Saturday afternoon so friends from the logging camp could act as pallbearers. Patrick was not in work but sat with Biddy night and day watching over the body. Friday night everyone turned up for the send-off. Biddy laid on a spread, with a barrel brought from the pub in the drayman’s cart.
It was a good turn-out. There was lots a laughing and singing round the coffin with two fellas from the pub on fiddle and banjo. Near midnight, when the songs were getting maudlin and people shifting uneasily, looking ready to leave, it was time for Pat to go. Biddy went over and opened the window, while respectfully the mourners formed an avenue for his spirit to pass between them out into the night.
The funeral went without a hitch. Everyone came round after. They were subdued for a while, probably nursing hangovers. Some brought a bottle or two by way of commiseration. Wives drifted by with a stew-pot, a spare pie or something else they’d baked. Before anyone knew, it was midnight again and the barrel was finished and the bottles empty and everyone was saying what a great aul fella Paddy was. Though by Jeasus, they’d bothered with him little enough before. And that was that. The man was laid to earth. Biddy and Patrick were expected to get on with it.
After Church on Sunday, there was cold-cuts for dinner and a slice of pie. Claiming a blindin’ head, Biddy went to bed. At a loss Patrick went to the sea. When Muireann wasn’t there, he stripped himself naked and swam until his arms and legs burned. Coming out he realised his eyes were running with tears and he thought it must be the bloody salt water.
For the next week he went to the sea each evening on his way home from work. Muireann had gone. Sometimes he stripped himself and swam. But his heart wasn’t in it. By the month end he was back to work proper and sleeping under the stars, or more often than not under a stretched tarpaulin with the rain drip, drip, dripping off the branches onto the oiled canvass above his head. He missed the sea. But on them nights he missed the sea least of all.
©Paul Andruss 2018
© Images The Colour of Life Geoff Cronin
My thanks again to Paul for this compelling episode in this story and I hope you will pop in tomorrow for the final part.
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul is the author of two books and you can find out more by clicking the image.
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Thanks again for dropping in and hope to see you tomorrow for the final part of the story…Sally.