Through the unique cadence and moan of the ancient cavern, the stuffed filtering of dust coated the silky breeze. This island is beautiful—stretched broadly like tender limbs in awakening, and the sea permeates its glittery, minty aroma.
Niamh was sketching the ruins of Dún Mór when she first saw the old man. He wheeled his bicycle alongside the cliff edge before stopping, resting it against a rock and sauntering around the promontory front, and admiring what little was left. He saluted her as she passed and she quickly turned to gaze at the sea. The last thing she ever wanted was company.
After a while, she packed up her things and headed to the pier. She settled down to wait for the ferry, basking in the warm evening sun. And there he was again, ambling down a hill. He sat next to her down a wall and took a tinfoil parcel of sandwiches and a flask of tea from his bag. Old school.
She munched from her bag of trail mix. They watched the squabbling seagulls overhead, and one landed on the wall and eyed at his sandwich until the man finally caved in and gave it a piece of crust.
“I said persistent fecker, the seagull.”
“Oh, hah, yeah you’re right. I’m lucky I only have nuts.”
He craned his head over, a piece of lettuce dangling over the bread.
“Do you want a sandwich? I’ve got more in my bag. Cucumber and blue cheese.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll eat when I get back to my hostel.”
“Jim,” he reached out a hand.
She shook it reluctantly. “Niamh.”
“So, what has you visiting Inishbofin?”
“Well, I’m finished with university this summer and figured I would do some exploring while I’m not on the summer job.”
“Good woman yourself. Nothing like travel to broaden the mind.”
She could see the ferry coming to bay. She wouldn’t be stuck here much longer.
“I’ve got the free travel pass.” He fumbled in his bag and boasted the small card. “The grand plan is to gallivant every weekend ‘til the end of September. By then, I’ll have an annual appointment in Cleggan to get to. I’m from Killiney,” he added by the way of explanation.
“And where else are you planning to go?”
“Well, I thought I’d take a tour of the islands—Tory, the Blaskets, Skellig Michael, the Aran Islands, here of course …” She trailed off.
He had thrown his hands in the air and began rummaging in his bag again. He finally found what he was looking for and raised a tattered book. The Islands of Ireland, A Guide.
“Great minds think alike.”
He laughed. “Where are you off to next?”
“Only Ireland’s Eye. I’ve to work half a day on Saturday so I can't get any further.”
“A wonderful place. Many times I was there with the wife. Make sure to treat yourself to the fish and chips in Howth.”
“Just the chips. I'm vegan.”
The ferry was dock-level with the pier. More people had wandered down the waterside to form up a queue. Niamh gathered her things and when she turned to say a polite goodbye, Jim had already boarded. She saw him go upstairs to the open-air seats. Good—he wasn’t some sort of stalker. By the time they got back to Creggan she mellowed out a bit and contemplated if they should have exchanged numbers. Nah, too random.
A few weeks later, she was mortified to get a big wave and shout from Jim as their boats passed by each other on the way to Inis Mór, but it was June when she spoke to him again. Her boat back from the Blasket Islands was lining up to the pier when she got a tap on the shoulder.
“Niamh, how’s tricks?”
“Hey Jim. Good, good. Are you enjoying the summer?”
“Yeah. Got a few more off the list now.”
“Are you in a rush? I’m going to get a pint while I wait for the bus. Wish to join me?”
Niamh’s first instinct was to say no, but as the only English speaker in a boat full of Japanese tourists, she had spent the day mute, silently marvelling at the ghostly ruins framing the technicolour greens and blues of the Blaskets, and the vivacious shrubs.
“Ehm, yeah, ok.”
She sat at a picnic table across from the bar while Jim threaded his ways saying hellos to the friends he made that day. He then returned with a creamy pint of Guinness and a glass of red wine, and a generous bag of crisps.
“What’s a drink without crisps?”
They shared their impressions of the day’s excursion. Jim had fallen into a group of Americans who had adopted him as their own. He gushed about stories of them more than about the islands. Niamh discussed her struggles to draw the island animals, and to spark a conversation with passersby, which was for the most, lacking. Their laughter faded into a comfortable silence until Jim started up the conversation again.
“So, have you any plans for the summer?”
“Working again,” she grimaced. “How about you?”
“Ah, well, I don’t like to look far ahead.”
“If I had your time I’d go everywhere.”
“Frankly, I’d prefer to relax a little. I’ve to stay home for the foreseeable.”
“Well, what’s your dream trip?”
“The Greek Islands. I was there in the ‘70s. Wild and beautiful, just like the Greeks!”
“Hm, I’d love to go there.”
“Life is short. So what’s stopping you?”
“Erm, have to save money for rent and uni.” She squirmed uncomfortably. “Anyway, change of subject. Would you like to see my drawings of the animals?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
Niamh stared out the window and swung in her chair. Most of the office were on their summer holidays, the place was dead. Her phone suddenly buzzed. It was a text from Jim.
“Hi Niamh, how are you? My friend gave me two tickets for Skellig Michael. One is yours if you want it. Jim.”
The tickets to Skellig were like gold dust between the demand from rich Americans and Star Wars fanatics. She hadn’t thought to book the tickets at the beginning of the summer and reluctantly took them off her list, until now.
“Oh yes, life goals. When?”
“Perfect. My last weekend away.”
“Same here. See you at Portmagee marina. Saturday at 9am.”
She took a precious half day to catch the train down the night before. Jim was waiting at the pier, tickets in hand. He looked thinner with dark circles around his eyes. The boat over was as calm as could be expected of the Atlantic. Skellig Michael rose sharply from the choppy waters to pierce a clear blue sky. They climbed well-worn steps to the top, Jim pausing now and then for a rest while Niamh bounced from stone to stone. When they reached the top, Jim sat down, winded. She scrambled up a rock and stared out to sea.
“Beautiful isn’t it?”
Jim was still catching his breath. “It’s peaceful. As if the monks left some of their spirit behind. Good for the soul.”
They made a picnic of his sandwiches and her trail mix and toasted the end of the summer with lukewarm tea. Niamh sat on the wooden pier, her tanned toes kicking the cool azure water. She munched on fresh-baked olive bread as she waited for the ferry to Santorini.
She was leaving Ios today after two months working in a bar (though ‘working’ was a loose term for a summer of cliff diving, sunbathing and short-lived romances). Now for three weeks of island-hopping before returning to Dublin with enough money in her pocket to scrape by until Christmas.
The bells rang out from the white and blue churches on the hill, reminding her of Jim. She had never seen him again after that day in September. Just one text asking for her address, and the subsequent arrival of a Christmas present, clumsily wrapped: a dog-eared paperback, The Islands of Greece, a Guide. On a grey day in January she said goodbye to him, standing outside the church as the funeral bells tolled. A seagull came up to her, inquiringly. She threw him a scrap of bread.
She picked up her guidebook and stepped on to the boat.