Cathy Donelan

A Calm Skin Over the Water

Cathy Donelan

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One thousand and two, one thousand and three. The autumn scales of the goldfish catch flickers of light, from the overhead fluorescent lighting. I can’t help but count the ripples of that little fish on the wall. I’ve named him, thought it only right to give the poor bastard a name, having to look at all these faces, coming and going all day. Seems kind.

        He looks more like a he but I won’t tell Meabh that when she comes out. She had said ‘Ah, isn’t she gorgeous, wouldn’t it be amazing to have a memory that lasts…like…three-seconds long,’ she had muttered under her breath, during the first hour of sitting here in silence. I could feel the envy towards the poor fish, sure I felt it too. It was the longest sentence she’d made all day so I’ll let her have that one, but he’s a he alright. Ivor, after an old boss of mine. He was a Swedish man, in Ireland on the fisheries, took me on one summer, years back. Something about the goldfish’s slight movements remind me of him; that or this day is really starting to fuck with my head.

        Ivor always had a rhythm to the way he worked, made it look so easy. One evening, after a feed and a few cans, we were on the banks of the Shannon, looking for pike. I remember wading through the Baltic, thigh-high water in body-suit wellies, wanting nothin’ but my bed and a hot water bottle. I had plonked around, tripping up on growth under the water, but Ivor had the touch. Could creep out to the centre of the river and grab a fish with his bare hands, hardly disturbing the calm skin over the water.  

        Another couple walk through the heavy swing door of the waiting room. This time two women, the young one looks as pale as Meabh had earlier, same pained expression on her face. The girl can’t be more than eighteen. I’m guessing that’s her mother, or an aunt, seems unlikely you’d be willing to bring your mother to a place like this. The older one is carrying one of those Orla Kiely bags with the lumpy prints on it. She’s a dead giveaway for a mid-forties Irish woman. Her accent sounds too posh for out the country, maybe Wicklow or South Dublin. When she checks in the receptionist gives her a knowing nod at the accent, I’ve been watching her with the other patients and her thick-clipped, Manchester inflection softens a bit for the Irish ones, the twisted vowels suddenly lengthen a bit.

        The lad in the blazer arrives back into the room and sits beside me. I can feel the cold off him.

        ‘You still waiting?’ He whispers to me, taking in the new faces sitting on the uncomfortable orange seats. I’ve decided he’s from London, has that air about him. His girlfriend dressed nearly the same as him, a blazer and a scarf. They had looked too comfortable in this room when they walked in, compared to the rest of us sitting here awkwardly avoiding eye-contact, while they had relaxed in the corner. Holding hands and snuggling up to one another.  

        ‘Yeah, unfortunately,’ I reply.

        ‘Don’t usually take this long. If I thought you’d still be here, would’ve brought you back a cup.’ He gestures to the long, brown McCafe cup in his hand.

        The receptionist marches around the desk, capturing the eyes of everyone in the still room. She was as sick of the Corrie omnibus as I was, by the look of it. Acrylic nails scrap the black plastic buttons on the remote only to receive static lines on the screen in the corner. Her breathe hardening with the raps. I hop up and help her, finding a clear image of Sky News. ‘That’ll do,’ she says and crosses back to her boundary-line, behind the desk.

        At least there’s something new to stare at. A news flash spreads on the screen and an image of a press conference with a ghastly-faced mother dabbing a tissue under her eyes, stares out at us.

        ‘I seen that earlier, shocking. Is that place close to where you’re from?’ Blazer man asks quietly.

        ‘It is. Was all over town before we left. They haven’t a clue where the child is.’

         ‘What’s wrong with people these days,’ he says with another long sip of his cup, the milky-sweet smell lingers on his breath.

        ‘I know. She’s been gone a week now, because she got taken at Dublin airport they’re afraid he could have got her out of the country already.’

        The yellow runner at the bottom of the screen reads; CHILD MISSING IN IRELAND.

        Her picture pops up next as the presenter speaks about her last known whereabouts. Large cloudy blue eyes stare out, just like the mother’s. The picture must be from a birthday, a badge with a huge five is clipped onto her jumper. Poor parents must be heart-broken.

        The silver door, opposite to the entrance swings open slowly. All eyes watch Meabh walk out, elbowing the door open, styrofoam cup in one hand and two chocolate Digestive biscuits in the other. She glances to the seat she left me in three hours ago with scarlet-rimmed eyes. I jump up, with a nod goodbye to blazer man, ‘good luck.’

        The receptionist leaves a handful of leaflets for Meabh on the counter but she just heads straight for the exit so I grab them for her with a quick ‘thanks’ to the woman.

        As soon as we’re on the street, Meabh throws the cup and biscuits in the nearest bin. ‘That tea is rank,’ she says in disgust, ‘I can’t stomach that shit right now.’

        I pull her close for a hug, the smell of sterile, hospital hallway is in her hair, masking the peachy perfume she always wears. She cringes and grabs her stomach. ‘Holy fuck. That one was bad. Can we just get away from this place, please?’

        I flag down a taxi for us and give the address of the hotel.


        She’s finally asleep, curled up. I’ve given up on it myself, too unsettling here, the city noise is too much and there’s a hollow in me, I can’t stop the feeling of uselessness. I found a nice perch, with a view of her and the night from the window ledge, arse half out, blowing smoke down to the young ones on the street. Constant siren’s pierce through the open window, between that and the rhythmic throbbing of heavy feet and jungle anthems; I don’t know how anyone could sleep in this place. But Meabh’s dosed up, had to hunt for some Nurofen a few hours ago, all they gave her were some blue-packet Panadol. Wouldn’t numb a toothache, never mind her insides churning to bits all evenin’.

        At least I stocked up on smokes and some Lucozade when I was out. It’s the only thing that will make this night more bearable. When Meabh seen the gold packet of Benson I could see her about to go mad. She has this tilt of the head she does before she goes off on one. I’ve seen it too often. Been off them months, not by choice. But I think she’s too knackered from the cramps to even attempt a meltdown over the fags. She’ll let me away with it tonight.

        We haven’t left the hotel room really, I ran to the bar earlier and brought up food. She barely touched hers so I put the plates back on the tray and tucked them under the bed in solidarity. Had to wait for her to have a bath before I could wolf down the cold bits of lasagne left on my plate.

        The small tele in the room only has two channels and both are replaying shopping ads on them at this hour. Turning it down low I can block out the cheap-lino voices of the sellers and put in my own version for amusement; ‘here we have a yellow stick with a fuckin’ poodle-lookin’-yoke for fluffin’ the hair, ladies.’ And the other one goes; ‘Ah here, I’ll kneel on the floor and take a look up your skirt, love,’ with the porcelain smile spread on his face. 

        Jesus, that reminds me off the dogs. I keep thinking about tomorrow, when we can finally get home to our own quiet house, out the sticks and the only thing that’ll wake me up is a stray cat tormenting the dogs. Then everything can go back to normal.

        No more morning sickness and horrible panic, of what the fuck we’re going to do. We just spent any savings left after the wedding on the house, it’s still only half-finished. We’re living in the front of it while I do the building myself in between whatever work I can get plumbing.

        It wouldn’t have worked; we couldn’t afford it. The dogs are already being fed that awful stuff from Aldi, it wouldn’t be right to bring a child into that, not right now. But, it was her decision completely. I would have worked day and night if I had to support them. But. She knew she wanted better for it. Not the life we could give it. It just wouldn’t have been right. 


Cathy Donelan


Cathy Donelan is a writer from the West of Ireland, she is currently studying for her degree in Arts with Creative Writing at NUI Galway. Her fiction has appeared in ROPES. Her poetry has appeared in the Galway Review and in ANU. She has won the December 2015 Poetry Pulse Prize and been commended for her October entry. She has also been highly commended in the 2016 Fool For Poetry International Chapbook Competition.