Mark Mulholland is not from the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia or anywhere snazzy like that. Mark, through no fault of his own, was born and raised in Ireland. At fifteen, as luck would have it, he underwent a stroke of genius and left schooling to linger around a second-hand bookstore, where he slipped his way into employment and with his small earnings bought books by their cover or title or by some indefinable inclination. The whole world was to be found in that bookshop, he says, and everything a boy needed to learn could be learned there. He has been educated in this way ever since. Mark is the author of the acclaimed novel A Mad and Wonderful Thing. His short fiction has been published in the USA, Ireland, and the UK and has been shortlisted for the Dorset Fiction Award. He lives in rural France.
She sits on the black rock that rises between the long central strand and the small half-moon beach. In front of her is the wide sea and behind her are grassy dunes that shield the outcrop from the road. The tide is out; it is beyond the river that cuts through the mudflats. The river runs parallel to the shore like a marker and warning; for to go beyond the river is to risk life, the water when it turns, turns fast, and the unwary can be caught and lost. The strand belongs to Ireland, but beyond the river belongs only to the sea.
She can see the low grey line on the horizon. She checks the time and knows she has a full two hours to sit and wait. She eases to slow breath. She loves to watch the tide come. She loves to sit and watch the running waves wrap around her; white, grey, green, and blue, mingling and mixing in the roll and break on the black rugged rock. She loves to watch the water come and rise and fill and fall and drain and go. She loves the wrinkles and puddles in the mud. She has her book. And she has her blanket that she folds into a cushion. That’s all she brings. It’s quiet and she has the rock to herself. But then, she always has. Even on warm days like this, families go to the long strand or the small beach or wander along the village promenade. No one comes to the rock. The road is narrow, twisty, and dangerous. And there is no easy access by foot; it takes a climb. So well is it hidden, few know it exists.
She puts her book down. She puts her two arms behind her and leans back. She lets her long dark hair fall in the breeze. She is seventeen. She is finished with school. She begins university in September. And she will qualify. She won’t quit or fail and end up in a factory or a department store. And she won’t go silly with drinking or dancing or boys. There will be no distractions. Anyway, she doesn’t need those, she has her rock.
It is a cold clear night. She has the blanket across her shoulders as the livid water laps against the rock. It is a moonless sky and the stars are many. She raises one hand into the black as if to reach and touch, brings her hand down and pulls the blanket around her. She is twenty-seven. The girls from the office are away for the weekend. She hasn’t gone. She knows the pattern of such trips; the descent to giddiness and drink and men. She won’t be caught in that. And her friend isn’t going. Her friend is at home with a husband and two children, trapped like a butterfly in a winter greenhouse, taken to the wing too early for the survival that spring brings, ensnared now behind a glass barrier in some make-believe place where she can look out at the world as it passes. No, she won’t be caught like that. She listens to the water and watches the colours of the sea bounce and swell against the rock.
The tide is going. It runs away. Around the rock, the ground is drying; and farther out, pools are draining and streams are dying as they escape through the rippled ground. Above her, gulls glide on the breeze and call and scream and shout. She sits on the folded blanket and reads. She is forty. She’ll stay the full day on the rock. But it’s difficult to get the time now she’s taken over the department. She works hard. She’s going to make a difference. There are meetings and more meetings and more again, and planning and reviews and presentations and communications. And calculations. And decisions. And negotiations. And tough talking. And arguments. She doesn’t retreat from any of it. That’s the job. She has seen others falter. She won’t. Many have slipped into some quiet domestic arrangement and withered. She won’t. Some have come and gone and come again from such arrangements; but at a cost. She might have given it a go with him. She thought they could do it. But he wavered and they broke. She waited—perhaps he would change, do better, do more. He didn’t. But she is strong and she continues. She won’t falter. She puts the book down and watches the gulls.
The tide is gone. All she can see is the river. The mudflats are drying to sand with dark patches in low pockets. A man and a dog walk on the mud. It is a cold day and there are clouds above. It could rain. She pulls the blanket tight. A book lies beside her. She is sixty-seven and most days she sits on the rock. She retired, the year before last; though she wouldn’t have gone at all, only those are the rules. They had a presentation in the office and the minister made a speech; said that she had made a difference. But there has been an election since and that minister is no longer the minister, has retired to a sparkling villa in southern Spain. And the new minister has made changes, has undone her work. That’s democracy for you, a colleague said in a letter. What can you do? She doesn’t know anymore what you do. She sits on the rock and watches the dog run to the river.