Author: Niamh Madden

Grace has moved to Galway city and discovers a love that embraces everything. A place, a man and then an object. There's something precious about the shell that Grace's boyfriend Rory gives her. Something so hollow and beautiful that can fill up with water in an instant. But what happens when Grace fills the shell with secrets?

“A present,” Rory had told her back in Galway. “Remember � you always have so much more than you imagine.” The shell is white with mottled grey blobs speckled over it. It doesn’t smell of the sea anymore. The shell smells of mould and dust, of damp air and locked up secrets. There was a time when the shell was fresh, still smelling of salt and jelly and when you put your ear to it you heard waves swishing onto the shore, smoothing tiny pebbles. But now, as Grace touches the jagged edges of the shell, it grates against her fingertips, bringing back images of Rory’s face when he told her he called it quits. That’s the way he said it too. He wasn’t “breaking up”. He was giving official notice to leave the job he had grown tired of. “All relationships are hard work,” Grace says to herself now, observing the shell’s crinkled patterns like waves on a stone-coloured shore. As she sits in her parent’s house, the smell of raw meat floats up the stairs to her room. Grace’s parents had always laughed at her reasons for becoming a vegetarian. In school when she was twelve, her teacher told the class a story about a seagull that got caught in a fisherman’s hook. The story described torrents of blood seeping out of the gull’s neck into the water. Grace could not get that image of wispy blood on the blue sea out of her mind. That was the last day she ate poultry.
Through the damp lace curtains that sweep across Grace’s windows, she sees condensation on the glass. The heating in the house is unbearable. Her mother and father usually turn it on much more than necessary and then complain, ripping off their jumpers indoors in winter. Grace’s view of the estate through the lace is the same as the view from her parents” bedroom window � outside uniform terraced houses sit fading, in desperate need of paint, with driveways too short to drive into, bins always left out. But Grace can see more than her parents. She sees the train that runs right behind the thick estate walls, feels its buzz and hum as it whizzes by, a rocket ship passing through earth’s debris and shooting up to the stars. This was the train she took to Galway to escape. Grace got a data input job in the city and made enough money for rent, food and a few pints. Her flatmate Sarah was a native of Galway and showed Grace the best places to go out for drinks. The pubs were exciting, and her neighbourhood was filled with shops and clubs. The buzz was loud, the scene full of green lights and colour, exactly the place she imagined the train would take her. She was in love with the place. And only a month later she fell in love again. They met at a smoky singer-songwriter night. He had a pointed beard and fuzzy hair and glasses. He sang onstage, a song called “Shell” about a little girl who lived by the ocean. Throw the shell into the shore Be free again once more. Your daddy will come home in a ship sailing on the foam. Grace laughed at the lyrics. Only when he sat down beside Grace did she start to have interest. Nobody had ever made Grace laugh the way Rory did. They began seeing each other every night, and he never let her down once. But soon enough she let herself down. Happiness can only last so long, she thought. The more she fell for him, the less confident she became. How could someone like Rory love her? After four months of joy, he saw her crying for the first time. “That time again?” he’d asked, looking at her calendar jokingly and rubbing her tummy. No, it wouldn’t be that time at all for far too long. The more she worried about her period, the more she felt it would not come. Rory and Grace had been sleeping together for two months. Could she be�? But they had been so careful. Another two weeks down the line, she knew. She could not explain how, but she knew. When she looked at her pert breasts in the mirror, they seemed to swell before her eyes and her nipples turned darker. Sarah told her stress was making it worse, that her period would never come if she kept worrying. And still, Grace never told Rory. Never told him a thing. She lied to Sarah, said that yes, Rory would support her and be there for her. Every time Grace looked at Rory she felt that same guilt of lying. The following week, Rory and Grace went to the singer-songwriter night for pints, but she ordered coke. She wanted him to guess for himself. That night Grace lay in her small room and the single bed cramped her in close to the wall. He hadn’t noticed her not drinking. The 8.59pm train zooms past Grace’s lace curtain. The heat in her room intensifies and the wallpaper looks too pink, too colourful, too mocking. She had kept her old toys, and sometimes still makes walls out of lego. Her train set was long broken. But her shell is the only thing today that makes her smile.The toys just make her face sweat. Grace sits back into her bean bag and feels it squash under her. She holds the shell sideways. It looks like the inside of an ear. A soft ear that never once failed to listen. Maybe one that listened for too long and needed a break. Called it quits. “Your tears,” Rory said once, while she sniffled and tasted salt. “They flow too easily.” Grace knows her tears are a hidden clause in the relationship contract. After twenty years of tears she had gotten used to the feeling � the emptying of herself, cleaning out of her pores, and then the guilt. The guilt of not being good enough, happy enough, wise enough to know what to do with these feelings. And after all the melodrama and salt came the vacancy. The stare that she saw in the mirror belonged to a puppet, her eyes were marbles reflecting the dreams that would never be. She wanted to reach inside those eyes and pull out whatever it was that made her weak, made tears seep to her knees each day. And as she eases back on the beanbag, rubbing her stomach as though full, she realises she is crying again. Grace’s tears continued after her period never came. Each day they got worse and Rory saw them whenever he called over to her flat after work. She was the prettiest thing he had ever set eyes upon. Her long hair smooth like velvet and her eyes looked lazily beautiful, even when wet. Two weeks later he realised she was helpless. She never told him exactly what was bothering her. When she tripped up, she cried. When the milk ran out, she cried. When she burnt toast, she cried. Some broken records are too old to fix, Rory thought to himself one day. But that day something happened to change his mind. They were down at the beach. Her hair blew into her face and looked like spider’s legs. They began to talk and felt the sand sink a little under the weight of their bodies.
“I can’t” he said. “I can’t do this anymore.” He looked up at the clouds. They could burst at any moment on this blustery day. Grace clawed back the hair from her face and twirled one strand over and over between bitten fingertips.
“I’m a burden on you,” she said. “A mistake.” He watched her chew her gums. Grace looked at him with wide blue eyes. They spoke to him now more than any words could. This is me. I know you love me but I don’t love me and accepting that is the hardest thing you’ll have to do. Rory looked at his hands on the sand. Beside his left one lay a shell. It looked so perfectly white under the little sand crystals that sheltered its crevices. He picked it up and listened and he heard the tiny lapping of waves tickle his ear. They were soft and reminded him of the way her hair tickled his ear sometimes when they made love. “Here,” he said. “A present. Remember � you always have so much more than you imagine.” She took the shell into her hand and drops of rain began to fall. The shell fit neatly in her palm and the way the patterns whirled around made her dizzy. One bald patch on the shell, she noticed, looked chipped away and was shaped like a kangaroo with a baby in the pouch. She blew into the hollow part of the shell and put her arms around Rory’s back. Sometimes thinking with each other was better than talking. They seemed to learn more about each other that way. And now he and she and the shell were at peace together. Rory looked over at Grace and saw her staring at seagulls swooping across the sky. The daylight was fading. They walked home hand in hand, along the sand, across the street, down the gentle hill. Neither of them wanted an umbrella. Rory lived right across the road from her. At his door, they kissed each other hungrily.
“Come in,” he said. They had not made love in a week. “I� can’t,” she said. “Why not?”
“I’ve got a�” “Come on. It’s been two weeks!”
“One.” “Nearly two. Grace, what’s wrong? What did I do?” She nearly told him. Right there and then. Would have been so simple, just to come out, say it, feel it, hear him tell her it was alright and that they would have it together.
“Not feelin the best now Rory, I’ll call ya later.” But she never called. And she never went back to Rory’s again. Instead, she slowly packed her things and walked to the train station in the rain. And now when Grace thinks back to that beautiful day on the beach and rubs the shell she tries to remember where it all went wrong. When did loving become a job? When did caring turn into employment? And when did he call it quits? Two days before we went to the beach. That was it. He didn’t tell me he wanted to break up. But I knew. She had stretched out on two pillows, side-ways, on her bed. Rory came in to hear her singing through tears. Seeing her blotchy face he turned off the CD player. She had never seen him angry at her like this before. “Stop it,” he said and shook her. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” She couldn’t answer. “You’ve got no reason to� no, you’ve got no right to.” His voice gathered momentum and volume. “I’ve got problems too! We all do! But we get on with things. We love, sleep, shit and piss like everyone else!” Grace flopped upwards like a rag doll picked up by invisible strings. Her eyes were vacant and plastic.
“I see,” she said. It was the voice of a hollowed-out thing, and she smiled a Halloween pumpkin smile, false with a flame to it. “I see,” she repeated. That was the day. From there the relationship had turned flat. On her way to the train station to leave Galway, she got a phone call from Rory. He didn’t wait for her to say hello. “Grace? I quit, ok? I hate seeing you sad. What can we�?” Grace hung up the phone. I quit. I quit from you, from loving you. How could I ever have loved you? All a mistake. A burden that will bring another burden into the world with it. And now on the beanbag, those words echo around the walls that trap her. A mistake. A mistake. How could she create another mistake, bring another burden into this world? Make another mess of a human being? There was no way she was telling Rory. There was no way she was telling anyone.
Yesterday Rory scurried past the slick buildings made of glass and bored office assistants, down to the strand. Although he loved the beach, the last time he was there had been with Grace, a little over nine months ago. Since working in his new office job day in, day out, day in, day out, he had barely exercised. The lack of exercise brought back a painful old knee injury. Rory was determined to get exercise today, to stretch his painful knee and revisit the beach. Swifty, swifty, swiftly run� Rory told his brain to tell his legs. Scraping his teeth with his tongue, he felt the cuts one gets from two hours of licking brown envelopes for executives. Swifty, swifty, swiftly run� it became a kind of song, a mantra for good health, and Rory let it guide him past the glass of offices. Swifty, swifty, swiftly run� Passing the vegetable shop, swooping onward and smelling fresh fish and dead animal, hearing his heart beat and seeing everyone move a bit for him on the street, it kept Rory in rhythm and off his feet. Rory felt lighter, his head rushed with the wind and he didn’t care when it began to rain. Faces rushed past to his delight, and then he saw the mist like desiccated coconut sprinkling down onto the beach, about half a kilometre away. There were less people all of a sudden and more cars and a steep hill that gave him shallow breathing. And he ran and ran and felt a pull in his thighs and imagined the cartilage floating around in his kneecap so he stopped for a breath. That turned into two breaths. Three. Four. Five. Not dead yet. Running for five minutes and already he was foaming sweat and nausea and rasping like the fat men that occupy leather chairs on the top floor. So Rory walked the rest of the way to the ocean. With all that mist coming down, it was like someone sending him a message in rain to decipher. Each drop blended into the next drop seamlessly now as he walked and began to see shapes through blurred glasses. Droplets blotted each lens and it was like looking through an amateur video camera that gets doused in drips at a swimming contest. Just there, nearly at that beach, the one that held secrets and surprises and darkness. His feet walked quicker and came across eight steps and waltzed down them and bypassed the rocky slabs that filled up with little puddles. At the bottom of the steps, he sucked in his tongue and breathed sharply through each nostril � air, sand, sea, foam all swirled in, smelling much better than the stale scent of office women who only ran on treadmills. Kicking off his shoes, he climbed out of his socks and ran leaving a trail of lonely footprints on the damp sand. The ocean stretched across the beach like arms, and beckoned Rory to join it. Hoisting up carefully ironed slacks, he crossed the shingles and pebbles and thicker stones and was in the ocean up to his ankles with rain and water and wind. On the beach various plastic bits were scattered about � empty bottles, chip cartons, a plastic fork. Funny how we always leave evidence everywhere we go, he thought, looking at his footprints sludged into the sand. He was not sure when it was he heard the cry, but at first it sounded like seagulls. Rory looked into the sky and saw gulls chasing each other, but the cries came from somewhere else. Looking to and fro, he noticed the sound got louder to the left so ran that way, and in the mist saw a paper bag that was nearly slush. Under the bag, a baby’s foot poked through. A naked baby, with a pudgy face and fat hands lay there on the sand in the rain. Rory rubbed his eyes and as he approached the screams quietened a little. The baby’s eyes were scrunched up tightly, and soft tears or maybe rain, stained its red cheeks. Rory immediately scooped up the baby with both hands and clutched it close, supporting its head and back. He looked around, expecting someone to claim it almost, but nobody was there. And that second, the baby opened its eyes. Rory nearly dropped her. He was looking into Grace’s wide blue eyes. Rory bellowed out a cry. Suddenly Grace’s erratic behaviour had made sense. He shook the baby as he howled like a wolf. How could she do this? How could she not tell him? And leave the baby here to die? Three trucks full of lambs raced past the strand and seemed to rock the whole beach with noise. Rory’s cries were drowned out by bleating and revving. The baby was no longer crying. When Rory looked down at the baby, her eyes were wide open, refusing to blink. He sat down with her and found a small shell for her to play with. But when he tried to place the shell in her hands, he realised they were stiff and could not hold anything. He collapsed onto the sand and he sunk down under the weight of himself and the baby. Looking at his lost footprints on the sand, Rory began to breathe heavily in and out and he never saw the seagulls that began to crowd around him. The rain stopped. The baby’s breathing stopped. Rory stared into his baby’s vacant eyes. They were tearless and peaceful.