‘That’s a nice stick.’ she said.
The subject of her opening line was the telescopic, carbon walking-stick I was carrying, brought back by my parents from the Austrian Alps years ago.
I saw her even before she spoke, standing, sentry-like, beside the shack that sells wooden climbing sticks. Her dark hair swirling in the wind and her tall, thin frame straight-backed, assured. I gave Luke money to buy a stick, tussling his hair as he left. My son was eager for this challenge since early morning.
When she spoke to me I thought for a second that she was complimenting me. What I heard was ‘Man! You have a nice stick.’
I stepped closer to her, inanely responding that it was Austrian. She told me that carbon was strong, I responded that it had a tensile strength.
‘There’s a word you don’t hear too often…Tensile huh?’
Even then we may have had a sense of what was to come. We had written a description of our perfect partner and perhaps there was a deep glimmering recognition at the base of The Reek. This could be her.
Luke returned brandishing his new stick and the three of us naturally began walking to the wooden steps leading up to the first part of the climb. In those few moments I learned that she was from America and this was her first visit to Ireland. She had been invited to her cousin’s wedding. He cousin lived on one of the islands in Clew Bay.
‘See’ she turned and pointed out into the bay. ‘That island. With the lighthouse. That is his island.’
Luke and I turned to look where she pointed. Even from the base of The Reek the view over Clew Bay enchants the heart. We could clearly see the little island with a white lighthouse perched on its left side amidst all the other islands.
‘He is marrying an Iranian girl. All her family are asking me why I am not married. Why I don’t have children. It’s as if I am an alien concept to these women. They are very beautiful though.’
The wooden steps lull you into thinking this climb will be easy. They lead to the small white statue of St Patrick, where she re-joined her group. Luke and I continued on.
The Reek is climbed in four stages. The civilised, short lived wooden steps lead to the long, steep second stage. You negotiate rocks to find your path but there are plenty of places to rest. Then the most pleasurable stage of the ascent begins as half way is reached. Beauty surrounds this gentle gradient and you are lulled, rested for the brutal final stage. This is a steep climb on loose, unpredictable shale. An old mountaineer friend, having climbed some of Europe’s highest peaks, told me this part was the hardest climb he ever had to make.
The view from the summit on a clear day makes it worthwhile. Every mountain has a beautiful view but the reward here seems more meaningful for believer and non-believer alike.
As Luke and I walked this first stage we took breaks. Sitting on the soft dry moss on the side of the path, sharing water or a snack from my rucksack. I felt the afterglow of meeting her and looked down the path to see her walking towards us. She soon caught up, her hair blowing in the breeze.
‘My hair is driving me crazy. I didn’t bring a bobbin.’
Luke looked around, picked up a long strand of grass and handed it to her. It is a good idea but the stalk breaks easily. Inspired by his idea I see some reeds growing by the stream gurgling down along the path. I pick out some pliable reeds for her and she ties her hair into a ponytail.
‘This is my son Luke. I’m Peter.’ I put out my hand to shake hers.
Here is the first of many small reassuring coincidences.
We meet a few times throughout this craggy stage. If Luke wants a break then we take a break and she may carry on or stay with us. The moments with her become the highlight of the climb.
As Luke and I reach the halfway point members of her group pass us on their way back down. Some of them are shivering with the cold. I look to see if she is with them and am relieved to see that she is not. Noting this I resolve to ask her out if we meet again.
The view is spectacular and funny. Eastwards into the rolling country you can see the names people have spelled out in white rocks on the green hills. Hearts too, professing love. There is the stone outline of a giant penis on the side of one slope. This gentle stage gives Luke time to investigate. I don’t want to delay but I do enjoy his to-ing and fro-ing like a retriever in a new home.
I am conscious of wanting to see her again and hope she will wait at the summit. Suddenly the final phase begins. Imperceptibly the gentle slope becomes steep. The path is of loose, head sized shale stones. Barefoot pilgrims, children, men with babies on their backs pass us going up or going down. You need to be aware for people coming down because they’ll cause little rock slides coming your way.
Luke sees a girl his age agilely jumping from rock to rock. She is as graceful as a mountain antelope and inspires him to recall his own agility. He bounds up this final stage as if it is a running track, leaving me to fend for myself. My thoughts are on Grace and the wish that she does not pass me here on her way down.
There are no places to rest. It would be a less than an ideal location to ask a complete stranger to meet for a coffee if she had time. Ask her despite my sore legs, deep intakes of breath, possible runny nose and other impediments. Life would be easier if she stayed at the summit..
This part of the climb seems to go on forever but there are always distractions. The pilgrims who climb this mountain barefoot range from the medieval – reciting prayers in Latin, heads bowed – to the jovial family who laugh and curse and tell jokes as they go, with only their bare feet to signal devotion. There were babies being carried but there were also children as young as five climbing with their parents. There were elderly people too, some very old. People from all parts of the world were on that mountain that day. Each one encouraging a stranger to continue on with a friendly ‘Nearly there now.’
Finally, I made it to the summit, to find Luke waiting for me. We hugged each other congratulations. My mind was filled with thoughts of Grace; I looked for her and saw her sitting with her back to the wall of the small white chapel in the sunshine. We walk to her, sitting beside her, glad to rest.
Luke is friendly. He tells her we are here for The Mackerel Festival and he begins talking about music. The Mackerel Festival is a small annual music party run by my oldest friend Des. Their conversation rolls easily, I sit back and listen to the two of them, laughing at their jokes and jibes. They are quick-witted and funny. I take time to enjoy the view south down to Clew Bay and beyond, thankful for the clear skies and sunshine, the beauty, for this time with Luke and Grace. The summit of The Reek is a special place to sit and rest with someone for the first time.
She is easy to be with and makes me laugh. Luke observes that we talk about and laugh at the same things. Myriad topics came rolling out like cubs to play between us. There is gentleness to her accent, it has a quippiness I associate with New York, her jokes are observational and clever. I tell her voice sounds good.
‘People find my voice annoying. A college professor nicknamed me ‘Chicago’’ She says. I didn’t ask why, I just thought it was a wonderful pet name.
‘I don’t. I like how your voice sounds.’
We are sitting on the path surrounding the chapel with our backs against the wall, legs outstretched before us. It takes me some time to realise that pilgrims are walking around the building in devotion. We have to lift our legs out of the way as each one passes. Suddenly, somehow she is reminded that she has brought her Dad’s ashes to the summit.
Her Father’s family had been light-house keepers out in the bay below us. And then she begins telling us about the consistency of human ashes.
‘Most people think they are like sand. But they’re not like that at all. They don’t flow like sand grains. They’re clumpy. They’re grittier than sand.’
Eventually, we all get up to look around and take photographs. This is when I first put my arm around her as Luke takes the photo. We continue to walk around the summit until we’re looking out towards Clare Island.
‘Do you want company when you’re spreading his ashes?’ I ask.
‘No thanks.’ She walks to overlook the ocean.
I go to Luke, who is growing impatient to leave, and I convince him to wait for Grace to return.
Going down this shale slope is the most dangerous part of the mountain. Luke eagerly bounds down heedless of dangers and is soon far ahead of us. Our conversation spirals around us, topic upon topic, interest upon interest, hint upon hint.
I told her of the coincidence of writing a short story involving a character called Grace and this mountain. I am reminded of my intention to meet a woman whilst we were both doing something healthy. I do not tell her this. As we carefully pick our path down the slope the sun continues its decline towards the ocean.
After I tell her about my short story she tells me she has written a four hundred and eighty thousand word encyclopaedia of materials. We are in single file with me going first, turning to check on her at difficult junctions. But she is an experienced walker and hiker and well able for anything the mountain has to offer on this day.
‘You know I’ve hiked. A lot. I’ve hiked a lot. And I’ve been on trails that attract a lot of visitors. But I’ve never been on a trail as dangerous as this. If this was The States there’d be a lot of safety rails and emergency notices. This is…this is dangerous! All these people. What if there is an accident?’
‘Welcome to Ireland.’ I said, adding that the local mountain rescue is excellent and that we’re really close to hospitals. Eventually we make it down to the gentle stage and tense muscles begin to relax. We pass a set of cairns on our left and she points to them.
‘Do you know about vortexes?’ She asks.
‘You mean like waves?’
‘Yes. You see here. How that seam of stone is curving from the summit to this point?’ She points to the cairns. And the stone does seem to be sweeping a curve down the mountain to meet at the cairns.
‘They’re energy vortexes.’ She explains.
‘Let’s sit in one then.’
We go to the nearest circle of stones and I help her to sit on a large stone inside the circle and then I sit too.
‘These places are special.’
All I know is that they are rocks piled into circles on the side of a mountain by humans for some reason. I sit back to enjoy the view inland. Suddenly Grace is waving her hands in front of her face.
‘Flies! Mosquitos! Biting me!’ She stands up and I get up too. I take her hand and lead her from the stone circle back to the path.
‘Is my face bitten?’ She asks.
I gently hold her still and look at her face. I reassure her that there are no bites. That they were just over for company.
At times I can see Luke in the distance, obvious in his bright blue fleece. Sometimes he is waiting, sitting on a rock, looking back up the trail towards us and other times he is walking down. As we reach the penultimate stage we begin to catch up with him. And then he disappears.
‘Where is Luke?’ She asks.
‘He’s hiding in the moss.’ I smile.
Luke lifts his head from the spot I am looking at. Smiling, disappointed and reassured that I knew where he was, we walk together. He is tired and hungry and impatient to reach the bottom. I could almost hear him thinking; ‘… these two just won’t stop talking. What are they laughing about now? Dad’s saying ‘That’s the most Chinese of names…’ What does that even mean? Why do they find it so funny? And what is ‘Yiddish’? Doesn’t he know how hungry I am?’
‘What is Yiddish?’ Luke asks.
As she explains Grace stoops to pick up a stone.
‘I thought it was heart-shaped.’ She said as she drops it. ‘I’ve been looking for a heart-shaped stone all day and cannot find one.’
I began to look for heart-shapes and within a moment or two I picked up a stone that fit neatly into the palm of her hand. It was heart-shaped.
‘Thank you. How did you find one so quickly?’
‘I just looked.’
And then within a few moments I found another and gave this to her.
‘You found two! Thank you!’
‘It was almost as if they found me, to be fair.’
Before we reach the statue I ask her if she wants a lift to where she is staying. She calls her relations before accepting my offer of a lift. I am delighted to have more time with her.
Luke is impatient but he allows us to take photos at the statue of St Patrick. Then he runs to the car, taking his place at the front passenger door. As we near I ask him to sit in back, but she says it’s OK, which is wise because he flatly refused. We drive to Westport.
‘Hey Luke? What is your favourite food?’
No answer. I look over to see him staring off into the distance.
‘He loves pizza. Don’t you son?’
‘How about I treat you and your Dad to the best pizza in Westport?’
‘To thank you for driving me home?’
‘That sounds good. What do you think Son?’
‘No. I just want to go home to Louisburgh.’
And so we turn towards where Grace was staying and we stop at The Sheebeen, which is close to her Uncle and Aunt’s home. We try to find their house once and fail. Luke is fidgeting. We try again and fail. Luke is barely containing his impatience.
‘I can call them and they’ll pick me up from The Sheebeen.’
I stop the car and she gets out. I join her. I ask her for her number and she takes mine too. I don’t want to leave her and we kiss a goodbye. I look over to Luke and his middle finger is flat against the door window. Nice. We laugh and say goodbye.
On our way to Louisburgh I laugh and ask him to remember this day and how he got in the way.
‘I’m tired! And I’m hungry Dad! And I’ve climbed a mountain!’
‘OK Son. You did good. Des will tell us a good place to eat.’
It was the best burger Luke has ever had. I treated him to a glass of cider and we both tucked in. I will always remember his joy at being warm and well fed. It was another high point on a day overflowing with them. I tell my story to Susan and Armin – we are sharing the holiday home with them and their two sons. They both say that this is a good start. Also, they tell me that their relationship was a long-distance one for four years. Grace and I stay in contact. I suggest we meet early the next morning for a walk on the beach. She has yet to tell me how ill she is. I understand when she says she needs to spend time with her Irish family. This is, after all, her first visit to Ireland.
Then, early on Saturday morning, she calls me. I am still in bed, awakened and delighted by her call. It is a very quick call.
‘I am flying back to New York tomorrow.’
‘Yes. Would you and Luke like to come down to Dromoland today?’
‘I’ll ask him but he won’t come, it is too early. But I will, let me get ready and I’ll be with you in an hour or so.’
I quickly shower and dress. I ask Susan if she’ll keep an eye on Luke for me. Then I go into Luke and ask him if he wants to come along.
‘No, Dad.’ He yawns.
‘Are you sure?’
He opens his eyes and looks at me.
‘Will you be back in time for The Mackerel Festival?’
‘Yes Son I will.’
I don’t know how to get to Dromoland but there is a tourist office right across the road from Des’s house. I call in to find a few familiar faces and quickly get my bearings. I grab breakfast and a coffee from the store and decide to take the scenic route to Co Clare. It should be a two hour drive but it takes me three hours. I drive on a sunny Saturday morning, sipping coffee and thinking of kissing her neck.
She calls me when I reach Galway to check in. She has a driver booked to take us on a tour and I will be an hour late. Driver booked?
I park my car, walk towards reception and look up to see her striding towards me, smiling. I walk to her and we hug. I kiss her cheek. And then we get into the black Mercedes with our driver for the day, John. The plan is to drive to the Cliffs of Moher and then The Burren. From there we return to the hotel where she has a falconry lesson booked and I will return to Louisburgh.
‘I am not well. I’ve had an infection for almost a year now. I went to the jungles in Belize and came home with an intestinal parasite. I am constantly tired.’
Then she takes out her phone and starts playing me a sound file of animals calling to each other in Belize jungle.
‘Not dogs. Monkeys. Barking monkeys.’
I can hear insects buzzing, birds calling, branches rustling, sitting in the back seat of a car in Ireland listening to Central American jungle sounds recorded by this American woman I barely know.
Within the hour we arrive at the Cliffs of Moher. Once again we are lucky with the weather and the August sun is shining. As we are go by the entrance to the Cliffs she mentions that her hands are cold and I take hold of them to rub her fingers. They are cold.
‘I get cold hands and feet. I left my gloves in the car.’ We go back to get them but cannot find the car in the packed car park. As we walk I notice that we are gently bumping our bodies into each other. Again her presence surpasses the view. She stops to volunteer to take a photo for two girls. They smile their thanks at her as she hands back their camera.
‘I love doing that for people.’ She says. ‘You know I would never have spoken to you if I didn’t see you with your Son?’
Our shoulders magnetically touch as we walk side by side. I look at her as she continues.
‘I think I might like him more than I like you. He’s a character. You two are good together. What is important to you in a relationship?’
‘For me? Truth.’ I reply with no hesitation. ‘I love when a person is true to themselves and is open about their faults and their attributes. Lying is a warning sign for me.’
We are constantly looking at each other as if the other may disappear in the sea breeze.
‘What about horses? Do you like horses?’
‘Yes. But I do not ride. Well…I have been on a horse but… nothing…there is a story…Do you ride?’
‘Yes I do. I love horses and really want to be an accomplished horse woman. A cowgirl. I ride camels too.’
‘Oh Yeh! Camels are the best.’
We come to the end of the official path but the cliffs continue beyond it and so do the crowds onto an old track. Here there is no wall, there is a path and a patch of grass before the sheer drop to sea and sky. We find a place to sit down. It is a sloping patch of grass overlooking a small bay below and the ocean beyond. She sits down beside me.
‘I don’t even know what you do.’
‘I’m the same with you.’
‘You know way more about me than I do about you!’
So I tell her a little about me. As I tell her we are holding hands. And as I progress I pull her closer to me until she sits in between my legs with my arms around her, resting against me, looking out into the Atlantic. I kiss her neck. She strokes my hands.
‘Time! What time is it?’
‘We need to go if you’re to make it back for your falconry lesson.’
‘I lost two good friends this year. Cancer. I watched them die. That’s why I don’t like antiperspirants. I think they’re poisoning women. I lost a lot this year. Paola has really helped me.’
‘She’s a healer. She’s helping me with this parasite.’
‘But you’ve been sick for a year now?’
‘Please go to a doctor and go through the treatment. These parasites are treated all the time. Will you go?’
‘Yes. When I get back to New York. Don’t you believe in spiritual healing?’
‘Western medicine has a good track record in healing and I don’t see the sense in ignoring it. Especially for infections.’
‘I’ve been to Indian sweat lodges to purge myself.’
‘Have they helped?’
‘No. I feel tired after them.’
‘Grace. If you’re weak you should be nourishing to your body not purging it. If you get the right treatment you can be clear within weeks and then take your time to heal.’
‘So you don’t believe in it?’
‘No. I have to be skeptical because I can believe in magic too much. That is why I’m an atheist. It keeps me thinking.’
‘Some atheist!’ she laughs. ‘They were all really impressed about our meeting on Croagh Patrick at the wedding.’
‘You told them?’
‘Oh Yeh! One of my uncles is a priest – how Irish is that? – and he thought it was very significant. They all did.’
‘I think it was too.’
‘Here’s a photo me at the wedding yesterday.’ She hands me her phone and I see a profile shot of her in a red and black Chinese cut dress.
‘I’d like to see you wearing that.’
‘I’ll show you later.’
In the interpretive centre we browse the bookshelves and I buy her a collection of Yeat’s Poems. She loves books and reading.
When we get to the car John begins driving for The Burren, which she loves even more than the cliffs. For me the day is about her. Early evidence of the tension between her love of places and my love of people. As we walk she turns to me and we kiss. Full on the lips, first time. Exploring. This is where she first talks about exploring, that maybe we could explore the potential of us. We return to the car.
‘Are you hungry? I am the snack queen. I always carry food.’
‘What have you got?’
‘Everything! Hey have you ever tried bison?’ She hands me a small bar wrapped in yellow and red plastic. I pull apart the wrapper and take a bite.
‘Good Fuck that is disgusting!’
She is laughing.
‘Why would you do that to a person? I thought you liked me? Fucking Mank.’
It was awful. It had the texture of soggy plastic and much the same flavour. She is laughing loudly at my reaction, we both are. She makes up for it by giving me some of her almond protein ball which is delicious.
‘I’m getting tired. This happens to me. Can I rest on your lap?’
She covers her eyes with her scarf and rests her head on me. I stroke her arm, perfectly happy to be with her, silent and resting. After twenty minutes or so she moves and asks John if he can make a stop to get a coffee.
In the store I pour her coffee and she is nudging into me with her hips. I like that she is affectionate.
‘How long will you be at falconry?’
‘An hour. Why?’
‘It feels too soon for me to leave you. I can wait in my car.’
‘Ummm. Take the key to my room and rest there. No going through my stuff though!’ She laughs.
‘Really? I don’t mind snoozing in my car.’
‘Here take the key.’ She hands me the card and then finds a blue marker in her bag, she takes my wrist and writes ‘149’ on it.
‘That’s my room number. I mean it. No going through my stuff.’ She is serious now.
‘I know. Listen. I’d like to prepare for the falcons. Do you mind if I meditate?’
Grace then takes a white mala from her bag and settles herself into her mantra. I join her. Because I meditate I am reassured by other humans who do it too. I feel their practice is a sign of a good heart. I recall a conversation with a dear friend only a week before meeting Grace.
‘I want to meet a woman who does yoga. And meditates. That she practices tells me so much about her. And I don’t want to meet her in a pub. I want to meet her doing something different.’
‘You’ll probably meet her next week.’
She finishes meditating just before we drive through the gates of the castle.
‘Here’s the deal you take my bags to the room and I’ll see you there in an hour.’
‘Here’s the deal? The way you said it implies that I had some input into an agreement. But there is no such agreement. It is really an order, Grace. Let’s not dress it up with your ‘Here’s the deal’’
She is laughing. She is rushing now but turns to kiss me. The quality of each kiss improves as our ease with each other increases. In her room I brush my teeth with my finger and her toothpaste. I see the two heart-shaped rocks laid out on a bed and lie down and fall asleep. I’m tired and I’m cold. I rarely feel cold, it must be the room. I sleep anyway, lying on top of her bed. And then my phone rings and I drive to pick her up as it is a long walk through the grounds.
When we get back to the hotel car park we begin to say goodbye. We kiss long and deeply. Her lips, her neck, her breath, her tiny bites on my neck. I do not want to leave her. I feel her long legs wrap around me and desire unfurls itself around us. We go back to her room. We do not make love. We sense the nature of our meeting and the respect it demands. And respect means waiting, postponing. I want to stay with her until morning but I have to return to Luke. We hold each other and that is enough. The dress she wore to the wedding remains unseen. I leave to drive back to Luke.
As I drive evening becomes night and I call her room in the hotel so that she can keep me company. Two hours later I arrive to seek out Luke. I cannot find him but tell his friends to let him know I am back. Many of our friends are asking about my day, having heard that I drove off to meet an American woman I met on Croagh Patrick. I have missed Luke’s set. I had forgotten about it until I was driving back and had hoped I would be there in time. I get some food and a glass of wine. I listen to the music. Then I see Luke coming towards me. He pulls me aside towards the gate.
‘Come here for a second Dad.’
‘What’s up Son?’
He walks me around the side wall, out of sight of everyone and puts his arms around me.
‘I was really worried about you, Dad.’ He cries into my shoulder, big man tears that soak my through my t-shirt.
‘Ah Son. I’m sorry I was late.’ And I just hold him for those minutes as his worry and relief went through him.
‘How’d you play, Son?’
And he begins to tell me everything that he’d done that day.
The next day, before her flight for New York, Grace emailed me a list of the attributes she wanted from a relationship, written into a journal before our meeting. I too have a list which I emailed to her. Both of us forgot to add the word ‘Near’ to our lists.
She calls me from New York as she takes a bath and I am in bed. She told her Mother she had met a man in Ireland and her Mother said ‘I prayed that you would.’
‘You have a lot to live up to Nolan.’ She says. It is the first time she calls me Nolan.