This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

December 01, 2010

When the Waves Call.

This was the last short story I wrote, a little over a year ago. It was inspired by three tracks from Maire Breatnach’s album Angels’ Candles which I used to have on tape. The tape broke shortly after I finished the story. Maybe I wasn’t meant to keep it.

It was published in an anthology called Sea Gifts by Drollerie Press in February this year.

Approximate reading time: 20-25 minutes.

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The coast of Connemara was being battered mercilessly that night as an Atlantic storm of unusual savagery mounted an assault on the whole western seaboard of Ireland. Giant deep ocean breakers thundered angrily against the ancient cliffs, their primal power finally relenting with a cacophonous and continual roar of defiance. It was only September, but the autumn gales had arrived early. The harvest moon that should have been full and bright was lost behind a swift procession of dark, unbroken cloud.

The village pub, nestled safely on a lane thirty feet above the foreshore of a small bay, was a welcome haven on such a woeful night. It was rough and simple, and wasn’t really a pub at all - at least not as the English understand the term. It was just a bar. One room, one wooden counter, one glowing fire in the middle of one wall, one heart that beat silent and in harmony between the twenty or so people sitting on the simple wooden chairs.

One Englishman - a late tourist - sat alone, sipping his double Jameson. The roaring wind and growling breakers occasionally intruded their relentless presence upon the peace within, but his attention was held by the band that was giving an impromptu concert for the village folk. It consisted of a fiddler, a guitarist, an accordion player and a fat little man with sharp features and backswept hair. He looked like an inflated leprechaun and played the bodhran with great expression and gusto when the occasion demanded it.

Jig, reel, hornpipe and highland slipped easily from their fingers, and the sparse audience, which spanned the age range from eight to eighty, clapped and called enthusiastically. Several of the young men took the floor in turn to present their best effort at a dance appropriate to the livelier renditions. The womenfolk looked on and applauded. Liam Jackson, for that was the Englishman’s name, applauded too.

The intervals between the tunes were filled with activity as drinking vessels were refreshed and words of appreciation exchanged. Everyone offered some words of greeting to Liam. He had felt a sense of unease upon first entering the place, since the history of relations between their two countries had been difficult and he’d wondered whether he might meet some hostility. But no; the instinct to welcome the stranger was, it appeared, natural to these people. It shone easily out of every pair of Gaelic eyes and Liam felt at home.

He refreshed his own drink several times during the evening, talking easily with Sean, the licensee. It felt as though they had known each other for ever. It felt as though he had known everybody in the bar for ever. At other intervals he sat and contemplated the surroundings.

Half a dozen meagre lamps were spaced at intervals around the distempered, shadow-painted walls. The floor was laid with rough stone tiles, covered here and there by threadbare rugs. The air was hazy and smelt of whiskey, burning peat and tobacco smoke. He was sitting close to the fire and heard it crackle now and then. At other times it hissed gently. A young couple held hands; a mother ruffled the hair of her daughter who was leaning across the table and giggling at some paltry joke; two old men were buried in reminiscence and lost to the outside world. The sense of peace and togetherness was complete. Twenty people sharing one consciousness, it seemed.

The band took a break at nine thirty and occupied four of the bar stools until the old clock in the corner struck ten, and then they resumed their places, gathering their instruments for a final set. That was the moment at which life changed for Liam Jackson.

The outer door burst open with a violence that shattered the peace within. It seemed to halt the flow of time itself. A startling rush of noise and wind filled the room, flinging the curtains sideways. The fire moaned for a second as if in protest. A woman walked through the opening and forced the door shut again.

No one spoke, but all eyes were turned towards the newcomer. Liam looked at her too, and then he looked at the people in the bar - some standing, some sitting, all still as statues and rapt with concentration at the vision which stood looking back at them.

She was young, maybe twenty or so, and very pretty. Her simple cotton dress was soaked and clung in places to her slim figure. Dark braided hair hung over her shoulders and dripped water, but it was her eyes that drew Liam into another world. They were large and luminous, and even at that distance he could see that they were chestnut. They looked briefly at every man, woman and child in the room, but they rested on Liam for longer than most. The moment of silent spectacle seemed to last an age, and then it snapped in an instant as the people returned to their drinking and their conversation. The band arranged their instruments and began a sprightly reel. The young woman walked over to the fire. She was barefoot.

Being only a couple of yards away, Liam could smell the dampness rising from her drying dress. She faced the fire for a while and then turned around. The smell became stronger again and there was a hint of salt about it, but that wasn’t surprising since the wild air outside was full of spray as well as rain. He avoided looking at her directly; it seemed impolite. But he could see out of the corner of his eye that she appeared to have no such qualms. She was regarding him steadily and he felt a thrill of nervousness, or was it expectation?

He sipped his drink and tapped the table in time with the music. He was pretending to be unconcerned, but in truth he was consumed with a longing to move up close and talk to the mysterious young woman. He thought he sensed a power cross the space between them; it seemed to be pulling him towards her. He glanced at her once and smiled nervously while she stared back at him, and then she moved away and walked over to the band when the music stopped. He sighed, but what that meant he didn’t know. Was it a sigh of relief or disappointment?

She approached the fiddler, leaned forward and spoke a few quiet words to him. He stood up, handed her the fiddle and bow, and retired to the bar stool which he had recently vacated. The young woman spoke a few more words to the band. All three heads nodded.

The room was silent with anticipation as the accordion player set up a quiet drone, and then the woman began to play. A slow air filled the room, a tune of such intensely melancholic beauty that Liam held his breath at times. It seemed the whole of creation was holding its breath. The woman’s arm and fingers moved easily and surely as the strings sang out with the clarity of fine crystal. The guitarist joined in occasionally with some well placed, expressive cadences. Only the percussionist remained silent, his eyes closed in apparent reverie. The melody rose and fell in pitch and intensity, sometimes crying passionately and sometimes moaning mournfully. A final long note, and it was finished. Silence.

The woman handed the instrument back to its owner and nodded in acknowledgment. The audience remained quiet, but they watched her as she walked to Liam’s table. The band began a merry hornpipe.

“Can I sit with you?” she asked.

Liam stood up, enthralled but confused by the unfamiliar sensations that were clutching at his very core.

“Of course.”

“Old fashioned courtesy. I like that,” she said as she took the seat opposite.

Her voice was low in pitch and carried the gentle brogue of the western Irish. The jet black braids that fell around her face still gleamed with a hint of wetness.

“You’re English, aren’t you?” she continued.

“Does it show?”

“Yes. You have English eyes. They’re colder than Irish ones.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Not necessarily. Sometimes they’re just defending a warm heart. I knew an Englishman once. He had a warm heart.”

Once? It seemed a strange word to come from one so young.

“What happened to him?” asked Liam.

“He went home. It’s what the English do.”

“Isn’t that what everybody does?”

She offered no reply. Instead, her big brown eyes regarded him with a calm intensity. They held him in a firm grip and refused to let him go. There was a quality of deep knowing about them, a knowing that went beyond the limitations of mere knowledge, and it seemed they spoke a language too subtle for the tongue and infinitely more expressive. Liam began to feel light headed.

“What’s your name?” she asked eventually.

“Liam.”

“An Irish name.”

“I had an Irish grandfather.”

She inclined her head slightly. Liam was drawn to the beauty of every physical feature of her form, but it was her eyes that spoke to him again. Waves of some deep understanding began to wash around his consciousness. It was hopelessly vague - fleeting impressions of the sea and its primeval call, of a solitary rock in the middle of a wide ocean, of timelessness, and of a deep, impassioned longing. He felt smothered and in need of air. He pulled himself away from her grip and asked a simple question.

“Do you live near here?”

“Yes.”

“In the village?”

“No.”

“You can’t have come far in this weather and dressed like that.”

“I have no fear of water, especially cold water.”

“But you’re wearing no shoes.”

“No.”

She seemed disinclined to expand on her brief answers. Liam tried another one.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I fish.”

“What, commercially?”

“I get by.”

Liam felt his heart pounding. As the woman’s enigmatic air deepened, her attraction continued to increase. It felt palpable. He could feel her arms wrapped around his back, pulling him closer, even though he could see her hands folded demurely on her lap. A sudden thought intruded.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m forgetting my manners. Can I get you a drink?”

“No thanks. I never drink.”

“Something soft, perhaps?”

“Nothing thanks.”

He felt a curious sense of emptiness begin to take hold. It was as though some part of his essence was being pulled from him, seeping into the gap between their two bodies and becoming subsumed in the aura of powerful energy that enwrapped his companion. He struggled to find another question.

“Do you mind me asking your name?”

“You can call me Maire if you like, if you feel I need to have a name.”

“Maire. That’s a lovely name.”

“Good. I chose it myself.”

Liam didn’t understand, but he nodded anyway. Maire continued to look steadily into his eyes. He looked back, and yet he knew that his stare was not born of either interest or challenge. It was an act of submission. He couldn’t avert his eyes because Maire wouldn’t allow it. The enervating effect of her close presence continued to grow and he struggled to hold onto a part of his inner being that was trying to desert him for the seductive charms of a most alluring opponent. He fought back the urge to collapse into an unknown oblivion, and tried to bring the conversation to a more mundane level.

“It’s quite a storm we’re having tonight.”

“I’ve known worse.”

“Not a good night to be out on the sea, though.”

“Does the sea frighten you, then?”

Maire’s interest seemed to be aroused in anticipation of his answer. She rested her arms on the table and leaned towards him. The two chestnut orbs of paradise flooded him with a sensation that all but arrested his breathing. The external world paled into insignificance: the room, the people, the music – all transparent wraiths that might be swept away by a blink of Maire’s eyes. He felt himself trembling. Part of his consciousness still held on by a flimsy thread, but most of it was desperate to capitulate. He stuttered the best response he could manage.

“I don’t think so. I think I respect it.”

“That’s good. Respect without fear. Hold onto that and the sea can be your friend, your protector even. It’s how I survive. Do you understand?”

Liam was in no condition to understand. At that moment he understood nothing other than the fact that his sense of emptiness was almost complete. He felt like some helpless child, devoid of point, purpose and presence, curled foetus-like within the womb of Maire’s overwhelming energy. He was attached to her, dependant on her, in need of her; and he didn’t have the wit to question the absurdity of such a notion.

Maire seemed to read the situation in an instant. Her eyes widened even further and Liam looked expectantly into them. He was too confused to know whether he wanted release or acceptance, but what he saw there brought a glimmer of strength back to him. There was no sense of triumph. Instead, he saw the unmistakeable look of deep desolation and painful longing. For the first time that night she looked defensive. She had eased her hold on him and he relaxed a little. But then she sent a physical wave of shock coursing through his body by placing one hand on his arm.

“Now that you know everything about me that is worth knowing,” she said pointedly, “tell me about yourself.”

“What do you want to know?”

“What are your favourite smells?”

The question unsettled him further. He thought it a strange one, and said as much.

“Not really,” said Maire. “A person’s favourite smells say a lot about them.”

“Do they? Oh. I’d have to think about that one.”

“So think.”

“Right. Er... I suppose I like the smells of nature best. Salt sea air, new-mown hay, wild honeysuckle, autumn leaf mould.

Maire’s eyes closed briefly as she drew in the scents that Liam described. They flashed open again and she asked:

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Is there anybody close to you?”

“A few family members, a couple of good friends.”

”But no woman?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I suppose I’m too fussy. I’m cursed with the need to seek perfection and accept nothing less. That’s why I came to Ireland. It has a romantic and mystical reputation. I felt drawn here. I thought I might find something I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.”

“And have you?”

“No, of course not. At least...”

He fell silent and looked down at the table. He took a sip of his drink before gathering the courage to look into Maire’s eyes again. And now the look of triumph was there, but only briefly. The sadness soon returned, deeper than before. Her own head dropped for a second, and then she rose, pulled her chair next to his and sat down again. She took his hand in hers and held it firmly on her lap.

“Hold my hand,” she said, “for what time there is left.”

And so they sat in silence as the band continued to play at the far end of the room. The pieces were more restrained now, befitting the lateness of the hour. Liam felt captured and helpless again, but he looked around the small gathering and noticed the odd head turned furtively in their direction. The only person looking at him steadily was an old woman sitting with her family.

Eventually, the fiddler announced that the next tune would be the last. As they began to play, Maire turned to Liam and said:

“It’s approaching midnight. I have to go soon. Take my meaning.”

She rose, walked to the far end of the room and sat next to the band. Liam knew that protest would be pointless. He felt lost and lacking any meaningful reason to exist. When the tune ended, Maire spoke to the fiddler who nodded and repeated her instruction to the others. She took a pace forward and faced the audience. Silence held sway again as the band began a slow, melancholy introduction. Maire began to sing.

A block of ice settled in Liam’s chest as he recognised the song. It was an old favourite: Ae Fond Kiss. He had heard it many times and had never failed to be moved by its poignancy. Maire was singing a Gaelic translation, but he knew the Scots original.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas, forever

She sang beautifully. Such purity of tone, such flawless intonation, such an aura of intense but understated emotion. Liam sat paralysed by the moment, but his head began to clear. He looked around at the audience and had no doubt that every last one of them was weeping dry-eyed and silently. He felt his strength returning. Somehow he knew that this was not a time for tears; it was a time to seek the message. And so he searched Maire’s eyes as she sang. She turned them full upon his and he saw what he expected. The pain and sadness were still apparent, but there was something else. There was hope. He was taking her meaning.

When the song finished, Maire stood quietly for a few seconds with her eyes closed. And then she walked to the door and flung it open. She turned to look at Liam one last time. He nodded to her. She smiled a sad, hopeful smile, and then walked out into the night. Liam detected a ripple of relief pass around the room as Sean hurried to shut the door. The old woman walked over to his table.

“You must forget about her,” she said.

Liam was in a daze, but he managed the obvious question.

“Do you know her, then?”

“We do, and you should not. Forget her and go home.”

There was kindness in her voice, but her tone was firm and allowed no room for discussion. She turned and went back to her family who were preparing to leave. Everybody was preparing to leave. Liam drained his glass and pulled his coat on. He fastened it securely before walking to the door on unsteady legs. He glanced at Sean, who returned it with a nod.

The walk back to his lodgings was difficult. The rain had stopped, but the wind still blew strongly. It was at his back, pushing him away from the sea, and his weak legs struggled to keep him from being blown forward. The act of stopping took some effort, but stop he did when he heard the wail. It was shrill, almost a scream. It came from the waves, mingling with their groans and the roar of the wind. It was a frightful sound – wild, desperate, unearthly. It went on for a long time, and then descended into what sounded like a brief sob before ceasing altogether.

Liam knew something of the mythology of the Celtic fringes and understanding had already dawned on him. He turned and tried to make his way to the foreshore, but the mixture of alcohol and intense emotion had left him physically weak. He abandoned the attempt and struggled back to the boarding house. He fell into a deep sleep within seconds of going to bed.

* * *

The storm had abated by the morning. The wind was merely fresh and there were patches of blue sky showing between the scudding, white clouds. Liam went down to breakfast where he was served by the landlady. As he was drinking his coffee, Mrs O’Gara approached and made a pretence at clearing the dishes. And then she revealed her true purpose.

“May I talk to you for a moment?” she asked.

Liam had been expecting something like this. His strength and vigour were back to full pitch and he felt determined.

“Of course,” he said, omitting to stand.

“I hear you met our visitor last night.”

“Is that what you call her? Who is she?”

Mrs O’Gara seemed to read the knowing look in Liam’s eyes.

“I think you know who she is. Or rather, what she is. The bus to Galway leaves at ten thirty. I think it would be better for you if you were on it.” She read his reaction with a resigned certainty. “You’re not convinced, are you?” she continued. “I’ve seen that look before. The English have to have their way. They have such cold eyes.”

“So I’m told,” replied Liam. “Tell me, how long has she been coming here?”

He detected a droop of dismay in the landlady’s shoulders.

“For longer than any of us have been alive. My own grandmother told me about her before I was even old enough to understand such things. She will do you no good. She has tried to seduce many men. It is her way.”

“Maybe it has a purpose. What do you know of her?”

“What can I know of her? It is said that she is different from the rest of her breed. They say she belongs on the land and is trying to get back somehow. Maybe she needs a mortal man to help her. I wouldn’t know. No mortal man has ever returned.”

“Returned from where? Are the men of Connacht not up to the task?”

“The men of Connacht have their own God-fearing lives to lead. She never approaches local men, only strangers. Maybe she doesn’t want to stay in Connacht. We are a good Catholic community and such a creature would not be welcome here.”

“Forgive me, I meant no offence. But do you not pity her?”

Mrs O’Gara looked uncertain for a second.

“There is a line beyond which charity cannot go,” she said. “When it would be offensive to God.”

Liam scoffed internally, but held his reaction in check.

“So why do you tolerate her visits?”

“Even good Christians are not immune to fear, Mr Jackson. Fear of unknown consequences. She has a power about her, a power that is a mystery to us. As long as she confines herself to brief visits, and as long as she does not interfere with the local men, we tolerate her.”

“I see,” said Liam, turning to look out of the window. “How long?” He turned back again and regarded his host steadily.

“I’m sorry?”

“How long before she visits again?”

“We never know. She always comes at the time of the harvest moon, but not every year. She has a knack of appearing when there are strangers in the village. She seems to know the scent of strange men.”

The last sentence was uttered with barely disguised contempt. Liam turned back from the window and smiled. Mrs O’Gara continued.

“Will you be catching the bus?”

“Not today, Mrs O’Gara. There’ll be another one tomorrow, no doubt. Today I would like to enjoy the beauty of your lovely countryside. Might I avail myself of your hospitality for another night?”

His tone was bright and amicable. The landlady shrugged.

“I suppose so. I’m not exactly busy.”

“Thank you, dear lady. And could I request a packed lunch to sustain me on my rambles?”

Mrs O’Gara’s eyes carried a hint of suspicion.

“You will leave tomorrow?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“Very well, then.”

She rose and returned to the kitchen. Liam went to his room, donned an extra sweater, and pulled on his coat. He waited by the kitchen door for his lunch to be provided, and then walked out into the chill air of the Connemara morning. The sweet and salty smell brought the sense of Maire’s presence flooding back.

His strength and equilibrium had returned in full measure, but he had changed. The world had changed. The memory of Maire was more than just a romantic recollection. It was a connection, a deep connection that bade him only welcome. She offered no threat and made no demands; they had simply found what they had both been seeking. He knew he had to talk to her and could think of only one way.

He walked down to the shore and paced back and forth on the beach for a while, scanning the foam flecked waves in a state of nervous anticipation. He climbed as far as he could up some rocks at one end of the bay. He returned and repeated the exercise at the other end, seeking the best vantage point for a clear view of the sea. He made his way to the bottom of the lane that ran past the bar. He walked up it until it came to an abrupt end at a rock face. And then he sat on a nearby boulder and watched the mesmerising movement of the choppy waves. The grumble of a heavy engine disturbed the peace. The Galway bus pulled up near the bottom of the lane, and then drove away again.

A sudden realisation came to him. He didn’t need to find the best vantage point, only a spot close to the sea. Maire would find him. He could feel her presence strongly. She must be nearby. He was sure it was more than just imagination. He sat for two hours and saw only the restless sea rising higher up the rocks as the tide flowed. He decided he might as well eat.

And then his wait was rewarded. Something appeared above the surface of the water immediately beneath him. The seemingly disembodied head of a grey seal rose and fell with the movement of the dark swell. It watched him intensely as he stood up. There was no chestnut to be seen, only big, black orbs that reflected the pale sky, but the look of longing was as potent as ever. Man and seal regarded one another for a span of time impossible to guess. Liam spoke.

“I will be back,” he said quietly. “You have my promise. Be prepared to tell me everything. What must be done will be done. Until the next harvest moon.”

A fanciful man might have claimed that the seal’s eyes smiled. Liam certainly thought so. The creature upended and slipped silently beneath the waves, the swift elegance of its movement seeming to express a wordless song of joy. He resumed his seat and ate his lunch absentmindedly, musing on the uncertainty of his future with a heaving heart.

Tomorrow he would begin his return to England. The contemplation of a long, empty year brought an agonising sense of impatience to the mortal mind of Liam Jackson. The wild, western waves had entered his blood, and their call would mock without mercy until delirium or some darker denouement brought him to one destiny or another.

4 comments:

Della said...

I see I've fallen behind on your stories, Jeff, and have some catching up to do! I must have misunderstood at some point and thought you posted your "last". This was very moody and dark, perfect for the night, but was does it mean? The yearning for perfection is something ambivalent and dangerous, maybe? Something self-destructive, no doubt. So glad to see you're still writing and publishing your stories in various places – even with all those blog posts at the other site! I have to learn to be less of a procrastinator. Have a very nice night and take care.

JJ Beazley said...

It doesn't mean anything, Della, at least nothing intentional. I was listening to Maire Breatnach's album and found myself in an old Irish bar in Connemara, with an Atlantic storm raging. I started to type with selkies in mind, and the story wrote itself as usual. It's why I claim no skill as a writer, nor even claim to be a writer.

Yes, I thought I'd exhausted the stock, but then realised there would be more to come. I made a couple of regular blog posts about it. There'll be two more in February.

Della said...

Really Jeff, you are a terrific writer and I'm impressed with how it all seems to flow very naturally and effortlessly. There is always meaning in what we do, even the smallest things we say. I find many subconscious things come out in my writing that I don't plan on. I'll certainly be back to do more reading.

JJ Beazley said...

You're right, Della. There's nothing like writing for letting me know what an ass I am sometimes. Ha! Seriously, though, (actually I am being serious) writing does seem to clarify a lot about who and what we are. Maybe that's why I so like writing instinctively, rather than doing all that planning and structuring and stuff.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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