When We Were Seahorses by Aoibheann McCann

The first time I met him was at the bottom of the sea.

Any religion or cult will tell you that the highest state of being is just merely being. Not having to bear petty feelings like jealousy or rage, not caring about material things.

Well, there we were reproducing (no guilt about overpopulation or unfair consumption of resources) with purpose, eating and being- just being- in the darkness. Can you imagine how wonderful it was? Surrounded by water, everywhere its pressure, not needing to think beyond swimming around and around.


Three-second memories? Seahorses are just philosophical creatures. So deeply philosophical they can look at the same thing again and again and see it all in million different ways. The object in view can trigger off a million different thoughts.

So there we were in heaven, nirvana, call it what you will. We were the closest I think we veer to that man made fantasy. We had been together for as far back as my seahorse being was. Maybe we were brother and sister too, it didn’t matter then. Our home a rock with a hole in it to dart in and out of and just be until we died. Which we eventually did.

I was born kicking and screaming and gulping the strange air. What I had done to deserve this life, I couldn’t comprehend. It was bright beyond imagining, cold and bare and everything the opposite of how it was before. The air that surrounded me frightened me. It all seemed too loose somehow, like my body could fly apart in any direction. Fly out and splatter on these strange creatures. Who promptly washed me. Which made it worse. It was like having my scales scrubbed off. They stuck me in a box while I got acquainted with the strange limbs and body. Which was impossible to control, jerking out all over the place. The noise that seemed to come from me. How awful it was, but I couldn’t stop it. I just screamed and secreted endless amounts of fluids as the other strange creatures looked at me with as much dismay as I felt.

I kept up the screaming, cursing the world for plucking me from the depths of the ocean and pure being into this miserable existence where I was hot and sticky and smelled puerile and was totally unable to fend for myself.

Something was rammed in my mouth every four hours on the dot, a nasty tasting rubber teat that leaked a putrid milky white substance congealed with powder and rusks in a bid to stop me crying. I slept as little as I could trying to figure out a way to escape this hell and get back to the dark silent bliss of the home I had been plucked from.

The first time I slept I thought the wheel had reversed its cycle and I was back. When I slept it was cruel, as it was like being back there. He was there in my dreams, he who had always been, it was dark and peaceful. Waking up was like dying all over again and being reborn into this unbearable brightness. Then the screaming would begin again with more intensity and fervour than before.

The hospital was bright. The florescent light shone above my cot and was blotted out only by occasional faces. My mother pale and drawn. Too old for this birth and out of practice with babies. We were kept in for a week.

My mother’s short perm stiff was unmanageable without her twice-weekly blow-dry. That week at the hospital was the only time she didn’t wear makeup. My father had forgotten what she really looked like without it and maintained his distance. Her dressing gown was the only bright thing: cerise pink with flowers appliqued on the quilting. And the matching slippers, all bought for the stay in the hospital.

She had done well only to have had two children, up to now. Maybe she'd been hoping for a boy this time but she was clearly disappointed when she stared over from the bed.

So were my sisters, though they only came a few times as the hospital was miles away. They crowded over me at first, pawing at me, awkwardly picking me up. My screams and rigid body made sure they soon put me down. They sat at the edge of the bed, side-by-side, staring, and frightened of this ball of fury that did not belong to their little world. They’d stick their tongues out at me and roll their eyes.

When my father came he would stand awkwardly at the end of the bed. He was much hairier than they, more animal-like. But he kept his arms folded firmly and did not even try to pick me up.

I hated prams, high chairs, shoes, baby grows and nappies. I fought to escape all the methods of restraint—all the cages—that are used on babies. But, as the patterns of the light changed subtly I became more resigned to my fate, I got somewhat calmer. It was darker and the wind howled soothing me high on the hill where the house was. I was still determined to do what I could to get back all I had lost. I cried with frustration at this useless body, which could not swim nor even communicate my desire to be thrown back into the sea and left there.

It was like my soul had been gutted from me, like the poor fish I saw on the draining board, of my new home, sliced in two, its insides pulled out, its lifeless eye in despair gazing at the Aertex ceiling. I remembered little about my death so perhaps this had been it, in this very house.

But as I said, I began to feel more resigned. They did not listen to what I was saying, even if they could have they would not have thrown me back.

I looked for more clues staring out of the window at the restless grey sea from my high chair which I'd given into as I realised it was the only vantage point that gave me a glimpse of the sea. It was also preferable to being held up to look at it. I’m sure they dreamt of putting me in a children’s home. Eventually, when they realised that this, only this, would stop the crying, I was left there almost permanently. I was to be found in the sunroom feeding on the scraps left on the chairs table.

From there I stared out of the window in my high chair but instead of devising an escape, I began to forget. I had nothing to say to these people and they didn’t talk to me. I was waiting for it to make sense. In waiting came the forgetting that comes to all humans.

There were four of them and they pretty much ignored me. If they didn’t I’d start crying. So they talked while I listened and picked up what I could without fully taking in its meaning. I had joined the table first in the pram, staring at the ceiling, grizzling as my mother rocked me as she ate, her foot pushing the wheel over and back. I had listened as I stared at the blankness above, inhaling the trapped cooking oil, learning to turn my head and focus on the condensation on the windows. Sometimes when my sisters drew love-hearts in the condensation on the windows it allowed me a partial view of the dark sky.

As I learned to sit up, I was put into the high chair. Slumped down into it, my curved spine only suited to water and cradling. I was put beside my mother’s place at the bottom of the table but with a table of my own. Before I could feed myself she’d feed me sideways almost automatically. I opened my mouth to be filled. She turned every once in awhile when she wasn’t speaking or eating to scrape my face and bib with a spoon and cram those bits in too.

My sisters squabbled amongst themselves, kicking each other under the table. They laughed at my father’s descriptions of the local men who worked for him.

Here at the table I learned the human preoccupation with fear, jealousy, and hate. They were full of disgust for each other and for the others in the village surrounds I could not see. The others of whom they spoke were inadequate: too fat, too hairy, too stupid. I would try to tune it out with the sound of the sea or focus inward on the sound of my jaws moving.

I was slow to crawl, as I cried when put out of the highchair, and the flat unyielding surfaces slapped against my soft palms. But I soon sped up in an attempt to get back to the sunroom. I could not see the sea from the floor but I’d roll on to my back underneath the climbing plants like seaweed across the glass.

I could smell the sea from here. I’d close my eyes and inhale its comfort. As my mind began to fill up with words I lost more of the pictures and sounds and feelings and being and belonging.

It was in the conservatory that I was happiest apart from when I slept. At night the undersea world called to me in my dreams like Morse Code.

I screamed again for a week when we moved from that seafront home to the mansion of my parents’ dreams. However with the move came Polly, an Old English sheepdog. My sisters had insisted on the dog from the Dulux paint adverts then promptly got bored with her. I loved her. We’d roll around the grass in the field next to the house together.

Lying in long grass we’d stare at the clouds as they formed into shapes like sea monsters, Titans, mermaids, shells and even submarines. They’d work their way across the blue until they merged to form huge grey whales and the rain would fall around us.


Once my mother took me to see a lady in a small room in Dublin. She stared in my eyes and mouth and asked me to fill in pages with colour. Then I had to make sounds as she clicked her fingers at my ears.

I baffled her.

She could not define what she thought was wrong with me and rebirthing was not in her vocabulary. My mother seemed disappointed that they had no word to explain my behavior in public.

“Sorry, she has had rebirthing trauma and wishes to return to the sea.” Maybe that would have worked in San Francisco.

The specialist did tell my parents to send me to playschool, which they did. My former life was not accepted here. The teacher did appear to listen but ultimately discouraged such talk. The shock of this world came back again. Oh, the noise and the smells and the cloying food! But the others were like me and told me what they had been: lions, whales, elephants, birds and insects. It was all in how they behaved; you could see it in them.

It was a Montessori playschool. I preferred the boys who spoke less and were more in touch with their old animal life. They attempted to run, swim, and climb as they always had. They would explain to me who they were through elaborate miming and games. The female of the species have always been more willing to blend into the now than the male, hiding their true selves.

Through the Montessori way we were to be tamed from the wild animals that we were and made human. Montessori was originally intended for slow children to make them able to button their coats and wash their faces like good civilised human beings. I can imagine Maria Montessori, that fine upstanding doctor, scrubbing faces and doing buttons, rubbing all remnants of rebirth and pagan knowledge from these malnourished lonely new children. Her impatience with these cretins offered up to a white Jesus in the sky. The more she worked with them, the more they forgot what they had been. Handling long red chunks of wood and large buttons holding together useless bits of cloth on a wooden frame. The more resigned the children became to their fates the more Maria was proud of her civilising achievements and their Christian values. She smiled as she put an end to all these strange animal behaviours in-between worlds.

I began to use simple words, enough to keep the child psychologist off my parents’ back, and was left in the playschool every day from eight a.m. to six p.m. I screamed when I was taken home. At weekends I lay in the grass with Polly.

My fellow prisoners had now forgotten all but a few remnants and we clung together in our misery like Alzheimer’s patients. At least we were together, not with the adults. Even the boys had come with us, slapped into it at home and cajoled into it at Maria Montessori’s legacy learning centre. Whatever it took to make us be still and look reasonably content: we were nullified by brightly coloured toxic paint, plastic counters, and numbing music played over and over.

We spent most of the summer at the beach. I’d gaze at the sea, sitting in rock pools, placing my fingers in sea anemones and having my toes rubbed by baby plaice. Here I’d feel whole, the hole in my chest filled for blissful chunks of time. My family sunbathed, read magazines, made caustic comments about the day-trippers’ bikinis. Sometimes I met other children. We played in silence or pointed innocently at hermit crabs as our senses began to slow down to enable us to talk, language, like a virus, obliterating further my memory of what I had been. Seeing and remembering all that was behind us; all that had been before was fading further. But I copied the other children and spoke in simple sentences haltingly. We spoke them not to each other, there was still no need, but to the adults. I tried out inane childish statements. I’d punctuate my games with speech.

“Look at the crab.”

“Dog wants ice-cream.”

“Polly want water.”

“John is my friend.”

My mother’s and sisters would respond accordingly. “So cute,” their friends would say. My sisters would roll their eyes, knowing what I was really like, but it soothed them into believing what they wanted to believe; that I was becoming like them.

As the summer went on it drew us beach children closer to real school. We licked our banana wafers as they dribbled down our wrists and were lulled into euphoric sugar states that would quickly escalate to irrational tantrums. Our parents tried to remove the sand from our brightly coloured nylon bikinis which we had reluctantly accepted unto our beautiful bare skins: more constriction, more loss of sense and premonition. The sand sagged down the bottoms of the bikinis and stuck inside my bottoms and into the hair of the dog who followed me faithfully. Back then we did bring the dog to the beach, I had to be restrained as I would fearlessly follow her and wade into the water. It occurred to no one that I should be able to swim so I screamed to try to convince them. They turned up their radio to tune me out. My sisters were dispatched in turn to firmly haul my small waist back from the waves and place me back in the rock pools at the side of the beach. I’d stick my face into the water and didn’t care if I cut my nose on the cream limpet encrusted rock. My sobs subsided when the dog returned to bat her paw into the pool from the limited scope of the lead. We were given sweaty cheese sandwiches and a warm 7-Up bottle full of crumbs from my sister’s careless seconds. My mother drank tea from a purple tartan flask. Boats would go by close to the shore and I’d look at them. Their coloured sails were free to go where the wind took them. Across the bay and out of sight.


Real school began in September. Real school was horrendous, there I was unable to even stand up without glare-put down-sit downs. In the cattle pen of forty children the stench was overwhelming, if you’ve ever been to Montessori or sent a child there you’ll know there’s six per group. There were forty children in my class that year; the noise combined with the odour of green snot and mingled with chalk dust.

The boys had now entered into a deep despair, the final stage before their mind collapsed fully to a civilized state. But they would strike out frequently in violence against this caging.

I felt the despair as much as any did, but reacted differently, the pain it caused me acted like a magnet pulling me to true north. I knew that I must have been put in this valley of tears that we heard about in our prayers for a reason. The prayers came thick and slow. Hail Mary full of Grace, pray for us sinners. In the dull-grey chalky box of a school we howled for what we had lost. This restraint, after the freedom of the summer. We were wrestled down off cupboards and desks, asked nicely but firmly to colour-in shapes or outlines of tractors. We would rub the white page with dry crayons from plastic boxes. The thick stumps of crayons demanded energy to get even a mark out of them. Our longing for the beach was rubbed away too.

I liked painting. On Fridays I would don an old tee-shirt creating and getting lost in undersea worlds that comforted me, I would press my face into the end result only to be removed with a sigh by Miss O’Connor, who would always comment on what a wonderful picture it could have been. Once she managed to rescue one before I ruined it. It won a competition and ended up featured on a milk carton. I received a beautiful set of brightly coloured paints in the post that I was not allowed to use at home. They ended up in a high cupboard until after my parents died.

Miss O’Connor was a willowy woman in her early twenties. This permanent job had been clipped out of the Irish Independent classified adverts by her mother. I’m sure she missed the freedom of college life and had only got a sniff of it from the digs, the limited budget of college and every weekend home on the bus. She lived a lonely existence in a snotty sea of children. The children were hopping with lice that even hopped on her from time to time, resulting in embarrassing visits to the local town chemist. The village could not have been her idea of paradise, with nowhere to go in the evenings and no one to talk to about anything. In the staff room the talk of marriage and small children. No one to flirt with in the all-female staff room. just staff lunches in the golf club. There were a few attempts to set her up with disastrous inbred relatives to whom she knew she would eventually succumb, helpless as her brain like all of ours had turned into candyfloss.

As we ate slept and breathed the wheel turned and the seasons changed.

She brought us through the autumn with rubbed leaves. In winter we made snowflakes which adorned the inside walls. In spring we planted sunflower seeds in milk cartons on the windowsills and caught tadpoles in jars. She began to understand why junior infant teachers are exempt from jury duty, as they were seen to be unable to make rational decisions given the company they keep all day.

In the town she was known as Miss O’Connor, in private she was called Mona. We called her ‘teacher’ or ‘miss’ and her identity sank further into the gravel in the school playground.

She pandered to my passion for the sea with displays on the wall. Once she even arranged a trip to the beach with parent helpers. The day out turned into a disaster with pupils unrestrained running for freedom and not picking shells as planned.We were promptly herded back on to the bus in the car park. She was never to attempt such a thing again.

Before we broke up for summer it was she who recommended that I learn an instrument. It was my mother who suggested Miss O’Connor be my tutor the piano that my mother surreptitiously bought in the mean time. Miss O’Connor came once a week on a Thursday throughout the summer and this continued when I returned to school.

The piano drowned out the longing in a more pleasant fashion than school, with its endless workbooks full of tracing and its climbing up and over and up and down the stairs to the tune of the bell to lunch, playground, noise, lice and snot.

So I learned to play under Miss O’Connor and her benign influence got me through even the worst of my next teacher. Mrs. Ryan was in charge of the senior infants. From here she carried out her small town grudges and prejudices on the children of the people she had gone to school with.

Miss O’Connor began to babysit when my two ugly sisters went out to distant nightclubs in blue eyeliner and boob tubes. They’d laugh and iron the tops listening to Adam and the Ants, and if I had the misfortune to enter the room they’d dab blue mascara on my brows or on Polly.

My parents went to golf club at weekends, although they had never played golf in their lives and had no intention of doing so.

Mona would come over before they all left and we’d sometimes play with the dog in the garden if it was still light.

“I had a dog too,” she said. “He was a boy. His name was Rex, and I loved him.”

“Where is he now? Can he come here to play with us?’ I asked.

“Oh, he’s gone to heaven with Jesus,” she said and withdrew to the house before I could ask any more questions.

I suppose I was her only friend so inevitably she moved in with us. It made more sense and so she rented the flat at the back of the double garage. She cooked for herself in our kitchen and that’s how she came to meet George Christopher, my mother’s gangly cousin from nearby. Our home had been built on my mother’s ancestral land. Our home, the two story mansion with seven bedrooms and a double garage. The gardens were landscaped on the acre. There was a fountain on the front lawn that was never switched on. I preferred the field next door with its long grass.

My parents had lived in the US and were heavily influenced by their time there. They were still referred to as the “Yanks” before and even after their death though they had only lived there for a few years. My mother had worked as an au pair for a rich couple, and my father for a builder. When they came home he had promoted himself to sub contractor. He was away Monday morning until Friday night during the week; he even did occasional bouts in London.

George Christopher did come down on occasion to fix things. My father had no time to fix anything in our new house, so my mother would get her cousin George C in and he would come and unblock drains or to try to fix the dishwasher. Mona met George on the concrete outside the back kitchen window, he had attached a black hose to the outside tap. He wore Wellingtons that smelled of cow dung.

They had been courting for over a year by the time I was ready for Holy Communion. White dress and sandals with holy missals on standby for full religious marriage to god bliss. Mona came looking for an outfit with my mother and me.

“You are beautiful,” she said when I came out of the changing room. “A little angel.”

“I’d rather be a mermaid,” I said, uncomfortable in the dry white netting that scratched my thighs.

“You can be a mermaid at my wedding,” she said. “I’m going to marry George Christopher.”

I saw, in the mirror, my mother roll her eyes.

She got me a green silk-style flower girl dress. The netting was the same anyway.

I don’t know whether it was the monotony of school teaching or of living amongst my chosen family that drove her to it, but she walked down the aisle with George C in a white dress and sandals just like me.

I married God. She married my mother’s cousin George Christopher.


George was a nice guy but he stifled Mona or what she could have been. I was just glad that she would still be nearby. The newlyweds were building their own more humble dormer bungalow over in the next field. George C was set to take over his father‘s chemical laden dairy farm. He drove in arrogant fashion past our house on his tractor with link box. He never waved. His fields surrounded my parents’ house and were full of old tin baths for the cattle. They had a constant running hose in them, whether there were cattle in the field or not. Maybe they stand out in my memory because my older sisters regularly suggested what would happen to me if I did not do their bidding: I’d be made bathe in one of these baths.

My head was so full of sin, heaven, infinity and eternity, from the First Holy Communion lessons, that the lawlessness and lack of morality of the sea was confined to my dreams. I tried even harder to become like other seven-year-olds: childish, albeit with musical talent. I even won a competition, much to Mona’s delight.

“I dreamed of winning competitions when I was your age, but my father was too busy on the farm to take me.”

“Why didn’t your mother take you?” I asked.

“Mammy couldn’t drive. But she paid for the lessons.”

I pictured her mother as much kinder than mine, but as distant.

There was no doubt that my talent raised my family’s status down at the golf club. I’m sure they took full responsibility for identifying my gift. I excelled at the piano and got more lost in it accordingly. I ran home from school every day as if I expected someone or something to be waiting there for me. The postman brought me word—not of my past life—but of competitions and piano grade certificates. Somehow I always knew this wasn’t what I had been expecting. I was always disappointed after my mother opened the manila envelopes. She’d shout over her shoulder about their contents to my disinterested sisters and to me.

When it happened that she turned her gaze to me it was usually a notice of a competition.

She’d roll her eyes.

“Miss O’Connor has entered you into another competition,” she’d say in the overly loud and slow voice she reserved for me.

Mona had remained Miss O’Connor, despite her marriage, as she would for the rest of her teaching life.

“I suppose we’ll have to get you a new outfit though,” she said in a brighter tone. That part she liked.

I went to the competitions in dusty old halls in small towns dressed in a tartan sailor dress; white socks and patent shoes with my hair in a black ribbon Alice Band. As I played I sent my longing across the hall to the panel of judges. I scanned the audience as they dutifully clapped. I searched not for their approval, as they thought, but for something that would burst the bubble of tension that I felt.

Then Mona and I would go for a carvery lunch (Aunty Mona as I called her by then). Wherever the small town, the hotel was on the main street and served the same fare. Yellow soup with floating peas in tin bowls to start. Then lumpy bland mashed potatoes with gravy that scalded my tongue, poured over the stone cold tasteless meat and broccoli or carrots. All boiled beyond redemption. If I ate everything on the plate it was followed by a lurid yellow and red trifle. Only when my mother came with us was I allowed to order the chicken and chips, from which Mona had tried to protect me. The greasy yellow skin of the chicken congealed with the half cooked pale chips but was at least broccoli free.


My parents weren’t bad. And of course, according to the great karmic wheel it was I who chose them in between worlds for whatever purpose. Maybe it was for their money. It wasn’t for love, for there was no real affection between us. My parents were numb. Debbie and Jer. In an eighties Catholised way, “repressed” by small town Irish living. In those days being rich could set you apart from your feelings. Jer numbed himself with work. Debbie with spending. Together they conspired to hide money from the taxman and drink most nights at the golf club. Judging by Jerome’s red- and purple-veined, bulbous nose the drinking continued during the lunches with County Council officials and contractors. I was ten years younger than the older two. They were beyond redemption too, ruined by the money and eating too much red meat and too many potatoes.

I was wholly ignored but that suited me fine. When I learned that my parents had died in a car crash on the way back from the golf course, and that even their much heralded visit to see the pope a few years before couldn’t save them from it, I honestly wasn’t too bothered. This was misinterpreted as shock, but it was the sign I had been waiting for. I knew my life was about to change for the better.


Mona was eight months pregnant when she moved from the garage into the house officially, though she had been there from a time before my parents were buried. I awoke that morning to her stricken face. She had knelt down to tell me what had happened in a simple Catholic way and I imagined them floating back in the sea, happy at last, reunited with all. I smiled; Mona pretended not to notice.

I was curious about the coffins that stayed in our house for two nights before the funeral. Jerome and Debbie staring out at us cold and rigid but heavily made up to disguise their injuries, I liked looking at them though Mona had gently pressed me out of the dining room on several occasions.

“Come on now pet,” she said, the first time, bringing me back to the kitchen where she was making sandwiches with George’s mother.

But when she found me there the fourth time she didn’t speak at all. Just turned me by the shoulders and walked me out, away from the coffins and the photo of them at Knock basilica at the Pope’s visit. I went back to the shocked and the crying—especially when they caught sight of me—relatives and neighbours.

There was even a bowl of cigarettes on the sideboard. White folded sandwiches lay in a variety of dishes everywhere. Chocolate bars were handed out of every handbag and suit jacket. So when I threw up from pure sugar mania people cried all the more thinking it was the grief that had caused it. George’s mother and my older sisters poured out tea, from giant dull aluminum teapots with black handles. I watched as my sisters hugged distant relatives in a daze.


Baby Jamie blazed in to my life with bright red hair and thus came the abrupt end to my wait. It was like a blind that I hadn’t known was there had been drawn up from my eyes and suddenly life was brighter.

Everyone was happy that I was happy now that the hole had been filled. The hole they believed had been blasted by the death of Jerome and Deborah. I knew my parents had been removed as their task had been fulfilled, they had reunited me with Jamie. Of course I didn’t articulate it then, I was too happy. Just as being away from the sea had made me cry, he cried when I was away from him.

We were enraptured with one another. I loved him from the first time George took me to the hospital. The same in which I had been born. My parents’ had spent their dying hours there.

Jamie was red and squashed as if he’d come out of a shell. Mona showed me how to pick him up gently. He was swaddled in his yellow blankets. I put my nose down against his forehead and breathed him in until Mona hand pushed me back. I didn’t want to put him down again. I didn’t want to leave him there alone and stranded.

I was waiting at the door when George brought them home. I had been in George’s mothers but had run down the hill when I saw the car pulling up. George’s mother did not come down. George had to bring Jamie up to her, she never delighted in him the way I did. George’s father took no notice of him at all.

I stood by the edge of the pram in a constant vigil. Sticking my index finger down for him to anchor onto. His bright black eyes took me in as they changed to blue. They shone out from his red face with its wisp of red hair. I’d whisper the things I knew, so he’d know it was O.K. I told him what was coming, what other people couldn’t hear or tried to forget. But we’d face it together, he knew; he heard them too.

So he cried a lot less than I had been remarked to, as now we were together aging in the same realm again, though he too shuddered in an attempt to breathe the air. This frightened Mona.

“He’s fine,” I said to Mona, “he’ll get used to it.”

She smiled at me weakly, “I hope so,” she said, her eyes bloodshot and glistening.

She went back to work pretty soon after the birth and left a local older woman to mind him and me, I was often at home on one pretext or another. The other teachers said nothing, as they were probably relieved not to have to deal with me. They had become indifferent. My parents’ death of course was also assumed to be another reason to let my frequent absences go unnoticed.

I had never really made friends at school after the initial sympathetic bonding with the children who attended the local Montessori, after that the children drew away from me because we alienate ourselves from that we wish not to see in ourselves; that of which we do not wish to be reminded, we learn to drown it out and set our mind’s clock to school bells, dinners; Coronation Street.

Of course there had been the usual pairing off with my mother’s friends’ children but that had always gone spectacularly wrong; there was the time I removed all the Barbie doll-heads and put them in the cistern at the local bank manager’s house. That and other attempts to find me a friend ended with my mother gritting her teeth. When we got home, after an attempt at asking what was wrong with me, she would mutter to my father about it in hushed tones in my presence; there was talk about me going back to Dublin to see the woman in the room. Older local kids called names at me when they passed, as I played alone outside the house or lay in the field next door with Polly watching the clouds.

“Spastic,” they’d shout. If anyone in the family noticed they never said.

Jamie and I would lie for hours making popping noises with our mouths and he’d be alert to my piano playing, his favourite tune was “Good King Wenslas”, which made him laugh.

As he grew I’d crawl with him and the dog, I’d repeat his silly first words. We were together at last.

Everyone noticed the change in me, especially Mona, her smiled broadened when she saw us playing. “The little brother you never had,” she’d say, but never in front of my sisters.

Back then Jamie and I understood each other: in that time, in that present, we were happy. The present is everything.

We ended up sleeping in the same bed and he would talk gibberish to me. And I’d respond in, what became our own language. When it rained we’d hide under the covers pretending we were back in the depths of the sea where we had been happy before.


Before Jamie started real school too we even got to go on a proper summer sun holiday to Torremolinos. We had a two-bedroom apartment overlooking the beach that stretched for many miles. I thought we had moved here, I was excited to be back at the seafront. My sisters laughed as they slathered themselves with bronzer. They lay on their towels like fly traps while we stared in the direction of the sea. The waves lapped toward the pristine yellow sand that they put down every night and turned over with diggers.

George went to the pub by himself on the second day and stayed there until dinnertime. It could have been Mars to him, although the food in the hotel was chicken and chips and burgers. Mona was obviously embarrassed by his loud questioning of all that was not Irish and his obvious distrust of the place. Mona stayed by the pool reading. We didn’t play with the other kids, they stayed away just like the kids at home, even in another country there was a magic circle around us that no one could penetrate.

On the second last day we found a body washed up on the beach, brown and bloated. The man looked peaceful and we stared at him for a while, and then began to include him in our game and our conversation. We placed shells on his eyes and whispered in his ears in our private language. It was as if he belonged with us.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, George, George!” Mona screamed over and over until he came.

She dragged Jamie away; George grabbed me.

Later that day I saw police remove the body from the hotel window. After we returned to Ireland, she would purse her lips and leave the room when we played it out over and over again.

Jamie and I played on together oblivious in our fantasy underwater life. By the time he went to school, being the now-Principal’s children set us apart even more in the small village, teachers’ children were pariahs, informants; snobs. Their parents of course wanted them to play with the Principal’s children and dutifully made them invite us to every birthday party; we sat in the corner, occasionally making forays to the party table for jam sandwiches and orange squash.

We sat waiting for the sea to rise up and take us back to peace.

Aoibheann McCann lives in Galway, Ireland, has published fiction, non-fiction and the occasional poem in anthologies and literary magazines including Crannóg, Flapperhouse, Pea River Journal, wordlegs and The Galway Review. Her story Johnny Claire was shortlisted for Words on Waves 2015. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories. Follow her on twitter @aoibhmc.