Sheephaven Bay extends deep into County Donegal in the northwest of Ireland. The name derives from a misunderstanding. In Irish, the original name was Cuan na gCurrach, ‘haven of the ships’. When the English asked what the name meant, they heard ‘sheep’ instead of ‘ship’ in the local accent. The mistranslation has become so accepted that even in Irish the bay is now often known as Cuan na gCaorach, ‘haven of the sheep’.
The lower end of the bay is placid and sheltered and lives up to the original name. The mouth, however, faces directly north into the Atlantic, and the currents and winds there can be treacherous and unpredictable. This makes the bay a favourite of sailors, both those who prefer pleasant, safe outings in calm waters and those who want a more challenging sail in turbulent seas.
The summer nights are short along Sheephaven Bay. At that latitude the sun officially sets after ten in late June and early July, but it remains light long after that. The nights are never truly dark, and the sky begins to grow light again around three. On all but the stormiest days, the bay is filled with sailboats and windsurfers from early in the morning until late at night. There are even some who would spend the entire day sailing if they could.
Early on the morning of June 23, St John’s Eve, Mark rushed into the kitchen of his family’s summer home. He had had a growth spurt that spring, and a long, bony arm peeling with sunburn snaked out to grab a piece of toast from the stack on the table as he sped past. His father caught Mark by a shoulder as he started for the door and spun him around ‘And where are you off to then?’
‘I’ve got to get the boat ready for Brian. He’ll want to go out as soon as he gets here.’
‘Your brother’ll not be here for another six hours or so. You spent all yesterday working on that boat. There can’t be much left for you to do. You can spare fifteen minutes to eat a proper breakfast.’
‘But, Da . . .’
‘But nothing. Your mother did not put breakfast on the table for you not to eat it. Now, sit and eat like a human being. And you’re not to be after your brother to take you out as soon as he gets here. He drove for several hours yesterday and spent the night on the ferry from Holyhead, and then he has to drive here from Dublin. He and his friend might want to rest before you herd them out to the bay.’
‘But the tide changes at four. Brian will want to catch the turn. And the weather report last night said fair weather and winds out of the northwest. That means great sailing. Oh, I’d better see if there’s been any change.’ Mark leaped up from the chair he had so briefly occupied and switched on the radio. ‘And his friend won’t want to go with us. It will just be Brian and me.’ A news reader’s voice blared through the static of the old receiver, drowning out all other noise.
‘Mark, turn that radio off. I want to eat breakfast in peace. Your mother and I came here to get away from the financial news for a few weeks. The weather won’t change if you have to listen to it half an hour from now. And this Luan likes sailing. That’s why Brian asked him. Now sit and eat your breakfast.’
Mark reluctantly sat down. He tore off a quarter of the slice of toast with his teeth and chewed rapidly a few times before swallowing. ‘What kind of name is Luan? It doesn’t sound like a proper name. Anyway there won’t be any room for him on the boat. He’ll have to sit here while Brian and I go out.’’
Mark’s mother lowered the newspaper that she was reading and looked over the top of it at him. ‘That boat can hold three people. It has often enough before. And I don’t know what kind of a name Luan is. Maybe he was born on a Monday. The Innleys have invited us to join them at their bonfire tonight, and I imagine Mary Innley will ask him that very question. She’ll soon have his entire history out of him, and half the county will know it by tomorrow.’
‘I don’t see why Brian can’t stay longer. Why does he have to go down to Galway? That Luan could go by himself, and Brian could stay here. He won’t be able to get much sailing in.’ Since Mark had learned of Brian’s pending visit, it had been a oft-voiced grievance that his brother planned to leave the next day after dinner.
‘The two of them are coming here to talk with us and then with Luan’s parents. If your brother wants to tell you the reason, you’ll know soon enough.’
Mark sank lower into his chair. Both of his parents returned to the pages of the newspapers they were reading. A solid wall of print confronted him. For the past few days, neither of his parents had said much to him, and they had taken to speaking to each other in whispers, whispers that were quickly replaced with nervous smiles and tightly closed lips when he walked into a room. Even his gran had picked up the habit. He sighed loudly to make his objections known and stuffed another large bite of toast into his mouth. The newspapers barely quivered. Five minutes later, he judged that he had spent enough time at the table and asked to be excused. His father made a noise deep in his throat, and Mark took that for permission to leave.
He sped out the door and grabbed his bike on the run, leaping on to it when had enough speed. Too impatient to let the bike glide down the hill, he peddled vigorously, pumping his legs to go as fast as possible and avoiding by well-practised inches all the ruts in the path. He braked at the last moment, sending a spray of sand and pebbles into the air as he reached the dock where An Ghaoth Gheal waited. A few drops of dew glistened on the taut cover over the cockpit. He wiped them off carefully before unsnapping the cover and stowing it away in the chest at the end of the dock. He swabbed the boat down and began working through the checklist Brian had devised for him many years before.
Even though he knew it was much too early for Brian to arrive, he kept an eye on the road leading down the hill into the village on the other side of the old harbour. Every low red car caught his attention. He could tell that none of them were Brian’s old MG Midget, but still he followed each of them as it went into the village, hoping that he was wrong. He waited in vain for each car to emerge from behind the row of houses that faced the harbour and then race along the road that curved along the coast toward their house, the sound of the engine changing as Brian shifted through the gears to speed toward him. But none of them did.
Around noon his father walked down to the dock bringing him a sandwich and an apple. ‘Your mother thought you might want to eat down here.’ His father’s eyes wandered up and down the boat. ‘You’ve done a good job. Brian will be proud of you. I listened to the weather report just now. The winds are at 10-15 knots out of the northwest. It will be a good sail. How far are you thinking of going?’
‘Depends on what Brian wants. Maybe to Horn Head.’ Mark wiped a minuscule spot off the teak railing. When it came to An Ghaoth Gheal, his father lacked Brian’s critical eye. He hoped that his father was right and that Brian would approve of how well he had kept the boat.
‘Don’t stay out too long. Your mother and grandmother have a big meal planned for Brian’s visit, and then we have to be at the Innleys by 10:00.’
Mark nodded and bit into the sandwich his father had brought. He thought that would be a signal to his father to leave, but instead his father kicked his shoes off and climbed aboard the boat. He sat on the side opposite Mark and stretched his legs out. He shaded his eyes with a hand and looked off into the distance. ‘A lot of boats out today. You’ll have to be careful.’
Mark nodded. The remark was so obvious it didn’t merit more of a response. His father cleared his throat a few times and then spoke to the air over Mark’s right shoulder. ‘You know, Mark, Brian may have changed since the last time he was here. He’s qualified for the provisional registration now. Another year, and then he has to chose a specialty.’
‘What I’m trying to say is that he’s an adult now. He’s been one for years, and he’s contemplating some major changes in his life. That’s why he’s coming here. To talk with your mother and me. He may not be the big brother you remember. I just want to warn you not to expect him to be the same.’
‘I know. But he’ll still like sailing. That won’t change, will it?’
‘I think we can be confident of that. But he may not be able to spend as much time on the boat with you as you might want. He’s here for another reason.’
‘What? He didn’t say anything to me except to get An Ghaoth Gheal ready. And if he’s here to talk to you and mum, why is he bringing this Luan?’
‘I’ll let him explain that to you. That’s part of being an adult. You get to speak for yourself without your parents correcting you.’
‘Then I’ll be an adult right now.’
‘That day’ll come soon enough, lad. There’s no need to hurry it. And it’s less of a privilege than you might think. One other thing. Your brother will be happy if you’re nice to this Luan. And put a hat on. Your face will burn in this sun.’
‘That’s two things.’
‘Don’t be cheeky.’ His father tapped him on the shoulder and then stepped out of the boat. The motion pushed the boat away from the dock until the mooring ropes caught and pulled it back. The fenders chaffed against the dock as the boat rocked from side to side. To Mark’s mind, the boat was as anxious to be out on the bay as he was.
Mark returned to watching across the water to the road leading into the village. A solitary gull floated by, eyeing the food in his hand. He tore off a strip of crust and threw it into the water. The gull dived for it, but he had no sooner caught it in his beak and risen off the water than he was joined by another pair of gulls fighting to snatch it from him. Their raucous cries attracted more of them, and the first gull fled, pursued by the flock. The fight ended as abruptly as it began, and the gulls arranged themselves into a spiral tower, rising and falling as they drifted on the wind, watching for food.
The only sounds were the waves slapping against the side of the boat and the creaking of the timbers as the boat knocked gently against the dock. On the far side of the harbour to the east of the village, a line of three horses galloped through the shallow waters off the strand, the shouts of the riders urging them on, joined together in the pleasure of the moment. When Mark was sure that his father could no longer see him, he pulled his cap out of his pocket and smoothed it down on his head.
He knew that he looked good in the red cap and dark aviator glasses that Brian had given him. His old white shirt was half unbuttoned and its sleeves folded back to the elbows, the tails tucked carelessly into his shorts. His sockless feet were shoved into the dirty grey plimsolls he wore on the boat. They were getting too small for him. He needed to buy a new pair. Maybe, he thought, he could find an old pair of Brian’s that would fit him.
The growth spurt had left him gangly, but he knew that he would grow out, just as Brian had. Brian had been so tall and thin one summer, and then he had gone away to school and come back at Christmas a ‘fine figure of a man’ as their gran had said. He would be like Brian, follow the same path. He would qualify as a doctor, just like Brian. When he finished, he would join Brian in his practice and the two of them would work together the rest of their lives. Maybe living in the same house, or next door to each other. Brian would teach him everything he needed to know, just as he had taught him how to read the waves and see the wind in their brightness.
His eyes idly trailed a green Vauxhall down the road into the village. He shifted his gaze elsewhere when it disappeared behind the row of buildings lining the harbour side. He was only vaguely aware of it when it took the north coast road a minute or so later and came toward him. He didn’t even pay it much attention when it turned into the driveway of his parents’ house. It was, he supposed, just someone dropping in to speak to his mother. He heard the sounds of car doors, and then his parents and the people in the car talking. It wasn’t until he heard someone call his name that he turned around and looked.
Brian was standing with his arm around his mother and waving toward him. Mark leaped to his feet, barely pausing long enough to kick his plimsolls off and thrust his feet into his regular shoes. He raced up the path to the house, waving his right arm like a madman.
Brian ran a few steps toward Mark and hugged him tightly as he jumped off his bike and let it fall to the ground. ‘Lord, you’ve grown. You’re not my little brother any more.’
‘Where’s the MG? What have you done with your car? Why are you driving this piece of rubbish?’
‘Well hello and good to see you too. Now, stop choking me. Let me breathe.’ Brian held Mark at arms’ length and then grabbed the bill of Mark’s cap and pulled it lower over his forehead. ‘There now, it’s an improvement not to have to look at as much of your ugly face.’
Mark grinned at this sign of his brother’s affection and pushed the cap back in place.
‘And the MG takes more time to keep it going that I have time to give it. This “piece of rubbish” is Luan’s car.’ Brian hooked an arm around Mark’s shoulders and turned him around, still laughing. His hand tightened its grip on Mark’s shoulder as if he were afraid that Mark might run away. ‘This is Luan Cusack. Luan, this is my brother Mark. He didn’t really mean what he said about your car.’
‘Well, it is a piece of rubbish, but unlike yours at least it runs.’ His brother’s friend held out a hand to Mark and smiled at him. ‘So in addition to being an excellent sailor, you are also a good judge of cars. Brian’s told me a lot about you but he didn’t tell me that.’
Mark smiled at Luan shyly as they shook hands. He was unsure what to make of this stranger who seemed to know about him. As his father pointed out some nearby landmarks to Luan, he took advantage of the distraction to examine Luan more closely. Brian had mentioned many friends and colleagues since he had left for medical school and then the foundation programme, but this was the first one he had ever brought home. He wore a red cap and aviator glasses, much like Mark’s. He had very white, very even teeth. His dark black hair curled out from beneath his cap and stirred in the breeze. He was an inch or so taller than Brian and three or four inches taller than Mark. He looked athletic, as if he jogged and played a lot of sports.
His mother interrupted his father’s guided tour of the bay. ‘Come in. I’ll make a pot of tea. Did you eat? I can make you something if you’re hungry.’
‘Mum, Brian wants to go sailing.’ Mark tugged at his brother’s arm. ‘An Ghaoth Gheal is all ready. I got everything ready. The tide changes just after 4:00, and if we leave now we can make it to the mouth of the bay just as the tide turns and come back on a rising tide.’
Brian put his arm around his brother’s shoulders again and drew him toward the house. ‘Just let us stretch our legs for a bit. Then we can go out.’
Mark fretted throughout the next hour. Their mother had pushed them into the front lounge. In a departure from their usual practice, his parents were sharing the couch instead of sitting in their customary chairs. Both sat upright and close together, their hands in their laps and their feet planted solidly on the floor. His father had made Luan take the chair next to the fireplace, facing them. Mark took one of the window seats, as far from the others as he could. Through the open window, he could see down the hill to the bay, but the boat was hidden from view by the house. Brian had sat down briefly but soon stood up and began pacing about the room. When their mother had invited him to sit, he said that he needed to walk about. His path took him behind the sofa, forcing their parents to look around whenever they spoke to him.
The four adults seemed not to know what to say to one another. One of his parents might inquire yet again about the trip, only to be told once more that it had gone smoothly. Then all of them would take a sip of tea and look out the window rather than at any of the others. Mark couldn’t see why if they had nothing to say that it was necessary for them to sit politely pretending to have a conversation. Everyone was tense, a situation he attributed to the presence of Luan. The stranger was keeping Brian from being his usual self.
After Mark had looked pointedly at the clock several times, his brother said to him, ‘Why don’t you take Luan down to see the boat? He’ll help you get it ready. I’ll be along in a few moments.’
Mark looked uncertainly at the intruder. ‘Does he know what to do?’
‘He has a name, and you can talk to him directly. Can you try not to be so rude!’ Brian spoke sharply. ‘And yes, he knows what to do. He was sailing before you were born.’
‘It’s all right, Brian.’ Luan looked embarrassed at being the cause of a fuss.
‘No, it’s not all right. He’s fourteen years old now. He should know how to be polite.’
Brian’s sudden explosion of irritation snapped Mark to attention. ‘I was just asking.’ He couldn’t understand why Brian had reacted so angrily to his question. It was the first time in his life that his brother had taken someone’s else side over his and one of the few times Brian had criticised him. His face flushed, and he bit back the tears that suddenly came to his eyes. It was as bad as if Mark had slapped his face in front of all his friends.
Brian covered his eyes with a hand and took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry, Mark,’ he said in a weary voice. ‘Could you just show Luan the boat? I need to talk with Mum and Da privately for a moment. Then I’ll come down.’
‘Let me get my jacket and shoes from the car, and I’ll be ready. Thank you for the tea.’ Luan quickly stood up, obviously thankful to have an excuse to leave, and walked out.
Mark looked uncertainly from his parents to his brother. None of them seemed to want to look at him. Finally his mother said, ‘Mark, please do as your brother asked. I’m sure that in any case both of you would rather be out on that damn boat than talking with your parents.’ She slammed her teacup down on its saucer and stood up. She strode over to a window and looked out, her back to the room. ‘Your brother has something to say to us, and his “friend” needs attention. You haven’t done anything this summer but worry about that boat. We don’t ask you for much. You can at least entertain Mr Cusack for us for a few minutes.’
Mark slid out of the room, half-relieved that he was allowed to leave and half-frightened by his parents’ and Brian’s unaccustomed displays of anger. The house was heavy with their unease. And he didn’t understand the reason for it. As he stepped out the door, he heard his mother say in the coldest voice he had ever heard her use, ‘I believe you have something to say to us.’
Luan stood beside his car. He had put on a yellow cagoule and held a pair of plimsolls with one hand. He looked uncertain of his welcome. Mark wasn’t in a mood to be pleasant. ‘It’s down this way. We’ll have to walk. We’ve only the one bike here.’ He hurried on, not stopping to check if Luan was following him. When they were halfway down the hill, Luan broke the silence. ‘Brian tells me that An Ghaoth Gheal belonged to your grandfather.’
Mark nodded, without turning around. If he could, he would have walked even faster. The only thing that kept him from running was a fear that Brian would not forgive that rudeness. He had been instructed to ‘entertain’ Luan. No one had ordered him to pretend to be happy about it.
‘It’s such a beautiful name. An Ghaoth Gheal.’ Luan had a Connacht accent, and he said each syllable distinctly rather than running them together, as if he had forgotten how to speak Irish in London. Mark’s ears resented even that slight proof of difference. It was a sign of Luan’s foreignness, the cause of the unhappiness in their house. He didn’t bother to correct Luan’s pronunciation.
Luan suddenly came up beside him. ‘You’re a sturdy walker, as me mum would say. How often do you get out? On the water, I mean.’
Mark shrugged. Conversation seemed unavoidable now that Luan had caught him up. Besides there were things he wanted to know, and he couldn’t find them out if he kept quiet. ‘I’m not allowed to go out on my own yet. Da will go with me once or twice a week, if I pester him. But he doesn’t really like it. He didn’t start sailing until after he married mum.’
‘There’s no one else?’
‘There’s Jimmy Innley. That’s their house there, the one with the pile of wood for the bonfire tonight. But he’s only interested in going fast. He’d be happiest if the boat capsized or ran aground. That would be a lark for him. Sometimes one of the other owners will let me crew for him, but the only practice I get steering is with Da and Jimmy.’
‘Brian and I have the same problem. We’ve met some people in London who keep a boat at the Isle of Wight. They let us crew for them, but we’re just the help then. We tried renting a boat one weekend, but it was a tub. Had no lift at all. And the Channel is too tame if you’re used to the western coast. ’
‘What do you have at home?’ In spite of himself, Mark was curious about this stranger, this “friend” Brian had brought into their home.
‘You mean in Galway? We have an old Hunter Sonata.’
‘Not too different from An Ghaoth Gheal then. Same rigging but a couple of feet longer.’
‘Brian says the Sonata’s too sluggish.’
‘Brian’s sailed on it?’
‘Yes, we go out every time he visits. He’s been on it several times now.’
‘I didn’t know. He didn’t tell me.’ The knowledge that Brian had been in Ireland without coming home stung. Mark suddenly looked several years younger, the boy he had been a few months before peeping out behind the teenage face with its hints of the adult he would become. He seemed to shrink inside his clothes. He felt betrayed--the most important person in his life had developed other loyalties. The day was bringing too many surprises, and none of them welcome.
‘You’ll have to visit next time we’re in Ireland. We’ve some great sailing. And we would be pleased to have you there.’
Mark shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It can’t be any better than our coast.’
‘You’re just like your brother then. He says the waters in Galway Bay aren’t as challenging as those off the Donegal coast. And he complains that he can’t feel the water against the tiller in the Sonata the way he can in your boat.’
‘He’s always on about that. Feeling the water against the boat and seeing the wind ahead in the waves.’
‘He says you’re a natural at that. The best he’s ever seen.’
‘Nyah.’ Mark flushed with pleasure. The unexpected praise found a warm home inside his chest. ‘That’s wrong. He’s the best.’ He looked directly at Luan for the first time. ‘Did he really say that?’
‘Yes, several times. He said he had to work to learn what he knows. But you just knew it.’
‘That’s because he was always talking on at me about it. He made me sit beside him and hold the wheel as he steered so that I could learn what it felt like to sense what the wind and the water were telling you. By the time he let me try steering by myself for the first time, I already knew what it would feel like. I used to practice on my bed, at night.’
‘He’s very proud of you, you know.’ Luan stopped suddenly, forcing Mark to face him again. ‘You mustn’t mind what he said just now. He’s tense about this visit and then the one to my parents. Although my parents will be worse than yours.’
Mark had to fight a momentary urge to defend his parents and insist that they were much better at being much worse than Luan’s could possibly be. Instead he asked, ‘What’s happening? No one will tell me.’
‘Brian will explain it to you. He wants to do that.’
‘He’s not ill, is he? It’s not cancer.’
‘No, no, nothing like that. You mustn’t worry about that.’ They rounded the final corner in the path to the dock. ‘Oh, is that An Ghaoth Gheal? What a beauty. How old is it? Nobody uses wood like that now. It’s all plastic resins and fibreglass now.’
‘My grandfather had it built in the early 1950s. In a yard in Belfast.’
‘If Brian doesn’t come soon, we’ll leave him ashore and go out by ourselves.’
It felt good to be working alongside Luan. He moved about the boat efficiently, getting it ready to sail. Mark watched him carefully for mistakes, but there were none. Perhaps he did know something about sailing after all. And he didn’t seem a bad sort. Brian appeared just as they were finishing their preparations.
‘Mum says we’re all to wear life vests. She doesn’t want to add our deaths to her troubles.’ Brian looked a bit haggard. For the first few minutes his mind was on other things. After they cast off, Mark manoeuvred the boat away from the dock using the small electric motor. When they reached deeper water, he motioned to Brian and stepped away from the wheel.
‘What are you doing?’ Brian looked surprised.
‘Don’t you want the wheel?’
‘No. I’m a tourist today. You have to do the work. I’m just along for the ride, brother. And it’s a test. If you do well, I officially turn An Ghaoth Gheal over to you. Prove to me that you deserve it.’ He grinned and began raising the mainsail. Luan stepped forward to handle the foresail. The canvas began flapping and then stretched taut as the sails filled with the wind. An Ghaoth Gheal quickly picked up speed as Mark steered the boat into a beam reach and it began to move north up Sheephaven Bay.
For the most part, Brian and Luan sat on the railing forward of the wheel, midway along the hull. They faced outward, their legs dangling over the side of the boat, shifting into action only when Mark changed course. The two of them talked quietly. Except for an occasional word, Mark couldn’t hear what they were saying. From time to time Brian would point to some feature of the bay. And Luan would nod, and then the two of them would resume their conversation.
Brian had changed since the last time Mark had seen him. He had grown older, but more in manner than in years. Brian acts more like a man now, thought Mark. The last of his youth had been shed. And he seemed happier. Whatever had troubled him earlier was quickly forgotten once they were on the water and he was talking with Luan. Occasionally when Mark manoeuvred the boat, Brian would look over his shoulder and smile and hold a thumb up in approval.
Mark soon gave his full attention to the boat. He could sense the ebbing tide moving north beneath the hull, pulling the boat along with it, and even what his grandfather had called the echoes of the waves against the shore, the reverberations of energy that flowed away from the land as the water shoaled. As he had been trained, he watched the water ahead, alert for clues to sudden shifts in the direction of the wind. ‘Watch the light dancing on the water ahead. That will tell you where the wind is and what it’s doing.’ Brian had schooled him in that over and over--to read the ‘bright wind’ that lent its name to An Ghaoth Gheal.
As they neared the mouth of Sheephaven Bay, he felt the water under An Ghaoth Gheal grow quiet as the movement of the ebbing tide slowed and then ceased. Mark waited for the moment that would soon come. He was vaguely aware that Brian and Luan had stopped talking and were watching him, but he ignored them, focussing totally on what was happening around him. And then there came a hint of a motion against the boat, the gentlest push against the keel, as the tide began to return to the bay. ‘I’m bringing it about,’ he shouted above the wind. Brian and Luan leaped up as Mark began turning the boat in a broad arc. The sails began to luff noisily as the boat briefly came head to wind. Luan backed the jib as Mark moved the tiller in the same direction, and the boom swept across the boat. In unison, Luan lowered the foresail and Brian sent the spinnaker ballooning aloft. An Ghaoth Gheal leaped forward as if that were the moment she had been awaiting.
Brian gave a great shout, of joy, of triumph, as the boat sped down the bay. The three of them were flushed with the satisfaction of a perfectly executed manoeuvre. Mark felt a renewal of comradeship with his brother. And Luan was no longer a stranger--they had shared too much for that. He never knew how to describe the feeling, even to himself. But when he was sailing and the boat was running perfectly, he was taken out of himself. It wasn’t freedom exactly because the boat still depended on the water and the wind, but it was as if all the forces of nature were working together and his spirit had soared into the sails, raising the boat out of the water and sending it flying on the wind.
When they had docked and were securing the sails, Luan turned to him and said, ‘Thanks. That was great sailing. It felt as if the boat were alive.’
Brian growled at him. ‘Not just great. It was perfection. And if the boat was alive, it was Mark’s doing.’
Luan laughed. ‘I pity people who never experience that.’ He turned to Mark. ‘We work with some people who can’t understand why we sail every chance we get. They can’t imagine anything better than clubbing and drinking. They think we’re fools to want this.’
‘A heart in port,’ said Mark.
‘Oh, I haven’t heard that in years.’ Brian stopped what he was doing and stared at a memory.
Luan waited for an explanation from one of the brothers. When none was forthcoming, he asked, ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a line from a poem our grandfather used to quote,’ said Brian. “Futile the winds to a heart in port. Done with the something, something.” Can’t remember the rest of it.’
‘ “Futile the winds to a heart in port. Done with the compass. Done with the chart. Rowing in Eden.” ’ Mark finished the quote. ‘He always said that would be the worst thing for a sailor--to be condemned to row a boat on a calm lake in paradise.’
* * *
Mark sat at his bedroom window. He was supposed to be in bed. After they had returned from the Innleys, he had been sent upstairs. But he was too excited to sleep. The Innleys had built a huge bonfire, and dozens of people had shown up to celebrate midsummer night’s eve. When his mother had drifted off to talk with her friends, Brian had passed him a bottle of beer. His father had seen it, winked at him, and then looked away. And when the sun had set and the fire had died down to the embers, Mr Innley had come over and asked Mark and Brian to sing. Brian said no, he wasn’t good enough to sing with Mark, but ‘my friend Luan is.’ When Luan had protested, Brian had said simply, ‘Do it for me.’
And so Mark and Luan found themselves conferring, trying to find a song both of them knew. Several people called out favourites, but they rejected them all. Finally, Brian said, ‘Sing “Gaoth Barra na dTonn”.’ And they did. They sang it for Brian, Mark felt. The others were just bystanders listening in. The words didn’t fit the season, but they matched what he felt that evening. It was an offering of thanks to the waves and to his brother, and that was all that mattered. And Luan’s voice was as good as promised. His baritone harmonised effortlessly with Mark’s high tenor. When they finished, there was a silence and then some cheers and clapping. Others stepped forward and sang. But none were as good as Mark and Luan.
The day had started badly but it had ended well, he thought. From his bedroom window, he could see down to the bay and the dock where An Ghaoth Gheal was berthed. It was too dark to see the boat, but there was a long thin line of darkness against the reflection of the moon in the water and he imagined it was the mast. Over supper, Brian had raved about Mark’s sailing and argued strenuously that he should be allowed to sail alone. Their mother had objected that Mark was too young, but Brian had said, ‘No. He’s the best sailor on these waters, and he needs to be out on sailing every day, in every kind of weather. For the practice. He could bring home a gold medal for Ireland in the Olympics. He’s that good. But he needs to practice.’ An Ghaoth Gheal, he pointed out, was built to be rigged so that a single person could sail it, and Mark was skilled enough to do that. His father had joined in on Brian’s side. There had been further argument, but it had ended when his father had told his wife that Mark had inherited her father’s talents. That satisfied his mother. She didn’t say yes, but she stopped saying no, and Mark took that as permission. He knew that after he had sailed by himself once, she would not protest.
The conversation was much more relaxed than it had been earlier. Brian was elated about something, and he wouldn’t let anything prevent him from being happy. By the time they left for the Innleys, everyone was laughing with him. Whatever had caused the tension before had disappeared.
Even with the moon, the night was dark outside his window. A few fitful glimmerings across the bay betrayed the locations of the remains of other bonfires. Below him a rectangle of light appeared briefly on the ground as the back door of the house was opened and closed. Brian and Luan walked out to the low wall that separated the back garden from the fields beyond. They leaned against it, with their backs to him, standing closely together. The murmuring of their voices came through the open window.
Mark knew that if they turned around and looked up, they would see him at the window, but he was watching over them, not spying on them. That night he was charmed, every power was his. He would protect them and bless them.
The door opened again, and his parents stepped out. Brian and Luan turned around and walked toward them. His father shook Luan’s hand and then his mother kissed him. They repeated the action with Brian. A few words were exchanged and then all of them went back inside. Mark was still puzzling over the incident when he fell asleep.
* * *
Mark had been up so late the previous evening that he slept until past seven. When he came downstairs, his parents were talking in the kitchen. He heard his mother say, ‘It’s not what I would choose for him, but Luan seems nice, and he makes Brian happy. I will try to let that be enough and be happy for him.’
As Mark came around the corner into the kitchen, his father started to say something but then stopped when he saw Mark. ‘Oh, you’re up finally. The rest of us have already eaten. There’s some toast left for you. Brian and Luan are down by the boat. They have to leave early this afternoon. Don’t keep them waiting.’
That was all Mark needed to hear. He grabbed a slice of toast and flew out the back door. He could hear his mother calling something after him, but he outsped the words.
His brother and Luan were sitting close together on the storage chest at the end of the dock. When Mark ran down the dock, Brian stood up.
‘I’m sorry to be late. Let’s go.’ Mark started to jump aboard An Ghaoth Gheal, but Brian stopped him.
‘I have something to tell you. Walk with me for a bit. Luan will watch the boat.’
Brian started up the dock to the shore. Mark looked at him and then at Luan. Luan smiled and nodded his head toward Brian. ‘Go with him. It’s important.’
When he caught Brian up, he was seated on a rock overlooking the bay. He had drawn his legs up and was resting his forearms on his knees. He moved over slightly to make a place for Mark to sit.
‘This was one of my favourite spots when I was young. I used to spend my days here watching the boats and dreaming of the time when I could sail one. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that. Things were simpler then. Do you ever feel that way?’
Mark nodded. In truth, he couldn’t wait to be fully grown, but Brian seemed to want agreement. ‘You can always come back here. Once you qualify. Not here. It’s too small, but Letterkenny or Sligo. They’re big enough to support a doctor. And you could come up on the weekends, and we could go sailing.’
‘No, rural Ireland’s not a place that would tolerate me and Luan very well. We need a different sort of country. Some place like London.’
‘But Luan doesn’t have to be here.’
‘But I have to be with Luan. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s why we’re here. To tell everyone that we have to be together.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Mark shook his head from side to side, trying to chase away the knowledge that was growing inside him.
‘I love him. He loves me. Next month in London we going to register a civil partnership and go through a ceremony. Mum and Da and Gran are going to be there. We hope that you and Luan’s parents and family will join us. I would like you to sing for us.’
‘No.’ Mark jumped up and away from Brian. ‘You can’t. It’s a sin.’
‘No, that’s the one thing it’s not.’
‘You’re joking. Stop it. I won’t listen. It’s not funny.’
‘Mark, please, just listen to me. Luan completes me. He’s . . .’
‘Noooooooo.’ Mark ran off blindly, his feet stumbling over the rocks along the shore. He heard Brian chasing after him. He had run only thirty feet when Brian grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him to a stop, wrapping his arms around Mark to keep him from fleeing.
Brian put his hand on the back of Mark’s head and held it tightly against his chest. He rocked back and forth. ‘Please. Don’t run away. I need you.’
Mark pounded his fists against Brian’s back. ‘Let go of me. I hate you. You’re not my brother.’
‘I’m still the same person I always was. I still love you. It’s just that now you know something about me you didn’t before.’
‘Why did you tell me? I didn’t want to know. You can change. We can make everything like before.’ Mark felt his brother stiffen and lift his head. He knew then that Luan had walked up and was standing behind him. ‘Make him go away. I don’t want him here. Just make him go away.’
Mark sprang away from the two of them as his brother released him from his grip. Luan stepped forward and stood beside Brian. The two brothers looked at each other warily, uncertain what to say next. Then Brian put his arm around Luan’s shoulder and pulled him close.
Tears welled up into Mark’s eyes. He started running again. Behind him, he heard Luan say, ‘No, don’t. Let him go. He needs to be by himself for a time.’
Mark turned around and danced furiously in place. The stranger had no right to interfere and tell Brian what to do. ‘I hate you. I hate you. Why did you come here? You don’t belong here.’ Then, sobbing, he ran off, putting more and more distance between himself and Brian and Luan. He could tell that they weren’t following him, but he kept running until he had rounded the next spit of land and was in a rocky cove. He found a place among a pile of boulders where he could hide and there he gave vent to his misery. He cried until his throat ached. The schoolboy words echoed through his mind. All the dirty hateful words. Queer. Faggot. Gay. Perv. All the jokes about that singer in Westlife. The sniggering over Captain Jack and Ianto in Torchwood and John and Craig in Hollyoaks. The remarks about the boys that didn’t play football, or the ones that were too good-looking or the ones like himself that didn’t quite fit in. And now his brother was one of those people.
He cried for himself and for finding himself bereft and alone. He cried because he felt tainted and would never be whole again. He was still crying when his father came several hours later. His father stood there silently for a moment and then said, ‘Come, Mark, it’s time for you to come home.’
‘Is he there?’
‘Brian and Luan left several hours ago. They were sad that you weren’t there to say good-bye, but they understood that you had to be alone.’
‘I don’t ever want to see him again. You can’t make me. I won’t.’
‘That will be your decision. However, both Brian and Luan will be welcomed in our house whenever they choose. We won’t change that for you.’
Mark nodded. ‘I’ll go away when they come.’
His father smiled sadly in reply and nodded. ‘Come, your mother’s getting worried. It’s time for supper. You didn’t have much for breakfast and you didn’t eat dinner. You must be hungry.’
The house was silent when he returned. Neither of his parents said anything about his absence or about Brian and Luan. It was as if they had decided to ignore everything that had happened. They talked about the news as they ate and spoke about their plans for the days ahead. Mark sat at the table without saying anything. When they finished, he went up to his room.
He didn’t notice the envelope at first. He threw himself onto his bed and lay there feeling miserable. He took stock of his room. All the sailing paraphernalia on the walls and propped up in the corners. All of it useless to him now. He would never sail again. He knew that. An Ghaoth Gheal was simply a reminder of a brother who had chosen another course.
The patch of whiteness on his desk glowed in the half-dark and seemed much larger than it was. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t. His eyes kept coming back to it. He finally gave in and opened the envelope and pulled out the piece of paper inside. He hoped it contained the news that Brian was renouncing Luan and coming back to him. But he knew even before he read it that it wouldn’t.
‘Dear Mark, I have given my heart to only two people in my life, and you are one of them. It started the day Mum and Da brought you home from hospital and let me hold you for the first time. You were a miracle to me. You still are. There aren’t words to tell you how special you have made me feel over the years since and how important it is to me that you are my brother and that you love and respect me. I know that I have hurt you, but I cannot be other than what I am, and I hope you will understand. Please accept me for what I am. Love, Brian.’
Mark crumpled the piece of paper up and tossed it toward the bin. It bounced off the rim and fell to the floor. He grabbed it up and ripped it to shreds. When he couldn’t tear it into smaller pieces, he stood there with his chest heaving, trying to stifle his sobs so that his parents wouldn’t hear him crying. He frantically began pushing the pieces of the letter about and trying to flatten them and make them whole again. He cried because there wasn’t enough sellotape in the world to put the letter back together. He cried for troubles that he couldn’t solve. He cried for envy of all the hearts in port, unperturbed by their ignorance of the winds.
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