“The Sasanach” by Susan O’ Keeffe

She pulled her chest in sharply and dived down beneath the small choppy wrinkles to the cavernous greenness. With her heart bursting to beat, she surfaced and breathed and shook her head, trying to dislodge the mantle of cold she’d brought up from the ocean’s floor. All round her the sea was vast and empty. She let her gaze rest on the non-existent line in the distance, marvelling at the straightness of it. Then, flinging her arms up to the pale grey sky, she threw her head back and smiled at the nothingness above her, closed her bright green eyes and stood motionless in the great swaying sea.

Hurrying now, she dressed roughly, feeling the sticky salty sea on her legs and her breasts. Now the grey stones squeaked and groaned as she stepped heavily on them, moving quickly up the beach.
“You’re a brave woman.”
Claire waved one hand towards the voice but saved her breath for the clamber.
“You should try it” she smiled as she reached the top of the steep hill.
“Sure I can’t even swim.” Jimmy’s face broke into a slow small smile. “Maybe you could teach me.”
Claire patted her hair and straightened her skirt and shoved her towel further under her arm.
“I mustn’t delay Jimmy only..”
“Sure, sure”.
He handed over a torn bag. Newspaper stuck out of the side of it and at the top the glistening moist rainbow of a fish.
“I knew I could rely on you.” She pressed his arm. “They’ll never notice one eh. Plenty of fish in the sea.”
She was already walking on calling into the wind “I’ll pay you next week, is that ok.”
He pushed his hands deep into his overgrown pockets and stood quietly in the swaying wind, watching her as she hurried up the narrow road.

In the kitchen she slapped the salmon on the draining board, the smell of the ocean suffocating the room.
“Damn, he hasn’t cleaned it. Damn, damn, damn.”
She stopped. Was it worth the bother? She stared at the silvery slab of food in front of her, food she knew she couldn’t waste. She rummaged in the drawer for a knife and pulled out the one with the broken bone handle. She felt the salty, briny slime in her hand as she pushed the fish to cut it. Just as she lined up the knife, she heard Paddy’s sharp voice.
“The sharp knife’s the one you want. Like I always tell you. Only a townie would pick a knife like that for a job like this.”
She winced at the memory and was tempted to abandon the fish altogether. She forced herself to get out the cold grey knife, Paddy’s knife, the one that always made her feel like an amateur; Paddy so confident, so at home in his kitchen – he could slide a blade through a rock.

Concentrating now, Claire carefully guided the sharp point from one end of the long shiny belly to the other, the line quivering with her hand.
“Is mo ghra thu, is tu an cailin nios alainn sa domhain go leir. ‘s mo ghra thu, ‘s tu an cailin nios alainn sa domhain go leir.” ** She murmured the words softly as she eyed the dead eye and scraped the bloody bits from the near-naked bone. Once long ago, she’d asked Paddy to write them down so she could memorise them, had been mesmerised by their strangeness and their beauty. “We’ll teach you the focal gaeilge*** yet” Paddy’d insisted.

She gathered up the fishy guts and pushed them into the bin.
“Always wash the fish out with seawater” she heard Paddy insist. Well not today. She ran her bony finger up and down the backbone as the flush of water pushed out the last flecks of life from the precious flesh.
“A Sasanach townie” he would say. “The worst kind. Know nothing about anything.”
And he would laugh. Ond day she’d told him he laughed like a drain. And he’d laughed louder at her “quaint English” expression and then he’d hugged her tight.
“But you’re MY little Sasanach, mo ghra thu****,” he would say. “Mine.”
The cleaned fish lay in the sink, its face staring dully upwards. One clean chop would stop the staring. She turned away and shivered, smelling again his breath as he shoved her up against the door jamb, feeling the cold steel on her cool neck. “You’re mine, remember that. Mine. If Jimmy as much as smiles at you…” She could hear the mocking threat in his slurred voice. She licked her lips and her tongue tasted the daily dose of salt on her lips.
“Later. Yes, I’ll do it then. Later. I’ll have a cuppa.”
While the kettle warmed Claire rinsed her swimming costume in the rainwater barrel and hung it with the towel to flap in the wild Atlantic wind.

She looked at the old clock on the wall as she scalded the tea.
“The plane would have landed by now so…”
She paused to count on her fingers –
“one, two, three, four, five – about six o’clock’s about right. A se a chlog,” she murmurerd “a se a chlog.*****”
The tea scalded her throat the way she liked it. Despite the swim, she had no appetite. Salmon later maybe. She went to throw the remains of her tea down the sink and stopped when the fishy eye glistened. She turned away abruptly and left the kitchen.

The hairbrush tangled slightly in her salt-stuck strands. She pulled it slowly and carefully through her grey hair and in the mirror she saw again her strong brown locks and her deft fingers turning its shiny thickness into neat tidy ballet braids. How she had loved the moment of folding it in coils on her head and then unfolding her body from behind her old wooden school desk ready to dance. They had worn a silly white smock with a blue satin belt but she hadn’t cared. She had cared only about the music and how, when she was dancing, she felt at peace. She belonged. She picked up a small photo from the dressing table and held it up against the mirror. Together, smiling, framed forever in that single grainy moment of sheer joy, Emily, Victoria, Ethel and Claire. Theirs had been the prima performance. The clapping filled her ears still. She smiled at the memory.

The great afternoon silence overwhelmed her suddenly. She caught her hair up swiftly, twirled it quickly into a bun and stuck the pins in with rather too much force. She would walk while she waited. The back door clacked behind her as she pulled on her coat. Hearing the phone ring in the emptiness she turned back indoors, racing to the kitchen, the ringing urging her on. “Hello” she said urgently into the phone. Listening she frowned in silent response.
“No, no it is today. He’s coming today. Yes that’s what I said. No, I know that but he’s definitely coming this time. Yes, yes, I’ll get him to call you – probably tomorrow.” She put the phone down and stared at it. Then, in almost slow motion, she kicked it to the floor and walked away.
The wind whipped around her face as she marched along. “Bloody interfering so and so. Always sticking her nose in.”
Claire’s coat flapped untidily and wisps of hair escaped the solid pins.
“Calm down” Paddy would say. “Don’t mind her blathering. She means well – it’s the way we are Claire – in one another’s pockets cos we’re all we’ve got here. Just let it pass”.
“Easy for him to say, everything was water off a duck’s back to him.” She walked steadily along the narrow road which climbed slowly upwards, narrowing to a rough path.. The great open space was empty, filled with the wind-swept wisps of cloud and arcing, wheeling birds. On she walked, her pace finally slowing as the track looped past a derelict hut, back to the lower road, to Jimmy’s cottage.
She hesitated at the battered gate. A small yappy dog pranced backwards, barking urgently. The gate was stiff and cranky as she pulled it open over the rough ground. He was sitting in the warm cluttered silence when she opened the door. He jumped up and smiled and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Claire” he started and then frowned.
”Is something the matter, only…?”
“No, no, everything’s fine,” Claire smiled back. Only I just wanted to ask a favour, that’s all. I hope, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Yes, no, no, of course not. What is it? Sit down. You look blown away.”
“No, no I’m fine – yes it’s very windy, yes…”
Claire stopped short. “She’d made a mistake coming to Jimmy’s. What would she tell him? What could she tell him?”
Her eyes rested on a yellowed picture of the Sacred Heart. Its frame was bulging slightly. Stuck to the corner was a torn newspaper ad for hay bales.
“Would you like a cup of tea? The kettle’s just boiled.”
Jimmy was hovering at the stove.
“Tea?. No thanks, just had one. No, I must be off. Paddy’ll be here soon you know?”
“But you wanted to ask a favour?”
“Oh that. It’s nothing. It’s fine really.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind helping out. I’d be happy to.”
Claire sat down suddenly on a beaten-up armchair. She closed her eyes and then opening them said
“Actually, yes. Yes please.”
They walked quietly along the road, pushing against the wind which had grown stronger. The yappy dog followed until Jimmy uttered a single “abhaile leat”******and he turned back.

Claire picked up the telephone and replaced it on the table. Jimmy stood patiently waiting, his hands in their usual comforting pockets.
“It’s the fish” Claire said quickly. “The fish – I can’t, I just can’t..” She stopped.
“Can’t what?” said Jimmy
“Can’t – the head – you know – can’t bear it.”
“Is that all?” Jimmy laughed loudly, the sound filling the kitchen like a wave. He went to the sink and found the fish, cold and bent. He hauled it out onto the chopping board and with one quick chop the head was off. Dark blood oozed out.
“Sure that was easy now wasn’t it” said Jimmy. He rinsed it again and then gathered up the bits in one sweep and shoved them into the bin..
“Thank you”
“I could show you how the next time.”
Claire didn’t respond. Jimmy stood awkwardly looking away.
“My turn to offer tea,” Claire said brightly.
“But isn’t Paddy?”
Oh, don’t worry, plenty of time, plenty of time, he won’t be here before six.”

They sat at the table under the window. Jimmy perched his tea between the piles of paper and books. Outside the sky was filled with the wind’s ferocious noise in freewheeling concert with the wild waves on the shore. No audience stood to clap the great crashing sounds as the light faded and clouds chased across the distant hills. Claire and Jimmy were silent in the small kitchen, lost in their thoughts.
“Paddy’s picked a bad one” said Jimmy. “The wind…”
“He’s used to it” said Claire. “I’m hungry” she said suddenly. “Let’s eat”
“Won’t Paddy…?”
“Paddy always says eat it as fresh as you can. Anyway there’s plenty.” Claire got up and pulled a frying pan from the cupboard. Several pots crashed to the floor.
“How do you – you know – do you find it hard? You know bein’ here an’ Paddy away a lot?”
There was a pause.
“Yes” Claire said slowly and shrugged her shoulders. “He’s his own man, comes and goes as he pleases. Always has.”
“But…”
“It’s our life Jimmy,” she snapped. “It’s how it is.” She banged the pan on the stove. Silence descended.
“Perhaps I better…”
“No, it’s fine. Maybe you could dig some potatoes. There’s a spade half way up the drill. Just a few stalks will do.”

Jimmy turned the soft brown soil with ease, digging carefully to avoid splitting the precious crop with the vicious spade edge. He shook the stalks, put them in a neat pile and gathered the potatoes up in his large hands. He had never eaten a meal with Claire. He had never drunk a cup of tea with her. He had never sat in her kitchen. He didn’t know anyone who had. Claire had lived thirty seven years in the village. He had counted them and she was still the outsider – the Sasanach.
He could still remember the excitement of her coming. What would she look like this Sasanach? Would she knock sense into Paddy? Would they like her?
And when she came she was beautiful. She was tall and elegant with clear green eyes and thick wavy long brown hair. Her voice was soft and calm and she looked you in the eye all the way to your soul. Her radiance had transfixed Jimmy and he had understood why Paddy, his brother Paddy, had finally climbed off his barstool and got married.
Of course she had hardly noticed him. She had hardly noticed anyone and she never tried to. They moved into the house on the edge of the village at the edge of the ocean. Occasionally she would visit a neighbour or drop a cake into her mother-in-law. After Ma’s death Claire retreated to the edge of their world, quietly and without comment. And Paddy had come and gone; to the pub and back, to town and back, to England and back. There were no explanations. There never had been any. He stepped carefully between the green leafy plants and made his way back to the house. The spade stood firm in the ground, marking the progress of the drill.

Claire plunged the potatoes into boiling water.
“You do like fish?”
Jimmy nodded. “In this place? You’d starve if you didn’t.”
She laughed as she drained the steaming spuds. She sliced the delicate pink fish onto two plates taking care not to break the pieces.
“Let’s eat” she commanded.
The salmon was sweet. The potatoes were earthy.
“A meal fit for Paddy’s return” said Jimmy as he finished the last bite and pushed his plate to one side.
“You’re a grand cook Claire. He’s a lucky man.”
She looked away as she gathered up the plates.
“Jimmy, perhaps you..”
“Yes, I better be off. I promised Sean I’d give him a hand moving cows this evening.
“Yes, thanks, thanks again – you know – for…”
“Ah it was nothing, any time. Say hello to Paddy for me.”
Claire didn’t reply. Jimmy pulled on his coat.
“Slan leat.”*******
The door banged as he went out.

She made some tea and sat watching the night sky draw down over the mountain until it touched the sleepy sea. She turned on a lamp and then slowly washed the dishes She scraped all the remains of the salmon into the bin and washed the dish. Order restored, she switched off the lamp and closed the kitchen door.

She lay in the blackness. The cold ocean lapped against her legs, the briny scales clung to her fingers and Jimmy’s laughing rang in her head as he took the knife. And the dead eye. Watching. Her body shuddered. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” she murmured. “It’s fine.” She forced herself to breathe her body’s rhythms back where they belonged. Today had not been in the plan but she had turned her moment of discomfort to her advantage, hadn’t she? When he realised, Jimmy would put her sudden invitation down to her desperation. Wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he?

She went cold all over. Stay calm. Of course he would. Of course he would. “Breathe in and out, in and out” she muttered. “In, out.” Tomorrow she would stay at home and have a quiet day of waiting. And then it would be time to take the final step. Would she call them or go in to see them? Which seemed more plausible? She knew she would call. They would send someone, a nice young policeman who wouldn’t know what to say to an old woman on a stick. She would explain how she had expected him home – on two separate occasions in the past week – but he hadn’t come. No it wasn’t the first time he’d disappeared. No it wasn’t the first time he’d not called her but this time she simply had a ‘funny feeling’ and thought she should report him. Yes – missing – that’s right. Of course he’d probably turn up – pissed – like he usually did so she’d apologise for taking up their time. The cop would slurp his tea down and say that of course they would do their best to help. She might cry a few tears.
Oh God, he might ask why she had never phoned before when Paddy had been missing. What would she say? Stay calm, she knew the answer, didn’t she? She’d worked it out hadn’t she? That he had always turned up before. That this felt different. Longer. That she was worried. And the nice policeman would talk over her to avoid dealing with her rising panic. And he would leave with his carefully written notes and his careless promises of effort.

And then hesitantly she would confide her fears in Jimmy. He’d be shocked but of course he’d lap it up and, in a rare moment for him, play bush telegraph. The nosey ones might call. In the pub they would drink and reminisce about good old Paddy and then, slowly over time, his absence would be folded away, never discussed again.
Only the memory of the dead eye staring back at her as she had scooped the last of the earth over his body would remain. But time would force it shut, she knew that, and the closing would release her to dance through her memories. As she rolled over to sleep, the lights went up, the audience cheered and through the clapping echoed the encores “bravo, Claire, bravo.”
Paradise restored – at last. She would belong.

*An English person (term of derision)

**My love, the most beautiful woman in the world

*** Irish words

**** My love

*****Six o’clock

****** Go home!

******* Goodbye

Biographical Note:
Susan O’Keeffe is now a Labour Party senator representing Sligo/North Leitrim. Before her election in 2011, she worked as a print journalist and a TV current affairs producer/director in the UK and in Ireland. As a qualified food scientist, she is the agriculture spokesperson for Labour in the Seanad and is also passionate about the creative arts, tourism and food production. Susan lives in south Sligo with her husband, three daughters and various dogs, cats, guinea pigs and hens. Spare time – never enough – is spent writing fiction and poetry!

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