The Oyster Catchers, written by Beth Tyrrell, is the overall winner of the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition 2014.
This year marks the 26th anniversary of the RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition, which over the years has proved to be the launching pad for many renowned Irish writers.
I HAVE SEEN in winter the black rustling airborne mass of a murmuration, and on TV the slick quick silver stream of small fish, clouds of individual anchovies turning as one. And thought – we are all together in this world, this is how we move, this is the shape of us. But it was only a thought and it did not connect to me.
All week the world was weird. On the Monday school run the trees rose grey against the grey sky, the delicate lace of their empty crowns holding air. Like helium balloons they tugged gently upwards through the cold river mist. I thought of their roots, as wet and sinuous as eels in the waterlogged earth, slipping, slipping, easing into the upwards pull so that soon they would release their hold and lift solemnly into the sky; slow the way that trees are slow. I saw them float straight upwards in the stillness of the frozen morning.
On Tuesday I kissed my son at the school gates, and clicked the baby into the buggy, and set loose the dog to run and sniff. We walked the backlane and the harrowed hedgerows were hung with jewels as gaudy and iridescent as petrol backed beetles, dew drops catching the sun. They seemed on the verge of flight and though the air was frozen with quiet I could hear the buzz and hum they would make as bright clouds took to the grey air.
On Wednesday I felt the world tip. Walking home from the corner shop was like walking on a water bed; each step I took rippled outwards across the tarmac and washed up in ridges at the walls of houses, dispersed back towards me and settled. I started lifting my feet higher to compensate for the way they sank into the pavement, and my stomach swam with sea sick. The buggy was hard and heavy in my hands, and the uphill push was a struggle, though I knew the hill was just a liquid thing and could roll, could collapse and swallow itself; that the hill was a rolling mobile thing and the tarmac, the houses, were just a moving meniscus. The hill was rolling under me and still I pushed upwards. I was queasy. The sun shone, and our backs were to the wind, and nothing was wrong, I didn’t feel that anything was wrong, but here was the earth flowing under me. I am so small, I thought. I am a waterboatman skating on a pond.
All week I cleaned and cooked – we ate well, and my son did all his homework and went to school clean and loved. I watched soap operas with my husband in the evenings. I chatted about the weather with my neighbour.
Maybe I would have been ok if I hadn’t maintained such surface order, maybe if I had allowed the tears to come I could have cried for an hour and the world would have held fast. I thought the madness could be a blessing, a glimpse of beautiful strangeness, but I knew how it went and it went more quickly this time than before. The grief came trickling, rising up around my ankles, and though the world dazzled and blazed, the grief rose simply and quickly with the liquid ease of the tide rushing quietly up through small stones, filling the spaces between, sucking back out only to come further in with the next surge. I was swamped with sadness.
Outside Lidl on Thursday I felt my self start to rend, to peel, to pull apart. Raw chicken skin pulled from the carcass, only slippier than that – maybe like the oil lifting to the top of the jar of dressing, slipping and separating. The division of two things that do not meld. I thought of dark things and I thought of my own self and my stomach swam. I wore shame like shit in my hair, but in the car window I saw the reflection of just another woman, warmly dressed. Through the reflection I saw the children buckled safely in and I looked down at my hands, hanging there, and I thought, the urge to lift them will not come today. I will stand here, maybe I will lie down, maybe the rain will come and wash over me and make these fat tears invisible and maybe it will be dark and I will have peace, maybe I will sleep.
I looked at the trolley of shopping, and I wished I had held it together until I had unpacked the trolley and returned it to the stack and was free from that obligation, and could relish the comfort, the ease and luxury of lying down here, hidden between the parked cars; of lying down here and dreaming of the dark rain washing over me. I looked at my hands hanging and I knew something had to be done but I didn’t know what so I lifted them and held them up before me.
I looked at them, at the backs of my hands. I looked at where they are scarred and where they are not scarred.
Looking at them I could step back from the rending for a moment. I thought they mostly looked like strong hands. I could see my options: to lie down in the ease and relief of madness, or to unpack the shopping trolley. I looked at the trolley and saw the amazing sanity of my work; the vegetables, the fruits, the meat, the complete absence of junk and the fact that what I had bought would feed my family exactly for an exact number of days within a terrifyingly exact budget. I looked at the firm warm bodies of my sunshine children, buckled in already and squabbling, and I took them home.
That night they watched too much TV and my husband cooked, watching me cry; wary, concerned, he bent to kiss the top of my head. Such kindness. Such safety. The grief lapped high about my nose now and I tilted back my head so I could breathe.
On Friday I collected my son at two and drove straight to the beach as I had promised. It was still so cold that it hurt to hold the steering wheel, but I had to keep the visor down against the glaring sunshine. I was frightened that I would fall asleep at the wheel, my eyes were as heavy as my hands, as my whole body. The swirling water in the estuary scared me. Beside the road the trees waited, ready to float.
I drove too slowly and annoyed the driver behind.
We pulled into Broadstrand car park and I wanted to put my head on the steering wheel and sleep. The tide was lower than I had expected, judging by the estuary; little breaking waves were rushing up the sand and I could see the water ruffled and spraying from the breeze. There was still plenty of wet sand for the busy running oystercatchers, and there were groups of them here and there, concentrated, engrossed by the sand and the waves. They moved with a lightness that was totally other, like they were made of air as much as earth.
The car was too hot and I did not want to get out in the cold wind. The dog was yelping and his tail was thumping frantically, and both boys were loudly impatient. I dragged myself out and went through the whole dance with zips and hats and wellies. My little son wanted to carry a bucket and needed his stiff coat sleeves rolled up so his hands stuck out the ends and he could grip the handle in one and my finger in the other. I had on a thick wool and fleece jacket, but wool is no use in a breeze, and I was the kind of cold and tired that cramps and hunches. The little dashing waves frightened me, the speed and suck of them. The boys ran and shouted and the dog ran and sniffed, busy and happy and busy, and I kept always between the little waves and my sons, shooing them higher up the beach. I’ll make it to the stream at the end, I thought, for the dog’s sake.
We fought along the curved kilometre of sand. Both the boys soon had red noses and lines of snot, and the little one kept sitting down on the damp sand with his bucket. My big boy held my hand and chattered incessantly. It tethered my mind. I wanted to listen to the waves, and the curling clean air sound of the oystercatchers.
The stream was sheltered from the wind and the boys threw stones into it happily, and the dog was busy and happy, and I sat on the dry gravel and felt the sun on my face. The hunch thawed out of my shoulders.
The light shifted over the bay and I could see the old head of Kinsale, the lighthouse picked out in the sun. We were sheltered and there was a stillness, the stream ran quietly and the noise of the children was like an inside noise. The sky felt close. To breathe the air seemed an intimate thing, like receiving a generosity, like being welcome. The dog startled a group of oystercatchers and they whirled into the air. They turned as one, maybe twenty or thirty of them, not a large group, and they were close. They turned again and the shape they made caught in my chest. I knew it, I recognised it, and I could taste the space between them and the clean air they were made of. The lift and lightness, the turn, the smallness of the group and the way the air and the water and the earth of the bay were one thing and they were part of it and we were part of it; it was something that I already knew but had forgotten.
The light shifted over the bay, and I felt the light move in me too. I could smell the salt smell of my sadness still, but I could breathe now and I held on to the shape that the oystercatchers had made and I knew I was made of the same mud and air and salt water as they were; that I was no less beautiful, strange or broken than they. When the world can slant and shine, when a hill can roll like a wave, when the oystercatchers can turn on a beat, can think as one soul, can dash and run in the tide as it rises as surely as grief can rise, and as it falls as surely as grief can fall; so there is room in this world for me.
Along the back of the strand stood bare trees, and to me they were still sky animals, with dry nutty hides. They tugged gently upwards from the earth. But I remembered the strength and weave and depth of their roots, and I remembered that trees search downwards just as far as they reach up.
We walked back, and my son’s chatter was like the little waves, it was as bright and open as the oystercatchers. Our backs to the breeze, the sun warmed our shoulders all the way to the car.
Beth Tyrrell grew up in Allihies, on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork and now lives in Bandon. She is a full time stay-at-home mother and a part time journalist and edits the parenting supplement of the Sunday World newspaper.