13. “The Voyage of SueAnne Larkin”, (8), conclusion

 

Part IV

“Home”

 

Gripping a bowl of cream, Father Dan poked his head out the kitchen. “You look ravishing. A pity Charles isn’t here. A painting for the mantle, a voyager’s pause ‘ere departure to an unknown realm.”

Mama, dubious. “You look just like Joseph.”

“Am I not to see?” Nora’s head bobbed out. “Which pair do you have on? The heather. Lovely fluid line, so feminine. My dear, your legs are perfectly proportioned. The knickers show them to great advantage. There will be no stopping Micheál, now. We have lost our ladeen, Father. He will have nothing more to say to the likes of us. Clara, your daughter is stunning.”

“Isn’t there a second pair? Even a poor priest knows there must be more than one ensemble for a fashion show.”

“Enough.” SueAnne shook her head. “Nora, the pack, and paints, and knickers are all I hoped for, but wasn’t I promised an Irish coffee?”

“She is right. Let us pronounce the work of the day finished. We’ll enjoy the evening on the terrace. The coffee. I forgot all about it. No. Leave it with me. Savor the moment. Ready a toast to Mary Molly, Father.”

Ahm m m. “We drink to Mary Molly, and to the sunset of her journey. St. Patrick protected her on travels along arduous byways. May the dear Saint lend his strength to those facing the dawn of their pilgrimage.”

Nora, pensive, broke the hush. “Do you remember, Father, when we sprawled among the rocks of Bertraghboy Bay, reading aloud on nights like this? We couldn’t stop. The sun would come up. On we would go.”

“Our youth. Filled with words. O’Casey, Lady Gregory, Willie Yeats. Synge’s ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’ was a great favorite of mine. ‘We’ve a short space only to be triumphant and brave.’ Do you know it, SueAnne?”

 

Toward the end of June, Conamara was gripped by an unexpected dry spell. Days of ceaseless blue. Spring wells went dry. Men cut turf stripped to the waist, sun blistering winter skin. Along the coast badóirí caulked and tarred peeling Hookers. Red sails raked the horizon. Family rivalries broke out as the regatta season hovered a fortnight away.

Loath to leave for Dublin’s sullen skies, Nora clung to Mama and SueAnne in melancholy farewell. “Fundraising. We barely manage to keep the Gallery afloat. Mr. Hanrahan kindly gave us the loan of the Shelbourne’s drawing room for our auction. Opportunities must be grasped. SueAnne, did you tell Declan you would see him in July? It’s an exciting time, Rathmullan brimming with people avoiding the unpleasantness up North. Do not linger too long. Remember, MacDara’s is the 17th.”

Summoned to give Northern Catholics spiritual guidance during the terrible days of the Apprentice Boy marches, Father Dan interrupted his decampment to Armagh for a stop at the Montblancs. “I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you, Clara, arriving unannounced. The Archbishop has plans for me in Portadown. I bid Mary Molly adieu, but could not leave Conamara without a moment here. Is SueAnne up? There you are. Nora mentioned you plan on spending a few days with Mr. Cuffe. I envy you the journey, but, ‘it is you must go, and I must bye.’”

The mothers, free of obligations, charted their own course. Holding hands, the two white-haired women, Mary Molly tall and serene, Mama outgoing and cantankerous, walked bog roads visiting each Ard cottage in turn, welcomed with freshly baked bread and strong tea. Children in from play stored oddments of Boston and Montana, the hunger and better times.

Micheál and SueAnne claimed a quiet space of their own. Running the Máire Rua past strings of lobster pots, tacking leeward to avoid trawlers trailing long nets for cod, Micheál threw anchor between the whale humps. Stashed in the galley, a yellow, waterproof bag protected an assortment of books and papers: “Sailing Directions for the North and East Coasts of Ireland”, charts of the North Sea, a maritime booklet containing tide tables for Fair Head, touring maps of Ulster, a mimeographed hand-drawn, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch walking diagram of the Fair Head National Trust.

“Let’s start here.” Micheál pulled the touring map from the packet. “All we need is the route, and the timing.” He spread the map across the board at the helm, whistling softly. “It’s done, Áine.”

SueAnne bent low over the map. “It’s not done till I do it.”

“So. Thirty minutes from Rathmullan to Letterkenny. N13 to Derry. You’ll cross the border at Derry. That’s an hour. A2 to Limavady, Coleraine. You’re on the coast road now, Portstewart, Portrush. See here, there’s a signpost to Giant’s Causeway. Pass it. On to Ballintoy, Ballycastle. Tourists will slow you down, they can’t remember which side of the road to drive on. Be careful, Áine, don’t wreck. It’s two hours at most. See here. Five miles you’re at Coolanlough. That’s the National Trust. Fair Head. The Brits were right there. Stop here at the carpark. It’s small, ten, twenty cars will crowd it.

“From here, you’re onto two hours walking. The return is easier, an hour should do it. What was it now? An hour to Letterkenny, two hours to Coolanlough, two hour hike. Five hours.” He opened the tide tables. “High tide at Lack-na-traw 3:47. Leave Rathmullan after breakfast. Tell Tone you want eggs and rashers, you’re off to paint Malin Head. Forget Malin Head when you get to the border. Now you’ll be talking Giant’s Causeway. Big smile at customs. Tone and Rathmullan will see you through. Open the pack. Embarrass the guard with your innocence. Get petrol across the border at Derry. Pull out your maps. Chat up the boys. Keep going on about Giant’s Causeway.

“Now, you’re at the carpark at Fair Head. There’s a metal gate across the path. The Brits marked the trail to Murlough Bay with painted yellow squares on big rocks. Not much of a path. Nobody goes there, but those bloody German hikers. Over the stile. Bog, if it’s raining. Ahead is a rock on a hill with a yellow square. Now, you’re at Lough Fadden, a bit to the south. See, here on the map. There’s another stile, high and shallow, and a yellow square on the rock opposite. You’ll see an arrow on the square. Follow it to the right. Just a few yards, then, straight up a steep bank to another square.”

“Slow down.”

“We’ll do it again slow. This time we go all the way. You can get a feel for the pace So. You’re up the bank. Turn left. No path, follow the swales to the next square. From there it is nice walking to the Murlough carpark.”

“A carpark? Why am I walking, if I can park the car there?”

“You’re a backpacker. A Yank. It’s your first visit to Ulster. You want to see everything. Now listen. At Murlough carpark you take the walking path opposite. First, stride across the lot. Stop. Eat a cheese sandwich. If someone is hanging around, oooh and ahhh over the view. You discover a trail along the Fair Head cliffs. Circles, now on the rocks. No more squares. Yellow circles. Not far from the carpark there’s a sign. It says Grey Man’s Path. The path is narrow and mighty steep. It cuts through a cleft in the rocks. It will be tough going. Can you do sixty pounds? Stop at the top. Watch for us coming from the east. I’ll be with a sailing yacht. The Britannia. She’s a three-masted yawl. Sixty feet. Lord Cliveden thinks she is riding anchor at Skye while he climbs the Alps. Lucky for us. She’ll be easy to spot. Clean lines. Ship-shape Bristol fashion. Union Jack flying.

“Gauge your time. Be on the strand before we’re abreast. The skipper will anchor as close as he can get, and throw over a dinghy. Two of the lads row ashore. They’ll bring you to the Britannia. You come aboard. We give you tea. Take the cargo. The lads deposit you back on the strand. Wave. Watch us head out. Climb back up the trail. Complete the circle. Can you remember all that? Yellow circles back. Easy return. Stroll along.”

“What about the Burkes?”

“Why do you keep going on about the Burkes? The Burkes are fine. They are in their Georgian manor drinking tea and singing ‘God Save the Queen.’ That’s where they’ll stay, unless they get themselves to Tone’s so they won’t have to listen to those infernal Orange drums. I hope to God they are at Rathmullan, so you can stop worrying about those friggin’ old people.” Micheál drew a deep breath. “Áine, no one is going to hurt the Burkes. They’re a nice retired couple nobody pays a mind to. It’s the Ulster Defense boys we want to slow down.”

“You said you shot Mr. Burke’s brother.”

“I didn’t shoot anybody, and I pray I never will. The lads wouldn’t have blown up brother Burke’s car, if he had been a reasonable man. You can’t chuck I.R.A. men into the Maze, and expect to sit down to dinner. It vexes them.”

“You make it sound so casual.”

“You don’t want to do it?”

“Micheál, when I thought you left me, I said I would do anything you asked of me, if only you would love me. But, I’m not a courier. I always imagined I was a revolutionary, so romantic, but it’s tougher than I thought.”

“You burned down a schoolhouse, and, then, there you were, away.”

“It’s not the same. The schoolhouse was mine.”

“Ireland is mine, Áine.”

The sunny days pulsed by. SueAnne and Micheál astonished Mama and Mary Molly proposing to spend a week climbing the Beanna.

“Sure, there’s no regatta for another week. What am I to do, sit in Mannion’s all day? Áine wants to paint Bertraghboy Bay. She’s got me to carry the pack, so we do the heights.”

“When did you ever carry a backpack?”

“Didn’t I bring down the ewe from the top of Benlettery, her head bleating on one shoulder, her tail flicking on the other?”

“You were barely out of National School, Micheál. Lord, you could do anything in those days.”

“I’m not an old man, yet. It will be a dark day, when I can’t send a whistle down Bengorham’s rocks. Or, is it Áine you’re worried about?”

“If you’re talking about those little hills back of the house, there is no reason to be worried about Susie.” Mama jumped to the defense. “Susie and Percy used to climb real mountains, camp so far back, they didn’t see another soul for days on end.”

“These are real mountains, Mamo. If your daughter is so grand, she can carry the pack.”

“I haven’t climbed for a long time, but I can keep up with you.”

“Maybe, you’d like to carry the pack to the car?”

“You bet.” SueAnne strode to the bedroom, sinking on a reading chair, cautiously fitting her arms through the straps. Tipping to the left, she righted before the mirror, straightening her shoulders, buckling the waist strap. Gaining confidence, took a few steps, sat down, got up, swallowed, clumped to the terrace. “Let’s go. It’s already noon. This is a trial run, Mama. We’ll be back by sundown. Slán, Mary Molly.”

Parking the car at Joe Nee’s cabin, they started the shallow climb to the base of Benlettery.

“Where’s the trail?”

“Sheep make their own trail, Áine.”

She picked her way from rock to rock, misstepped, broke through the bog’s heat-hardened top layer to the sucking marsh below. Close on Micheál’s heels the first few steps, she rapidly lost ground.

“You’re going too fast. Maybe, Stanley’s has a walking stick. It’s tough going.”

“Can you do the pack?”

“I have to adjust the straps. It’s riding too low. The ground is mushy, there’s no firm place to step.” SueAnne sat on a boulder scowling at Joe’s cabin. A few hundred yards, and she was already out of breath. “How much money is in here? Can you tell me?”

“You didn’t count it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Three million Yankee dollars. The lads will do a jig when they get a look at those stacks.” Micheál unbuckled the waist strap. “I’ll take it to the ridge. It flattens out up there, it’s dry. Do two hours along the top, paint me a picture, then, we’ll loop back.”

By the end of the week SueAnne caught the rhythm of hiking the mountain bog. On the last day, she made it to Benlettery’s pinnacle.

“You’re good, Áine. I don’t know a woman in Ireland who would last.”

Lying on a bed of heather, face upturned to the sun, SueAnne groaned. Micheál chewed one of Mary Molly’s chicken sandwiches, grinning. “She can do it.”

Barely able to stand after a slow, painful descent, SueAnne took Joe Nee’s poteen without a word, leaving the chat to Micheál.

“You’re a grand woman, SueAnne. You climbed all the way. I watched you through the glass.” He handed her an ancient brass telescope. “My grandfather relieved a Turk of the weight. Eddie Joe raised the colors on Gallipoli with the Irish Fusiliers.” He reached over SueAnne’s shoulder. “Pull it out at these wee ridges, turn the ring. Do you see? Isn’t it good?” For the first time, her interest in the myth of Ireland, the Irish countryman and all that damned history flagged. She nodded apathetically.

In the car, practically unconscious, she shook her head no to Micheál’s suggestion of a whiskey at Conroy’s.

“You’ll come to Mick’s tonight?”

“I am dead. I don’t want dinner. I don’t want a drink. I want to go to sleep.”

“Does Tone know you’re coming?”

“Not yet.”

“Make reservations tonight. The Roundstone regatta’s tomorrow. You leave Tuesday. You’ll have five days to sleep.”

“Right. I’ll sleep later.”

Past midnight at Mick’s cabin, they settled in for a night of quarreling, planning, love making, abandonment and euphoria.

“You’re prepared for the R.I.C? The Tommies go easy on Yanks. Chat ‘em up. You’re good at that. I’d be happier, if Mamo was with you when you crossed the border into Derry. You’re sure she doesn’t know?”

“Mama doesn’t know the difference between Michael Collins’s Irish Republican Army and Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Program Administration. If she did, I wouldn’t let her come to Fair Head. This is your fight. Now it’s mine, but it’s not Mama’s.”

“For not believing in anything, Áine, you’re awfully confident of who goes where.”

“I can tell right from wrong, if that’s what you mean. Catholics killing Protestants, and Protestants killing Catholics. Really, Micheál, it is so unChristian.”

“What do you know about Christians, an atheist telling everyone else how to live.”

“I know it’s hard for you to believe, but you don’t have to be a Catholic or a Protestant or anything else to figure out a moral code. My Daddy said I was smart enough not to need some man on a throne to work it out for me. Didn’t the Pope excommunicate I.R.A. men?”

“Father Dan never excommunicated anyone.”

“Father Dan is lucky not to be excommunicated himself.”

“So. Remember, don’t go to Portsalon. Declan’s got to be in the clear. Paint up a storm at Rathmullan. Get Tone to show off your pictures. After the border at Derry, there’s one other dicey place. The National Trust carpark. Both carparks. I won’t be there, Áine, if they grab you.” Micheál whistled a few bars of “Eileen Ni Riordain”, not rollicking, mournful, minor key. “Don’t give out to those Brits the way you do to me. Pretend you’re nice. Cry. Tell them about your Daddy and his grandmother feeding the Indians. Talk about the squawking that passes for Irish fiddle playing in those ersatz Butte pubs. Tell them you’re staying at Lord Montblanc’s. Lean on that. Heavy on Joseph and Aileen. Leave Ard out of it.

“Declan will bring Mamo back to me. I’ll get your brother over to handle Stormont. There’s a barrister who knows what to do. They won’t rough you up, Áine. They’ll try to scare you. Downing Street keeps them in line. We’ll try to tamp down the newsboys. If I can, I’ll get you to Ard. It may be the States. Could be a while before I get there.”

“The Brits will be easy. What if it’s never?”

“Stop.” He covered his face with her hair. “It won’t be never.”

 

Mama was her most insufferable self bidding Aileen goodbye. “We’ll be with Mr. Cuffe at Rathmullan House, if you need us. Susie called Lady Montblanc to say you would be looking after things for us. Maggie is going to teach me another Irish knit. Susie is going to paint Malin Head. I’m sorry you can’t come. Rathmullan House is awfully nice.”

“Ballynahinch is good enough for me, Clara. Séamus doesn’t like being bothered by strangers, when he’s having his pint. Isn’t it a pity about Joseph with his morning tea disappearing into Donegal?”

“Thanks for everything.” SueAnne, irked by Mama’s cheekiness, hugged Aileen in a wordless plea for understanding. “It’s really nice of you to keep an eye on things. Do you want anything from Donegal town?”

“Stanley’s has everything I need, SueAnne. I don’t know why you’re going to Donegal at all.”

 

At daybreak on the morning of July 12, SueAnne drew the damask drapes on a world constricted to a streaming torrent. Loch Swilly gone, and the strand, and the rose garden, drowned in an opaque curtain. Only the gravel oval directly below her window was visible through the deluge. She leaned forward on the sill, hoping to detect a lightening of the sky in the east. It was early. The forecast last night hadn’t said anything about a storm. The rain could ease by midday.

“What’s it like, Susie? Is it raining?” Mama sat up in bed. “I can’t see out the window. It’s black as sin. Where were you going to paint? Malin Head? I guess the weather is so bad, you’ll have to stay home.” Mama brightened. “We can play Scrabble. I saw a board when Mr. Cuffe put away the chess set yesterday. Maggie will give us apple tart. I’ll knit. You can read. I’m going to take a shower. Do you want me to ask Maggie to bring coffee up while you’re waiting?”

“No, thanks, Mama. I’m going down to get today’s weather report from Mr. Cuffe. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s raining, Susie. You don’t need Mr. Cuffe to tell you that.”

SueAnne found Anthony Cuffe constructing a tepee of turf in the drawing room fireplace. “You’re out early, Miss Larkin. Did the storm wake you? We caught the tail end of a hurricane. Unexpected.”

“Has it passed?”

“Yes. We’re out of danger. The shipping report advises smaller craft to stay put until tomorrow, though some of the Portsalon lads will be out this afternoon, you may be sure of it.”

“I planned on painting Malin Head today. If the storm’s letting up, I think I’ll go ahead, do it while it’s still impassioned. All those malignant jets and ravens.”

“I suspect the weather will oblige you. There may be sun late in the afternoon. Intermittent rain, I believe. Winds will die down. I urge you to stay in the car. There can be unpredictable gusts strong enough to give you a fright. Hate to think of you hurled across the sward.”

 

The guards at the Northern Ireland border, severing Derry from Donegal, were drinking tea as SueAnne drove up. A man encased in foul weather gear stepped out the wood structure, bending to look past the rolled down window. A look both bored and thorough searched the interior.

“Where are you going on a day like this?”

SueAnne nodded toward the sketch pad on the seat next to her. “I want to sketch the Giant’s Causeway in the storm. It will be beautiful, don’t you think? Whitecaps rising up carved cliffs to kiss the sky.”

“Ah, a poetic nature. Never understood your type. May I see your passport? American. Do you have a home?”

“I’m staying with Mr. Cuffe at Rathmullan House for a few days. Fabulous jumping off place for a painting holiday.”

“What’s in the boot?”

“I have a backpack with a change of clothes and a cheese sandwich.” SueAnne opened her door.

“That will do. You’ll be wet enough before the day’s out.”

“Thanks.”

The officer put a hand on the door handle. “If you need a room, call Mrs. Francis Lynch at Bushmills. Tell her Sergeant Martin sent you.”

 

Few cars on the road. The carpark deserted. A soupy void. Not a lederhosen in sight. Twelve straight up. Early. Micheál gave her two hours for the hike. The Britannia wasn’t due till three-forty-five. Time and some.

She thrust her head into the luggage compartment, wrestling the backpack to the rear bumper. Tugging Stanley’s waxed jacket from under a clutter of sweaters, she wrapped it around the rucksack’s belly, stuffing the arms behind the pouch, weaving them through the frame webbing. A fusillade of rain bombarding the boot lid poured off the brim of her punter’s hat, a steady drip down her neck. She sat beside the backpack, exultant, exalted, and well on her way to becoming a sodden mass. No harm if the cargo doesn’t get wet.

Her stomach convulsed; a gurgle of hysteria burbled up her throat. She swallowed rapidly, short guttural rasps, regained control. Grappling with the shoulder straps, she shifted the weight, tightening the belt. Straightening, shoulders back, a moment’s pose before patting her pocket to make sure the car keys were there. The boot slammed shut. With a victor’s light step, she began her trek to Lack-na-traw strand.

Bending into the wind, she pushed through the National Trust gate onto a path of sorts, packed earth disappearing into a muddy morass to resurface a few yards away. Up ahead was the glimmer of a yellow square. Jubilantly humming “The Prodigal Son”, she set her pace, planting one foot firmly in front of the other. She climbed the first stile with no difficulty, the steps, low, wide, backpacker steps.

At Lough Fadden, she sat behind a jagged boulder, judging the height of the knoll, its crest a bare outline behind the second, higher stile. The rain didn’t let up. She was soaked, her sweater first to go, then the loden knickers glued to her thighs, the smell of wet wool rising to her nostrils, musty, rancid. Fighting the wind extracted a toll. Nothing serious. She absent-mindedly munched a chocolate bar. There wasn’t a yellow square up ahead much less an arrow as far as she could tell. Had to be there somewhere. She staggered unexpectedly getting to her feet. Caught unaware, she clutched at the boulder with stiff fingers, got her footing, set a slower pace, methodical, mechanical, ignoring the tightening of her muscles.

She reached the Murlough carpark at one-fifty. Empty. Her heart swelled. No performance for those bloody Germans. Two hours till the Britannia sails in. Dog-tired, she rejected the idea of a rest, remembering the pain of rising at Lough Fadden, afraid she might not be able to get up, certain she could never get the precious cargo back on, if she ever took it off. The wind whipped a brownish pool, submerging the sparse grass pushing through Murlough’s cracked tarmac. She splashed through the brackish water without altering her stride toward a freshly painted yellow circle, indicating the path to the Fair Head cliffs. At the Trust’s discreet signposting of Grey Man’s path, she lowered herself onto a clump of heather dipping down toward the craggy slit, rested her back against a prickly gorse shrub. Closing her eyes, Micheál’s voice sang in her head.

“It’s done, Áine.”

She woke in a panic. How long had she slept? She wrenched back her sweater sleeve. Three o’clock. Shaking with relief, she extended her legs, willed the trembling to stop, visually reconnoitering the path. The precipice soon lost itself in a narrow cleft of rocks. Micheál said about two hundred meters. That wasn’t far. An eighth of a mile. Damned steep. Locked in. Rocky. A slit, not a path at all. If she couldn’t do it, she would take off the pack, pull or push it down. Not to fall, that was the thing. A broken leg, not on.

The lashing rain relaxed to a steady drizzle, the wind subsiding to a dull moan, Mr. Cuffe’s slackening. She rechecked the time, closed her eyes, alert, nerves taut. Her throat parched, she was desperate for water, but there wasn’t a prayer of getting the bottle out of the pack. At three-thirty, lightheaded, giddy, she straddled Grey Man’s path, fancied a lance of white slicing the murky expanse with each shift in the wind, the sail of the Britannia breaking free of the fog. When the yawl does appear, it closes on a starboard tack, swinging windward to parallel the coastline. With the inconstancy dreaded by those of the sea, a deadly calm, suddenly, inexplicably, girdles Lack-na-traw strand. SueAnne, bewildered, charts the reach of the ship, unburdened of lowering cloud, slumbering on alabaster waters. The Union Jack swoons, an anchor’s glint is extinguished. Britannia’s sails droop. Dangling over her side, a dinghy hesitates.

In the uncommon hush they come to her. Father Dan standing among his dreams; Mary Molly surrounded by memories.

Bloody body parts of Judge Burke float free. Declan pats an old soldier’s arm. Anthony Cuffe’s face crumbles.

Hair ablaze, Áine whirls. Haggard men stare from soiled blankets.

Micheál watches impassively. She reaches for him. He is gone.

Drumming pounds her temples, razor wire lacerates her skin, grieving cries rend the air. The alabaster water tricks red.

Gaze locked on the suspended dinghy, SueAnne unbuckles the backpack’s waist strap. Slides the pack off her shoulders. She unzips the large pocket, tossing the water bottle. Fumbling among her paints, she seizes on the penknife. The sheath falls to the ground. The dinghy holds steady in mid-flight. On the Britannia, the men watch, unmoving. She slices through heavy paper bands. Tattered prayer cards of a conquered land writhe across the sky.

As inexplicably as it began, the spell lifts. Lack-na-traw strand remembers itself. Jerkily, the dinghy regains the ship’s deck. The anchor breaks free. Sails rise and billow. The Britannia runs before the wind away from Fair Head into the deep north channel.

SueAnne’s anguished cry, thrilling and despairing, shattered by the wind, is lost, as is she herself, to the vanishing ship.

“We’ve a short space only to be triumphant and brave.”

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