We’re lucky in Ireland – we’re surrounded by a raggedly romantic coastline – mountains slope their craggy way down to the sea, sandy beaches stretch for miles. Thanks to the near constant rain, we have a green and fertile landscape and inland our fields are surrounded by scrubby, fairy bushes – hazel, beech and rowan. There is much to inspire and on a sunny day, there is no better place to be. We also have a wonderful culture of storytelling, especially of the ghost story. I’d like to take the day in question – to share a short story, one of my favourites – Ventry; an old-style ghost story, and a tale that is included in two anthologies – my own “The Nightmare” and “Tales Irish“, both available on Amazon.
My St Patrick’s Day gift to you – I hope you enjoy it.
I followed her from the beach. From my vantage point on the dunes, I could see the boats clearly through my binoculars, I followed their progress out of the bay and the seagulls that followed in their wake and moving along the beach I came to the girl. A tall shadow caught in the sun’s last strength, a sentinel by the water’s edge on the deserted strand.
I watched her with the surf crashing on the sand in front of her, watched it surge forward until I thought she would jump back for fear of wetting her boots, but she never did. I watched the wavelets cover the black boots again and again. But she just stared out into the distance unmoving.
This was my favourite time of day when the sun slipped slowly behind the mountains and the beach darkened. Usually, I watched from the dunes, sometimes I walked the beach and passed dog walkers and runners with a polite hello and perhaps a comment about the weather, but I had never seen the girl before.
After a time, she turned and walked back in the direction of the car park.
And so, I followed her out of curiosity, that and the fact was that she reminded me of my late wife at the age when I first met her. Quiet and still, a woman who spoke only when she had something worthwhile to say.
And I was more than a little bored. I had a summer lease on a small cottage outside Ventry, a mile back from the beach where I remained relatively out of reach of my family; three grown-up children with their own lives to live and children to worry about but who had made it their business to worry about me. They couldn’t easily reach me in this far-flung spot, I had no phone except an ancient mobile and the coverage was sporadic at best which suited me perfectly. It was two years since their mother had passed and I still missed her, some days more than others. But early on in my grief, I made the decision to carry on, to make plans and projects for myself, it was either that or follow her into the grave. And I wouldn’t leave my children doubly bereft.
The evening was drawing in and it was time for me to retire for the evening but what did I have to rush back to? To read one of the many dusty paperbacks I had bought in the local thrift shop? Or to watch some worthless television programme? So I followed the girl back from the beach making sure to leave a gap between us. There were two cars in the car park, mine was the old Toyota. The other was a bright and relatively new Ford Fiesta. But she passed the cars continuing further along the sandy lane before slipping quietly through the open gates into the old cemetery.
Set on a slope the cemetery was old and rambling. It looked out onto the harbour. In the surrounding fields, cattle grazed and the mountains cast shadows across the yellowing furze and ferns. A few modern headstones stood out in stark relief to the lichen covered crosses and the ancient pieces of granite that pushed up from the hill like so many broken teeth. Rabbit holes dotted the site, entering and leaving gravesites with no thought for those whose space they shared.
Peeping over the stone outer wall was pointless; there where only the two of us at the cemetery. I pushed open the gate to gain entrance, it had only been ajar and I wondered how the girl had slipped in so easily. I would have done myself an injury to slip through so narrow a gap and I was thin to a degree that worried my daughters.
The gate, rusted through to the paint screeched my approach and I winced. She had already turned in my direction. She smiled slightly and continued through the graveyard, her step delicate but determined on the mossy grass. We were alone in the late July evening as the sun began to set.
“It’s cold.” Her voice was startling in the complete silence where not one bird sang. Her voice travelled easily across the headstones. I moved closer to hear. She was talking to me, no one else, her voice low and with the local musical lilt.
No older than her early twenties she looked like no other young girl I had ever seen. My young granddaughters wore their make-up like masks, their faces doll-like and unnatural, but this girl’s face was pale and make-up free, her eyes large and filled with sorrow, as blue as the Atlantic on a summer’s day. But it was not her face that drew my attention, it was her attire, she was dressed sombrely in a simple beige hand knit jumper over a grey and black plaid skirt that reached the knees. Her dark hair was tied in a low ponytail with a black ribbon. The boots that the sea had covered were small heeled and laced to the calf; they looked old with the heels worn away.
“Yes, it is.” I stood away slightly, giving her space as she stood beside one of the older granite headstones, the writing illegible to my bad eyesight. She rubbed her hand across the top of the cross, a caress.
“Are you visiting a relative?” She asked and I suddenly felt the cold. It was as if its fingers were pulling at my legs like the fog that had started to seep across the grass from dunes.
“No, I’m just passing through,” I muttered for want of a better excuse. “I’ve always wanted to visit and here I am.” I smiled to allay any fears she might have talking to a stranger, albeit an old man.
“It’s a lovely place, so peaceful, beside the sea.” I looked out towards the harbour and she followed with her eyes, again I caught a look of sorrow on her pale face.
“Yes,” she spoke as she stroked the top of the gravestone. “Yes, I find it very peaceful, we all do.”
“Are you here to visit a relative yourself?” I asked politely.
“My husband,” she looked at me across the moss covered graves. Her eyes clear and blue.
“Oh, I’m very sorry.” I suddenly wished to be someplace else, anywhere but there on that windswept hill surrounded by death and grieving.
“The sea took him,” she continued to the air as if I wasn’t there at all. Her voice a whisper on the wind. “He was a fisherman, and the sea took him for her own.”
“We were married a year and now shall be apart forever.”
I stood silently beside the grave, waiting in vain for the right words to arrive.
The gate creaked and I turned to watch an elderly couple enter the cemetery. A husband and wife it seemed, the man helping the woman to carefully walk between the graves, they were coming over towards me. The woman smiled a greeting. I turned back to my companion but she was gone. I looked about me and unless she had hopped the low stone wall it appeared she had vanished into thin air.
I asked the couple as they neared me if they had seen a young woman leave, they might have noticed us talking when they entered. They looked at me strangely.
“Sure, there was only yourself here.” The husband spoke and a look passed between the pair.
She nodded in agreement.
“But – ” I gestured to the grave beside me.
“Ah, poor Jamie O’Shea” he made a sign of the cross. “Poor man and him just married.”
“What of his wife?” I asked, already feeling the cold mist of shock enter my bones.
“Catherine, that was her name.”
“Aye,” interrupted his wife. “Catherine, she was a pretty girl, she never got over it. Died herself shortly after.”
“Died how?” I heard the impatience in my voice.
“Threw herself off the pier at the harbour. She was buried in the other place.”
“For the lost souls,” the old woman murmured and crossed herself. “The poor crater, sure she was half-mad with the grief.”
I left them to their visit with a hasty goodbye. Of the girl, there was no sign. I drove a couple of miles following their directions until I came to a small stone walled field. A plaque on the wall marked with a cross told me I had come to the right place. There were no headstones here. But there were flowers, fresh and in pots against the wall.
I added my own bouquet; a small bunch of wildflowers I had taken from the field next door, daisies, and forget-me-nots, blue as the Atlantic on a summer’s day.
Then I got into my car and drove to Ventry, back to the rented cottage where I began to pack for home.
If you would like to read further from both collections –