The weather was changeable. He didn’t know if they would be allowed to cross the bridge. The clouds had thickened and it looked like rain.
A sign announced their arrival, and John turned off the main road. As he parked, the sun made a brief appearance. After so long in the heated car, the bright fresh air was an instant tonic and the three of them, John, Lisa, and Liam, stood breathing in big gulps of it, gazing out to sea. Clouds raced over Antrim and out over the cliffs, causing pools of sparkling sunlight to move across the face of the water.
‘Dad? What does carry key reed mean?’
‘Carrick-a-Rede,’ corrected John, then admitted he didn’t know. He turned to Lisa. ‘Are you going to wait here, or …’
She took some offence at this. ‘I’m coming down to see.’ And so saying, she seized the boy’s hand and set off purposefully.
There were very few people around. The only others on the path were a group of pensioners coming the other way. They wore walking gear, and knapsacks, and carried extendable walking sticks. There was a seriousness about the group, they walked with a resolute pace and did not speak amongst each other. John greeted them as they passed and they answered with curt nods and brusque hellos.
The path led up the rise of the land that abutted the coastline. On their right, the surrounding countryside opened out as a swathe of hills, rounded green waves, immobile and stately. To the left, the sea was mostly grey, choppy, and mutable.
John turned his mind to the last time he had been to Carrick-a-Rede. Some time in the late seventies. He had come with his own father, a quiet and often ill-humoured man who nevertheless loved his family and took pains to prove it. His memory was coloured by the washed out photos of the period his mother kept in the big, leather-bound album that still lived on the shelf above the television. It was an endless summer of Seventies hairstyles, denim jackets, and the bright red Wellington boots that John had seemingly worn forever. He had been older than Liam, eleven, probably. With a smile, he thought of his childish self. Then he thought of his father and realised he was now the same age that his father had been back then. The knowledge adjusted something within him; it retuned his sense of the passing of time and an epochal shift took place within him.
The bridge was open. They were allowed to cross. Lisa walked them as far as she could before vertigo said stop. She transferred the boy’s hand to John with a deeply troubled look.
‘He’ll be okay,’ said John, turning toward the high rock of the little island, and the delicate construction that connected it to the mainland. The rope bridge was about twenty meters in length, and hung high above the sea. It swayed gently in the breeze. This was a worry but in their excitement they walked straight out and onto the wooden planks. Father and son laughed. The sun bobbed in the clouds and they boldly crossed to the other side. Liam beamed and John was proud of the boy, and himself.
‘Let’s see this island, then.’
They walked the length and breadth of it. The boy ran ahead and back again and talked nonstop. He had to be warned about the cliffs too many times and the father lost his patience and made him take his hand again.
On the eastern side of the island, just below the top of the one of the cliffs, the abandoned hut of former fishermen perched high above the sea line. It was squat and whitewashed, and with its dark slate roof, looked like part of the rock against which it had been built. John pointed it out to the boy. There was a crane that would swing out over the rock face. Far below, the waves slapped and sucked at the black stones of the shore.
‘Can you imagine living down there?’ he asked, the question directed more to himself than the boy. And he did imagine – what a life, all alone, king of this rock, with nothing but the temperamental sea for company. John worked in an office and spent his days in front of a computer; the closest he came to manual labour was changing the stack of paper in the printer. He pictured himself sat outside the hut, aching from a day of hard work, blistered hands happily mending nets as he sang songs to the tides. At night there would be no television, no streetlights, no traffic at the front door. At night the world would be black, and in the dark the sea would share her secrets.
Liam was pulling at his arm, yanking him back to the present. The child wanted to run again, to burn off youthful energy in movement for the sake of movement. His father reluctantly turned away from the hut and followed.
The sun kept coming and going, but it was pleasant. They played chase, and ran around until out of breath, then lay on their backs on a sheltered bank of grass and watched the clouds. They were going so fast. It was fast enough to make you think it was the ground that was moving. The two of them felt dizzy and solemn at the same time.
‘I know why the clouds are going so fast,’ said Liam. ‘It’s because the world is turning so quick.’
John smiled. ‘Well,’ he said, and began explaining the facts of the earth’s spin and the reason for the movement of the clouds. As he spoke, he found the words began to ring hollow. He knew he was right, but this did not quieten the peculiar uncertainty that had suddenly struck him. On what authority do I have this knowledge? he asked himself, surprised by the question. It is common knowledge, came the answer. Just as once it was common knowledge that the earth is flat.
At that moment he had an intuition that being a father was no more than this: the sharing of beliefs, be it physics, meteorology, or morality; whatever the lesson, it was passed on to the child and stamped as true with the impressive weight of fatherhood.
The boy listened and grew restless. John ended his lecture and closed his eyes. The solemnity he had earlier experienced was giving way to unease, an anxiety that something unpleasant remained to be done. Casting around for the cause of this disquiet, he thought about their plans for the rest of the day. Next stop was the Bushmills Distillery where he intended to sample everything they offered. Lisa would take over the driving and bring them to the Giant’s Causeway to end the day with a stroll along the iconic coastline before the long drive home. He imagined these waypoints along the north of the country and an odd thing happened, he was taken by the idea that the rock on which he lay was the true mainland. The landmass of Ireland, and all of its distilleries, and peoples, and history, was the lesser island. At some point he would have to go back there, he would have to quit this blissful moment in the fleeting sun where he lay next to his child and his authority was unchallenged. He felt as though he were about to burst into tears.
Liam was up, eager to move again. He took his father’s hand and attempted to pull him upright. John tried to push aside his maudlin thoughts and played a game of tug with the boy but the mood was unwilling to leave him.
The cause of his unease became apparent as they made their way back to the bridge. Heavy clouds had permanently hidden the peek-a-boo sun. The breeze had picked up and the ropes seemed to move individually, making it appear all the more precarious.
Liam set off across the bridge before he could stop him. He was already halfway over by the time John was able to make it off the concrete step. His heart in his mouth, he walked forward, then fear turned to dread and he froze.
The boy must have sensed something was wrong. He turned and called to his father.
John could not move. He could see the tiny waves far below, but this did not bother him. What got him was the vast expanse of nothingness that existed between the sea and the wooden plank on which he stood. The air was cold. His hands, knuckle white, gripped the handrail, but the handrail swayed. He looked up and saw the cliff at the other end of the bridge, he saw the mainland in all of its enormity, its terrible scale – life was over there, responsibilities, the authority of others, and he had to get back to it all. His breath seemed to be escaping him; his legs trembled. He could see Lisa standing on the path at the top of the cliff, like a feature of the landscape, and he almost cried out to her. For a moment he thought he had cried out, then he recognized the shriek of a seagull. Two of them wheeled under the rope-bridge. Buffeted by the wind, they tilted their wings in unison and arced up and over the top of the bridge. He gasped and followed them with wide eyes. The birds tumbled and soared in the air and John, in helpless terror, felt that he was falling.
He looked down. Liam was standing in front of him. ‘It’s okay, Daddy.’
The boy reached out and coaxed his hand from the rope where it had been gripping so tight. Slowly, confidently, the boy led his father across the bridge and back to solid ground.
(published in Ireland’s Own – 26.04.13)