Heat shimmers on the ocean and the ferry pulls away from the land and dolphins dive the length of Lough Ryan only to disappear when we reach the wide-open Irish Sea. Once docked, I drive to the Antrim coast, arriving before dark, dizzy from not having drunk enough water on the journey and I fall into bed in an overheated room and sleep for eleven hours until my body is desiccated. Next morning, I drink and drink and drink, then I retreat with a book until my head is steady and level enough to take an evening stroll in the neighbourhood. And I meet the child at the house on the corner who has made a break for the front door and is running around the garden stark naked waving at me. And his mother, in pursuit, scoops him up under one arm like a curly haired log and shakes her head in despair. And in the days to follow there is more nudity on the beach with bums and droopy bits aplenty and quick changes and dropped towels and sand everywhere and bottles of sun cream – “don’t forget the tops of your ears” – and heat we’ve never felt the like of and happiness and building sandcastles and kicking them apart and finding crabs and stacking stones and trailing seaweed along in the water and us smashing waves and waves smashing us.
And in the back garden, tents are pitched while a small boy balances on a surfboard on the top of the escallonia hedge riding a green leafy wave and people trip over snorkels and flippers and bodyboards and footballs and backpacks strewn on the lawn. And wetsuits are patched and glued at the table under the apple tree ready for an outing to jump into the Devil’s Washtub, but the mist is in, so a nominated sister stands on the shore with a whistle to signal when anyone swims too close to the rocks. And there is running, sliding, bombing down sand dunes and burying each other in sand and floating in the harbour and the boy with the skim board and his endless energy who runs and jumps and skims and repeats and repeats and repeats. And you’d think they’d be tired after all that, but I text the boys in the tents that night to tell them to stop talking because it’s half past midnight and they are keeping me awake through my open window, and I wonder if this is the reason teenagers sleep until the middle of the afternoon.
And a jar of tahini is borrowed from a neighbour along with a little bottle of sumac for a shared Lebanese feast in a nearby garden with a frog pond and women in fine dresses. And visits are made to other gardens for cake under a lace cloche and tea poured from a height and jars of jam, bunches of roses, and bits of news are exchanged. And fish is fried by the quayside, walks taken for ice-cream after dinner, cold potatoes eaten on the hop, mackerel smoked in the garden near to where the starlings scoff stale scones. And mystery wheaten bread is dropped off and traybakes appear and endless cups of tea are drunk and shopping lists are made and fridges replenished as we run out of milk and bread and cheese. And I pick raspberries and blackcurrants and wash raspberries and blackcurrants and freeze raspberries and blackcurrants. And the freezer is defrosted and books are dropped off and Tupperware is returned and car tyres are checked and old shoes are thrown into the bin – until the boy finds them and fishes them out of the bin.
And there’s the call of the swifts in the evening at the back of the railway line by the beach and the thrush that stops by for raisins in the morning and the robin that can’t find its way out of the conservatory and the blackbird that flies up the hall and the bees that we trap under glass to carry into the garden and let free. And early morning cycles on the promenade for those who can’t sleep and late-night cycles along the coast before bedtime and bike rides around the town as fast as we can before we’re caught up in a parade of thirty-three bands. And picks ups and drop offs and drop-ins and welcomes and wave offs and clothes left behind and constant washing and pegging out and wearing someone else’s tee-shirt and calls of, “can you get this stain out?” And reading picture books about tractors to a two-year-old and reading twenty pages a night of The Old Man and the Sea to an eleven- and fifteen-year-old and feeling very sad every time the old man says, “I wish the boy was here.” And reading Jack Kerouac and realising that people were more carefree back then – although I don’t know what time it is and I certainly don’t know what day it is. And I slot in a zoom meeting here and a zoom meeting there and get little bits of work done and think about other work that’s not getting done, and I tell myself – it will keep.
And I drink coffee by the beach with old friends and wait on the shore for six children who have drifted out of sight on two stand up paddle boards and into a cave and I re-apply sun cream and move into the shade then back into the sun then back into the shade. And watch teenagers play high jump over the clothesline and try to work if I should join them (and probably hurt myself) or stop them (so they don’t hurt themselves). There are guitars and ukuleles and Hamilton,and teenage girls sharing a penny board and dramatic falls and skinned shins and blood and plasters and shocked giggles. And BLTs and loaded chips and singing Never Going to Give You Up over and over and over until it’s almost note-perfect and making up a dance to go with it.
And finding a dry swimsuit to wear and swimming longer distances than I’ve swum in years and batting jellyfish away with each stroke and hoping they don’t sting and not being able to feel my fingers or toes once out and wondering if my fingers and toes will ever return to the colour they once were or will they remain deathly white. And there’s a party with plates of sandwiches and buckets on our head and pretending the carpet is a bouncy castle and doing keepie-uppies with a tennis ball and singing Happy Birthday to a two-year-old and blowing out candles on an ice-cream cake and filling up a bucket of water with the two-year-old again and again and again and throwing stones into it again and again and again and watching him throw his chin skyward and roar like the Laughing Policeman.
And we dig potatoes, a little disappointed by how small they are, and weed and rake and hoe the garden and fill the wheelbarrow. Then one evening I feel the heatwave break and I’m wakened by thunderous night rain and can’t get back to sleep and I listen into the World Service, a piece about women in Beirut making curtains for people in the Karantina district whose houses were blown to bits this time last year, and I am glad the rain has come as the grass has never been as yellow as this before and I ask myself if the July holidays were always as breathless as this.