He arrived on a cloudless day. As he stepped onto the tarmac, he looked up at the sky and saw nothing but blue and the traces left by other planes.
The terminal was deserted. He wandered along polished floors with a handful of other passengers. Music was playing somewhere. An old tune, he couldn’t remember the name. It was not how he’d imagined airports. It seemed more like a ballroom to him. Something grand and sad about the place.
Walking through a sliding door, he found himself in the arrivals hall, confronted by a crowd of people crushed up against the rail, waving pieces of paper and looking at him expectantly. Scanning the faces and signs, he smiled apologetically for not being their man. He looked beyond them, to others who hung back and leaned against walls, but saw no trace of Eamonn. He had never assumed that he would be able to meet him. It wasn’t always possible to just drop what you were doing.
Eamonn wasn’t sure how long he’d been awake or if what had passed before had been sleep. He seemed to have been conscious for hours, lying inert in a kind of trance. He rolled onto Laura’s empty side of the bed and picked up the barely there scent of her perfume, citric and uncertain. He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, waiting to recover.
He sidled over to the window, opening the shutters an inch before slamming them closed again. He tried once more, pulling back slowly, keeping his gaze downcast, watching color flood the floor tiles. His feet retained their mortuary hue, luminously pale on the terra-cotta slabs.
When he thought his eyes could stand it, he looked out of the window. It was just as he’d known. Another day, dazzling and merciless.
He found the pay phones and pulled an address book out of his bag. The book was ancient, a faded lady with a parasol on the cover, the Sellotape holding it together dried out and yellow. The pages bulged with various additions and amendments on old letters, birthday cards, and torn scraps of a tea-bag box. Looking for Eamonn’s details, he came across the phone numbers of various friends and family long dead or forgotten. It was strange to think that by pressing a few buttons he might hear some of their voices again. The book contained his and Kathleen’s entire life, and the information it held was almost all obsolete.
When he found the number, he realized he’d need coins, and suddenly it was all too much bother and messing about when he could be off and on the road already. He was happy to make his own way. He thought there were few places you couldn’t reach with a decent map and public transport.
He found the buses easily enough at the airport. He boarded one with the name of what looked like a fairly large town, in the general direction of Eamonn’s place. The woman driver gave a small nod when he attempted his pronunciation of the place. Receiving change was the first thing that really struck him as foreign. He wondered if she appreciated how much grief she avoided by not insisting on exact fares.
Eamonn was hungry. He rooted listlessly in the kitchen cupboards, conscious that he had done the same thing the previous day, and maybe the day before that too. He found the madeleine cake hitherto rejected for the dark stain of mold on its underside. He cut away the exterior, leaving a cubic inch of untainted yellow sponge, which he put on a plate and took out onto the balcony along with a cup of stale mint tea.
He sat on the terrace, looking over at the shared swimming pool. It had been empty for almost a year, the chlorinated water replaced with a thin layer of pine needles. He noticed that a family of cats had moved in overnight, locating themselves in the deep end on a discarded Cheetos box. Lomaverde had proven to be a popular destination for hardworking cats and their families. The legion of them snaking in the shadows around the bins had steadily grown. It was hard to tell if fresh residents were continuing to flood in or if the original settlers were simply reproducing rapidly in the promised land.
He was startled by the door buzzer—a strange skip to his heart as he pressed the button, thinking: “I have become a dog.” He was greeted with the Klaxon voice of the postwoman. She made occasional trips out to the development, seemingly as and when she felt it worth her while. He didn’t know what happened to the mail between being sent and being delivered, if it languished in a sorting office somewhere or if the postwoman herself kept it all in her flat. He imagined her rooms filled with crates of mail, sacks of other people’s special offers and exclusive opportunities stuffed under her bed.
There was never anything much in the post that he wanted anyway. He shuffled down to the lobby for something to do and collected the pile from his mailbox, dropping each envelope after a cursory glance—Vodafone bill, Endesa bill, Santander statement—and then he stopped. He examined the pale-blue envelope closely before opening it.
How are you? I hope well. All is fine here. Anne came over last week to help clear the last of your mother’s things. I’m glad now that it’s done; I’d been putting it off for too long.
You’re no doubt wondering what spirit has moved me to write, so I will get down to brass tacks. I’m not getting any younger and I have to accept that I could follow your mother any day now, and it’s high time I crossed off some of those things on the “to do” list.
I don’t know if you remember John Nolan (son of Eugene), but he works in Harp Travel now and has sorted out flights and tickets for me. I’ll be arriving at the airport in Almería at nine in the morning on 7 June.
Please don’t be going to any bother on my account; I’m well used to taking care of myself. I’m looking forward to seeing you and Laura and getting my first taste of “abroad.”
The bright sun on the pale paper was blinding. His father’s looping blue words floated up off the page into the air around him like dust motes. He moved away from the window and read it again. He found himself fixing on irrelevancies like who John Nolan might be or how Harp Travel could still be in business. He would phone his father later and tell him to cancel the trip. He started thinking of gentle excuses.
Dermot sat near the front of the bus and studied the passing landscape. Near the airport, everything was huge. He saw elevated advertising billboards and vast storage facilities, all on the scale of the airport itself, as if airplanes, not cars, might be passing along the road. Farther on, the landscape broke down into a cluttered mishmash that he found hard to process. Small, scrappy agricultural plots with shacks made of plastic crates and tarpaulin huddled in the shadow of mirrored-glass buildings and their empty car parks. He looked at the graffiti under every overpass—colorful images as complicated and jumbled as the landscape around them, huge letters with teeth and eyes spelling strange words and names. He saw the same poster for a circus over and over again and later passed the circus itself in the middle of a parched field. The word “Alegría” was written in lights above the entrance.
At the terminus, he asked if the driver spoke English and she said a little. Eamonn’s place was unmarked on the map. A new town. Purpose-built. There was just a small cross in biro that Eamonn had made for his mother before he left. Dermot tried the name of it anyway on the driver, and when she looked blank he was unsure if it was his pronunciation or the obscurity of the place. He pointed on the map to where he was heading, and she shook her head and blew air as if trying to whistle. She opened her window and called to the driver of a bus parked across the street. She turned back to Dermot.
“Is very far. Difficult.”
“Bus T-237 to here.” She indicated a point on the map a little distance from Eamonn’s cross. “Después . . .” She blew air through her lips again and shrugged. “Taxi?”
“Right. Thank you very much.” He hesitated and then said, “Gracias.” The driver smiled and showed him where to get the bus.
He took his time walking through the town, looking in the windows of the shops he passed. He saw one that seemed to sell only slippers and another one just pajamas. At the baker’s he paused and studied the display before deciding to enter. Inside, he found he was a good foot and a half taller than any of the other customers. Some of the women turned to look at him, and he gave each a brief nod of his head. There was no queue that he could discern, but the two women behind the counter seemed to know in which order to serve everyone. When it came to his turn, he pointed at a stick of bread filled with ham and cheese and bought some kind of milk shake as well. He took them out into the street and ate them while waiting for the bus, enjoying the warmth of the sun seeping through his clothes.
Time: 43:08; Moves: 579. Two kings were trapped behind the seven of clubs. He shifted cards from the ace piles and back again, treading water while the clock ticked on. Just visible on the screen, above the top-right corner of the simulated green baize, a folder of students’ work sat unmarked. He glanced at it periodically and then back at the cards. There were different ways to traverse the vast floes of time.
He found himself staring at the blinking cursor, unsure how long he had been doing so. His body had become synced with the cursor’s rhythm: the ebb and flow of his blood, the throb of his heart, the pulse of his headache. When his eyes finally refocused, it was upon the date display. He stared at it for some time, finding it distantly familiar, before reaching for his father’s letter.
He stood up quickly, feeling dizzy, thrashing about in search of the car keys before running into the street. The hot breath of the Toyota threatened to suffocate him as he climbed inside. He turned the key and the engine clicked. He did it again and again, as if the act of turning the key could somehow recharge the battery. He got out to breathe and kick the car like a child, and then he was still.
On the second leg of the journey, the landscape was unvaried. He saw nothing for miles but great expanses of polytunnels, the entire countryside hidden behind wrapping. Occasionally he’d glimpse a field apparently abandoned, its plastic covering ripped open and hanging in sheets as if the crops inside had escaped during the night. For a long time he could detect no evidence of humanity, but gradually his eyes adjusted to the rhythm of the landscape and he began to spot makeshift shacks huddled next to the vast plastic tunnels, T-shirts and jeans hanging from washing lines, plastic garden furniture, a solitary young black man crouching in the shade.
The bus dropped him near the junction to the road that led to Eamonn’s village. From the map it looked to be about four miles by that road, but he saw there was a more direct route over the hills. He had always been a walker, often finding himself walking his bus routes on days off, investigating more closely things he had been able only to glimpse from the driver’s cab. As he climbed the main slope now, even with the footing a little tricky in parts, he realized how much he had missed decent hills like these and the feeling of his blood moving quickly around his body.
Eamonn’s apartment was in the upper reaches of Lomaverde, at the rear of the development, or the “urbanization,” as some of the other expats called it in a strange mangling of the Spanish. His block was at the end of the street; beyond its sidewall lay nothing but steep-rising, bare scrubland, optimistically described as “impressive mountain scenery” in the sales particulars. Now, leaning against the car, paralyzed by indecision, he glimpsed something in the distance on the hillside. He looked again and saw that it was a human figure. Nobody approached Lomaverde from the hill. Visitors, such as they were, came along the winding road from the town. The burglaries had stopped, but they all remained suspicious of strangers. He shielded his eyes with his hands and looked up toward the black shape.
Dermot had grown used to the sparseness of the landscape on the climb: slopes of arid white soil, broken up with wild rosemary. When he reached the top, he saw the broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretched out before him. The deep blue seemed to rinse his eyes of the grittiness they’d had since boarding the plane that morning. The water appeared completely still and he stood, equally still, his breathing slowing, fully absorbed by the color below him. He thought of the spray as you walked along the promenade in Lahinch and remembered, for the first time in many years, the taste of seaweed from a bag.
It was only now that he noticed the development below, between him and the sea. He wasn’t sure at first what it was. The gleaming white cubes looked somehow scientific in purpose, a collection of laboratories or observatories perhaps. It was a few moments before he realized that what he was looking at was Eamonn’s village. The neat white boxes, curving black roads, and lush green lawns stood out sharply against the dusty ridge. From where he stood, the sun bouncing off the sea, a heat haze shimmering around its edges, Lomaverde looked like a mirage.
The man was carrying something and shouting. All Eamonn could catch was a single repeated word that sounded like “Llover,” and he wondered if this was some strange wandering weatherman come to warn them all of rain. It was Eamonn’s legs that recognized him first. They started moving, seemingly independent of his will, up the slope, his ears finally unscrambling the words correctly:
“Hello there! Eamonn!” He had just a moment to register the incongruity of his father’s presence there on the blazing hillside, dressed in a light woolen jacket, carrying his Aston Villa holdall, before they were standing facing each other, Dermot smiling shyly and saying, as if it were the most normal thing in the world:
“And how are you, son?”
Copyright © 2013 by Catherine O'Flynn