‘Do your parents know you’re here, El?’
‘No, I told them I had exams, so they think I’m in Dublin.’
Orlaith gave a fish-mouthed Wow from the backseat, which only Declan could see in the rear-view mirror. El’s practised mendaciousness impressed him, even if it was unclear why her parents needed the management she gave them. She had her shoes off now and had knitted her legs into one another on the front seat, girls having a speculative relationship with chairs. Mo was behind him, hidden – he’d made Orlaith have the side with the legroom. The N56 clung to main-road status even as its centrelines faded and the verges leered. They passed along it, passed the fields frozen shocked open with lips of unkempt hedgerow, past sprawling cottages doffing Nissan Micras and brown hydrangea; low brown walls and a low brown sky, and the mountains pimpled with snow. They were most of the way there now, going westward. Limerick-born Declan thought it was funny there was a west up here too. He was not totally comfortable with the idea. He was not totally comfortable, now, in this moment, and blamed the gluey chips they’d eaten in Letterkenny, which Mo had complained about and gotten them free drinks, but which had nonetheless left them all stuporific. Declan would have revived the mood had he known how.
Here Mo was now though, pulling himself forward by the shins – ‘El, will you turn down the music a little bit please, the speakers are in the back.’
Mo had a wonderful sort of honesty. Asking you to turn down the music or watch your language around his brother – all this was nothing personal or nothing overly signifying, and if Mo wanted to tell you that you listened to music too loud in general or were generally inconsiderate, he’d say that, exactly. And because he’d said it, he could forgive it, and didn’t suffer from that repressive dishonesty rampant in Ireland, old Ireland anyway. If you were sad, Mo would find out why and try to fix it.
Orlaith did her bit to squeak them into motion, but she was tired and her effort was forced: ‘Has anyone made any New Year’s resolutions?’
Declan assumed he’d be the only one to have bothered so he didn’t pitch in right away, but to his surprise they’d all, except El, made one – Orlaith herself to be published in a proper literary magazine by the end of the year and Mo to get a promotion in the restaurant he worked in part-time.
‘How about you, Dec?’
With a smile, to show he was resolved but relaxed, he said, ‘I’ve decided never to tell a lie again.’ Or, at least, to phase lies out of his life and by next New Year’s have them away with. American temperaments could do those dramatic life overhauls, but Europeans were gradual creatures, and Declan knew lying was as much habit as anything else. He was fundamentally opposed to extremism.
‘What’s your favourite porn category so?’ Orlaith shouted, slapping his headrest.
Declan had a brief fright before he remembered not lying didn’t mean necessarily always telling.
Everyone said they wished him luck, except El.
The Airbnb was twenty euro a head per night because there’d be five of them sharing the sole bedroom instead of the advertised two; Louis the tender regimentalist was getting the bus from Belfast after work. When they did arrive, at a converted cottage low and taciturn in the lap of the valley with its key under the mat, they did not so much rollick as maunder in out of the chill, and Declan worried that, given all they had brought for entertainment was themselves, the mood might never recover. Once inside, however, in the familiar anonymity of IKEA light fittings, everyone brightened. The two boys started on the dinner, and El insisted Orlaith go on the music. Declan loved to see his friends being kind, and El taking care of Orlaith freed him up to go chop the veg.
Mo could not only cook, he could command. Declan exercised a softer influence than that, so he encouraged his friend to be the head chef, and happily watched him run the poky, ill-equipped kitchen-come-dining room with grace and precision, benevolence even.
He was pleased with this arrangement until he wanted to add salt to help break down the mirepoix, which Mo didn’t want any salt going into until everything was reduced down and there remained no chance of over-salting. Declan thought about adding the salt when Mo was in the bathroom but he reckoned that surely went against the not-lying policy and ended up sweating so much about the boundaries of his new resolution that he not only sweated the onions but allowed them to develop colour, a deep-charred unallowed colour, which was not in the plan at all. Mo replaced him at the big pot and told him he could do the rice instead when the time came. If he were Mo, Declan would have encouraged himself to keep on cooking – not mentioning the onions because the damage was done now, anyway, and trusting embarrassment to keep him focused. And probably the old Declan would have made something up about the extra fond generated from the too-far-gone onions adding complexity, but under the new dispensation he’d have to leave that bit out or maybe say it speculatively, because it was permissibly something he wasn’t sure wasn’t true.
But nothing was derailed. It was difficult to derail a plan like theirs. Tomorrow they’d explore the town and the fields but tonight they would simply intoxicate themselves and maybe swim and fall asleep.
‘So, El, what would happen if your parents decided to fly over to Dublin and give you moral support for your exams?’ This was Mo, crushing plum tomatoes into a bowl with his hands.
‘They just wouldn’t.’
‘But if they did.’
They were tired from the journey, and this was a question El would rather dodge. She couldn’t think of a diversion, however, and had to answer. Declan would have intervened had he known exactly what to say.
‘I think it would be silly for you to take offence to this, any of you, but all the same, I hope you don’t take offence to this: my parents hate Ireland, hate Irish people; they would never come here – savage land that it is. I think that’s why they let me come study in Dublin, actually, to toughen me up or whatever. And that’s why I picked it, because I have this buffer zone between them and me, and they can’t just drive down and visit.’
She started to perform now a little, louder, to put everyone at ease. ‘You know I love the sea, I love to swim, I love the sound of it, the – wait – the pebble frankness of sea spray and the smell of rotting fish.’ She smiled. ‘But I love the Irish Sea in particular because it’s this wonderful buffer between my family and I. And here I can hang out with you guys, and I struggle to express my deepest and most deep-set wonderful love for you, my friends. I’d like to preface this little holiday of ours with that, this – a toast maybe, great, thank you Orlaith – thank you and may the Queen bless you and spare you.’
Up piped Orlaith, ‘I take it you have no plans to join Declan on the no-lies crusade so, El?’
‘Yeah, where did you get that idea, Dec?’ said Mo, red-handed and oversized at the big pot. Declan had been expecting this question to come eventually, but he could have delayed it if only he’d helped El deflect the conversation onto something more benign. It seemed after one semester at college, your friends started getting curious about you.
‘I had been thinking about it for a while.’ He slouched against the wall, to apologise for the speech he was about to give. ‘I have this tendency to be dishonest – and it’s a benevolent tendency; you hear me say a lot that I am the man for the job if the world ever needs a benevolent dictator. But I do find myself engineering situations for other people’s benefit. I have ten ulterior motives at any one time and they’re all, at least from my perspective, honestly well-intentioned, but I’ve been wondering lately whether it’s my job or even my right to decide what’s good for anyone else, and moreso wondering whether I’m not just obscuring my real self. Does that make sense? Like, what would it be like to know someone and they would always tell you the truth? Always. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You would never have to second-guess yourself and if they gave you praise you’d know they weren’t just being polite.’
That was not untrue. Really, he’d gotten the idea from a Sam Harris podcast. When he’d heard it, it certainly felt like he’d been thinking about it for months, that the sense of something missing in himself was really the sense of missing this. But Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Jordan Peterson… Joe Rogan. Not names you wanted to be associated with in his circles; not names he would associate with. And he knew it was a Man Thing to take on an unreasonable absolutist personal philosophy and to stick by it even when it went against common sense, but he was a man, and a little desperate, and tired of impossibilities.
‘That’s very simplistic though, isn’t it?’ said El.
‘I’m a simple man,’ he said, unsticking himself from the wall. He cast about for the salt.
‘But it’s disingenuous, too. You can be disingenuous without being directly dishonest.’
‘Yeah, yeah definitely. I’m still working on it, for sure.’
‘No but what I mean is, isn’t that position of never lying such a privileged one? Because it implies you’d never have to lie out of necessity, or for the sake of self-preservation, or for the sake and safety of others. Do you seriously not see that some people need to lie and that there’s nothing whatsoever dishonourable about it? I do it for my own good and everyone else’s. And we love your benevolence, Declan. We love you. Who’s asking you to change? We know you’re always genuine when it matters because you’re a nice big old kind young handsome man.’
People were quite silent, but not in a bad way. That was a word they’d learned since coming to college – privilege. They smiled at Declan but mostly at El. It was his turn to speak, which he did, haltingly, embarrassed.
‘I had the same concerns in fairness, El. Definitely, I’m fairly privileged. But I did a bit of research around this and if, like, the example would be, you’ve got Anne Frank in the attic and the Nazis come asking what the craic is, you’re ‘allowed’ to lie there because you’re not dealing with rational human beings. Or if you’re lying to try prevent a guy hitting you, you’re justified lying there in the way that you’d be justified hitting him first or, y’know? But I guess it’s a case of respect. It’s a big deal to say someone is so irrational that you can’t appeal to them with reason. And I guess it’s… because every problem in society nowadays, right from fraud to genocide and murder, pretty much none of those would be possible if people didn’t lie.’
‘You don’t think rational people can be cruel?’
‘They haven’t been in my experience.’
‘We’ll disagree to disagree.’
They pattered out across the dense-packed sand towards the water, which receded into the darkness around the curve of the headland. The breakers at the mouth stole darkness from the twilight above them, tempestuous and remote in a bustling column and perfectly flat against the horizon. They picked up their pace in defiance of the oncoming night, leaving shallower footprints now, in their haste, or no prints at all when they walked in the quilted streams that ran gently, swiftly, from the clubhouse in the grassy crook at the estuary’s beginning out past their Airbnb, past the warm round light of the town and around the bend out to the breakers and the sea.
Five of them now because Louis had gotten himself there and gotten himself picked up and gotten himself red in the face realising he could have walked down and not had Declan wait and not start drinking and have to pick him up, so close was it to the town. He got so red that Declan wondered for not the first time today whether the truth were not a too brutal thing all told, until he realised what the truth was, and said, ‘Louis, I get much more satisfaction from missing an hour’s drinking for a friend’s sake than I do from any amount of drink, and the thought of you walking to a house you’ve never been to in a place they probably don’t have phone signal and us all, all of us, snug and ignorant inside is not an appealing one.’ And this was true other than for the fact that the signal here was probably very good because it was a holiday-home town, but he was permissibly ignorant of the specifics there, and the emotional truth of what he’d said was stronger than any wash of speculation.
Declan felt very free, and he hoped the others did too – freely thronged about in this cold, damp desert. Each carried shoes and a bottle of port, clinkering along, whirling and stamping. Thinking about the swim and very, very happy.
‘El, what do you think would happen with your parents if you got pregnant while on MDMA?’ This was Mo, whose mind was apparently far away elsewhere.
‘Oh, and the father’s black!’ Louis cut in, shocking himself. He was off the pace. ‘Wow, I’m sorry, Mo.’ And he’d meant, of course, that it would be a problem for El’s mysteriously possibly horrible parents, not for her, who was big in the campaign against Direct Provision. Mo thought it was funny, though, or it didn’t bother him anyway. The wind had come up. It gurned in switching yawns about their ears.
‘And yes, I’m the father. You’re carrying the child of a black Irishman,’ said Mo, leaving the mistake dumped askew in the darkening sand. This was Mo’s perseverance, getting his question answered even though the means had become awkward. ‘No, but I mean, what would happen if you told your parents that? What would really happen?
‘It does not bear thinking about.’
‘Think about it.’ He was making this explicit too, the fear. He was helping her to conquer it because only what was knowable, known, could be dismissed. And in the climate of Mo’s perseverance, Declan wondered for the first time whether El wasn’t using vagueness because she knew people would assume the worst – they’d assume the worst for this poor edgy white girl from over the water, assume the worst about her parents because their menace was so seemingly all-encompassing; because people came unstuck from reason in her blank, busy silences. And here was Mo, whose sensitivity did not stand in the way like his own did; to whom cowardice was worse than unkindness.
‘Aw, it would be just, bad vibes,’ said El. She twirled against the breeze and Declan watched her, nervously, until she fell into step beside him, Mo on his other side. He hadn’t done much drinking over Christmas so the bellyful of warming port he was nursing had hit him square and sudden and the overindulged-in chilli had bloated him out and shifted his centre. His usual stewarding role in a conversation evaded him, even as El and Mo dug in here on the bare sea verge. They reached the water.
‘I think it may be too dangerous to swim.’ This was Louis, and he was right. Good for you, Louis. He went in up to the knees and they could see him slightly braced against the rip, even in the shallows.
And they had drink taken, and the light was almost gone, and the flat banks of hard sand had given way to a swirling bowl of sea, churning dark and indistinct against the damp hillsides of the bay.
‘Spot on, Louis, I’m not telling your mother you drowned.’ Orlaith shouted her encouragement through a wind squint.
They decided to stay for a while, to take it in. No one could light a fag for the breeze. Declan wondered which of them would supply the joke that made a holiday of this moment; he would if he had one. Even if all anyone did was dunk their head in a foot of water or spot a storm cloud they’d all have to scarper in away from, cutting in off the sand plain early for a look at the pub. The walk had been fantastic. Turning back without anything happening was its own defeat regardless, somehow, and Declan realised this, realised it in himself, with disappointment.
But, here was the joke, Mo scooching in along the surface of the sand, chin-by-knee. ‘So, El, can you think of any instances where you’ve told your parents something you thought they’d be really pissed off at, and can you remember how they reacted? Do you mind talking about this, actually?’
El stood up and faced the sea, tall against the Newburyport blue night. The wind roared in Declan’s ears when he looked up at her and quietened down when he looked back at Mo, which he did a few times – looked back and forth – thinking how cold it was, how they were supposed to be on holidays and here it was, cold.
He felt sorry for Louis, who must be finding this very stressful. He wanted to tell them that Mo was only trying to help, and he didn’t much mind what El’s parents were like because he was friends with her, not them. And dinner had been lovely. And look, wasn’t this lovely, the view, the whole occasion. What was missing? And what, exactly, did they want him to say?
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