Peter Cunningham





We go in circles by night and are consumed by fires



By ten in the morning, the fug from the river at low tide had already crept into the upstairs office in Mead Street. It is ever so in mid-August, thought Dick Coad, as he closed the window. At almost any other time of year, he could discharge his daily quota of probate, insurance claims and conveyancing of property to a background of ships loading or discharging and the clanging of wharf cranes, but in August, when the tide was low, the River Lyle’s gum-like, perspiring mud-banks released a mephitis which oozed across Long Quay into the streets and up into the centre of the town.

On the desk before him lay an opened envelope and a will.

Dick reread the will, and for the second time that morning was overwhelmed by loss. Unmarried, childless, he nonetheless had much professional experience of both marriages and children, having presided over the sundering and distribution of each to a point where, had he been less wise, he might have felt that he understood them. She had been a caution to any such presumption. Although he had known her over many years, he had never been able to grasp why she had taken certain decisions. Beauty like hers, he would have once thought, made women free.

Neither had her appearance changed until near the end, and then it had been hard to watch. He had wept that day on the train home from Dublin, four months ago, for he had known it was over. Not that a solicitor could shed tears for every client about to die — many rejoiced — but she had been different. Dick would always see her as he had that first day on the platform in Monument Station: he was expecting a Mrs Shaw from Sibrille, and this beautiful young woman appeared.

Dick cracked a match alight for a cigarette and through a tail of smoke observed the distant river beyond the chimney pots. Her instructions were curious: for herself, cremation. Dick was to scatter her ashes on the sea at the point beyond the lighthouse where the tablet was set. He knew the spot well and was part of the committee responsible for the memorial’s upkeep. Curious, but appropriate.

All her real property, including the house in Dublin, was bequeathed to Miss Bibs Toms, instructions that had caused Dick to smile four months ago, and now he smiled again.

Finally, he was to read the contents of the two taped-up parcels. Dick lifted them on to his desk. The first, in black letters done in a felt pen, said, ‘1: Hector’; the second, ‘2: Iz’. Miss Toms had told him on the telephone that the second parcel had been finished only six weeks ago.

Dick sliced open the wrapping paper with a paper knife. His instructions were clear. He was to read the contents of these parcels. Then, he was to destroy them.





I had heard so much about it that, like all things eagerly awaited, I was prepared for disappointment.

‘Are you ready?’ Ronnie Shaw asked, and I smiled.

‘This better be good,’ I said.

We breasted a hill, pulled up and got out. The truth is, I gasped. So much sea and, by comparison, so little land. As I stared, by one of those miracles of light, the sea shone as if all the silver of the world was buried just beneath its surface.

‘Well?’ Ronnie asked.

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘I knew it!’ he cried. ‘I knew you’d say that!’

He caught me up by the waist and lifted me in the air.


‘I see the sea!’ he shouted, whirling us round and around.

We were both shrieking.

‘Ronnie, you’ll drop me!’

‘I see the sea!’ he cried as I clung to him and laughed for the pure joy of it. ‘I see the sea!’

Today it would seem odd — it would seem inexplicable — for a woman of twenty-three not to have seen in advance the house and place in which she was destined to live, but in Ireland then, petrol was severely rationed, trains ran irregularly and long trips were undertaken only in emergencies.

Ronnie’s car, an MG Midget of the late 1930s, had squeaked and jarred throughout the six hours of our journey south, and as we came in along the quays of Monument, every surface gleamed and shone from recent rain, and rain squalls had buffed and energized the chessboard-like dairy country beyond Monument too so that it glistened through the full register of summer colours. As we turned off just short of the village and drove out along the causeway, the rain began again and the car’s single wiper whipped back and forth with fierce determination.

The Shaws’ sprawling home stood behind the old lighthouse in a garden of rioting hydrangeas. A wind-blasted croquet lawn with correct white hoops stood disdainfully on a small promontory. As we got out, a sudden screeching erupted above our heads as sea-gulls wheeled, light glinting on their bellies. Ronnie brought my hand to his cheek.

‘Our lighthouse,’ he said with such pride that my affection for him rose even farther. ‘Is there something funny?’

‘It’s the most wonderful lighthouse in the world!’ I laughed as we walked arm in arm out the causeway.

To our right, above high, yellow cliffs, cattle grazed. The rain rolled down in wet veils on to the gently toiling water so that between rain and sea there was no distinction. This was the sea I would relate to most during my early days in Sibrille, the way I first found it, for although it could rise into furies in which the lighthouse itself would be engulfed, or only the next morning lie still as a mirror, it spoke to me most during summer’s days of warm, misty rain.

‘Here’s something I told you about but you didn’t believe me either,’ Ronnie said and his eyes popped.

‘Could I ever have doubted you in anything?’ I asked.

‘Probably not,’ he said, his moustache twitching.

We had come to the end of the natural groyne where a rectangular tablet had been set, facing out. Four columns of names, more than a hundred in all, were recorded. They had been blown off course on their way home having fought the French, and had met their watery end here, off this jagged point. Under their names, the inscription:

Their Lives Were Cut Short By The Awful Dispensation Of An All-Wise And Inscrutable Providence

We had married in the Catholic Church in Sutton, outside Dublin, with my mother, Violet, and Ronnie’s parents, Langley and Peppy Shaw, in attendance. Then Ronnie and I had driven north, across the border into County Down, and had spent our four-day honeymoon in an enormous hotel between the mountains and the sea.

The Shaws were in all but one respect a typical Anglo-Irish family, which, in 1945, meant people of some means and land for whom achievement meant nothing unless it related to a horse. But they were Catholics. Although religion ran quiet in Ronnie, it ran true. His father, Langley, had arrived at his majority with his inheritance in tatters: unsupervised land agents had diddled the books for twenty years. Lofty and lanky, eighteenth century of manner in his courtly, unconcerned way, with his perpetual smile and his refusal ever to be ruffled, Langley had been educated in England by Benedictines and had come home, and although his bankers had murmured their reservations, in 1890 had built an oratory in Gortbeg, their then-large estate, at a cost of £2,500.

By my time, almost fifty years later, the old days were spoken of as a golden age, relived in well-practised anecdotes. A staff of eleven had been maintained inside and out, notorious among whom was the butler, Johnson, blighted by polio down one side, who had applied butter to the afternoon tea bread with his tongue.

Religion, on the face of it, was of little consequence in 1922 when a local militia came to burn Gortbeg. However, an advance warning had been sent allowing Langley to ship out furniture, paintings and chinaware, so although the burning honoured ancient rituals, the saboteurs were less than committed and only the east wing, which included a breakfast room with wallpaper by Pugin, was razed. Bureaucracy triumphed where fire had failed. More than a decade later, Gortbeg and all its lands were acquired by the new government and paid for in non-negotiable bonds. Langley went to London, disposed of a diamond the size of a wren’s egg, put £2,000 into War Loan and bought the lighthouse, the coastguard station and fifty acres in Sibrille.

Ronnie amused me, and always had, from the first day I met him. What had once come across as pompousness, even arrogance, was in fact an utter belief in himself that was endearing and frequently comical. He had gone to Belfast in 1943 to join an armoured regiment and had taken part the following year in shoring-up operations in France, where he was lucky not to have been killed by a German sniper. Shipped back to hospital in England, he had spent the remainder of the war completing a correspondence course in estate agency, which enabled him when he came home to put letters after his name: Captain Ronald Shaw, M.B.V.I.

‘Ever tell you why I decided to join up?’

We lay on the soft summer grasses of the cliff in late July. Ronnie’s elbows jutted for the sky, their leather patches glistening. Between us and the horizon I could see men in mackerel boats, working their lines.