[Previously posted on MyT]
He was sitting on a rock at the edge of the sand, playing with a piece of bladder-wrack he’d picked up – bursting the bladders, and thinking about this and that.
‘Medusa,’ she said, ‘had seaweed on her head. Instead of hair.’ He looked up and saw her – a slight, smiling, dark-haired girl, his own age or close, blocking the dim sun.
She sat down on the rock to the right of his, uninvited, and continued to speak in a strong country accent … probably a traveller, he thought as he inspected her, which he was free to do as she was looking out to sea. The wind blew back her ropes of hair and showed her face.
The sky was mostly grey, and the sea breeze strong … not a day for sitting by the beach in this small, dead resort; yet here they both were. Neither was dressed for it … him shivering in a tee-shirt and torn jeans; her clothes skimpy and gaudy in pink and blue, like a young girl might wear to a disco. High-heeled, high-shine shoes; scabs round her ankles she’d been picking: faint streaks of blood on white skin. Well-shaped legs.
She was very pretty, with wide blue eyes. She said, ‘You look freezing.’
‘I am. Aren’t you cold?’
‘I’m hardy. I’m never cold, hardly.’
She produced a red-and-white twenty-pack of cigarettes from a small handbag that matched the shoes, and passed him one casually without looking, as if assuming he would take it. He was not a smoker, but didn’t like to refuse her. She tried to light their cigarettes with matches – heads and hands together, foreheads touching – and failed … throwing each spent match away, swearing and lighting another, till all were wasted and she flung the box away in annoyance.
He handed the cigarette back to her; she placed it playfully behind his right ear, smiled and said ‘For later.’
He said, ‘How do you know about Medusa?’
‘We have one encyclopedia. Me to Nu.’
He was puzzled. ‘You to … what?’
‘Em ee to en you. Mediterranean. Medusa … Nubians … big black lads. Medusa was killed for boasting about her beauty … she was pregnant at the time. She could turn a man to stone by looking at him. Jesus, I’m dying for a smoke.’ She seemed unsettled; she looked in all directions … there was no-one on the promenade to ask for a light.
She said, ‘How many brothers and sisters have you?’
‘Just one older brother.’
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph. That’s not even a family. Where is he?’
‘He’s in England, working for the summer. On holidays from university.’
‘I like England. Are you going to go to university too?’
‘My parents want me to, but I’m not sure. We had a row about it this morning. Anyway … how many are in your family?’
‘Nine altogether, and me da. I’m the eldest.’
‘It is when you have to mind them all. Have you got any money?’
‘On me, you mean? No. Why?’
They looked to the sea for a while without speaking. He was afraid that she’d get up and leave, but she showed no sign of wanting to. He wondered why she was there … if there might be a sexual motive. She was young … he assumed that her mother was dead, and she was short of guidance. Perhaps the mother had died while having the last baby.
She said, ‘If you sailed straight out there in a boat and kept going straight, would you end up in America?’
‘Canada, I think.’
‘But that’s part of America.’
‘Yes, it’s part of North America, but not of the USA.’
‘What if you went that way?’ She extended her left arm to point south, almost hitting him with the back of her small hand.
‘If you avoided Clare and Kerry, you’d end up in North Africa. Morocco, I think.’
‘And that way?’ She extended her right arm, laughing. This was becoming a game.
‘Well, if you avoided the land, I reckon you’d end up in the Arctic.’
‘And that way!’ She pointed behind her.
‘Ballinasloe,’ he said for a joke.
She laughed loudly, and said, ‘Ballinasloe I know. There’s no shortage of people like me in Ballinasloe.’
He blurted out, ‘I doubt it,’ and impulsively grabbed her cold left hand with both of his. She looked at him, amused, and said, ‘What in God’s name are you doing?’ He felt his face get warm. He said ‘Sorry’, and released her hand. ‘I was just trying to pay you a compliment. You’re very pretty.’
She said, ‘Tell me something I don’t know. You know I’m a traveller?’
‘Yes, I thought so.’
‘A tinker, a knacker, an itinerant … you wouldn’t marry someone like that, would you?’
‘Well, I wasn’t thinking of marriage.’
‘Of course you weren’t! What were you thinking of … taking me over behind that rock for five minutes?’ She pointed dramatically to one of the seaweed- and limpet-covered outcrops along the shoreline.
‘No, I just like you … sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘You won’t know it, either.’
Again they sat in silence for some time. She seemed to be in a huff. She finally said, ‘I think I’ll go to Canada. Or Africa. Or London. Anywhere I’m not known.’
‘What about your family?’
‘Me da will have to mind them instead of drinking.’
‘How will you get the money?’
‘I’ll find a way. What about you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Will you go to university like your brother?’
‘I haven’t decided.’
‘Don’t make me laugh. Your mammy and daddy will make you. Well, I have to go now. I have to take me brothers and me sisters to the circus.’
‘I thought Medusa had snakes. For her hair. A bit like yours.’ He picked up one of her ropes of hair and felt its weight. Anything to make her stay longer.
‘No.’ She shook her head gravely, and he released the rope. ‘A sea goddess would have seaweed.’
‘Maybe I could see you later? My parents are driving me mad.’
‘Not unless you’ve some money. Me da would kill me. Anyway, I’ll be minding the kids.’
She stood up, looked at him and smiled, and said ‘See ya around, whoever you are,’ then turned and walked away, clutching her handbag in both hands and trying to keep her heels from sinking in the sand. When she reached the promenade he saw her stop a man to get a light for her cigarette. The gulls wheeled and cried, as gulls will do.
He stayed on the beach for some time, like a stone … cold with all the other stones, yet warmed internally by this brief encounter. His parents were disapproving when he arrived at the holiday home with the cigarette forgotten behind his ear. They thought he’d gone a bit wild lately.
He thought about her strange beauty for the rest of the day, and of the holiday, and on and off afterwards. For her, it yielded no advantage … it was a liability, if anything. It needed to be anchored by a wisdom that would come too late: a huckster’s book, Me to Nu, would not provide it. Beauty would drift off on the tide of life. Then where would she be?
He found her plight strangely distressing, considering that he hardly knew her.
He would think of her always as ‘Medusa’, though he found out her real name later. She was eighteen by then, so her name could be mentioned on the news when she did the crime. And he was at university, just as she’d predicted … studying medicine and enjoying life.
She had stabbed her father in the chest with a kitchen knife while he was drunkenly accosting her: one hard thrust. The sentence was suspended … the female judge took account of the circumstances.
She didn’t hide her face as she walked the quays from the Four Courts, alone, in a dark suit and high heels … stopping to light a cigarette, turning her back to the wind. Her long black hair was straight now – not like snakes or seaweed. She smiled at some passing thought, or at a remark a photographer had made, and her frail, pale beauty shone from the television screen. (A tabloid newspaper would use the photo with the headline ‘Smiling killer walks free’. She had smiled too easily.)
Medusa veered to cross the Liffey and was gone for good … lost in the crowds of people. On her way to Canada, or England … or Ballinasloe, more likely. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing he would do, even if he could.
His heart, for her, was as useful as a stone on Salthill strand.