Remains of the Day, by Colin Barrett

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From “The Silver Coast,” collected in Homesickness, which will be published next month by Grove Press.

Ciara Lavin was sitting at Lorna’s kitchen table along with Emma Doherty and Lorna’s mother, Anne. Some years ago, Ciara had traveled to South America and participated in an ayahuasca ritual. This is what she was talking about now. A guide took you into the forest and you drank a foul black liquid and hallucinated for hours, sometimes days. After she took the ayahuasca, Ciara had encountered an entity, what she called the Being, amid the trees ringing their encampment.

“It’s silly to talk about now, but at the time it felt like the realest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Ciara said.

“I think it sounds very fascinating,” Anne said diplomatically.

“Ayahuasca,” Emma said. “I’m an uisce beatha woman myself.”

The four women had just got back from the service and burial for Lydia Healy, a woman from the estate who had died suddenly a few days ago. Lydia had been in her early fifties, a good decade older than Lorna and her friends and a decade younger than Anne. None of the women had known her particularly well, but her youngest son attended the boys’ secondary school, and that had been reason enough for Lorna to pay her respects. Once she had said she was going, Ciara, Emma, and Anne said they would, too.

Everything was close by. The service was held in the church in town, and the graveyard was only a ten-minute drive from the estate. It was another twenty-minute drive to the Silver Coast Golf Club in Enniscrone, just over the county line in Sligo, where Lydia’s family was putting on a meal for the mourners at two o’clock. The women were going to go to the golf club, but Lorna had wanted to drop her boy back first, because he had done his duty for the day. Returning to the house, released from the oppressive solemnity of the funeral, the women had been moved to talk, in a general and speculative way, about death. This had led to a discussion about the possibility of an afterlife, which had led to a discussion concerning planes of existence, which had led to Ciara sitting here relating her experience with the Being in a South American forest.

Lorna plunged the press and brought the coffee over to the kitchen table.

“I’ve no decent biscuits, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Stop,” Anne said.

“Imagine if coffee tasted as good as it actually smelled,” Emma said, pouring herself a cup.

Lorna was thinking about Lydia Healy. The woman had taken ill in the supermarket. Heart attack. Word was she had died in the frozen food aisle, right next to a bin of cut-price Christmas hams the supermarket was selling off before they went out of date. That’s what people were saying, anyway. In her mind Lorna was able to picture the scene with an omniscient minuteness of detail—Lydia Healy down on her back on the filthy, sticky supermarket linoleum, trolley askew in the aisle, the teenage staff in their short-sleeved polyester work shirts gathering around her, stricken and tentative as Lydia gasped for breath. The indignity of it.

Lorna believed she had seen a man die once, at a beach resort, as a teenager. Lorna, her mother, and her father, Tom, were on holiday in Nice with Auntie Moira and Lorna’s cousins. A man had taken gravely ill on the beach, a few yards from them. Lorna could not say for sure that he was gone by the time the paramedics strapped him to a gurney and carried him up the beach, but she was convinced she had seen him pass the threshold beyond which there was no coming back. She remembers children screaming ecstatically and inflatables bobbing in the surf like bright trash, and farther out, the clenched shoulders of adults as they waded beyond the bearably waist-high waves. Lorna had been Luke’s age, thirteen, fourteen, and the man had seemed very old, though he was probably only in his early fifties. He was with a woman, presumably his wife. The wife was sitting on a towel with her knees drawn up to her bust, and they were arguing in the injurious, teacherly cadences of the well-off British. The woman wanted to leave. The man said something about going back in the water. You do what you want to do, Margaret, Lorna remembers the man saying, and she could still hear him now, more than twenty years on, the low, patient note of deeply grooved spite in his voice. You always get to do exactly what you want to do. He was standing over the woman, and after a little while, he abruptly stopped his jeering and sat down on the towel next to hers, as if the argument was over. Then, in Lorna’s memory, the man looked straight at her—at teenage Lorna. His mouth was ajar, and he wore a puzzled, mildly stunned expression, like a man on a train platform who at the very last moment delays for some unaccountable fraction and must watch the carriage doors seal shut right in front of his nose. He wasn’t going anywhere; it was all at once going away from him.

“Do you remember in Nice,” Lorna began. “Mam? Remember the beach in Nice when that man died right in front of everyone.”

“What?” Anne said.

“We were on holiday with Moira and a man died on the beach right in front of us.”

Lorna knew by her mother’s expression that she had no idea what Lorna was talking about.

“You don’t remember? How could you not remember someone dying?” Lorna said.

“I remember . . . someone having an issue, an allergic reaction? I thought maybe it was a woman, though. And it wasn’t in Nice.”

“But you remember going on holiday in Nice with Auntie Moira?”

“I do.”

“Well, there you go,” Lorna said. “We—well, I saw a man drop dead on the beach there.”

Through the window Lorna could see her husband, Barry. Barry slid the patio door open, stepped inside, and began stamping his feet on the mat, the cold that came in with him spreading like a clear thought in the warm room.

“I think we better be going if we want to make this lunch,” Ciara said.

“Isn’t it an awful thing,” Emma said. “Someone dies on you and you have to make sure everyone gets fed.”

“Did you even talk to this one when she was alive?” Barry asked Lorna.

“I talked to her. I talked to her on several occasions,” Lorna said, though this was barely true.

“Can’t say I was left with much of an impression of her,” Barry said. “Is there any coffee left?”

“There’s a drop there,” Lorna said. “I’d make more but we’re off to the meal in the Silver Coast.”

“You missed Ciara here telling us about the fiend she met in the woods in Peru off her head on drugs,” Emma told Barry.

“Did I,” Barry said absently, pouring the last of the coffee into a cup.

“It wasn’t a fiend,” Ciara said. “It was a Being.”

The women had moved into the hallway and were putting their coats back on.

Barry followed them out, sipping his coffee. “Aren’t you all good neighbors, all the same,” he declared.

Lorna was sitting alone at a table in the dining room of the Silver Coast clubhouse. In front of Lorna was a ham and coleslaw sandwich, soggy in the center and cardboardy along the crusts. She’d managed one bite and didn’t have the stomach for the rest. It felt wrong to just abandon the sandwich. It felt disrespectful, and though she knew no one present would care whether she finished this little bit of food, the thought she could not dispel from her mind was that Lydia Healy would care. That if some remnant of Healy had survived her death, that remnant was surely here, present in the air of the Silver Coast clubhouse, watching the afternoon unfold. This thought unnerved Lorna, not because it was in any way something she believed, but because its continued intrusion in her mind reminded her that she had not particularly liked Lydia Healy.

Lorna saw her mother coming through the crowd. With a sidelong glance at the woman eating soup, Lorna hastily slipped what was left of the sandwich into a napkin, transferred the napkin into her coat pocket, and rose from the table. She met Anne in the middle of the room.

“I need some air, I think.”

“Oh, okay,” Anne replied. “What about my tea?”

“Stay and have it if you want, or bring it.”

They walked out across the links. The sandy cavities of the bunkers were lightly dusted with snow and looked phosphorescent. The snow on the open stretches of fairway grass, exposed to the wind slicing in off the sea, had settled in nervous patches. The wind was like ice. Lorna folded her arms tight to her body as she walked.

“Where do you want to go?” Anne asked.

“We’ll go as far as we can,” she said, “and when we get back, I think it’ll be time to leave.”

They followed one of the improvised trails that led off the links, down between a gap in the sand dunes. There was no one else on the strand, the surf a sickly yellow foam bubbling between the matted black hanks of seaweed heaped on the beach.

“What did you make of Lydia Healy?” Lorna asked her mother.

“Well now,” Anne said, folding her own arms against herself, “I don’t think I knew her enough to form a meaningful impression.”

Lorna glanced at Anne.

“That’s an excessively careful way of putting it.”

“I do have a story.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a little story. It’s nothing scandalous.”

“Go on.”

“In fact it’s not even a story. There was just this . . . moment.” She shook her head. “It was Bonnie Walshe’s wedding, you remember the reception was at the Pontoon Hotel back when the Pontoon was still open? This must have been a good ten years back. Do you want to hear this?”

“If there’s scandal.”

“I told you there’s no scandal.”

“Tell me what you’re going to tell me.”

“We were in the middle of the dinner and I got a work call. The reception was cat so I had to go all the way outside. When I step back in, I’m making my way down the hall to the little lobby, which I can see is empty but for Lydia Healy, stood up at the reception desk with her back to me. There was no one at the desk and I figure, well, she’s rung the bell and she’s just waiting for someone to come out to her. Next thing, though, Lydia takes a look one way, then the other, and darts in behind the desk and starts rifling through whatever’s behind there. I can’t see because the counter was blocking, but whatever she was looking for she was looking for it very methodically and urgently.”

“What was she doing? Was she looking for money?” Lorna asked.

“I don’t think they keep money behind the reception desk; even ten years ago almost everyone was paying with card. I always thought she must have been looking for keys to a room.”

“Why? To take something from one of the rooms? Maybe she was—” Lorna was going to say “having an affair.” Waiting for the reception desk to be unmanned, then grabbing a key card for an illicit quickie with her lover. But this was a preposterous scenario. Lydia Healy? Having a tumultuous affair? A woman who, when you looked at her, made you think of terms like “beetling” and “doughty,” words that were archaic and obscure and cumbersome and probably didn’t even mean what you thought they meant.

“Maybe she was a kleptomaniac,” Lorna suggested instead. “Stealing just to steal. Saw a chance and couldn’t help herself.”

“I don’t know if she even took anything from the desk,” Anne said. “I was coming down the hall and she looked up. It was too late for me to turn back. She saw me coming and she must have been thinking, that’s it, I’m caught, only I was too embarrassed to say anything so I lowered my eyes and just walked on by like she wasn’t there . . . She ended up in a group I was chatting with later that night and of course she acted, and I acted, like nothing had happened.”

“What else could you do?”

“Anyway. That’s all there was to that story. But that was the first thing that came to mind when you asked me what I thought about poor Lydia Healy, God rest her.”

The women stopped walking. Ahead of them a couple of gulls were picking their way through the surf, long yellow beaks jabbing indifferently at the sand. One of them flashed the amber bead of its reptilian eye in the direction of the women and flounced its wings, a single pronounced whump.

“Once you get up close they’re the size of dogs.”

“Descended from dinosaurs,” Lorna said.

She remembered the sandwich in her pocket.

“Probably, there’s a completely mundane explanation for what Lydia Healy was up to behind that desk,” she said as she unwrapped the sandwich from the napkin and tore the remains into chunks. “Only we don’t know it.”

“The world is full of unaccountable things, if you’re keeping track,” Anne said.

“And who keeps track?” Lorna asked as she lobbed a bread chunk. The gulls began tearing at the morsel with violent enthusiasm.

“Can they eat that?” Anne asked. “The ham and the coleslaw and all that?”

“They can eat anything, I think.”

Lorna tossed the rest of the sandwich. She and her mother watched the gulls until they were finished, then turned and began to make their way back toward the Silver Coast.


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