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Fiction by Kevin Barry: “The Coast of Leitrim”

(Source: newyorker.com)

Living alone in his dead uncle’s cottage, and with the burden lately of wandering thoughts in the night, Seamus Ferris had fallen hard for a Polish girl who worked at a café down in Carrick. He had himself almost convinced that the situation had the dimensions of a love affair, though in fact he’d exchanged no more than a few dozen words with her, whenever she named the price for his flat white and scone, and he shyly paid it, offering a line or two himself on the busyness of the town or the fineness of the weather.

“It’s like France,” he said to her one sunny morning in June.

And it was true that the fields of the mountain had all the week idled in what seemed a Continental languor, and the lower hills east were a Provençal blue in the haze, and the lake when he lowered himself into it was so warm by the evening it didn’t even make his midge bites sting.

“The heat,” he tried again. “Makes the place seem like France. We wouldn’t be used to it. Passing out from it. Ambulance on standby.”

His words blurted at the burn of her brown-eyed stare. She didn’t lose the run of herself by way of a response but she said yes, it is very hot, and he believed that something at least cousinly to a smile softened her mouth and moved across her eyes. He had learned already by listening in the café that her name was Katherine, which was not what you’d expect for a Polish woman but lovely.

At thirty-five years of age, Seamus Ferris was by no means setting the night on fire at the damp old pebble-dash cottage on Dromord Hill, but he had no mortgage nor rent to pay, and there was money from when the father died, a bit more again when the mother went to join him, also the redundancy payment from Rel-Tech, and some dole. He had neither sister nor brother and was a little stunned at this relatively young age to find himself on a solo run through life. He had pulled back from his friends, too, which wasn’t much of a job, for he had never had close ones. He had worked for eight years at Rel-Tech, but more and more he had found the banter of the other men there a trial, the endless football talk, the foolishness and bragging about drink and women, and in truth he was relieved when the chance of a redundancy came up. He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

He believed that Katherine, too, had sensitivity. She had a dreamy, distracted air, and there was no question but that she seemed at a remove from the other mullockers who worked in the café. The way she made the short walk home in the evenings to the apartments across the river in Cortober again named a sensitivity—she always slowed a little to look out and over the water, maybe to see what the weather was doing, perhaps she even read the river light, as Seamus did, fastidiously. He could keep track of her route home if he parked down by the boathouse, see the slender woman with brown hair slow and turn to look over the water, and it was only with a weight of reluctance that she moved on again for home.

In the sleepless nights of the early summer his mind ran dangerously across her contours. He played out many scenarios that might occur in the café, or around town, or maybe on a Sunday walk through the fields by the lake. It was a more than slightly different version of himself that acted his part in these happy scenes: Seamus as a confident and blithe man, but also warm and generous, and possessed of a bedroom manner suave enough to insure that the previously reticent Polish girl concluded his reveries roaring the head off herself in gales of sexual transport. Each morning when he awoke once more in an aroused state—there was no mercy—it was of Katherine from the café that he thought. She was pretty but by no means a supermodel, not like some of the Eastern Europeans, with their cheekbones like blades, and as Seamus was not himself hideous, he felt he might have a chance in forgiving light. All he had to do was string out the few words right in his mouth.

He was in the café by now four or five times a week, and she was almost always on. The once or twice she hadn’t been were occasions of crushing disappointment, and he’d glared hard at the mullockers, as they bickered and barked like seals over the trays of buns and cakes. Even the hissing spout of the coffee machine was an intense annoyance when Katherine wasn’t there. Along with its delicacy, Seamus’s mind had, too, a criminal tendency—this is often the way—a kind of native sneakiness, though he would have been surprised to have been told this. The café’s toilet was located right by the kitchen, and Seamus could not but notice what looked like a rota pinned to the back of the kitchen door. Catching his breath one Monday morning, he reached in with his phone and took a photograph, and in this way he had her hours for the week got. Also, her full name.

Katherine Zielinski she was called, and he wasn’t back in the van before he had it Googled—it might be unusual enough inside quote marks to give quick results, and indeed within seconds he was poring over an Instagram account in her name. The lovely profile picture confirmed her identity—it was his Katherine all right, with her fourteen followers. She had posted only six times, six images, going back to the January previous, and relief flooded through him like an opiate when he found no photos of a boyfriend nor of a baby. It was something more intense than an opiate that went through him when he studied the most recent post, which was from the weekend just gone. It was of Katherine’s right hand resting on the bare thighs revealed by her shortish denim skirt, and in the hand she clutched a slim box set—it was “Tales of the Four Seasons,” four films by Eric Rohmer. Her accompanying caption read, “Goracy weekend.”

It was a swift job to go to Google Translate with that and find that it meant, merely, “Hot weekend.” She had humor as well as taste, it appeared, though in truth Seamie Ferris wouldn’t be putting Rohmer at the top of the league in terms of the French directors; he would in fact rate him no more than highish in the second division, but at least he might be able to argue to her a rationale for this. Her knees were lovely and brown, though possibly a little thickset, but as it was a case of Mother Fist and her Five Daughters up in the pebble-dash cottage, this was not a deal-breaker.

He spent time with the other images. He tried to decipher them or, more exactly, to decipher from them something of her character. Her only other personal appearance was in a blurry selfie that showed her reflection in a rain-spattered windowpane and that was suggestive, somehow, of Katherine as a solitary. There was a poor vista of the river from the bridge at evening. The rest of the images were reposted from other accounts—someone’s pencil drawing of Sufjan Stevens; a cityscape that might have been of the Polish winter, its streetlights a cold amber; and, finally, a live shot of Beyoncé at a concert in Brazil in the stance of some new and utterly undefeatable sexual warrior. These images spoke to Seamus Ferris, in a low, insistent drone, of a yearning he recognized, and he felt that now he should end his playacting and confide his feelings to the woman.

The idea sent him into a fetal huddle on the couch, his back turned to the hot afternoon sun that poured through the window to show up the cottage in its bachelor meanness. The strangest thing he had learned while alone in his mid-thirties was about the length of the nights. They were never-fucking-ending. They opened out like bleak continents. They were landscapes sombre and with twisted figures. He lay there and flopped and muttered on the couch until the darkness again fell on Dromord Hill and the extent of the night shamelessly presented itself. He felt backed into a corner. He would have to ask her out. The worst that could happen was a refusal and the subsequent embarrassment of that, but there are worse things than embarrassment, he had learned in the night, when his mind wandered across such things.

In the auditing of the night a plan had been laid down. He would raise the question on a Thursday morning, and so he had not shaved since the Monday—this provided a shadow of interest across what was in truth a weakish jawline. He scratched at the stubbles helplessly as he picked at his scone, sipped at the cooling coffee. His stomach tumbled and spoke. He would leave it until he was ready to depart, and if he was refused at least he would be out the door and could go and fuck himself into the Shannon. He was about to stand and make grimly for the counter—he felt like a man heading off to be shot—when she stepped out from behind it and for absolutely no good reason came to saunter around his table, looking out at the rain that as sure as Jesus had returned to make another wet joke of the summer.

“Back to the usual,” she said.

“You’d nearly do away with yourself altogether,” Seamus Ferris said.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Nothing by it,” he said. “Do you want to go out with me sometime?”

“That will be fine,” she said. “When is this happening?”

He believed now that they were in telepathic contact with each other. She must have known and read his intention. She must have known, too, that he had sensed her likely compliance. This was how fatedness worked, how love discovered itself. In the long three days, the endless three nights that led up to their Sunday meeting, he attempted to send mental messages down Dromord Hill and across the slow meander of the river. The content of these messages was even to himself uncertain but had to do with ardency and truth.

The Sunday of their arrangement came up to dense clouds and a heavy mugginess. He went to the toilet five times in the morning and took Imodium against the thunder of his insides. Attraction as physical catastrophe was not exactly news to Seamus Ferris. He had been besotted before. Always it was with slightly humorless-looking women who appeared to be in a condition of vague disbelief about the world. If involved in any level of romance, he was given to lurchy moves and hot declarations, and always in the past he had scared the women off within a few dates. He had not had anything even close to sex for three years. With his Katherine he vowed that all would be different.

He met her by the bridge at three—the arrangement was for a spin in the van.

“Have you ever been to the coast of Leitrim?” he asked her, unpromisingly.

“No,” she said. “It has a coast?”

“The coast of Leitrim,” he said, “is four kilometres long. Which is in fact the shortest length of coast belonging to any county in Ireland.”

“Now I know,” she said.

“I mean barring the landlocked counties,” he said.

“O.K.,” she said.

As he drove and they went through the rituals of small talk, he tried to communicate with her directly, too, without words, by way of pure mental focus. He tried to let her know that he needed her badly and that in his own modest way he was a prospect. He told her that he had a house that wanted work but was situated well. There were few bills. There was more than an acre of land to grow vegetables and flowers, and already he had begun this garden. It could be beautiful yet, he said. As they drove out of the Cortober side of town, a parade of drunken women skittered toward the bridge in glittery cowboy hats and stretch-nylon skirts, with bottles of Skinny Prosecco to hand and in their eyes the dissolute, the haunted look of a three-day hen at its fag end and emblazoned on their tight-fitting T-shirts the legend “MOHILL PUSSY POSSE,” and with something already close to love he turned to see the tip of Katherine’s nose rise to match his own disdain.

“Why would they do this to themselves?” Katherine said.

“There’s a sickness around the place,” Seamus said.

A rare thing occurred then in the van as it hoovered up the N4—a companionable silence. To his awe he found that they were perfectly comfortable with each other and they didn’t even have to try.

The coast of Leitrim sat under a low rim of Atlantic cloud. The breeze made the cables above the bungalows whisper of the Sunday afternoon’s melancholy. The waves made polite applause when they broke on the shingle beach. She told him that she came from Stalowa Wola, a small city in the south, and that she could not see herself going back there. His heart soared.

“Is there no work?” he said.

“Not much but it’s not that. It’s more that my family is there and that makes everything too . . . ”

She struggled for the word.

“Close?” she tried.

“Clammy,” Seamus said. “Families can be like that. Give a clammy feeling.”

“Clammy?”

“Like a warm feeling but not in a good way,” he said. “Sweat on your palms and at the base of your back. A nervous-type feeling.”

“You’re funny,” she said.

“Thanks be to fuck for that,” he said.

“But yes,” she said. “Clammy.”

They walked the shingle beach. He told her as much as was bearable to tell about himself. He had gone to college in Galway to study French and business, but he had not finished his degree. He was not by his nature a finisher of things, he said. He had never said this before or really even thought it and it was a surprise to him. It was all coming out before the soft lashes, the stare. He had worked for years in a factory, he said, and lived at home. (The way an eternity of cold dread could be packed into a single line.) Somehow he had not had the impulse to travel. He had not known what he was looking for, if anything at all, he said, until he turned from the bog road into the clearing on the wooded slope of Dromord Hill and found there the pebble-dash cottage of the old uncle he had barely known, and he had recognized the place at once as his home.

“I would have been brought there as a child,” he said. “I remember being taken up there after I made my Holy Communion. He gave me two sausage rolls for it.”

“This is a custom?”

“No, usually people give you money, a tenner.”

Their talk came in odd spurts and the trudge of their feet went slowly across the shingle but the ease they found outside and around the talk was soft magic. Here she is for me, he thought. Here is the woman at last that I can be alone with.

“I’d like to see it,” she said.

“The which?” he said.

“The cottage,” she said.

No doubt it was national stereotyping to think so but she seemed to know her way around a head of cabbage. From his spice rack’s broad selection she took some caraway seeds and softened them in hot, foaming butter and stir-fried shreds of the cabbage in the fat, and these were delicious with thick slices of bacon and the sourdough bread he had brought from the market. They ate in silence as the sun broke through to heat the last of the day and its warm light was lavish in the room. They kissed for a long while on the sofa and then went to bed and even that worked out well enough.

He felt himself falling. In the native way he was tormented now by his own happiness. He could not imagine a future day without Katherine. That would be hell. To be able to stand back from and recognize his obsession as exactly that did not lessen its extent nor remove its danger. He waited for her outside the café each day. He kept step with her across the bridge to the Cortober side and together they slowed to look out over the water. Tears welled up in his eyes and he had to make out it was the breeze off the river was the cause of them.

“What is it?” she said. “Really?”

“I didn’t realize I was so on my own,” he said. “If we’re going to be brutally fucken honest about things.”

Typically in the evenings they drove up to the cottage. Its solitude in summer was bliss. His future plans spewed as they sat over a few glasses of wine. There was pale light until eleven o’clock still, the summer at its high pitch. They could back away from the town and the world altogether, he said. They could be next to self-sufficient on the mountain. The madness of what he was saying to a woman he’d been seeing for three weeks was evident even to himself and even as he said it, but she did not seem in any way put out. In fact, she asked serious questions about the land and the cottage, the drainage, and she did so with an air of owlish inquiry. Sniffily together they watched films by the Dardenne brothers (Belgians were allowed) and Julia Ducournau. On a clear night in mid-July, he went outside very late—stepped softly so as not to wake her—to see the starlight fall on the mountain as she slept, and he made a ritual vow to remain true if not exactly to the reality of the small woman sleeping in his bed in the cottage then to the perfected version of her he had worked out in his scenarios, for he believed that this version could incorporate and sustain—that we must each of us dream our lovers into their existence.

And now the torment of his happiness was on his brow like bad fever.

And now the nights were not long enough.

But when they sat together on the sofa in the evenings he was inclined to reach across and drag the hem of her skirt back down over her knees. Prim, it must have seemed, and it became something like a nervous tic, something he had no control over. They were perfectly normal and functional knees, but somehow their slight thickness made them seem foreign to her otherwise slender legs. Protuberances, he came to think of them as. Those unfortunate protuberances. They started to play on Seamie Ferris’s mind a bit. When he should have been thinking about other parts of her, he was thinking about her thickset fucken knees.

In the sorrow and remorse that mingled madly with his animal passion he spent a long time in the bed kissing her knees. He could not keep away from them in the dark. He cupped and whispered to them. He licked and stroked them. He spent serious time with them.

“Please,” she said on a humid night in late July.

“What?” he said.

“Leave them,” she said. “My knees.”

“Why?”

“I fucking hate my knees,” she said.

“Oh, my darling,” he said.

“They’re hideous,” she said. “If I could cut the fucking things off me!”

“They’re exquisite,” Seamus Ferris said.

“You will get the scabs on your mouth for lies,” she said.

“I have a dreadful fucken jawline,” he said. “Weak, a weak jaw. Gives me an unreliable look. A chancer.”

“But I like this little beard you have going on,” she said.

She spoke hardly at all of home or family. Her name was really Katarzyna, she said, but since childhood she had preferred the English version—Poland was crawling with Katarzynas. The small extent of her belongings was sorrowful. They didn’t take up a quarter of the space in the back of his van. He thought the heart was going to explode in his chest as he watched her shyly fold away her underwear in the drawer he had cleared for her. He came in close behind and kissed her neck. She sighed at his kiss as though in sadness but turned and held him and told him that she loved him, and Seamie Ferris was sucked through a hole in the universe.

One night, soon after she had moved in, he lay beside her in the darkness and watched her sleeping. She turned toward him in her sleep and she began to speak in Polish—a slow, anxious muttering, with the same words repeated over and over again, a phrase, almost musical, and eerie, a kind of narcotic intonation. Was it some old love that she pined for? Was there something more than her nature behind the air of distraction? How much had she not told him of her past?

The next night she rolled and turned again and repeated again in her sleep the same words and this time he took his phone up from the floor and recorded them.

He spent the best part of the next day roaming the wind-swayed fields of Google, searching out voice-recognition apps with translation modes, and eventually he found what was needed, uploaded his recording, and he had her night words got, or at least he had them got in a loose rendition.

A feeling occurred within Seamie Ferris sometimes as if a brim had been reached and now his own words must cascade and fountain. He confronted her in the kitchen. He was aware that he had a face on him like his father’s. Untrusting and cold.

“You’ve been talking in your sleep,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been saying things, and it seemed to me it was the same thing, over and over, and I couldn’t help but . . . ”

“If only you could sleep,” she said.

“I couldn’t help but record it.”

“You . . .”

“With the phone. I know, yeah. And I had it translated.”

“By who?”

“By an app.”

“What have I been saying?”

“That you’ll die if ever I leave you.”

“Oh. Jesus God.” She held her face in embarrassment.

“At least I think you’re talking about me,” he said.

“Who else would I be talking about?” she said.

Seamus Ferris could bear a lot. In fact, already in his life he had borne plenty. He could handle just about anything, he felt, shy of a happy outcome. As the summer aged he became unseated by her trust of him and by her apparent want for him. What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. As she lay sleeping in the night his mind now began to work up new scenarios. These played out variations around a single narrative line—the way that it would all cave in, the way that it would end, the way that he would be crushed beneath the rubble of his broken heart. Katherine coughing blood in the sink one morning, and then the quick raging of her demise—an illness like a wild animal tearing through her—and the way she would die a bag of bones in his arms. Jesus Christ. Or . . . Katherine leaving without a word, absconding on the Dublin train from Carrick station, returning to Poland and the lumpen embrace of some previous, unnamed love, some steelworker fucker with a head on him like a thirty-kilo kettlebell. Or . . . Katherine stumbled upon in a dark corner of a late-autumn field, at evening, blowing a young farmer. Or . . . an old farmer. So rancid did his night scenarios become that Seamie Ferris stumbled from the bed to the bathroom and gargled with Listerine. In the morning, still sleepless, he watched her carefully over their yogurt and fruit.

“They say you can tell by the chin,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You know full well, I’d say. The way a liar can be made out by the set of the chin.”

“Seamus?”

“Shay-moos,” he mimicked. “Who were you with before me?”

“This is ridiculous. Why are you so jealous?”

“Because you have me fucken destroyed,” he said. “I’m very sorry, Katherine. I just don’t know that I’m fit for you.”

“Ah, please,” she said.

“Or for anybody,” he said, and he stood up and walked out of the house.

The summer gave way without complaint. The light was thickening over the river now before eight. The long draw was well advanced. On Dromord Hill the colors of heartbreak came through. She had left him at the end of August. She moved back to the same apartment complex on the Cortober side. For almost the whole month of September Seamie Ferris slept like the dead. He would be up out of the bed for no more than an hour at a time, often much less. He had refused happiness when it was presented to him in the haughty form that he had always craved. What kind of a fucken fool was he? He drank milk from the carton by the light of the fridge in the middle of the night—never before in his life had he drunk from the lip of the carton. His skin itched and he had a whistling pain out the left lung. He believed that he might die. The two of them together could have made a small aloof republic on Dromord Hill—they could have written the rules for it. October. November. He hardly saw the town. He shopped at the Lidl on the Cortober side when he knew she’d be at work. On a dank winter morning he was trying to retrieve his coin from the trolley when a mullocker from the café came by, her face softening at the sorrowful sight of him.

“Did you hear at all?” she said, twisting the knife. “Did you hear Katherine went back?”

But now out of the winter-gray sky the soft magic again descended and he knew that the extent of his feeling was beyond the ordinary realm. He came to believe again that they were in telepathic contact with each other. Distance was no object to it. He sent mental messages down Dromord Hill and across the midland plain and across all the seas and the cities until at last the city of Stalowa Wola presented itself. The message he received back was that he must come to her and quickly.

He flew on a Ryanair to Wroclaw and took a bus, a train, and then another bus until he found the place. It was a new-looking city with vast white fields opening everywhere in the distance. He walked the freezing afternoon away. He had no idea how to find her. He had to trust that he would be steered. There was a Tesco on the outskirts that made the place feel oddly familiar. He might well be mad, but what of it? He must find her.

An icy rain came across his face as he walked on. In an empty bar in what appeared to be the center of the city, he drank a glass of red wine and tapped into his phone the Wi-Fi code. He went to the first place he always went—her Instagram account. It was fourteen minutes since she had at last posted a seventh image. It showed a detail of Dromord Hill—a whitethorn bank—in an evening sun flare. Her accompanying caption read, “Mam na myśli lato.”

Google Translate: “I am thinking of summer.”

Beneath her profile on the post was the place from which it had been sent—Kafé Komputery. He showed this name to the barman, and was directed to it. It was two lefts and a right, a five-minute walk. It must have been the last Internet café in Europe. Its dim lights were cinema against the falling dark. Katherine, paler, still lovely, was at a terminal—all the others were unoccupied.

She turned at once at the scraping of the door as he entered.

“Oh, thanks be to fuck,” she said. ♦

More Info: newyorker.com

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