Desmond Harkin had been a fisherman all his adult life, and it showed. Salty wind had scultped his face into gnarly crags. His lips were constantly chapped; his broad capable fingers wore callouses.His upper body was strong and muscle-bound and stooped. His stance was wide-legged and bowed, accustomed to bracing on a rolling boat. His hair was grey and wiry, unknown to any hairdresser, and usually covered with an elderly woollen hat of indeterminate provenance and colour.
The power of the ocean had given him a sense of calm that nothing could shake: a sense of fatalism that brought its own kind of peace. There was no point in worrying or fretting. What would happen would happen. Que sera sera, and all that.
He had seen many colleagues live who should have died by all sense and possibility, and too many die in freak accidents that should never have happened in a confluence of circumstances that could have brought to mind a vengeful god, but to him just brought home the pointlessness of trying to control things.
His speech was slow and measured, with a quiet wit that you had to listen for as it dropped quietly into the conversation.
His laugh, on the rare occasions it happened, was long and uproarious, head thrown back in surrender.
He lived in the aptly named Fisherman’s Cottage, named by his grandfather in a more utilitarian time when names were identificational rather than aspirational. This cottage was small of course, with thick walls which Desmond whitewashed every two years but which still always looked tatty under the constant onslaught of the Atlantic winds which had travelled all this way and were joyous at finally having something against which to batter. The front door was painted red, which — except for perhaps two weeks after repainting — always looked faded against these Atlantic winds and the meagre Irish sunshine. Almost apologetic it looked, had there been anyone fanciful enough looking at it to consider a front door’s expression.. The cottage had originally had a thatched roof it now had a more modern, and much less beautiful, slate roof. Desmond periodically muttered about returning it to thatch, but he never seemed to have the time, nor the money, nor … well, let’s be honest, the initiative. A sense of fatalism may bring peace, but it also brings inertia.
When you entered the cottage you came straight into the main room. This housed the kitchen on your left, and a sitting area on the right in front of a big carbon-encrusted fireplace. Two tiny bedrooms led off this room, one door either side of the fireplace. A small, always-freezing, tinder-block built extension had been built at the back of the cottage, accessed via a door at right angles to the left-hand bedrooms. This housed a bathroom. Desmond remembered well his mother’s excitement when this had been built and they now had the luxury of an indoor toilet and bath. He muttered to himself every so often that he should insulate it, and replace the cracked sink, make it more comfortable. But arra …
He slept in the small room which had been his all his life, leaving his parents’ bigger room abandoned. He never articulated why this was. Perhaps more inertia, the effort of moving rooms being too much. Perhaps he had a sense of sacrilege at the prospect of sleeping in his parents’ room, in spite of having no doubt been no-doubt conceived in their sagging-matressed bed. Or perhaps, because of that. The weight of the bed’s history pressed on him. This was the bed in which in which his father had died, and in which his mother, ten years later, had begged to be allowed to die but medical needs prevented that, and he never forgot her tears and weakly clutching fingers as the ambulance men took her out of her home. If he had his time again, he would let her stay. But he had thought the doctors could make her better. He hadn’t realised that she would die anyway, and in a strange place with strange smells and noises and full of fear.
So he slept in his childhood room still. His only concession was that he had replaced his single bed with a double. His small bedroom was the only room he took care over. Nobody had ever expressed much interest in being invited in there, so nobody had an opinion about it, but he often thought wryly how surprised they would be. It was decorated completely differently from the careless and weathered rest of the house. Instead this room, his sanctuary, was dominated by a huge oak bed which he had brought home from France many years ago. It took up 90% of the room, way out of proportion, but he didn’t care. He had lovingly polished and buffed the oak, and its patina shone dully. He had a deep red duvet cover on the bed, and he was aware that it clashed somewhat with the reddish hue of the oak, and almost every night he thought he would try to pick a better colour, and every morning he forgot that intention as he began another day.
There was no room for wardrobe or cupboard. He had one small table by the head of the bed, on which he rested his phone and a book — for he was always reading — at night, and his clothes rested in the small wardrobe in his parents’ room.
He was content with his life, and never pondered whether he was happy. Perhaps he felt that happiness was not for him, and so he did not think to seek it. Holly would ask him why not, and he’d shrug and say he didn’t know, but he was glad it had found him.
And so life continued, peaceful and tranquil and maybe those are only words for empty, but no matter.
This was until he had to go to the awards ceremony at the Town Hall. He never went to such things as a rule, fancy folk in fancy towns in fancy clothes giving speeches being outside his remit. However, he had to go to this one or cause upset, since he was one of the awards recipients.
He had scrubbed up as well as he could, wearing clothes that were old, but neat, and which had been fashionable when they first came out. But he didn’t want to spend money on new clothes just for this occasion, nor, in truth, could he really afford to.
He pulled into the parking space outside the Town Hall and turned off the ignition. He paused a moment, and then pulled at his collar. It still felt no less constricting. He took a deep, determined, breath and stepped out of the car.
The Town Hall was lit up by a hundred lights, its granite facade glistening, the rest of the night a chasm outside their aura. The red carpet spilled out of the front door, along the steps, and down into the edge of the car park.
“Dear Lord,” he whispered, braced his shoulders, took another deep breath and walked towards it.
Once he reached the pool of light flashbulbs went off all around him, like an assault.
“Look this way Dessie, this way!” urgent voices called to him, their speakers invisble behind the camera lights. The sound of applause came from unseen hands as he walked forward. This was supposed to be a celebration, a reward for him, but it felt like torture.
He thought with dark humour that he should have let Kevin McHugh die, if he’d known what would have come out from rescuing him.
The Lord Mayor stood at the top of the steps, her gold chain glistening in the lights. She smiled down at Desmond as he walked up the steps towards her.
Of course all the local politicians were there too, ranged around her. No fear of them letting an opportunity to be seen pass by, and they all clapped his back and told him robustly he was a good man, a good man so he was. Their heads were angled away from him as they did so, towards the press cameras.
Someone beside the Lord Mayor whispered into her ear, and she nodded briefly. “Desmond Harkin!” she said to him, reaching out her hand, her voice as bright and cheerful as if they were long term friends. He docilely gave her his hand, and to shook it, and grasped it with the other hand, her hands small and soft against his barnacled lumps of meat.
She continued, “It’s not every day we get to welcome a hero!”
“Ah well … “ he muttered uselessly. How could he know what to say? He wasn’t polished at talking to strangers as she was.
The evening passed. He shook more hands than he could count. He thanked everyone who came up to congratulate him, and nodded modestly at their praise; he posed for endless photographs, and gave awkward interviews to the press.
Kevin McHugh and his wife Sonia were there of course, clasping his hands as though they wouldn’t let go, an echo of the way Kevin had clung to his hand that screaming night.
“Thank you again,” Kevin whispered, his eyes glistening.
“Arra, it was nothing.” Desmond shifted uncomfortably. “You’d have done the same for me.”
“I know, but.”
Sonia said, “I hope God is good to you, Dessie, for what you did. I hope He sends you something wonderful.”
“Next week’s Lotto numbers?” Desmond said lightly. “That’d do rightly!”
“No,” she persisted. “Something better even than that. I’m praying for this for you.”
A couple of weeks later, as he relaxed after dinner, a knock came on the door. Surprised, he lifted his head from his book. Who would be calling at this hour? Somebody lost maybe, looking for directions.
The light spilled out the front door to illuminate a stranger, a young woman. Well, not so young, maybe in her early thirties. She was reed-slender, and tall, reaching nearly to his shoulder which not many women managed to do. Her long red hair flowed extravagantly down her back; her features were narrow, falling on the sharp side of elegant.
“Hello?” he asked.
“Desmond Harkin?” she enquired in a well-enunciated English accent.
“Yes. That’s me. Can I help you?”
“My name is Holly Prendergast. May I come in?”
Why not? The open door was letting all the heat out, after all.
He moved back with a welcoming gesture, and she stepped into the room. He closed the door behind her and they stood there.
Her soft green eyes appraised him, and he stared back, waiting for her to state her business.
“I’ve come to live with you for a bit,” she announced. “I have my cases in the car.”
She roared in laughter at his reaction.
“There’s a reason,” she said. “I’m not some crazy randomer, I promise.”
“Go on.” He could only smile at her, intrigued.
“I’m your daughter.”
He literally took a step backwards.
She laughed again. “I’m a bit of a surprise, I know. Mum said you had no idea.”
“We’ve been looking for you for years. And only now: we found you on the internet. That award. You being a hero.”
He shrugged, still uncomfortable with mentions of that. Then: “Come to the fire and sit down.”
She sat down in one of the chairs. He stood looking down at her.
“Would you like tea? Or water?”
“Would you have a beer? After all, I’m not driving anywhere.”
“You’re looking to stay? Seriously?”
“If you’ll have me.” She looked vulnerable in that moment, uncertain.
He didn’t answer her directly, but he got her a beer, and maybe that was the answer.
Tracy, 06/05/2020 13:29:03