Brendan McLoughlin

Ancient Bruises

Brendan McLoughlin

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The road was longer than he remembered and Colin wondered whether he’d made the right decision coming home. He was happy in Galway – moving there for university had been an easy decision and this was his first trip back. There were no streetlights; no houses; no other cars – just Colin.

The hedges on either side of the narrow road lit up one after the other as his little car sped along the worn out tarmac with its bumps and potholes. A horse appeared out of the darkness and into the hazy light ahead. It galloped towards him, flicking its head back as if to knock off some phantom rider. Whisps of steam rose from its body in the cold night and Colin slammed on the brakes. He could hear the clacking of hooves against the ground as the horse came closer. Then it turned sharply into a gap in the hedge and disappeared.

He pressed down on the clutch and geared up into third, and already he couldn’t say for sure if it had actually happened. He felt the drumming of his heartbeat throughout his body and tried to calm down. When he reached the end of the dark road and pulled out onto the well-lit coast, he felt it all begin to drift away into nothingness. He remembered where he was, nearly home after months away from his family.

The house looked bigger than he remembered it to be. He parked in the driveway behind his father’s car and stood on the lawn for a few moments. Light emanated from the hallway and he noticed a dull glow from the living room window. He opened the front door and walked back into the place he’d so willingly left behind.

His father was reading the newspaper and when he saw Colin he stood up and gripped him by the shoulder. ‘Welcome home,’ he said and sat back down. Sarah was sprawled out on the floor watching a muted television. Scenes of dolphins swimming beneath the surface of the sea flashed across the screen. She looked at him briefly before returning her gaze to the soundless documentary. He walked past her and into the kitchen.

His mother was cleaning up and when she turned around, her eyes were red and puffy. ‘Hi love,’ she said and smiled.

‘What’s wrong Mum?’ He moved towards her.

‘Nothing. Now Sarah’s not feeling very well so leave her be,’ she said and traced her finger down a long thin scratch which ran from her left temple, stopping just above the jawline.

‘Did Sarah do this?’

‘You know she can’t stop herself when she gets upset. She was banging her head against the table so hard, I couldn’t just stand back and watch. She didn’t mean to hurt me.’

He hugged her, kissed the top of her head and felt her body convulse against his as she sobbed into his chest. He was angry too, angry that he couldn’t just ignore what had happened. At least in Galway he could pretend that everything was fine. His mother stepped back and wiped her eyes. ‘It’s great to have you back home Col. We’ve missed you so much.’

After his parents went to bed, Colin sat down on the floor beside Sarah. She was still watching the television and Colin could almost hear the silence, a tinnitus buzzing in his head as the darkened walls of the living room glowed blue and green.

‘Go to bed,’ he said.

‘No.’

‘You’ve school in the morning.’

‘So?’

‘You really hurt Mum tonight.’

‘I don’t remember doing it.’

‘Jesus Sarah, would you ever just be normal?’

She looked at him and lowered her head to the ground. He wanted to take back what he had said but it was too late. He went upstairs and got into bed. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep but it was a struggle and in the end he managed about three hours of broken dreams and woke up sweaty and tangled around his duvet.

He stood up and threw on his running gear. It was early and the sky was a darkened blue, that strange time between night and day. He went downstairs and found that the television had been paused. A hammerhead shark cruised along the seabed, its stomach gliding across the white sand.

Frost covered the ground like mould on bread. He jogged down towards the harbour, passing a few early commuters who stood huddled beneath a bus shelter. There was no wind and a hazy mist hung low above the water. He picked up his speed and ran along the pier beneath the sea wall, stopping at the lighthouse to catch his breath.

Red light peeked over the horizon and the world seemed to slow down. A seagull flew overhead and he heard a gentle splash in the water. He stood beside the lighthouse and his lungs burned every time he inhaled the salty air.

He walked back along the top of the sea wall. The rusting metal pole which was supposed to hold a life-ring had been vandalised. All that remained was the frayed end of the rope that anchored the ring to the pole. He looked around but knew he would not find it. He just hoped that no one would ever need to use what was not there.

His parents were in a frenzy when he arrived home. ‘Have you seen Sarah?’ they asked. Her bed hadn’t been slept in and her school uniform was hanging in the wardrobe. It was too soon to ring the Gards and report her missing and everyone his mother called told her to calm down, that it was too early to jump to conclusions. Sarah would turn up, they said, she probably mitched off into town with friends. ‘What friends?’ Colin asked.

***

They pulled her body from the sea that very night. She’d gotten herself tangled up in the line of a lobster pot just off from the pier. She wasn’t wearing any shoes when they found her and Colin imagined her barefoot, walking along the icy path feeling cleaner and purer with each step until she reached the water’s edge and stepped out of the world. There were no stones in her pockets, or note left behind. Colin sat on the living room floor where she had sat and pressed his face against the cool varnished wood.

He wondered if he was there while she was there. Both of them just feet apart on either side of the sea wall. Him running towards the lighthouse and her stepping into the calm water. He asked himself if she was there beneath the misty shroud when he stopped to search for the missing life-ring.

There was no wake, just a small family funeral. He sat beside his parents and looked at the coffin in which his sister lay. None of it felt real. His mother wouldn’t speak after they buried Sarah. She sat in the living room and watched documentaries without the sound, rubbing her hand against her left cheek. She had been the last person Sarah touched. Colin couldn’t bring himself to tell her what he had said to Sarah the night he returned. He wanted to leave, to become no more than a floating presence. He looked at his grieving parents and thought that they didn’t have the time or energy or strength to notice him while they tried to figure out how it had all gone so terribly wrong.

Colin kissed the soft skin of his mother’s cheek and promised he’d come home soon. The lie seemed necessary to him at that moment. He went to the florist and picked out a single white lily. He put it on the passenger seat and drove to his sister’s grave.

The day was hot. He drove past rows of cherry blossom and watched the fallen leaves rise and swirl in the air whipped up by his passing car. The petals danced in the windless day before landing gracefully back down onto the ground.

He turned onto the old country road and thought of the horse. He pulled into the hard shoulder and turned on the hazard lights, got out and stepped off the road into the field. He stomped flat the dry, overgrown grass and ventured deeper into the neglected land.

Colin caught the smell before he saw the horse. Its body lay at the bottom of the hill, just where the dip levelled out before rising up again. Its eyeless head hung limp and lifeless. A mess of barbed wire from an ancient fence was wrapped around its neck. He thought about what it must have been like, the poor thing becoming tangled the more it tried to break free.

The skin had turned a watery shade of brown and the beautiful whiteness of bone had started to break through the decaying muscle. He wanted to press his hand against it, to know what it felt like to touch something dead. He thought about his sister Sarah and how she too was turning already to clay.


Brendan McLoughlin


Brendan McLoughlin is originally from Howth, Co. Dublin. He holds a BA in economics, politics and law from Dublin City University and has recently graduated from Queen's University Belfast with an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre. He has been named 'New Irish Writer' at the 43rd Hennessy Literary Awards, for his short story 'Last Breath', which was published in the Irish Independent last year.