This was going to be a different story, something about Coot when he first came to the Hunters, why they called him Coot and all that business. It was going to be a better story or one better for Coot to know, a story about Esme and Thomas. Thomas is Coot; you have to know that before we go on. Coot doesn’t remember being Thomas, he doesn’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you. If you were to ask him what his first memory was he would probably say a sunset and maybe that’s because of this story. I know it’s twee but at least it’s true. We can stomach the twee, sunsets and all that, if it’s true can’t we? We can stomach the sentimental if it’s sincere. Believe me, this is sincere. Esme was sincere.
What you have to understand is that when he was born, Thomas or Coot, they knew he wasn’t right. The old woman who delivered him told his father and his father, a rough man named Leo, told Esme. There wasn’t anything else to decide. In a year, maybe less, Leo would take Thomas to where all the other wrong children went and he would get a good price. Leo always got a good price when he went over the waves.
Hold on. This is far too morbid. Do we really need to know that Leo did things like that? There’ll always be men like Leo. I met a woman once who told me that there’d be men like Leo even when the water had won. That got me. When the water had won. I never thought of all this, the flood and all the drownings, as a battle, a war, but she was right; even the water couldn’t really defeat men like Leo. Forget Leo then. Tell yourself that Leo loved Thomas and had to do what he had to do. Maybe that’s right. He wasn’t the only one who did it. That’s how they got by, that’s how they sorted things out. We’re losing focus here. This is like trying to write a story while watching a film. Out of the corner of my eye I can see some actor, Sam Worthington I think, eating chips in a hotel room. I’ll ignore Sam Worthington if you ignore Leo.
Now we’re agreed on that let’s jump forward to when Thomas was nearly one. It was the day before his first birthday in fact. Should we be calling him Thomas? No, let’s stick with Coot. It was the day before Coot’s first birthday and it was a lovely day. I really mean that. I don’t mean it like how you say it to someone you pass on the street just to be friendly. ‘Lovely day,’ you say and they smile and you smile. No, it really was a lovely day. It hadn’t even rained. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the grass was crisp under Esme’s feet.
There was nothing wrong about Coot to Esme. Yes, his eyes were strange but so what. And his left foot turned in slightly but surely that could straighten out in time. In time. She says that to herself as she walks with him up towards the highlands.
Do I need to set more of a scene here? Do you need to know where we are? I suppose you could be saying ‘What about the water, the flood and all of that?’ and you’d be right to ask that. Here’s the scene for you, concise and straight to the point; an island somewhere off what was the coast of Ireland, a small island, an old abandoned monastery and a few small houses, the island rises in its centre to ragged highlands but the sheep are long gone, along the west coast there are cliffs, the island is home to about fifty men and women and children, the men have two boats and are often gone, the women are very young, the children are all in perfect health. Is that enough? I could tell you about the graffiti in the monastery. It’s in the toilet. Someone, and I can’t believe it was a monk, has drawn massive grotesque cocks all over the toilet walls. The wall is covered in oversized cocks. That’s a quirk of the place. What else? What’s it called? It used to be called something else but the fifty or so men and women, or rather the man who liked to think himself boss of the island, call it Dry Rock. Do you believe me? Do you believe that I’d know that? Don’t answer that.
You can picture the scene then. Esme leaves the monastery and walks up to the highlands. Gorse. Heather. An old well-trodden path. Imagine what you want. Draw the picture. If I was more technological I’d do a link here and you could click on it and see the actual island on Google maps but then before the water some islands were known to disappear from Google map and some were enver real anyway. But I’ve never been good with computers so we’ll just have to stick with our minds. So Esme climbs the path to the highlands.
She is holding Coot. He is wrapped in a white blanket as babies always are. She glances at his eyes and thinks ‘In time…’ If she knew anything about transcendental meditation she’d see those words as a mantra. Calming. She believes those words. In time Coot will grow. In time Coot will be healthy. In time she will leave Dry Rock with Coot. In time, in time, in time.
And time passes. The day passes and Esme makes her way to the far side of the island where the cliffs fall down to the wild sea and because it’s warm she takes the blanket off Coot so he’s just in his vest and she lays the blanket on the grass and talks to him. Whenever she talks to Coot it’s always stories from her own childhood. See how stories exist within one another. This story is within my story and Esme’s stories are within this story and so on and so on. Is that too fanciful? Maybe it’s closer to the truth to say there’s just one story, one that’s true anyway, and that it has branches. If Esme knew anything about Norse mythology she’d understand that idea of branches, she’d think of Yggdrasil and the Norns. Fate. I should never tell her that such a thing as Fate exists.
Often her stories are about her dad. Sitting on the cliffs with Coot lying on his back on the blanket she tells him about how she can just about remember how her dad would look after her every day. She tells Coot how her mum worked and he makes a noise, a shout, at that and she tells him he’ll never have to work. She tells Coot that she remembers how excited she would get when her mum would come home from work early, like if her mum would just turn up at one o’clock when she wasn’t meant to be home until six and Esme would be able to play with her all afternoon. Esme understands that she’s embellishing these memories. They’re there in her head but they’re nowhere near as detailed. For instance she doesn’t remember her mum singing Little Sir Echo to her. That memory comes from when her mum would sing the song to Esme’s little sister. Esme was older so the memory stuck and ok, her mum probably sang the same song to Esme but she can’t remember that. There are other things too like how she’d be in her pram watching her dad make dinner or how their cat would always sneak into her pram when she wasn’t in it. She liked to tell Coot stories of her dad the best. In her memory, even though she didn’t really know him for that long, he was somehow magical. She probably understands how she mythologizes her own father. Do you expect her to understand that? Yes, to Esme, he would make up stories and even though they were probably just JRR Tolkien stories about Father Christmas that he was reading, Esme believed that her dad made every story he told up and she tries her best to tell them to Coot but her imagination isn’t up to it. Instead she tells him about television shows she watched. She tells him about The Tweenies and Fleabag Monkeyface and Tracy Beaker and Dr Who and Hannah Montana. He’s good Coot because when Esme reels off the television shows she watched he just follows the movement of her lips and makes the occasional bam-bam or ma-ma-mmmm noise. Are we getting side-tracked here? Let’s move things forward.
Dusk approaches. Doesn’t dusk always approach? It doesn’t run towards us or race at us. It approaches. Dusk is a man walking a very small dog. He is at the end of a narrow street in Paris or somewhere like that, Montpellier even, and there’s a haze about him. He wears a raincoat and has a walking stick. He approaches us from the far end of the street. He walks very slowly. That’s dusk. And dusk approaches Esme and Coot.
She’s already seen the boats returning and so she picks Coot up and holds him close to her. She lifts up her top and gives him some milk but he isn’t hungry. That was the only thing wrong with him as far as she could see; that he was so bad at suckling. He would sometimes simply refuse to suckle for a whole day and she would have to hold him there for hours against her nipple until he gave in. In time, she thought, he wouldn’t need to suckle. He would grow and it would be easier to make him eat and he might put on weight then too.
When Coot doesn’t suckle she cradles him and as dusk approaches so the sun sets. It was a clear day, we know that, and so the sunset is one of fire and burning. The vivid orange of the sun sinks into the water. Bit by bit the sun is eaten by the sea and Esme tells Coot about her first holiday.
It was years before everything changed. Isn’t that a cliché? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be throwing clichés at you like everything changed but again, it’s true. Everything changed because of the water and there’s no other way to describe it. Wait, I mean there’s no other way Esme would want to describe it. She could say ruined or broke or died but that would be admitting something hopeless. She isn’t one for hopelessness, not like me. Remember her mantra; in time, in time, in time. Mine would probably be; no time, no time, no time.
Esme tells Coot how they all went on a plane. They were going to Tenerife. She tells him she thinks that’s in Spain and she tells him how Spain was a country, how it was hot and everyone had dark hair. She tells Coot that she, because she was older than her sister, was allowed to sit by the window and how her dad sat next to her. Her mum wouldn’t look out of the window because she’d sometimes get dizzy with heights. Esme and her dad looked out of the window at the sun setting and they were so high up. She tells Coot that they were like birds chasing the sun but that the plane was taking them into night. She thinks that’s somehow poetic, that she wanted the plane to fly into the sun so it would never set but the plane only took them further away from it so the world just got darker. She tells Coot that if she could she would scoop him up and fly off to the sun right then and there and they would fly and fly always west because if they kept flying west the sun would never set. Coot shouts at her. He goes ba-ba-mmm-mmm-ba and she kisses him on his forehead and he starts crying. I could suggest that he was crying at how twee Esme’s story was, how sentimental it was. I’d agree with him.
As Esme rocks Coot and his crying approaches sleep she sees four men coming across the highlands. She sees them coming out of the darkening horizon. The sky is purple over there. There is even rain in the distance. This is right, she thinks, that they should come out of the darkness. And could we argue with her about that? It’s not sentimental to say that something was about to happen that was completely wrong. We can’t begrudge her that grief.
Before they took Coot she took off the smoothed stone pendant she wore. It was a pebble that’s all. It was very white though and there was hardly a blemish on it. She’d found it on the beach and it already had a hole drilled through it so even though it was amongst all the other beach pebbles it was something else, something changed. She wrapped the leather thong it hung from around Coot’s misshapen left foot. She tucked the pebble into his sock and when the men walked back down the highlands with Coot she stayed on the cliff. I’m not suggesting she sat there and wept as the sun set because that’s not true. She could have wept, of course she could, but she was probably beyond that. I’m not suggesting that she threw herself down to the rocks and that her wailing can sometimes be heard if you stand on those cliffs at sunset. I’m not denying that either. All I’m saying is that Esme sat on the blanket and she stayed there till morning. Leo came for her in the morning and within a month her belly was swelling again like it had with Coot.