Most of my fiction has been, at least to date, working out a particular idea to its conclusion. At times this has given it a rather abstract quality. This story has its (would be) High Concept about religion and persecution and so forth (the tenor of which owes much to Graham Greene’s The Last Word which I read in school and had largely forgotten at this point) , but is also set in a very specific place. I will leave it to the reader to judge how successful it is in evoking that place.
Despite the evening sun, the Atlantic raged, sending hissing waves against the pebble beach. Hugh drove along the road, the bulk of Bloody Foreland on his left, the patchwork of stone walls leading down to the relentless ocean on his right. Next stop Newfoundlandhe thought, as he always thought driving along this road. No police cars had been seen on the inland journey from Letterkenny, over the mountains. One passed on this high road, siren blaring, and Hugh wondered if they had arrested someone, and who would it be? An old woman, or old man, stubbornly clinging to the certainties of the past? A rebellious teenager, seeing a rule and breaking it, not a breed Gweedore had exactly lacked over the years? Or could it be someone like him, someone who should know better, a man with responsibilities and a stake in society, a man suited to the new order, a man who had no religious faith to speak of in any case, yet a man who – despite it all – was determined, impelled by an unknown God knew what, to break this law and wade in the water.
The road took its familiar curve to the left, and then the right turn towards Gweedore. The evening was beginning to dwindle. He went through his formula again. There is nothing in the tradition about it being morning or evening, or even night, he said to himself. Perhaps once it was seen as holier to do it first thing, but that was then, and this is now. This way the faith would be kept, without fuss or rancour. And without Hugh O’Donnell having to make a stand, to lose his precious job as a solicitor, to put Darina and the kids through the humiliation. Bits of half remembered verses about standing up for the faith clearly and proudly and without equivocation came to mind. It was cowardly, cowardly. Better to drive in the middle of the day to the strand, salute the massed police waiting, and stride into the sea water. Would they arrest you out in the surf, or would they wait til you came back? Given how old most of the lawbreakers were, it wouldn’t take long to wait.
It was better this way. Better because the tradition would continue, and if the police announced that for the fourth year straight the Fifteenth of August had come and gone without a single person dipping their feet in the sea, Hugh would know that it wasn’t true. Be caught and he would become a laughing stock. They were good at mockery, and anything with even a touch of religion was prime fodder. The wet feet brigade were a crowd of old women and pious fools, whose superstition did not even have anything to do with Christianity but with some even older nonsense, who should be mocked and derided at every turn.
He would always feel, he supposed, a bit of a trimmer and compromiser. And yet here he was, keeping the faith! He should feel proud. He had done it every year for five years. He tried to remember granny again. She took him hand in hand to the strand at Magheragallon, it must have only been once as she was dead when he was four, and they walked into the sea. Only for a second. His mother, whenever she remembered, also did it, until it became firstly a subject of organised mockery, with crowds of them milling around the beaches, hurling abuse at the wet feet brigade as they came to be known. Then it became a crime, as it was interpreted by the police as falling within the Superstious Practice Act, along with all organised religious activity. There had been some years of spontaneous activity at various sites – old wells and mass rocks – which the authorities had gradually clamped down on.
Hugh came to Derrybeg, and turned down towards Magheragallon. At the top of the hill there was an army checkpoint. He slowed and rolled down the window.
“Good evening, Sir.” A strong Dublin accent, which in these days could mean anywhere in counties surrounding the capital.
“Hello,” he replied, searching for what rank the officer might be.
“Can I see your driving licence?”
Of course. He is so young, he thought. Barely 18, maybe younger. These guys were not to blame, really. They had a little choice, the army or a needle. He tried to think when he last was in Dublin, and of the miles and miles of broken down apartments, each beyond the control of the authorities or anyone else, even gangs. Monuments to the failures of a particular worldview, the state had turned its anger and disappointment and fear outwards, onto religion. These children were taught to blame the old faiths for all the ills that surrounded them. Even now, occasionally spontaneous gangs of youths would roam the countryside in the midlands, looking for elderly believers whom they could assault with impunity.
This chap was polite.
“What is your business, sir?”
“I am an architect, from Letterkenny. I have a house down here which I need to check on.”
“Where is it?”
“Just beyond the GAA club.”
The solider walked over to a small temporary shed. He said something to someone inside. After a brief conversation he returned to Hugh’s car and handed back the licence, nodding.
“Go ahead. Just so you know, today is apparently some old day of superstition. There was a wee bit of trouble earlier, but it’s all over.”
A wee bit of trouble. Presumably he was stationed in the county and the accent was gradually getting diluted. Hugh smiled as he drove down.
The road rose, and turned, passing largely deserted houses and the old hotel. The road levelled out, passing the marsh on the right and dunes – where Hugh had learned to drive – on the left. He always remembered – well, so many things – but especially the first time he drove over ten miles per hour, and the sheer sensation of speed. How modest people’s ambitions were then. As he came to the GAA club, and indicated right, even though no one was driving after him, he saw the helicopter.
A helicopter! It circled overhead, its intent palpable to Hugh. His reveries came to a juddering, sudden halt. A helicopter! He had to keep driving, as if nothing had happened.
It was entirely true that he had a house near the club, indeed right by the club. It was a little walk from the sea, and a good bit from the main strand of Magheragallon. The main strand had been where the real battles had occurred. He remembered what no one ever talked about now, the machine gunning of pilgrims six years before. He saw again the strand and the surf turning red. No memorial marked the dead, and the graveyard at Magheragallon had been relocated further inland, in towards the mountains. He saw it again because his mother had, after acting on a whim presumably, walked out into the sea and been among the nineteen killed. His mother, who seconds earlier had been part of the mainly mocking crowd of onlookers, who had always spoken of the wet feeties with disdain. Hugh had stayed rooted, as she walked out, without a word to him, without a word to anyone.
It was after half nine when he had parked, taken some deep breaths, and was ready. He had taken off his socks and put on slip on shoes. He took out the golf club and balls. That was the cover story – a few practice shots on the greens, while no one was playing the course. He looked out. No sign of the helicopter. He supposed that it was sweeping across to the Rosses, the many headlands and inlets that were so far by road, so close as the copter flies. He would have time.
He walked out slowly, club in one hand a ball in another. Two more golf balls were in his pockets.
He suddenly raced across the road and into the rocks. He slipped off his shoes on a larger stone, and from there hopped over some rough gravel into the sea. He turned around. He had always felt that wetting one’s feet required a few waves to crash over them. He felt excited and tense, naked and exposed, waiting for a headlamp or the sound of rotor blades. Nothing! He slipped out hopped onto the stone, and slipped on his shoes. He walked back to the road.
The young soldier who had met him at the checkpoint was there, AK-47 in his hands. Every muscle was strained. He seemed frozen in a particular pose of readiness to shoot, like an abstract personification of the armed man.
Hugh began “I just lost a ball, you see, playing a few practice shots and I sliced on right into the rocks here.”
“No you weren’t.”
“Here’s the ball, ”
Hugh fell silent.
“No one has done it in five years.”
“Don’t be an eejit. Don’t bother your head trying to cod me.”
“I wasn’t trying to…”
“No one has done it in five years. Did you do it?”
Hugh knew that if the soldier shot him, he would face no charges. Indeed, he could have shot him on sight long before this moment.
“Tell me, did you do it?”
The solider still had every muscle strained, still seemed like a great abstraction.
After about ten seconds, though for Hugh much longer, the soldier relaxed and lowered the gun.
“You were playing golf, were you? Never played myself. Don’t see the appeal. Don’t know what slicing is, to be honest. But I’m sure you did it. Anyway, I’d get back into your house, if I were you. The rest of my patrol is coming back this way in a minutes. We’re calling it a day when it gets dark. You have to be careful with the wet feet brigade about.”