Lamu

by Noel O'Regan

 Photo by  Miville Tremblay , via Flickr.

Photo by Miville Tremblay, via Flickr.

A selection by guest editor Jamie O'Connell. To receive a PDF version of this story to read offline / export to Kindle, please email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail(DOT)com

  

0 – 200km

The night air here is cooler than Noah expected, and scented with something vaguely familiar. Eucalyptus, he thinks, as he sits into the front passenger seat of the rented white Toyota. Aisling turns the key in the ignition and the narrow driveway, border wall and electronic steel gate are framed in a sudden burst of artificial light.

     ‘You sure we’re good to go? We have everything?’ he asks.

     A light switches on behind them inside the house, one of Aisling’s housemates waking up to go to the toilet, maybe, or woken by their movements outside as they loaded their baggage into the boot. A few of the houses along this street have been broken into in recent months, Aisling told him. A U.N. official who lived two houses up had even been stabbed. Aisling’s house was one of the few on the block that had no night-time security; they couldn’t afford it, she’d explained. Not on an NGO salary.

     ‘I’m sure,’ she says, leaning over and kissing him. She presses a button on her key-ring after they separate and the gate opens in hesitant, screeching jolts.

     As Aisling drives, Noah struggles to match the abandoned streets that now stream past his window with the city he has experienced the past few days – gone is the feeble crawl of traffic, the strangling smell of diesel, the stutter through roundabouts where knuckles harried closed car windows, and hands offered roasted corn on a stick, fresh mangoes, pineapple, and, one time, a kitten. He finds it hard to believe that such a frenzied sea could quieten and still, even if only for a short time. The route out of the city is surprisingly straightforward; there’s no need to turn off or circle back or consult the Sat-Nav. Near the outskirts of the city, a creature scurries across the road. A dog, Noah guesses, but Aisling shakes her head. Hyenas are a growing problem in Nairobi. There have been reports of slaughtered livestock, pilfered food, a mauled child. Near the beginning of the Mombasa highway, a Jackhammer sounds nearby, the noise particularly unnatural at this hour. Amber lights flash where a crew works on laying a new surface.

     Aisling speeds up once the highway is reached. ‘I still struggle to believe you’re here, you know?’ she says, her eyes on the road.

     ‘I know. Me too, to be honest.’

     She hesitates. ‘Are you happy that I got back in touch?’

     ‘I’m here, right? And we certainly wouldn’t have done what we did last night.’ Noah shakes his head. ‘Not that I’d expected that to happen.’

     Aisling laughs. ‘What? And I did, is that what you’re saying?’

     Noah remembers the words he had repeated like a mantra three days ago up to the loud whack of a landing at Jomo Kenyatta Airport: Nothing will happen with her. Nothing will happen. Most of the flight had been spent convincing himself he was coming here to experience a new continent; that it had nothing, really, to do with Aisling – beyond the fact that she invited him, and they would travel together for the month. The one thing everyone at home had agreed on when he told them about his decision to travel to Kenya had been that it would be a terrible idea for them to get back together.

     The world reveals itself in slow and hesitant steps: fresh mountains sprout up; wide plains, too, bouldered but with surprising splashes of green. Noah puts his feet on the dashboard, shifts about, trying to get comfortable. The sky wakes featherless blue, plucked clean, and he closes his eyes, only a blink, but when he opens them the sun is well clear of the horizon.

     He turns to see Aisling yawn. ‘Want me to take over for a while?’ he asks, stretching.

     ‘Awake, are you? No, not yet. We’re not too far from this Sheikh temple I know. We can stop there and use the toilets. I might let you take over then, if that’s okay?’

     ‘Yeah, whenever suits you.’

     Fifty or so kilometres later, a small town appears. Noah looks at the row of dwellings on either side of the road. He wonders why the word dwellings came to mind, instead of buildings or houses. The fragility of the structures might have something to do with it: tin roofs, sheet iron or wooden walls. He senses that a strong gust could lift the whole thing away. Near the end of the town, he sees white walls, a golden dome behind them that mirrors the morning sun, offering it back smudged and distorted. Aisling drives to the black iron-wrought gates and waits as an elderly man opens them. The whiteness of his turban matches the scraggly white of his beard.

     Aisling performs a little jig in the car park as she waits for Noah to close his door. He follows her along the side of the temple and down a flight of steps to where two open doors gaze wide-eyed out of the wall. He catches that scent again – eucalyptus, definitely – as she rushes through the doorway on the left.

     ‘Men’s is the other one,’ she shouts back.

     Looking around, he can understand why people would come to this temple. Not just for prayer, but to rest in a quiet, clean and shaded place. To find sanctuary, for a moment, before returning to the heated glare of the world.

     When Noah leaves the bathroom, Aisling is slouched against the wall opposite, bottle of water in hand. She takes a swig and offers it to him. He shakes his head. 

     ‘So you’ve been here before?’ he asks.

     ‘Once, yeah, with my ex the time we drove to Mombasa.’ She glances up at him. ‘Feels strange talking to you about an ex-boyfriend.’

     ‘Feels strange hearing it,’ Noah mutters as he follows her back to the car.

 

200 – 480km

Noah sits into the driver’s seat and takes his driving licence from his jeans pocket, a picture of him on the front, solemn and bearded. Aisling laughs when she sees it, says he looks like a serial killer.

     ‘Is that why you came?’ she asks. ‘Are you here to kill me?’

     ‘Maybe. We’ll see how I feel when we get somewhere more secluded,’ he says as he reverses the car, the gatekeeper already shuffling towards the closed gates.

     As Noah speeds along the highway, the plains turn flat and arid. The soil reddens. At one point, he has to brake to let a gang of monkeys cross the road, red arses flashing as they flee. Aisling sleeps, huddled, in the front passenger seat. He throws careful glimpses at her as he drives. Her strawberry-blond hair is longer, and the high carb Kenyan diet has added a touch of softness – but, overall, her appearance has changed little in their time apart. Her complexion has even somehow maintained its near-translucent paleness. He wasn’t surprised when she told him that, in an office filled mostly with pale westerners, she was the one the local staff nicknamed Kizuka. Ghost.

     What changes he has seen in the past few days are within her. As he listened to her talk about the maelstrom of her year here (the time she was robbed in a nightclub, someone knifing into the bottom of her handbag without her noticing; the month of power cuts that meant everyone in her house had to wake up at two o’clock in the morning to shower; the time she and her supervisor at work appeared on Kenyan TV; the time she was brought along on a police raid), or her relationship with her mother (still difficult, but the distance has helped; ‘She can’t really argue with me through Skype’), he has seen how she has stepped out of herself since their time together – or perhaps it is better to say that she has stepped more fully into herself. She appears calmer in her kizuka skin, more settled.

     They had both just been kids last time, really – still teenagers when they first got together. Maybe this time could be different. He thinks about the printed emails folded in his bag in the boot, most near-memorised: I said “well you can ask Noah when he gets here!”, and it really hit me, in 2 weeks u are going to be here. im going to be sharing Kenya with you. im so happy. I really thought u would not at all be up for this! and now that ur open to suggestion im going to take over ur mind. Three years with no contact, and now, less than a month after the first exploratory email, he is in Kenya of all places, with her. The absurdity of the situation forces a half-laugh out of him.

     The sound wakes her. ‘We there yet?’ she asks.

     ‘If only.’

     A truck bellows as Noah overtakes. ‘Tell me about this place where we’re going. Tell me about Lamu.’

     She rubs her eyes. ‘Well, I only know what I read online, and what the crowd at work told me: that the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that it’s possibly Kenya’s oldest town. I’ve been assured that it’s incredibly beautiful. And it just seemed like the perfect place to take you; I remember how much you love the sea. I’ve already booked us a dhow trip for tomorrow evening.’

     Noah overtakes another truck. ‘What about those kidnappings in the area? Are you sure you’re not the one trying to get me killed?’

     She scoffs. ‘We’re too poor to kidnap. Things have calmed down there anyway; the travel restrictions were lifted last summer. Besides, we’re Irish, everyone loves the Irish.’

     ‘And what time did you say the last boat leaves for the island?’

     ‘Just before sunset,’ she says. ‘We need to be there by then.’

     The speedometer strains close to the 150km mark on the long, clear sections of road. Even with the windows down and wind blowing in, sweat still dampens his back and forehead, the sun nearing the top of its arc. Aisling bites into a Nature Valley bar from the hoard of snacks on the backseat bought yesterday in the Tesco in Westgate Shopping Mall. She feeds pieces of the bar to him as he keeps his eyes on the shimmering road.

     Noah turns his gaze to his hands. When he squeezes the steering wheel, his knuckles whiten. ‘Was it worthwhile? You coming here for the year?’

     A kilometre passes before she responds: ‘I don’t know. It hasn’t been what I expected. A little part of me, coming over here, thought I was going to change something. Or at least help in some concrete way. Instead it just feels like I’ve spent a year in an air-conditioned room doing admin. I mean, how is that helping? Honestly, I’m just happy to be heading back. I know Dublin isn’t home, exactly, but it’s a lot closer than Nairobi.’

     ‘When does the job start?’ Noah asks.

     ‘Middle of September.’ She removes her sunglasses, wipes the lenses with her t-shirt. ‘How about you? How are things in Kerry? You said things were getting better at work, right?’

     He nods. ‘Yeah, I’m getting more hours when we go back in September, and they’re giving me a Leaving Cert honours class, too.’

     ‘So you’ve impressed them,’ Aisling says.

     The road veers and sunlight enters the front windscreen, near-blinding. Noah slaps down the visor. ‘I suppose.’

     A flurry of villages appear. Noah slows the car, the traffic turned hesitant, fitful. Stopped at a congested junction, he rests his arm on the rolled-down window. A matatu – a unique vehicle: part-minibus, part-mobile disco – speeds past on the roadside, not bothered by the stalled traffic. The pounding electronic base can be heard for a while after it has turned out of sight. Noah returns his arm to the car’s shaded interior when he feels it begin to burn.

     A signpost reads: MOMBASA, 17KM.

     ‘We’ve made good time so far,’ Noah says.

     ‘Don’t jinx it,’ she jokes. She turns her attention to her hands nested on her lap. ‘I can only imagine what your friends said when you told them that you were coming here to see me.’

     ‘Let’s say they were surprised.’

     ‘I bet. Was it all terrible?’

     ‘Honestly? Some of it was fairly bad, yeah.’

     ‘But you didn’t listen to them?’

     ‘No, I did. Look, I know it sounds stupid, but I want to be – I like to think that I am – the type of person who believes in second chances, you know? I wouldn’t have come here, I wouldn’t have let what happened last night happen, if I didn’t know that I was over all that.’

     Aisling nods. ‘And that’s what makes you a better person than me.’

     ‘I don’t know about that,’ he says, blushing. ‘You’re the one who just spent a year working for an NGO.’

     ‘Seriously, Noah, I mean if you’d done to me what I did to you, I really don’t think I would have travelled halfway around the world to see you.’

     Noah shrugs. Coming here had not been about being the better person. Although he would be lying if he said he hadn’t noticed the hint of respect in some of his friends’ eyes – those who hadn’t called him mad, or stupid – when he told them of his plans. He liked to think they were impressed at his courage, maybe, or the level of forgiveness and hope shown. They remembered how he’d been after the break-up. That he was willing to put that aside, Kathy, a work-friend had admitted: ‘That’s really big of you, Noah. You’re one of the good ones. Plus,’ she joked. ‘It’ll make a great story for the grandchildren, if ye end up back together.’

     When he looks back at their break-up now he finds it difficult to understand why he was so blindsided. It had been coming. In the last few months they had started to avoid going out drinking together, their friction inevitably unspooled by a mixture of Bulmers, Jäegerbombs and shots of tequila. It happened the night she came back from a week-long trip to Paris, taken as part of her Art History course. She cycled to his flat, so at first he took her flushed expression to be a result of her exertions. He remembers leading her by the hand up to his room, the white tea and linen-scented candles she liked already lit.

     It was only after she’d repeated herself twice and explained why this had to happen that he spat the room into near-darkness and brought up the German. The prick, Henrik, who was studying at UCC for the year and was in Aisling’s Art History class. He’d seen the pictures that she posted to social media during the week, how he’d been in an inordinate amount of them. Big Aryan grin on him. ‘You fucked him, didn’t you?’

     The deep sigh out of her. ‘No, Noah, I didn’t.’

     The next Thursday night the rowing lads dragged Noah out, said it was their duty to see that he drank the blues out of him. He had lost count of the amount of pints and shots he’d downed by the time they reached The Brogue. There had been the normal scrum of bodies inside, with its surrounding cloud of sweat and flatulence. Another tequila was handed to him by one of the lads, but he spilled most of it trying to get the shotglass to his mouth. The world was spinning to such a degree that it took him a few moments to understand what he was seeing on the dancefloor. Then all he felt was the sudden existence of a wounded animal inside him, thrashing about his chest. Her reaction when she saw him – the drop of the jaw, the sudden deep red splashing across her chest and cheeks – signalled her lie as clearly as the Aryan grin bobbing above her.

 

486 – 497km

An amber light flashes on the dashboard beside the speedometer. He switches off the engine. ‘What did the last sign say?’ he asks.

     ‘Eleven kilometres.’

     ‘So it’s taken us two hours to move six kilometres? Fuck me.’

     ‘Not right now,’ Aisling says.

     A tired smile is shared. Above Aisling’s top lip, a little white moustache has appeared, sweat causing sunscreen to resurface. Clammy hands on the wheel make him doubt his grip. The car in front sighs forward; the car behind beeps until he covers the distance. He turns off the engine before the amber light returns.

     ‘Lamu,’ Aisling says, map spread across her lap. ‘Once we get to Lamu we’ll be able to relax.’

     Noah nods.

     ‘So what was Mombasa like, last time you were here?’ He self-edits the sentence, cutting with your ex.

     ‘It was fun. We stayed in a hostel by the beach. It was one of the few times I wished I wasn’t a vegetarian: the fish smelled delicious. So fresh, you know? Sure you’ll see yourself; we’ll be stopping here on the way back.’

     ‘I know, but Lamu will be better than Mombasa, right?’ Noah says.

     Aisling looks up from the map, smiles. ‘Of course. Way better.’

     At the next roundabout, a signpost signals left for Malindi, away from the main highway into Mombasa. Traffic flows again on the new road. ‘Thank God,’ Aisling breathes. ‘It should stay moving now till we get away from the city.’

     ‘Don’t jinx it,’ Noah says, and laughs as she slaps his arm.

     Noah drives the rented car over a bridge. Below, a wide estuary holds up a shoal of boats, the water a shade of blue that brings the word tropical to mind. Azure. A clear sky above and below. From a certain angle, Noah thinks, it must look like they’re flying.

 

507 – 599km

Outside Mombasa, the road clear and straightforward, Noah voices the waspish question in his head. ‘So what was he like, this fella? Your Kenyan ex.’ All he knows is that they dated for six months and broke up shortly before she got back in touch with him. The break-up had been her decision, she told him. As per usual, he remembers thinking.

     Aisling eyes the apple in her hand. She takes a second and third bite before responding: ‘He was fine, clever. Too old, though. And too American.’

     Noah sees the glint of silver hair, proper clothes – ties, ironed shirts, the mirrored shine of his long, black boots. Old and clever probably meant money to treat her: take her out for fancy meals, buy her things. Necklaces, maybe. Noah glances at the dip of silver around her neck. Well, no, he’d gotten her that. For their two year anniversary. The one with the emerald in the centre. Green had been her favourite colour at the time; he assumes it still is. She had probably put away whatever jewellery the American had showered on her. Old. That probably meant a wealth of experience in the bedroom, too, no doubt.

     He forces his mind out of the car. The landscape has changed again since reaching Mombasa. This could be the third country they have entered since waking. Palm trees are scattered along the roadside, and the wide sweep of banana plantations fill the hills on the inland side of the road; marshland and the occasional shock of sea and ghost-white sand dominate on the right.

     An army checkpoint blocks the road. Two armed soldiers stand outside a wooden hut from which a radio DJ enthuses in Swahili. One of the soldiers looks no taller than Aisling. Opposite the hut, a trail of sharp metal teeth jut up from the road. When one of the soldiers waves a car on, the other soldier withdraws the blades, the teeth unfurled again as soon as the car leaves.

     The shorter soldier approaches Noah’s window. He rolls it further down and smiles. The soldier glances in the backseat at discarded Nature Valley bar wrappers, banana skins, and the bottle of factor fifty suntan lotion.

     ‘Identification,’ he says.

     Noah hands his licence out the window. The soldier frowns. He turns Noah’s licence over, looks at him again.

     ‘You lose the beard?’ he asks.

     ‘What? Oh yeah. Long gone.’

     The soldier hands back the licence. ‘Good choice, my friend. Good choice.’ He signals to the taller soldier, who drags in the metal blades and waves them on.

     Aisling bursts out laughing as the checkpoint fades behind them. ‘Told you you looked like a serial killer in that photo.’

     ‘Alright.’                                                                    

     She mimics the soldier: ‘Good choice, my friend. Good choice.’

     ‘Alright, alright, I get it,’ he smiles. ‘I’ll let you do the talking next time.’

     Aisling looks at him. ‘Oh don’t sulk, Noah. I’m only messing. You know that, right?’

     ‘Of course I know. Yeah.’

     In Malindi, Noah pulls into a petrol station. Aisling steps out of the car and races towards the door on which a matchstick woman stands guard. Noah hands the pump attendant a two thousand shilling note. Across the street, there is a line-up of Italian restaurants and shops. He frowns into the rear-view mirror, squinting at a well-dressed couple outside one of the cafes, sipping coffees. The sun glints off the window behind them, making the couple hard to see.

     When Aisling sits back into the car, he grins: ‘I know we’ve travelled a fair distance today, but I didn’t think we’d reach Rome.’

     She laughs. ‘Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it? There’s an airport near here that just deals with flights from Italy.’ She squints across the road. ‘Oh God, is that a gelato shop?’

     ‘On the way back,’ Noah says, steering the car away from the pumps. ‘We’ll stop then, I promise. Plus, I’m sure they’ll have gelato on Lamu. Even better, I’d say.’

     ‘Better be,’ Aisling says, looking back with longing.

 

608 – 721km

Crater-sized potholes begin to pockmark the road beyond Malindi. The potholes cause him to veer into the other side of the road when the road is free, and slow down when he has no choice but to descend into the damaged sections.

     Aisling glances at the petrol gauge on the dashboard. ‘Why is the tank only half full?’ she asks. ‘I thought you filled it in Malindi?’

     ‘I did. I put in two thousand shilling’s worth.’

     ‘Noah, that’s only like twenty quid.’

     He shrugs. ‘I’m sure we’ll come across another petrol station before we turn off the main road. And there must be one at the ferry port, right, what with all the cars that park there?’

     ‘I don’t think you get how out of the way we’re going.’

     ‘It’ll be fine,’ he says.

     ‘You’re jinxing us again,’ she says.

     Noah wonders if the American had been hassled like this on their Mombasa trip.

     He smothers a yawn.

     ‘Do you want me to take over?’ Aisling asks. ‘You’ve been driving for ages.’

     ‘It’s fine.’

     ‘Okay, well let me know if you want a rest.’

     ‘Right.’

     Ahead, a group of children stand either side of the road. As Noah drives near, the children raise a rope across the length of the road. The children free of this tug-of-war wave at them. Noah slows, takes a hand off the wheel and reaches into his pocket.

     ‘What are you doing?’ Aisling asks.

     ‘I’m just going to give them a few quid,’ he says.

     ‘And what about the next batch of children a mile down the road? Probably pulling the same trick. Will you give them money, too? We’re likely to meet a lot of groups like this on the road. We won’t have time to stop for them all; not if we want to make Lamu before sunset.’

     Noah rolls down the window, hands out all the loose change from his pocket and wallet. ‘It’s not much, Ais; beside, it’s my money. ’

     ‘I’m just saying: spend a year here, and you’ll see how fruitless a gesture that is.’

     The children lower the rope.

     ‘Whatever,’ Noah grumbles as he presses down the accelerator.

     Lamu. Once we get to Lamu. He raises a fist to his mouth, stifles another yawn as Aisling’s gaze moves between the sweep of countryside outside her window, the plunge of light, the time on her phone.

     Children line the road in patches, of course, most with ropes in hand. One group place a donkey in the centre of the road, another a turtle. Noah avoids the animals, and drives over the ropes, lowered once it’s clear he won’t stop.

           

725 – 752km

The car shudders with the harshness of the hard dirt road, tarmac left behind since the village of Garsen. An old bus appears ahead, the driver and several passengers crowded around the punctured right rear wheel. Driving past, Noah sees the driver offer wild gestures to the passengers, point a finger to the sky as if blaming a higher power for landing them in this situation. A boy in a dated Barcelona jersey, collar upturned, leans out of one of the bus windows and screams at an adult in the crowd.

      ‘How are we doing for time?’

     Aisling grimaces at her phone. ‘Borderline. I didn’t think the road would get this bad.’

     As a village appears, a car with a stained couch tied to its roof struggles along the road ahead. There will be no chance to overtake it in the village, Noah knows, so seeing that the road is clear, he speeds up and overtakes. Once beyond the failing car, he notices the police car on the roadside. The uniformed man beside the vehicle waves them aside.

     ‘Shit,’ Noah says, pulling in.

     He rolls down the window as the policeman strolls towards them, notebook in hand, the sunlight reflected off his head. When he leans down to look into the car, his eyes peep over the rim of his sunglasses and settle on Noah.

     ‘Do you know what you did wrong?’

     ‘No, sir. I wasn’t speeding, sir.’

     ‘You overtook on the yellow line; you’re not allowed do that.’

     Noah glances at the unmarked road behind him. ‘What yellow line?’

     Aisling squeezes his leg.

     ‘Sorry?’ the policeman asks.

     ‘There isn’t a yellow line.’

     The policeman shakes his head, something pedagogical in the action. The policeman points to his vehicle. ‘Okay, you follow me. We go to the station.’ He straightens and returns to his car. When the police car starts, the back wheels skid in the dirt. Noah and Aisling watch him cut across the road and start driving out of town.

 

752 – 749km

‘I can’t believe this,’ Aisling says. ‘We’re actually going backwards.’

     ‘I know, right? I mean, look, there isn’t a yellow line anywhere.’

     ‘Noah, for Christ’s sake, it wasn’t about the yellow line. He was looking for a bribe. If you’d given him some money, we’d be on our way now. Not losing time we can’t afford to lose.’

     ‘So this is my fault?’

     ‘I didn’t say that.’

     Out of the village, the police car turns onto a red sliver of track. Tall trees escort them as far as a single-storey building with unpainted concrete walls and a tin roof. ‘Let me do the talking,’ Aisling says as they step out of the car. ‘I’ve had to deal with people like him all year.’

     Noah nods. ‘At least this should make for a good story.’ He almost adds for the grandchildren, as a joke.

     Inside, the policeman leads them to his office, a cramped space with an overburdened desk. The two offices in the station are divided by a thin wooden partition baggaged with coloured sheets – yellow, green, but mostly pink, for some reason – tack-pricked maps of the local area, and a photo of a man missing one front tooth, the other brown and fork-shaped. A broken clock hangs above the man, stranded on a few minutes to midnight, or midday. Two hands just short of clasping.

     The policeman sits behind the desk, shrugs and says: ‘So we go to court. You are free tomorrow, yes? As we must go to court. I will schedule us a place.’

     Aisling steps forward. ‘Look, boss, we can’t go to court tomorrow. We are travellers, tourists. We did not mean to break the law; it was an accident. And we are very sorry. Is there any way, any other way we can settle this?’

     Noah eyes the clock, wonders how long it’s been broken. He fights a sudden, near-overwhelming urge to reach up and bring the two hands together.

     The policeman acts out a frown. ‘I don’t know; I think we must go to court.’

     ‘Is there no way we can avoid it?’ she presses.

     The policeman smiles. ‘Well, you are my sister, so we say four thousand shilling.  Four thousand and we not go to court.’

     ‘We only have three thousand at the moment,’ she lies.

     The policeman nods. ‘Three thousand will do, yes. Because you are my sister.’ After he pockets the money, the policeman leans forward. ‘But be careful, yes. This area has been dangerous for mzungos lately. Kidnappings, robbings. You are my brother and sister, yes; I don’t want anything bad happen to you.’

 

755 – 816km

‘It’ll all be okay once we get to Lamu,’ Aisling says, on the road again.

     ‘If we make it,’ Noah says, looking to the sky. The sun is well into its fall, clouds high up spattered amber-red.

     ‘Noah, come on.’

     ‘What?’

     ‘We’ll make it; be positive.’

     The parched tongue of road seems endless. Noah looks at the petrol gauge, the dial well into the red. Be positive. He forces himself to loosen his grip on the steering wheel, and tries to focus on his breath and ignore the churning in his chest. He had flown all the way here. How was that not positive? He’s the one willing to give her a second chance. Even after how things ended last time.

     In the rear-view mirror, a white jeep appears. They pass a woman on the roadside, trudging empty-handed in the direction they have come from, her entire frame hidden in a burka of bright green, yellow, red, and a deep, bruised purple. The trees along the roadside hook the sun, dragging it earthwards. It blushes with the effort of staying upright. Noah looks into the rear-view mirror. The jeep is closer now, flashing its lights. The front licence plate on the jeep is missing, and he can’t see through the dark haze of the front windscreen. His gaze refocuses and he sees the hard squint in which his eyes are set, crow’s feet raked deep.

     As the jeep pulls alongside, a head sticks out the back window on the near side of the car. The face turns towards them, smiles. The boy’s hair is tossed about, storm-struck, the collar of his Barcelona jersey still upturned. Behind the boy and the jeep, a pool of ink has gathered in the eucalyptus trees, ready to spill out and cover the road, the sea, the stained sheet of sky.

     It is something in the boy’s expression – the light foot-fall of joy spread across his face, maybe – that unearths the half-buried truth in Noah’s chest. Makes it so that he can’t feel anything else.

 

817km

Noah brakes hard.

     ‘What? What is it?’ Aisling asks, as the jeep speeds past. ‘Seriously, Noah, we’re almost there, and the sun’s going to set any minute.’ The boy reaches a hand above his head as the jeep drives towards the coast, and Aisling asks again ‘Noah, why did you stop?’, and the boy’s arm begins to swing in a furious arc from side to side. As he removes his own hands from the steering wheel, Noah thinks how the boy’s gesture looks like one-half of a distress signal. Or a simple wave goodbye.

Noel O'Regan is the recipient of a number of prizes, including the Sean Dunne Young Writer Award and Leonard A. Koval Memorial Prize. His stories have appeared in publications such as Ambit, The Stinging Fly and The Penny Dreadful. A former Kerry County Council Writer in Residence, he has also had work listed for the Writing.ie Irish Short Story of the Year.