‘The Lagoon’ by Jaki McCarrick
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘The Lagoon’ by Jaki McCarrick.
A young couple walk down an unfamiliar path, searching for a way to the sea. What they find instead is darker, more mysterious – and perhaps a little sinister.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. She won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Prize for her play Leopoldville, and her play Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre London, was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Jaki also won the 2010 Wasafiri prize for short fiction and followed this with the publication of her debut story collection, The Scattering, from which ‘The Lagoon’ is taken.
She loosened her hand and walked towards the hedgerow. The holly berries were wizened, the haws dry and turning yellow. Smoothing her thumb across an ivy leaf, she thought of London, where there would be things to do on a Sunday other than walking and picking at hedges. At the turn for the Newry Road she could see the tide arriving in its horseshoe shape across the mud flats, after which, until Carlingford, there would be a five-mile stretch of beach; they had hoped to find a way down to it before the long walk to Riverstown or Gyle’s Quay.
‘Kate!’ She hated when he hollered like that, as if she were his property or child. She ignored him, and continued: part reproof for the shout, part wanting to get on to the Ballymascanlon Hotel for a Coke. ‘Over here! This way looks interesting.’ She trudged back, and looked warily up a long dirt track.
‘What’s down this way?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. But it might take us to the sea.’
They had walked the Newry Road many times but not noticed this path before.Two ivy-covered stone pillars and an oxblood-coloured gate with a frayed green rope dangling from its bolt marked the entrance. Nick unloosed the rope and pushed the gate across the grassy path. She felt uneasy. There was probably a farmer up there, a farmer with a large loaded gun, for this land was most certainly a farm. Sheep dung dotted the fields (divided by swathes of barbed wire that had collapsed in parts), rusty implements rested haphazardly by plastic-covered bales of hay. Nick was undeterred.
‘We’ll say we’re looking for our dog.’
‘We don’t have a dog,’ she retorted.
‘I do,’ he replied. A joke, for which she slapped his arm. She’d heard them many times, these quips, yet always fell into Nick’s trap. He seemed to enjoy his continual success with her, and she knew she had encouraged it by her feigned slowness.
She walked up the path with one hand in his pocket. The path ran through the centre of a steep mound. At the peak she could see the ruins of a limekiln. Ravens cawed from its jagged corners; ivy grew in tight v shapes across crumbling rue-red bricks; a lone elm presided eerily in the field opposite. On their descent a small redwood copse gave way to a dilapidated farmhouse. There were no cars or tractors, and no sign of a farmer.
‘See, it’s fine. We’ll find a path down to some lovely beach now.’ Just as Nick had uttered these words, a man appeared from behind the house. He strolled towards them, sat on the low blue wall of the house and lit up a cigarette. His white sleeves were rolled up, exposing his liver-brown, sinewy arms to the cold day. As he brought the cigarette to his lips, she saw that his nails were thick with dirt and tangerine tobacco stains. He did not carry a gun. He had a wiry frame, and with his cherub’s face and flat side parting had the mien of a choirboy.
‘Grand day,’ he said, shyly, as they approached. She felt embarrassed by their blatant trespassing.
‘We were wondering if there was a path down to the sea this way, maybe to Templetown,’ Nick said, squeezing her hand.
‘There was, but it’s all mud and quicksand now. I don’t think that’d be much use to ya.’
‘No,’ Nick replied, ‘we’ll have to wait till Riverstown then.’
‘Be the guts of three mile, Riverstown. Are yous out for a walk?’
‘Aye, that’s it.’ She glanced over at the house: the windows were covered with grime and bird-shit; the torn and yellowed nets hung as if at half-mast; the brown front-door lay open to a pile of detritus – newspapers, tins, bottles – all soaking up the pale sun in the hall. She thought, by his appearance, his yellow teeth, the state of the fields and house, the mustard shine to the embossed wallpaper in the hallway, that he was most likely a bachelor farmer. Perhaps his mother or sister had died and, like all the other bachelor farmers she’d ever met or heard tell of who were living out on the Cooley Peninsula, he’d done little or nothing with himself, or the house, since. His slate-blue eyes caught her poor opinion of his home and she felt her intrusiveness keenly.
‘There’s a good walk over there, down by that kiln.’ ‘Where’s it get to?’ Nick asked.
‘You’ll know when you see it,’ replied the man. The morose and ominous way in which he said this frightened her. She wanted to turn back. On the other hand, she thought, I have Nick. If Nick turned out to be inadequate protection in this tumbledown place with the strange, child-like farmer, he’d be no good at all in a big city like London: continuing would be a kind of test. She squeezed his hand to indicate that they should do as the man suggested.
At the kiln, the road curled around the field with the lone elm. The land here was waist-high with sea-grass and vetch and samphire. If they did have to make a run for it, she reasoned, all they had to do was climb over the hedge bordering the field with the elm and head straight for the Newry Road. Just as she was beginning to wonder what exactly the man meant by ‘you’ll know when you see it’, the path veered right, and there it was in front of them: a black lagoon.
The formation was glacial. A panorama of sheer, coal-black rock, the vast innards of a mound, loomed over two dark pools, one the size of a small lake. The water was absolutely still, the rim of both pools covered in a stiff, pale-green lichen.
‘It’s amazing!’ Nick said, his voice echoing till it passed over the heather-topped peak. He walked along the rim of the bigger pool, then picked up a large stone from the undergrowth by the hedge and dropped it in. The splash made a thick black web, a heavy plop. After a few seconds the pool began to make loud gurgling sounds as if it had digested the stone. She watched Nick break a branch, about four feet in length, from a cherry blossom at the mouth of the path then lie down on his stomach towards the water and poke it in; the whole of the stick slithered beneath the surface. He hauled it out, and shook the dripping stick over the pool before discarding it behind him. How had she not known of the existence of this place in her own townland? Who had ever heard of such a hidden lake?
She gazed at their reflection in the water. She thought she looked younger and fatter, with more gold in her hair than she imagined she possessed. Her hair was dark, from where had the gold come? She looked happy and as bound up with this person standing beside her as she could ever hope to be with anyone. Nick was his tall, strong and boyish self. His eyes, though, were greener, and when she looked back at him, she saw that indeed his eyes were greener, and that they had more life in them than she had previously noticed. She began to see beneath the boy and girl in the water, beneath the reflected clouds and the overhanging calamine-pink blossoms, to the murk that wafted below.The stone and branch had disturbed the depths; grasses and brown things to-ed and fro-ed. She pulled back towards the hedge.
‘There’s probably bodies down there; if you wanted to bury someone where no one would ever find them, this is where you'd come,’ Nick said. Again she slapped him. She did not want this thought, along with her suspicions about the doleful farmer, and her mother’s skein of objections to her and Nick’s imminent move to London (her mother had cried over it), all rattling around together inside her head. But Nick was right; here was a first-class hiding place; here, on the border, in the heart of high-octane IRA activity; and people had disappeared. Mountain caves and abandoned houses had been searched all along the Peninsula for any sign of them; even the newspapers had begun to refer to such people as ‘the disappeared’.
She took a gulp of the icy air. The space seemed primeval; in a moment a pterodactyl might swoop down into this cavernous gloom and make off with the two of them.Yet Nick, oblivious to the extravagances of her imagination, persisted in walking close to the edge. She watched him continue along the row of stones that divided the big pool from the smaller one, and perch precariously in the middle. Then, she noticed, just a few yards ahead of him, beckoning under the white full-bloom of a magnolia tree, a gate fixed to a charred wooden post. The gate was open and mercifully inviting them out of the place. She could see the tops of cars speeding along the road, and felt comforted by this.
Suddenly, Nick screamed. She looked around and there he was, hanging from the thin row of rocks that divided the two black pools. His voice shook: it’s pulling me down Kate, it’s pulling me down. She was dumbstruck. She rummaged around the hedge for the four-foot stick but could not find it. She glanced back at the pool: Nick was gone. She heard the same deep sucking sound that the stone had made in the water earlier, as if Nick had sunk so far down the pool had swallowed him. She turned, raced out towards the entrance, and screamed for the farmer. He did not come. She ran back to the second pool: all glassy, still as death. She cursed herself for wearing a dress then quickly hitched it up and tucked it under her knickers. She walked along the thin row of rocks, knelt upon their jagged quartzy tops, leaned into the black water, the rock edges cutting into her flesh, and plunged in her arm. It folded over her and clung to her like molasses.
‘Kate!’ she heard the voice howl from the direction of the gate. She stood up, steadily, furiously, walked back along the stones and, after loosening the dress, ran down the path in a panic towards Nick, who was swinging from the gate, head to toe in an oily black mud.
‘I thought you were dead,’ she said, slapping him across a wet leg.
‘Come on, let’s get out of here before yer man comes to chop us up.’
All the way across the damp, scratchy grass she thought of London; of the fun they were going to have far from the gloom of the border with its secret paths and neglected farms. Soon she and Nick would be in a brightly lit, bustling city, and their walks would never again have at the end of them, the possibility of disappearing – at least, not into an ancient black lake hidden behind a limekiln.