The tide was half-way out the day he pulled up in his Vauxhall Viva and lingered by our shore. A few of us were down on the sand, skimming stones into the Atlantic or dreaming of women in faraway places. We’d heard the Vauxhall Viva before we saw it. When we turned to look it was already slowing to a halt. Somehow we knew, he would clamber out and snoop around. With his hands tucked into his trench coat pockets, at first he just stood there, happily buffeted by the gusts of wind. We eyed him warily. Most folk don’t take this coast road and few stopped to take the air, why would you, when the sea is mostly dull and grey, and wind promises nothing but a shower. So, what was this fella up to?
He ambled away from his car and stepped onto the beach. He kicked his way through the seaweed and nameless debris, picking up certain rocks and shells and staring at them as if he’d found a nugget of pure gold. From time to time he closed his eyes again as if he were now listening to the wind whisper secrets we ought to know but didn’t in his ears. As he passed by us, we noticed he had a regal air about him in spite of his fairly agricultural head. His cheeks were flushed from the wind and/or the drink. He had a tousled mop of greying hair and unruly pair of meat-chops on his cheeks. He sported superior clothes than us country boys but nothing too outlandish. We noticed he scribbled things down in an old red jotter. We followed him from a distance as he walked along the shore. We matched him stride for stride. We stopped when he stopped. We peered out when he peered out; leaned back as he leaned back. We closed our eyes when he closed his. But still we were none the wiser. What was this fella up to?
Some of the lads soon lost interest in him and went back to skimming stones. As they released the stone they shouted whatever country they were aiming for: “The US of A!”, “Atlantis!”, “Iceland!” The stranger seemed amused by this. I saw his lips curl in the corners of his mouth and I remember he penned something down. Then, as if remembering he had somewhere else to be, he tilted his head back and sauntered off back to his Vauxhall Viva. On the road he encountered Mickey Clancy, a wizened old fella now dependent on a cane. They exchanged greetings and stopped to converse. The stranger leaned over and shouted in Clancy’s ear for a while and Clancy nodded, pointed this way and that and shouted back in the stranger’s ear. The stranger shook Clancy’s hand then jumped into his car where he sat for a few minutes, before he starting up his motor and disappearing out of sight, and, so we imagined, out of our lives.
Time trundled along and days strung themselves together as they tend to do. Sometimes it rained before lunchtime, sometimes after, but to use the term rain is ignorant enough as wise old Jackie Murphy often proclaimed over pints at night, “Eskimos have forty words for snow, but sure we fair folk must have a hundred and one for the rain.” So it’d be more accurate to say sometimes it piddled before lunchtime, lowered to a spit, and then lashed, bucketed and pissed down at various stages through the afternoon; otherwise, the rain might be drizzling, or mhisty, or it could be driving, and if accompanied by a belter of a wind, it might even be sideways. Even when it wasn’t raining, you’d hear someone say, “Would you look at the day — sure doesn’t it want to rain.” And it usually did.
Then, on a day when the rain was so fine that you could barely see it but somehow you ended up soaked down to your y-fronts (we call that ‘wet rain’) and when the tide was right in by the road, most of us were snuggling up to a pint in Patsy Lynch’s bar and old man O’ Dea reassured us, “For a day like that, you’re in the right place”, and then the big, bauld Derek Dooley came barging through the door, shoulder first, head second, gasping for a smoke and a pint of the good stuff. When he had composed himself with a couple of puffs and a large slurp, he explained he’d just come back from the city where he’d struck up a conversation “with a woman.”
Somebody cheered, someone else congratulated him, another told him he reeked of it, and there was much approval all around. “No, no — there was none of that, we were talking of origins and when I told her where I came from she put her hand on my knee…” We leaned forward, confused — someone told Derek Dooley that if he didn’t realise she was after a bit of the country in the bedroom he was the biggest fucking gobshite the west had ever seen.
“No, honestly, she just wanted to chat. She said, well if that’s where you’re from, you must have read Proinsias de Murucu’s poem The Splurgy Shore, it’s inspired by your hometown…”
This was a lot of strange, perplexing information all at once. We leaned back and searched for a knowing look amongst the bar but not a soul had a notion what he was on about. It took Derek Dooley the best part of a pint to get the message across that a poem had been written about our wee shore by a man named Proinsias de Burca and all at once we remembered the stranger and his jotter.
“The sly fox, so what’s he said about us?” spat one old fella.
Derek Dooley rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He passed it to O’Dea who held it at arm’s length. He looked over his spectacles and down his speckled nose and read out a line: “You might pause a moment to stop while driving along the Splurgy Shore…” And we all and scoffed, and someone snorted, “A moment? Is that all we’re good for?” The paper was passed on from person to person and more lines were read aloud: “The weather conceals its next identity…”, “The elderly locals hide indoors from the buffeting breeze…”, “Only the young brave the shore…”, “Facing the ocean, a stone is skimmed and a wishful destination is summoned…”, “For little does keep the young folk’s hearts here…”
It went on (not that long, to be fair) but we’d heard enough. We were all outraged, even if some of us weren’t quite sure what any of it meant, but whether it was good or bad, the point was this: who gave that sneaky shitehawk the right to drive out here and write a poem about our shore? How dare he try and capture the essence of our home? How could you write a poem about anywhere if you only paused for a moment?
“Sure, I saw him that day — he didn’t even get out of his car,” muttered someone.
“No, in fairness he did, but only to take a piss on the ‘Splurgy Shore,” shouted another.
“What does ‘splurgy’ even mean?”
“Even if he was here for 10 minutes, what would he know about anything?”
“Fucking toerag.”, “Fucking shit-stirrer.”, “Fucking bollix.”, “Fucking fucker.”
Over the next few days we found out more about the man: he was an award-winning poet revered in all departments of high poesy around the world. A mini-biography feature Derek Dooley salvaged from a Sunday magazine in Galway spoke of the poet’s down-to-earth wisdom and rural roots in spite of his scholarly endeavours in Oxbridge. He wrote with “mud in his nails”, the magazine proclaimed; he was the pride of rural communities, we were told, he was our unofficial poet laureate, we were assured.
Patsy Lynch senior scratched his arse and wondered out loud should he spruce up the place a bit for the poetry-reading-tourists that could soon be turning up in droves. Somebody explained that poetry didn’t have that sort of pulling power and Patsy’s face crinkled in confusion.
The rest of us tried to forget we’d ever heard of Proinsias de Burca and toddled on with our lives as best we could. But something had changed. There was a restlessness in the air and the young ones were all self-conscious about skimming stones now. We weren’t used to self-awareness like that.
The odd time a car took the coast road, our coast road, and slowed to a halt, we’d leer threateningly as if to say, don’t even think of clambering out and cozying up to our sea breeze. But then when they didn’t get out, we’d moan why does no one even get out of their fucking car?
Then, on a day when the rain splattered the windows of Lynch’s, big burly Derek Dooley burst through the door right shoulder first, and when he finally caught his breath, he said, “You won’t fucking believe what I just heard…”
We leaned forward, once again anticipating a smutty tale from the city — this time, surely he must have got the ride. “That poet Proinsias Whatshisface is coming back here… to live,” he said pulling out a paper. “It says somewhere in here that he’s finishing up a collection of poetry and he believes that there’s something about this shore that releases his….” and big, burly Derek Dooley searched the article to read out these mystifying words: “‘stirs his lyrical spirit’.”
Derek passed the paper to O’Dea, who read more in a grave voice, as if we were all now surely doomed, “He’s going to stay here for an indefinite period. Apparently he’s renting a house here…”
We swivelled on our stools to stare at old Ned Considine, the sole proprietor of a house available for rent. He sat on the far side of the bar, legs crossed, cigarette burning in the ashtray, his eyes dancing from side to side as if contemplating whether he should take a sip from his pint or alternatively his wife’s hot port.
“What are you letting that shady fucker stay here for?” someone growled.
“What am I supposed to do?” Considine scowled. “Am I supposed to turn down a chance to make money?”
Nobody had an answer to that but we still felt betrayed. How could he not breathe a word to us? We never trusted that poet fella from the start. Considine knocked his drink back and started to make his exit before things turned ugly but he couldn’t resist having a pop at us as he stood by the door.
“Yiz might just learn something from this fella, you know,” he said. “Look at the state of yiz — a pack of good-for-nothings, who’ll be remembered for nothing.”
There was no parade for the poet’s arrival, there’s no doubt about that. Truth be known, we barely noticed him. He kept himself to himself in his rented house save for the odd evening stroll he took to consume and digest the poesy-powering magic of the shore, our shore.
We’d see him in the distance strolling along the shore, eyeing up what he could see of the universe, taking in the air and mulling over his day’s work, and then he’d wheel on his heels and head back to the house, back to his jotters and his typewriter; back to forging his immortality, cementing his place in history, back to claiming ownership of our shore, which we were already convinced could not be mentioned anywhere in the world without someone talking about the “Great Proinsias de Burca and his poem the Splurgy Shore.” We’d shake our heads at the thought of this and stroll to the pub muttering nothing but contemptuous things.
Despite his designs on immortality, he was human and had to eat. We’d got wind that he’d been into Halloran’s grocery store to purchase the necessaries — “tins of beans, bread, eggs, bacon, spuds, cabbage, teabags, crackers and cheese, that sort of stuff,” said Tommy Halloran with a shrug in the pub. “Nothing out of the ordinary, although in fairness we don’t stock anything out of the ordinary.” But we didn’t distrust him any less in spite of his man-of-the-people-diet.
We wanted to know if he talked much, and if he did, what did he talk about…
“Ah nothing unusual, mostly we chat about the weather.”
What did he say of it?
“That it’s true that there’s a hundred and one ways of describing the weather around these shores.”
Who told him that? We all looked around accusingly. There were clearly traitors in our midst disclosing local expressions. Questions would be asked. But for now Tommy Halloran was to be interrogated further.
“He’s quite a charming man, I have to say,” added Tommy Halloran and we eyeballed him with disgust.
“Fraternising with the enemy.”
Those of us who hadn’t been hoodwinked into liking this chancer started to resent the lack of gossip, or at least peculiarity, about him, but that didn’t stop us disparaging him anyway.
“He’s a hermit… there’s something that’s odd about that.”
“A man of that age with no dependants driving from town to town…”
“All alone, all the time — you’d have to wonder what else he gets up to when he’s not writing poetry.”
“A drinker too, I’d say.”
“With that hooked red nose on him, blotchy skin and his fatty jowls — he must be a fiend for the drink.”
“I reckon he’d bore you to fucking tears.”
“Well, I think he’s rather alluring …”
That last voice came from the far side of the bar. It was Nuala Moloney amongst a motley crew of mother hens and womenfolk.
“Alluring?” one of us repeated and it sounded even odder when repeated, possibly as it had never been uttered in public. There was something else about the way she spoke; the whole sentence had a vague dreaminess about it — alarm bells were ringing at the sound of it all.
“What the fuck Nuala… don’t tell me you’ve fallen for that old bollocks?” someone exclaimed.
“Yes, there’s something sweet to his modest manner,” she said.
“Mrs. O’Mahony says he’s a gentleman and a half,” said her friend.
“I reckon he’s a bit of a looker.”
“Girls, come on t’fuck — he’s an absolute chancer.”
“And be careful, he might be after something he didn’t bring with him.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“That’s human nature.
“A man needs a woman for many reasons — and vice versa.”
“I reckon he’s quite the catch.”
“Oh, this is just the fucking icing on the cake,” young Davy O’Dea wailed. “He’s stolen the poetic rights to our shore and come back to rub our faces in it and now he’s sweeping the womenfolk right off their clunky feet!”
“Well, we’re here for the sweeping!”
“Don’t be desperate.”
“Desperate? A successful award-winning, acclaimed poet, his veins throbbing with romance set against the likes of you lot — a pack of moping bachelors!?”
“Useless layabout louts!”
And that was that. A schism was formed. He was the Almighty Bard and we were layabout louts. We were no longer fit for conversation. Husband’s came home to ‘dinner’s in the fridge’, if there was a dinner at all. The poet was untouchable and destined for anthologies and history books whereas we would not even be worthy of footnotes. Our lives would be acknowledged solely by a sporadic State census. We loathed him now more than ever. We eyed him with vicious intent when we saw him on the road but he was oblivious. We noticed how some of the local women were even stopping by his house with flowers, fresh fruit and the odd apple crumble. We imagined him riding the arse off someone’s wife or sister on his desk. We told each other we’d rock his windows. But we didn’t. In the pub, we could overhear women analysing his poems — someone had picked up a few of his collections on a trip to the city. It did not escape the men’s attention that some women were walking along the shore with their hair down and at a slower pace than usual. The men didn’t bother to shave and drank even more. If this was a civil war, it was one we were losing. It could not go on. It would not go on.
It went on. For some weeks. And maybe we’d nearly resigned ourselves to it all. But then on a rare clear-skied night with the moon on the wane, the men were all downing pints in Lynch’s when the door swung open and who should stride in but the bard himself, that poetry-thieving scoundrel.
“A pint of the good stuff when you’re right, please,” he said with warm grin.
Polite, modest and a local phrase included. What a gent, thought the women. What a cunt, thought the men.
We were desperate to act natural but conversation floundered. The sound of a pint being poured seemed louder than usual. The poet stood by the bar looking like he wasn’t afraid of striking up a conversation, if anyone was game, but still nobody spoke as his pint settled, and he smiled, as if to say, don’t be shy, I won’t bite…
Lynch the junior placed the drink before him and slipped away as if he were expecting a fight to erupt. Oblivious to the local menfolk’s hatred, the poet surveyed the scene and noticed Nuala Moloney and her cohorts waving at him and pointing at an empty a chair. He smiled as he made his way over and bowed as if the honour of sitting with these horny country women were all his. He began to speak and our heads dropped. The womenfolk put their knees together, arched their backs and gazed longingly. When he spoke, of course, wouldn’t you know, his voice had a delicate lilt but it was warm, tender and charismatic, too — it was the kind of voice that (objectively speaking) would make you want to stroke your wireless while listening to a radio play. A few of us might have harboured a faint hope that he’d bore them with highfalutin poetry talk but soon there was nothing but laughter and shrieks of delight as he worked his magic. The men sat in impotent despair. The women gushed and giggled. What could we do but drink and smoke and smoke and drink? But the village elders had seen and heard enough. They started to mutter, things like: “That fecker has overstayed his welcome if you ask me.”, “He probably finished his poems weeks ago — he’s fishing for something.”, “Up to no good.”, “Making us look like a pack of gobshites.”, “It’s time he packed his bags.”, “Might need some help with that.”, “Some gentle to heavy persuasion.” , “Someone could have a wee word in his shell.”, “Set a few things straight.” , “You’d have to be careful.”, “He’d try and outsmart you.”, “Invite you for a drink or two.”, “Wheedle his way into your affection.”, “Best be a blunt dialogue.”, “A straightforward imperative”, “Tell him to pack his bags.” , “Or they’ll be packed for him.”, “Should be someone with a bit of size to him.”, “Someone unafraid to scare the bejesus out of him.”, “One of these fine young fellas.”, “One of ye could put the fear in him.”, “Something must be done.”
The old fellas finished their drinks one by one and for the first time in history they left before their wives and daughters. Some patted me on the back and tipped me a wink as they left. They said nothing. But I knew I had got the nod. I soon left with the rest of lads but outside I would wait and wait for the poet to emerge. The ladies trickled away making him the last man in there, but eventually Lynches senior and junior closed up the bar and out he came, tottering off in a meandering line. I followed him, matching his pace. When he stopped, I stopped. After he stepped down on to the rocky shore, I stepped onto the rocky shore. When he picked up a stone in his hand, I picked up a stone my hand. He tried to skim his, and cried, “To Atlantis!” as he released it but the stone plopped once and once only. ‘To Never-Never Land!” he said with a laugh.
He tried to skim a few more stones without success before he noticed me to his left. “Oh, are you here to challenge me to a skimming contest boyo?” The stone in my hand was much too big to skim — it was more of a rock , to be fair— but he wouldn’t have spotted that.
“On a night like this you can see thousands of stars that died long ago but yet we can still see them here tonight,” he said inviting me to look up to faraway places beyond our shore, even beyond our galaxy.
“And yet their fading light will outlive us,” he added.
I said nothing but of that there was no doubt. As he gazed up at these dead stars across the universe, I slowly raised my hand and struck the left side of his head with the stone. His body slumped silently to the ground without a fuss. From there, I acted quickly. I pulled off my boots and stripped off whatever clothes I didn’t need then I waded out to one of the moored boats dragging his body along. I turfed him in and then I rowed out as far as I dared to go. After I unloaded the body into the ocean, I jumped in myself and swam back to the coast, where I gathered my belongings and ran all the way home.
I couldn’t possibly sleep — not after doing something like that, so here I am, my heart beating out of my chest, whacking out these words with a pen and some paper. I know that people will come looking for him. Relatives, police, reporters. They will all have questions. People here will say what they know. He had been one of the last to leave the pub well past closing time. Lynches senir and junior will say they saw him walk to the shore while four sheets to the wind. Someone else will point out Mickey O’Mahony’s boat had gone missing that very night. People would speculate the poet had decided to row out to sea. The police will look, and fish, for a while. We’ll even help. But, I have no doubt nothing will be recovered, but even if they do they’ll just think he fell in the boat, bashed his head on the side and ended up in the water. We’ll tell the reporters, who will turn up, he was a kind-hearted man who kept to himself most of the time. Life will return to normal eventually. We’ll drink our drinks and the women will settle for our meagre passions. Life will be nothing more, nothing less.
Every now and then, a car will slow to halt and someone will pause for a moment — maybe they’ll clamber out of the car to stretch their legs and soak it all up, whatever it is. No doubt some sort of arts council types from the city will make a proposal to commission a sculpture of the poet by the ‘Splurgy Shore’. Imagine — a chiselled, bronze statue of that fucker, forever enjoying the smell of our salty breeze and the abounding poesy? We’ll surely see that for what it is: a last-dash attempt at immortality from beyond the grave. Over our dead bodies, ha!
I’d also like to think that there’ll be a whisper or two in his academic circles at Oxbridge that perhaps his death was no accident. Close friends will shake their heads and say the poet never went out on a limb like that. Something just didn’t add up. They’ll claim the police didn’t do enough, that there were too many questions were left unanswered. If so, I’d be a little mystery in the footnotes of history — and sure that’s more than enough for me.
Note: A version of this story was first published online under the title The Splurgy Shore in late 2003 by Barcelona Review and a slightly amended version was subsequently published in print by Sleepers Publishing in the Sleepers Almanac — The Deathbed Challenge (2004) under the same title. This is a third, edited/ updated version. All copyright remains in the author’s name. So there.
Connla Stokes is a Dublin born writer who has been living and working in Vietnam since the turn of the 20th century. He currently lives in Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City.