The winning entry of the Anthology Magazine Short Story Competition 2020.
Aoife was sketching by the ruins of Dún Mór when she first saw the old man. He wheeled his bicycle along the cliff edge before resting it against a rock and strolling around the remains of the promontory fort, admiring what little was left. He saluted her as he passed and she quickly turned away to look across the sea. The last thing she wanted was company.
After a while, she packed up her things and cycled back to the pier. She settled down to wait for the ferry, basking in the warm evening sun. Huh, there he was again, ambling down the hill. He sat on the wall near her and took a tinfoil parcel of sandwiches and a flask of tea from his bag. Old school. She nibbled from her bag of trail mix. They watched the squabbling seagulls overhead. One landed on the wall and stared at his sandwich until he finally threw it a piece of crust.
‘I said persistent fecker, this seagull.’
‘Hah, yeah you’re right. I’m lucky I only have nuts.’
He looked concerned.
‘Do you want a sandwich? I’ve more in my bag, ham and cheese.’
‘No, no. It’s fine. I’ll eat when I get back to my hostel.’
‘Jim.’ he reached out a hand.
She shook it reluctantly. ‘Aoife’.
‘So, what has you visiting Inishbofin?’
‘Em, I’m finished university for the summer and figured I would
do some exploring when I’m not working my summer job.’
‘Good woman yourself. Nothing like a bit of travel to broaden the mind.’
She could see the ferry coming into the bay. She wouldn’t be stuck here much longer.
‘I’ve got the free travel pass.’ He rooted in his bag and produced the small plastic card proudly. ‘The grand plan is to head of gallivanting every weekend ’til September. By then I’ll have an annual appointment in Croke Park to get to. I’m from Kilkenny.’ he added by way of explanation.
‘And where else are you planning to go?’
‘Well, I thought I’d make a tour of the islands – Tory, the Blaskets, Skellig Michael, the Aran islands, here of course …’ She trailed off. He had thrown his hands in the air and begun rummaging in his bag again. He finally found what he was looking for and raised a tattered book aloft. The Islands of Ireland, a Guide.
‘Great minds think alike –’
‘Fools seldom differ.’
He laughed. ‘Where are you off to next?’
‘Only Ireland’s Eye. I’ve to work a half day Saturday so can’t get any further.’
‘A wonderful place. Many’s the time I was there with the wife. Make sure to treat yourself to fish and chips in Howth.’
‘Just chips. I’m vegan.’
The ferry was nearly level with the pier. More people had wandered down to the waterside and a rough queue was forming. Aoife gathered up her things and when she turned to say a polite goodbye Jim had already boarded. On the journey home she sat downstairs. She saw Jim go upstairs to the open-air seats. Good – he wasn’t some sort of stalker. By the time they got back to Creggan she had mellowed a bit and wondered if they should have swapped numbers or something. Nah, too random.
A few weeks later, she was mortified to get a big wave and a shout from Jim as their boats passed on their way to and from Inis Mór, but it was June when she spoke with him again. Her boat back from the Blasket Islands was lining up by the pier when she got a tap on the shoulder.
‘Aoife, how’s tricks?’
‘Hey, Jim.’ ‘Good, good. Are you enjoying the summer?’
‘Yeah, got a few more off the list now.’
‘Are you in a rush? I’m going to get a pint while I wait for the bus. Will you join me?’
Aoife’s first instinct was to say no, but as the only English-speaker on a boat full of Japanese tourists, she had spent the day mute, silently marvelling at the ghostly ruins framing the technicolour greens and blues of the Blaskets.
‘Em, yeah. Ok.’
She sat at a picnic table outside the pub. Jim threaded his way around the tables saying his hellos to the friends he had made on the tour that day. He finally returned to Aoife with a creamy pint of Guinness and a glass of red wine, producing two bags of crisps with a flourish.
‘What’s a drink without crisps?’
They shared their impressions of the day’s excursion. Jim had fallen in with a group of Americans who seemed to have adopted him as their own. He had more stories of them than the islands. Aoife described her epic struggle to draw the island’s animals, holding up as evidence a sketchbook marked by seawater and donkey’s teeth. Their laughter had faded into comfortable silence when Jim took up the conversation again.
‘So, have you plans for next summer?’
‘Working again,’ she grimaced. ‘How about you?’
‘Ah, I don’t like to look too far ahead.’
‘If I had all your time I’d go everywhere.’
‘I’ve to stay close to home for the foreseeable.’
‘Well, what’s your dream trip?’
‘The Greek islands. I was there in the 70s. Wild and beautiful, and that was just the Greeks!’
‘I’d love to go there.’
‘Life is short. Sure, what’s stopping you?’
‘Em. I’ve to save my money for uni and rent.’ She squirmed uncomfortably. ‘Anyway, change of subject, want to see my sketches from today?’
‘I thought you’d never ask.’
Aoife stared out the window and swung in her chair. Most of the office were on their summer holidays; the place was dead. She jumped when her phone beeped. It was a text from Jim.
‘Hi Aoife, how are you? My friend gave me two tickets for Skellig Michael. One is yours if you want it. Jim.’
Tickets for the Skelligs were like gold dust, between demand from rich American tourists and Star Wars fanatics. She hadn’t even thought to book at the beginning of the summer and had reluctantly taken them off her list, until now.
‘Oh yes. Life goals. When?’
‘Perfect. My last weekend away.’
‘Same here. See you at Portmagee marina. Saturday at 9 am.’
She took a precious half day to catch the train down the night before. Jim was waiting at the pier, tickets in hand. The boat over was as calm as could be expected of the Atlantic. Skellig Michael rose sharply from the choppy waters to pierce a clear blue sky. They climbed well-worn steps to the top, Jim pausing now and then for a rest while Aoife bounced from stone to stone. When they reached the top Jim sat down, winded.
Aoife scrambled up a rock and stared out to sea. ‘It’s beautiful isn’t it?’ Jim was still catching his breath. ‘It’s peaceful. As if the monks left some of their spirit behind. Good for the soul.’ They made a picnic of his sandwiches and her trail mix and toasted the end of the summer with lukewarm tea.
On All-Ireland Day the housemates all went up to McGraths for a few pints. They were standing outside, soaking up the last dregs of summer sunshine when she saw the familiar salute.
‘Well there she is. Supporting Galway eh? We all have our cross to bear.’ He looked thinner and there were dark circles under his eyes.
‘Jim, how are you?’
‘Great!’ and, as if to answer her unspoken question, ‘The stripes are very slimming.’
‘I’ll cheer for Kilkenny.’ Her friends booed good-naturedly in their maroon and white shirts.
‘Good woman.’ He patted her back. ‘Look after yourself.’ And he was gone, swallowed up by a sea of black and amber.
‘Who was the aul lad?’ Her friends were curious.
‘A friend of mine.’
Aoife sat on the wooden pier, her tanned toes kicking the cool azure water below. She nibbled on fresh-baked olive bread as she waited for the ferry to Santorini. She was leaving Ios today after two months working in a bar (though ‘working’ was a loose term for a summer of cliff diving, sunbathing and short-lived romances). Now for three weeks of island-hopping before returning to Dublin with enough money in her pocket to scrape by until Christmas.
The bells rang out from the white and blue churches on the hill, reminding her of Jim. She had never seen him again after that day in September. Just one text asking for her address, and the subsequent arrival of a Christmas present, clumsily wrapped: a dog-eared paperback, The Islands of Greece, a Guide. On a grey day in January she said goodbye to him, standing outside the church as the funeral bells tolled. A seagull came up to her, enquiringly. She threw him a scrap of bread.
She picked up her guidebook and stepped on to the boat.
– Words by the Short Story Award winner, Niamh Donnellan