by Anna Loughran
Format: Short Story
Chrissy stopped in her tracks and turned to Helen in excitement. “Look, Mum,” she said. “Look at the sparkle in the water. It’s gold, I swear. I’m going to be rolling in it, just you wait!” She ran ahead across the narrow shore. The others followed, sapped by the midsummer heat. Joey, the eldest, wore all black and lagged behind as he stopped to examine an interesting flower or stone, a habit Helen adored in him, as she felt he had taken after her. She loved photography and recognised his interest in particulars. She watched as he rubbed his thumb over a glossy azure pebble. She sighed. He’d long stopped coming to her with a new discovery, to ask her questions and find out everything under the sun. In truth, it had been a long time since they’d talked at all. She felt an end approaching, and it unsettled her.
Gerry, her husband, quickened his pace to catch up with Chrissy. He wasn’t impressed with Chrissy’s belief that there was gold. “It’s just the light,” he explained. “See the way it breaks through the trees and glances off the water?” It was no use, thought Helen. Chrissy knew everything already. “Will she ever give over with these stories?” he said, a little out of breath, when Helen reached him.
“Oh, leave her be,” she replied. “Just find us a spot and make sure she doesn’t drown.”
“And I suppose you’ll be off taking pictures, then?”
“You bought me the thing.”
“Aye, well, I’m still coming to terms with that decision.”
He got her a camera for Christmas. It was expensive, and new. He asked her over and over to take holiday photos to show off back home, but she refused. Her excuse was that it was expensive to get the film processed and she needed to focus on a portfolio. While she realised there was a selfishness to it, that didn’t bother her. It was her camera and her hobby. She began to take it with her all the time. She adored the mechanics of it – how the shutter clicked, the light tension in the rings whenever she adjusted the focus, the weight of it around her neck. She knew the feel of it better than anything.
Beside the lake, she finally had the view she wanted: the water was still and deep and outlined by a narrow shore, beyond which forests reached partially up the mountains on either side. Straight ahead, above the far side of the lake, there was a small dip in the cliffs where clouds spilled into the valley, as if poured from a jug. The view excited her. She stood at the water’s edge and waited for light to move across the peaks and hit the cloud in such a way as to make it luminous. Gerry set up the picnic. There were others around, families mostly, and some children waded in the shallows. When Chrissy went in, the water reached her waist. Helen looked over to her now and then to make sure she was fine, but always with an eye on the mountains. Finally, when the moment came, she took several shots. One of them, she thought, was bound to turn out all right.
Gerry set out some bread and cheese. They often went for picnics before they had children, especially in their university days. She sat on the blanket and watched as a cloud broke overhead and felt the sun hit her skin a little more harshly. Gerry handed her a plate and said, “Help yourself. I’ll get those two.” Chrissy was back on the shore and lay across the pebbles. Joey stood in the water a little farther on. There was a scream from somewhere in the forest, followed by laughter; a few birds shot out of the canopy. She thought she saw Joey look back at her, and she waved, but there was no acknowledgement. He appeared solemn or distracted, as he had the past few months. His clothes fit a bit looser.
“Should we worry about him?” she asked Gerry when he returned.
“Joey? No, no, I don’t think so. Sure, okay, he’s a bit glum, granted, but don’t you remember being that age? I was a miserable wee shite. It’ll pass.”
Helen sighed. She and Joey used to talk all the time. He would come home from school and tell her about his day, even if those days were rough, as they quite often were. They’d read stories together and watch television. She’d expected things to change when he reached puberty, but she felt this was different. Quite often she’d go days without seeing him, as he’d stay in his room. They lost contact somewhere along the way, and she couldn’t pinpoint when, which frustrated her. With old friends or her own parents, she could point out moments, conversations that led to a relationship’s decline. With Joey, there was nothing; there was no fight, no shouting match. It troubled her that his affections could change so easily. She looked at Gerry and said, “I can’t remember the last time I talked to him.”
“What’s stopping you?” he replied.
She thought about it for a moment, but had no response. She looked across the forest and uphill, in the direction of St. Kevin’s Cell. “You know,” she said, “I’ve been here countless times and never once bothered to see the cell.”
“Not much to see,” said Gerry. “It’s just a cave, and sure we’ve got those back home.”
“You’re never impressed, are you?”
Gerry looked taken aback for a moment, then turned his attention to the food. The kids were still out in the water. He looked back at her and said, flatly, “Go get them, will you? We need to eat before the flies get here.”
She took off her shoes and walked along the pebbles. She enjoyed their dull sting on her soles. The air was thick with pollen and she could smell a barbeque from somewhere in the woods. She approached the water’s edge and was struck by the clarity of it. She thought the stones and weeds beneath were far clearer than they would be if held in front of her. She thought the same about her reflection, though her eyes were darker and her hair thinner than she remembered. She used to have thick glossy curls, but at some stage she no longer had the time for long showers and routines, so she cut it shorter and shorter. She heard a splash as Chrissy approached and her reflection faded in the ripples.
“Sorry,” said Chrissy. “I’ll come for food now. I thought I saw a fish. I don’t know. Something was glowing.”
“Careful,” joked Helen. “There are many stories of children being lured by things in the water. Now go on, get your lunch.”
Joey remained farther down the shore and Helen felt her chest tighten as she approached him. When she was a few metres away he appeared to wipe his face with his sleeve. He turned and she noticed that his eyes were red and swollen. “Allergies,” he explained.
“Food’s ready, honey,” she said. The honey felt forced – it wasn’t a term she used before – and Joey looked at her when she said it.
“I just forgot the tablets,” he said. He walked toward her and she reached out to give him a hug. He was stiff and quiet – so quiet she couldn’t hear him breathe. How many times, she wondered, had she held him as he cried? She could handle his sorrow if only he let her. She hugged for a few seconds longer but felt, at that moment, that something snapped within her, like a guitar string. “I’m okay,” he mumbled, then pulled himself from her and approached the picnic. Helen looked back towards the mountains, the air stifled.
The four of them sat around the blanket. Chrissy ate quickly, then lay back to read her book. Joey played with his food and, Helen thought, would not have eaten if she hadn’t kept watch. He had felt slender in her arms, not much bigger than Chrissy, who was two years younger. Helen wondered why she hadn’t said anything about it to him up to now, let alone Gerry. He might have been depressed. In fact, Helen thought, that was more than likely. She was prone to it herself; she spent most of their childhood in a low dreamstate. She tried to understand why he could’ve been depressed, and if she did anything to cause it. They had a good life, and while she knew that wasn’t how it worked, she felt that her children, more than many others, had every reason to be happy. She worried, then, that this was it for him. A lifetime of struggle lay ahead. There must be something she could do, she thought. She couldn’t bear the sense she had of his future.
After their meal, Gerry had to use the bathroom, as did Chrissy, and the two of them went off to find the toilets. Helen removed a cigarette from her purse and handed another to Joey, who looked at her with surprise before she said, “I know you smoke; you can’t hide everything.” He smiled, and she felt like she had just seen him smile for the first time. They were quiet for a few minutes. Joey read the blurb on the back of Chrissy’s book, then promptly set it down when Helen noticed. She touched him on the shoulder and asked, “Is everything okay?” He didn’t answer right away; instead, he looked across the water for a few moments. Helen had an image of him then, as a child, when he would take a few moments after being asked a question. She thought of his plump toddler face scrunched in deep concentration. It took her far too long to realise he was weighing up his words.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s peaceful. Thanks for taking us.” He put out the cigarette on a paper plate then said, “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
She felt her stomach drop. She didn’t understand, and yet, to some extent, she did. She wanted more than anything to reach out again and hold him, but couldn’t. She watched in silence as he stood and went back to the water, then lifted her camera and instinctively took a picture of him a few feet into its glistening surface.
The road to Glendalough’s entrance was narrowed by a wall of parked coaches. Clara sat in the passenger seat and watched ahead nervously. The place teemed with visitors, and too often a child would bolt across the road. Emma was a good driver, but nevertheless, roads were uncomfortable places, and she tended to worry more when Rachel was in the back seat. She turned to Emma and said, “It was grey when we left. To be honest I wouldn’t have minded a bit of cloud.”
“What is this place anyway?” asked Rachel.
“It’s famous,” said Clara.
“It’s old. And pretty.”
“Is that it?”
“I guess. But that’s not why we’re going.”
“Why’re we going then?”
Clara turned to Emma and smiled. They’d grown used to Rachel’s incessant questioning. The previous day, she had spent an hour questioning every portrait in the National Gallery: who the person was, what they did, who the painter was, etc. etc. It was as though she was in search of some ultimate point after which nothing could be asked. That she could never reach that point seemed to delight her endlessly. Over the past year or so, her inquiries had turned to her parents. Emma was forthcoming and told her all about the farm in Donegal, the lambs, the hares, the dances, her time at university, and how she met Clara. Clara, on the other hand, remained a mystery. For Clara, there was a point at which no further questions would be answered, a point at which the explanations became too difficult. Rather than dissuade her, it made Rachel focus more, ask more, and try harder to get information about her mother’s past.
“Well?” asked Rachel. “What is it? Why’re we going?”
“It means something to me,” said Clara.
At this, Rachel sat up and went quiet.
Before they could reach the lake, they had to pass The Glendalough Hotel, which was grand and stately. All around was a huge field packed with families, sunbathers, and boys throwing rugby balls to one another in the heat. Clouds of midges danced beneath trees. “I hate those things,” said Rachel. “Why do they itch anyway?”
“Not sure,” said Emma. “I guess they suck your blood.”
“Oh okay. Why do vampires suck your blood?”
Emma walked ahead with the wicker basket she had bought especially for this trip. She’d also bought a straw mat and books for each of them. Rachel walked alongside Clara. She had grown a bit over the school year and reached Clara’s shoulder. It was her first year in grammar. Her teachers were unsurprisingly enthused about her willingness to learn. Her head tilted slightly as she waited for an answer. “I don’t know,” said Clara. “I guess they just like it.” Rachel then walked faster to catch up with Emma. To say she didn’t know the answer was sometimes enough to keep her quiet, or make her move on to something else. More often, however, Rachel would go between her mothers to get an answer, sometimes over the course of several days.
They walked towards the lake along a gravel path with a hillside forest to their left. The canopy sheltered them from the sun. Children ran among the incline, as its fallen branches and mossy rocks were a perfect obstacle course. Occasionally, Rachel would stop to take a picture on her phone. She had developed a fascination with flowers, and her phone was full of the photos she had taken, close-ups of lilies, pansies, bluebells – anything that could be seen on her walk between home and school. Whenever she came home with a new photo, she would sit with Clara, who would describe each part of the flower in detail, then Rachel would ask something like, “But why is it blue anyway?”
On the path to the lake, Clara stayed a good bit behind the others. She enjoyed seeing the two of them interact with the world. After a while, Rachel approached with her phone to show a picture of dandelions, which leaned out of the shadow of a fallen tree toward a sliver of light. “You take after my mum,” said Clara. Rachel put her phone away and looked at her with more intensity in her eyes than usual. Clara continued, “She was always taking photos. Back home, there are folders full of them. Quite a few were taken here.”
“Can you show me when we get back?” she asked. Clara nodded, then realised she’d have to go through them first.
“She was very good at it,” said Clara. “She won awards and everything. She worked for magazines. Still does, I think. She travels a lot.”
“Really? That’s cool. I think I’d like to do that.”
“You can do whatever you want,” said Clara. Emma stopped at a junction in the path, by a sign that directed visitors towards the lake. The path uphill led to St. Kevin’s Cell. Crowds headed in that direction, Emma nodded toward them and said, “I don’t fancy that, do you?”
“No way,” said Clara. “We’ll go to the lake and eat.”
“And how’re you doing?”
“Strange, but it’s nice.”
They passed the afternoon lazily. Clara lounged on the mat and read – or tried to read. She thought a lot, or was distracted by Rachel when she showed a photo or asked a question about her mother. Emma explored around the lake for a bit, then swam in its clear, shimmering water. When she got out, she brought back a slick, marbleized stone to take home. Their mantlepiece was dotted with various stones they had gathered around the world, a tradition Clara started early on in their relationship. In truth, she was grateful for their intrusions, as her thoughts were occupied. Rachel reminded her a lot of the women in her family: she had an appetite for life, was naturally quick and ahead of other children her age, though she also had gained Clara’s reservation and, increasingly, a desire for solitude. The latter worried Clara a little, but she tried not to dwell on it. Having a child, she realised, caused her to reevaluate so much of her own life, and the lives of others. She developed a fondness for her sister, whose energy she sorely missed. A few months back, she had reached out to Chrissy to meet for coffee, but after various attempts to reschedule, they never did. Her father was nowhere to be seen, having stopped talking to her when she left home over a decade ago. She sat in the sun and, as she watched her new family, felt a need to grieve.
“When’s food?” asked Rachel, who appeared beside her with half a dozen rocks of her own.
“Just a minute,” said Clara.
She began to set out the plates and prepared a small feast for Rachel, then handed her a plate. Rachel started to piece together a sandwich and, while doing so, said “I think I remember your mum.”
Clara smiled at her and said, “Helen’s not easily forgotten.”
Rachel laughed, then took a large bite of food and said, with her mouth full, “It was the same summer we, you know.”
“Yeah, it was a lovely day, and we ate out in the garden, which we never do.”
“You made me dress nice.”
“I made Emma dress nice, too. I won’t ask either of you to do it again – not after the trouble you gave me about it.”
Emma sat next to both of them, Clara handed her a plate of food, too, then went on, “She wanted to meet you. Well, I think she really wanted to be nosey. She always liked to keep an eye on me.”
“I remember her big hair. Just like yours. And her necklace; she had this big chunky necklace with lots of birds on it. I don’t remember anything else.”
Emma joined in and said, “She thought you were beautiful, and she talked a lot about herself. There wasn’t much else to remember.”
“I’d like to ask her about her photos,” said Rachel.
“I suppose when you’re a bit older you can stay with her. She lives in London.”
At this, Rachel got excited and ate her food twice as fast, as if it would expedite the process of aging. Clara had kept in touch with her mum, but they didn’t talk often. And when they did, it was Helen who messaged first, usually to ask how she was and how the family was doing. Their conversations never flowed naturally, and Clara always felt down for a few days after they talked. She missed how they used to be, but couldn’t see a way back. She took a bite from her own sandwich and looked at Emma, who was reading a book, and felt grounded.
Clouds gathered over the mountains as the day went on. Crowds began to dwindle. Clara looked towards the lake and felt a desire to go in, to swim to the other side. She hadn’t swum in years. Rachel paddled in the shallows and looked so small. Clara rolled her trousers up and waded into the lake, then caught her reflection, which was distorted initially but smoothed out as the ripples dissipated. She had changed so much, she thought, and it never failed to astonish.
“What is it?” asked Rachel, who paddled close by. “Is it a fish?”
“No,” said Clara. “It’s nothing.”
“Are you afraid of water?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen you swim.”
“I suppose I am, then.”
“Oh,” she said, then paused for a moment. She looked at her hands then asked, “Did something happen?”
“It’s not that,” said Clara. “I swam here years ago.”
“What were you like then?”
Clara looked at her. Such a question was usually difficult for her to answer, but she felt, at last, willing to give a little; something in her had loosened or faded. “A bit like you, but also sad.”
Clara sighed, then stepped into the lake a bit more. Her body seized up as Rachel looked at her in anticipation. She told herself that this would be the day. She would tell her daughter about herself, her past. Partly, she felt Rachel was ready, that she could understand, she could bear it. However, there was also pressure, a sense that there was a window that could close at any moment. Time and again, Clara would sit up into the night and worry if she had left it too late, and if the easy acceptance children had for the world made way for a less innocent view, one encumbered by expectation, by opinion. Nothing Rachel did indicated that such a moment had arrived, but secondary school was usually the time when that happened. In addition, Clara envied the closeness that developed between Rachel and Emma which, she thought, must have stemmed from the latter being so open about herself. As a result, Emma would be the parent Rachel would go to for advice. No, Clara thought, this had to be the time. It had to be.
“I just didn’t know who I was,” she said. “But I was beginning to understand and piece things together. It’s a difficult age for anyone, never mind someone like …”
The words approached the air but stopped at her teeth and weighed down her tongue. She looked at the water; it reflected the light harshly. Rachel looked at her, and Clara started to feel the heaviness of disappointment. Still, she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She felt it would change something – a dynamic, or an aspect of her motherhood – if she told her. “Sorry,” she said, then turned from Rachel and walked back to the picnic. She lay down as the world spun.
They decided to stop by the old monastery before they left. Rachel wanted a photo of the three of them for Facebook. They stood at the door of an old chapel and asked an American man to take a photo, and he said he would, with pleasure. Although it moved towards the evening, it remained dry and hot. They sat around crumbled walls and rehydrated. Clara watched as Rachel flicked through the photos she had taken, then said to Emma, “I couldn’t tell her. I will soon – I will. But not today. If anything went wrong … I just wanted today to be perfect.”
“Nothing will go wrong,” said Emma.
“Here,” said Rachel, as she held the camera up for them to see. “It’s a dragonfly. Isn’t it? I think so. Isn’t it pretty?”
“It’s a great picture,” said Emma
“They taught us that people used to mistake them for fairies. Why would they think that? They’d go to the bottom of their gardens and talk to them and all. I like them as they are. Are they related to dragons?”
“Yes,” said Clara. “They must be.”
Anna Loughran lives in London. She studied English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her debut pamphlet, Chords of Inquiry, was published by The Lifeboat. You can find her on Instagram @anna__loughran.