By Stephen Palmer -
It was a long time ago but I still remember the day I came across Kathleen Devaney and Aaron Kearney together. And I sometimes wonder if Aaron would have harmed me if Kathleen had not intervened.
Kathleen was sixteen and already eight months married at the time. She was some twenty years younger than her husband and their marriage had more to do with the union and inheritance of property than passion. Kathleen accepted her parents’ wishes, however, and made the transition from farmer’s daughter to farmer’s wife with apparent tranquility. Indeed, she seemed to me to possess the equanimity of a country girl, her auburn hair tied back with a green ribbon, who understands the rhythm of her habitat.
At the time I was staying with my uncle between coming down from Oxford and entering the diplomatic service and it was a few days before I returned to England that I last saw Kathleen. Seeking solitude in which to order my thoughts concerning the new life which lay before me, I set out to walk along a very beautiful stretch of the Sligo coast about which my cousin, Francesca, had told me. I enjoyed the smell of the salty breeze and the distant hissing of shallow waves breaking on the pebbles. It was a fine spring evening and I decided to follow a track down to the shore and watch the dying light shimmering on the water as the sun dipped below the horizon.
After a while I came across an area of long grass that, after a few paces, dropped away so that the beach couldn’t be seen from the track. At that time there was a low, crumbling wall of whitish stone that in the past must have served some purpose but now had a stubborn, inexplicable quality. I stood on top of the wall and was about to jump down on the other side when I saw Kathleen, just below the brow of the incline, sitting next to a large boulder. Her hair hung loose about her shoulders and she had discarded her shawl so that her brown arms were exposed. She was laughing.
I caught a movement from behind the boulder. A young man emerged of about my own age. I didn’t know him and guessed that he came from one of the villages further to the north. He sat down beside Kathleen and reached forward to brush a strand of hair from her face. She pulled away with a flick of her head and her laughter mingled with the sighing of the surf. He stroked her bare arm with the tips of his fingers. ‘And what would you be thinking about?’
‘I’m thinking you’re a wayward lad, Aaron Kearney, keeping me out so long, and that I’ll soon have to be creeping home before my husband comes back.’
She made no movement, however, and they sat for a long while, side by side, gazing out to sea. I forgot about the patterns of light I had intended contemplating.
‘Oh,’ said Kathleen at last, ‘if only this moment could last all my life. But it will soon be over. Come winter there’ll be no more sitting out here on the beach for us.’ She turned to him. ‘And what will you be doing?’
He stood up and threw a pebble with some force. It was the athletic gesture of a young man aware that he was being watched by a young woman. The pebble slipped away without disturbing the sea’s surface. ‘I’ll go off and fight,’ he said.
‘So you think it’s a war that’s coming.’
‘That’s for sure.’
I was amused by this. We had often discussed it in my circle at Oxford and invariably concluded that the whole notion of a war in Europe was laughable. But this uncouth young man, through some vigorous intuition, had foreseen that at which all our learning couldn’t guess.
‘And it’s the English you’ll be fighting for?’
I was surprised, even confused, at the sneering way in which she pronounced the word ‘English’.
‘And why shouldn’t I?’ he asked. ‘It’s better than staying here. I’ll see something of the world. Make something of myself.’
It was at this point that the wretched wall, weakened by years of neglect, collapsed beneath my weight. I fell headlong to the ground and I remember the grass blades cutting my hands as I reached forward to break my fall. I scrambled to my feet to find them both staring at me. Kathleen had grabbed at her shawl and was holding it tight about her. Aaron made a movement towards me but she stepped forward and placed herself between me and him.
Kathleen swallowed and moistened her lips with her tongue. ‘Please, Sir, don’t tell. It’s....’ She stopped and, her moment of tranquility destroyed, a greyish shadow seemed to pass beneath her face.
I left Ireland three days later and have never returned since. Yet throughout the following years I now and then asked for news of Kathleen in my letters to Francesca whilst trying not to seem to take too much of an interest.
Kathleen’s was the uneventful life the grey shadow had predicted. She bore her husband three sons and then it was with some sadness that I heard she had died giving birth to her only daughter. That, I know, was in 1922 for on the day I received Francesca’s letter our branch of the Foreign Office received the news of Mussolini’s march on Rome.
Of Aaron I know nothing. Perhaps he did leave and make something of himself, or maybe he was amongst those I saw slaughtered in the war he had predicted.
As for myself I fulfilled the destiny intended for me and it is a life about which I have no complaint. I was married for a great many years to a woman who loved me and it was only her death which parted us. My five children too have now passed on but I seek and discover them still in the faces and gestures of my grand and great grandchildren. It is in the nature of old men to be consoled.
Yet there remains something within us which is inconsolable. In my career I have been privileged to witness and sometimes even play a minor part in great events. But all these things seem vague in my memory now and for some reason it is the trivial moments which I recall most vividly.
One of these is of Aaron throwing a pebble so smooth that it seemed not to touch the surface of the sea as it slipped beneath it. A pebble worn by wind and salt through the years, its original shape unknown and untouchable.
And I remember myself retreating from that out of the way track in Ireland. I turned back only once and saw, against the backdrop of a setting sun, the young man and girl whose moment of happiness I had snatched away.
Stephen Palmer was born and raised in Somerset, England before leaving to study philosophy in Bangor, North Wales and Manchester University. His novel Scar Tissue was published in 2013 and he has had stories published both in print and online. In order to make a living that writing and philosophy have signally failed to provide, he has worked as a bank clerk, research assistant, civil servant, film reviewer and an assistant on an archaeological dig. He lives in Manchester with his wife and son.