Bags on the Estuary Front

Bags on the Estuary Front

Bags on the Estuary Front 1920 1440 Ashley Bullen-Cutting

There was a war-torn look to the mudflats that persisted regardless of the season. Summer and winter separated only by the odd shade of colour and confluence of life. Today, it was old life. Life a mere whisper away from ending completely.

“Do you think they’ll remember us?” asked Danilla, gazing into a sky as grey as her future. She was ninety-six with hair like candy-floss left too long in the rain.

“Remember us?” muttered Nycilla. “Hell, I don’t even remember us.” She was ten-and-ninety – hundred being a brother to unlucky thirteen – and a grandmother so great, you could trace her in all but one county.

Nycilla peered inside her bag – Nurse Matthews had said cheese and pickle and an orange juice box. “What the hell’s this?” She waved a neatly wrapped bloomer. “What’s this?”

“Perhaps if you stop moving it-”

Nycilla bit her tongue. Now wasn’t the time for an argument. “Egg and mayonnaise,” she spat, throwing the thing to the four winds. “I’m of a mind to put this off and get back on that coach and give Nurse Matthews a piece of my mind.”

Danilla stifled a laugh that turned quickly into a cough. There was blood; she didn’t bother to hide it. Looking into her own bag, she handed something over. “Here. Besides, there’s no turning back now. Our dice have all been cast.”

“Snake eyes,” grumbled Nycilla. She softened enough to spare a thought. “Do you want them?” She pointed a curled finger at her own jettisoned lunch, which had amassed an avian queue.

“No, don’t be silly. Eat. Eat.” Danilla smiled at the mess her friend got into trying to unwrap the food-bag. “What say we finish with one secret each?”

“Sheekret?” garbled Nycilla between mouthfuls.

Danilla nodded. “One revelation we’ve been holding onto the tightest. Doesn’t matter what. After all, no one will remember in an hour.”

Nycilla considered it for a full minute, eyes squinting. “You trying to play me, Danilla? I’m not about to toss a secret in the air for you to gobble up.”

Danilla smiled and held up a hand. “Of course, of course. What if I go first?”

“Why? What does any of it matter now anyway?”

“That’s the point. It can be as scandalous as you like. No judgmental daughters or embarrassed sons here. Just you and me, and those gulls.”

The dropping sun coloured the estuary a burnt orange. Nycilla groaned and stretched out her legs – tiny, broken things that answered her calls as often as ignored them outright. “Get on with it then,” she grumbled, taking a long slurp from her juice box. “And don’t forget, I’ve heard all your stories; I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“But, dear,” Danilla replied in a tone like butterscotch and honey, “you wouldn’t remember.”


Skittler Tom and the Fourpenny Clam


It was an August, though I can’t recall the year or day, just that it was a young one. No grey hairs at all. There were starlings in the sky and I believe a brook was babbling none too far away. Tom had bought me an ale as dark as a tree trunk.

He was a skittler – skittleman? skittle player? – and had one of those movie-star chins that was almost enough to distract from the belly four decades’ guzzling had earned him. Not bad, though… I digress. What’s important is that time and rumour would soon dwindle him into a shell of the (con-)man he once was.

We were in The Barney Arms’ garden: six Bedfordshire lasses matching the farmers drink for drink. Mirth abounded. You know what happens when any group gets together, though: morals loosen, and roguery ensues.

It had been a long-held rumour, perverse and rampant; a say-so supposedly originated by Landlord Mike and his wife Merta, pertaining to a fourpenny piece and a man’s clam. Word was that Tom was no longer dual but solitary downstairs, if you catch my drift? (He only had one testicle, Nycilla.) And, that it was the size of a fourpenny.

Now, a gambler I am not, but chances were that I had, what you might call, reason to have seen it myself a few moons prior, but money is money, no matter how dishonestly you come by it. Especially back then. And I couldn’t lose. Of course, there was only one way of proving such and so the task was put to the next Friday when we would ply him with so much ale he’d be near willing to sell his own son.

The reckoning came hard and not without a few regrets. Not I, though. Not then. In all, Tom drank eighteen ales and a hand of brandy before Belinda went all promiscuous. She led him behind the old bicycle shed; poor flop followed her like she was leading him to water.

There was a noise: a triumphant squee. Belinda came running back to us, eyes as wide as moons. “It’s true. It’s true!”

Now, men are a vulnerable lot at the best of times but hearing a noise like that with their trousers lowered makes them sore wrecks indeed. Add to that the fact Belinda’s voice carried and, well, you can imagine what Tom looked like when he edged around the shed.

He was still in his cups though and an outburst like Belinda’s had left him uncoordinated and dumbfounded. He’d never pulled them back up, and there it was, all one of it, low as a sapling and, yes, the size of a fourpenny, for all to see. We were all beet-red with laughter, spilling drink like it was free. As cash changed hands, Tom’s face was that of a child’s experiencing his first telling-off: confused, hurt.

He was seen less and less after that, and when he was he was all whiskery or stained with last night’s broth. The Arms’ skittle-team fell on hard times.

I became raucous and took great delight whenever someone would ask for the story. It was karma to me – a fitting reward for the man who had played fiddle with my heart. He’d been drinking, yes, but we both had and I had meant everything I said. Tom had just wanted to have sex – it didn’t matter who the thighs belonged to, just that he could get between them. I’d never felt so hurt the next day when he spoke to me as if we hadn’t seen one another for a fortnight, as if we hadn’t confessed a long unspoken love.

It was I who spread the rumour and I who instigated both the bet and Belinda; I wanted to see him hurt and broken, just as hurt as I had been that Tuesday evening after we made love and I spotted him talking nice to Franny Kane.

The next and last time I saw Tom he was scrabbling for pennies on the rain-slick streets of Edinburgh. I pretended I didn’t recognize him.

Time passed and, as he was wont to do of a Saturday, my Matthew brought around the weeklys. God, I almost missed it: an obit as long as a fingernail with nothing but name (Thomas Murphy), area of birth (Bedford) and an epitaph that could only have been from his son: Lately Lost, Always Loved.

They found him in an alley a week after I ignored him.


Nycilla had intended to lie, but the words caught in her throat just as much as the crust of her sandwich. Instead, she cast a mental net back as far as she could and caught hold of something she hadn’t let rise to the surface since she was fifteen. “Suppose you’ll be wanting to hear mine now?”


Daisy-Rae and the Dirty Eiderdown


Daisy was a nasty so-and-so and attracted problems like a turd does a fly, but I adored her like a sister. Our ma’s were cuddly when they were younger so we’d known each other off and on. She was a year older and dainty as her namesake, but as soft-headed as a sack of linen.

Daisy had gone and got herself a sweetheart. Sailor. You can imagine what I thought. Worse, she’d agreed to marry him ahead of him doing right by her da. She wanted me to be there for it; bridesmaid, she said.

We spent a few days out in her hometown just the two of us before she introduced me to Henry. He met us out on the beaches of Barleycove. I knew the moment they caught each other’s eye that it was something. Few men can make a woman shine like that, and few women make a man turn to chivalrous jelly quite so fast. I’m ashamed to say I likely remember his face more than my own ma’s. Guilt will do that. (No, I’m not going to tell you what he looked like. Use your imagination!)  

Now, as I said before, Daisy courted trouble like a sailor does, well, anything. I could see traces of the problem straightaway, it was the way she’d be sweet as pie when he was around and as meddling and judgmental as I always knew her to be when he was gone.

As the day approached, I began to become aware of the real problem. Not least, because it was I she asked to be it’s cure.

I wanted none of it but Daisy insisted I’d be the “enemy of her happiness” if I refused. I was fifteen, remember, and she was like a big sister and the idea of making her sad was like thorns in my undergarments. I agreed.

The day came fast now that it came with a worry of my own. Of course, in the dark as they were, our parents saw fit to choose that same day for a fireworks show. So, as they are often wont to do, problems started to crawl from the woodwork. But nothing, not even second-cousin Tomkins forgetting to fasten his belt before the three-legged race, could detract from the favour Daisy had burrowed out of me. It jittered me raw.

Daisy eyed me all night, appearing out of nowhere to flash warning, delight or just to make her presence known to me. If not for the spectacle overhead I’m sure I would have given the game away. Certainly, I wouldn’t have been able to slip away unseen when the clocktower bonged six.

The ceremony lasted thirty minutes. Henry looked love-struck by the fish he’d landed. Daisy, meanwhile, was all business, hurrying the clergyman to the bit when they could kiss and sign and leave as one. It was probably the longest half hour of my life – their next words not only sealed their fate but also my own.

An hour later, we fled back to our fireworks. Henry would follow much later, when the last bang had been lost to the wind and snores filled relatives’ rooms like the belly-rumbles of giants.

She was vicious to me all the way home, mocking the thickness of my bosom and the plainness of my scent, anxious, I think, that her absurd plot wouldn’t succeed. I shrunk inside myself and pretended not to hear. Few spoke to us on our return and we were relieved at the swiftness of our ability to take our rooms. “Where are you going?” she shrieked, marching up to me and grabbing my arm.

There was a tap on the window. It meant different things to each of us: horror in me and anger in her; neither emotions suited to a wedding night. She let him in and they talked for hours about what came next and when and where. I was hiding under the bed and heard it all.

Daisy soon told him to turn off the lights. He moved to do so and then, when the room went pitch-black, she yanked me out, doused me in her perfume and took my place.

I was shivering when he came close and took my hand. He hadn’t even raised so much as an eyebrow – not that I’d have seen, mind – and set about undressing me. You see, Daisy had known men since she was thirteen and had long since bled. She’d not told Henry the like though, feigned purity and promised herself to him and only him. That was why she was being so nasty, why as the days drew closer to her wedding she’d spoken to me less and less save to keep my mouth shut and be ready.

She’d needed my blood.

With something like that between us, whatever we once had fell like a house of cards before an arctic breeze. The next few days I feigned illness to cover up a different hurt.

We came back, of course, every now and then, but Daisy was always distant and “away at the library”. I saw the two of them from time to time: the wonder in their eyes from that day on Barleycove beach long gone. What was worse, and I could in no way explain or conceal it, was that the pain and terror and hurt that I’d felt that night had shifted over the years to a wanting, an urge and a longing. I was in love.

Secrets are like cats, Danilla, and they like bags just as much. This one came clawing out on my third return since Daisy’s wedding. I marched up to Henry, just as I had in countless dreams, but instead of sweeping me off my feet, he was the picture of stone: unmoved and unhearing. He left without a word.

Six years later, I received a letter. It said in English as plain as a schoolgirl’s that I owed her for ruining her marriage, for hollowing out her husband and casting their lives in eternal shade. Daisy’s youthful dalliances had tainted her, see, and left her barren. She ordered me to come to Ireland posthaste and “fix this by doing again what you did from the start”. I disagreed.


“These generations, they think they have copyright on immorality,” Danilla noted,  to fill the oppressive silence that followed. “With age comes the perception that we’re supposed to be good and proper and quiet as mice, but I’m tired of talking about cakes, Bocelli, and the consistency of my bowel movements. Let’s, just once, not pretend we weren’t young once, and go as we lived, Nycilla: imperfect, full of missteps and true.”

Nycilla turned at this, took up Danilla’s hand, gnarled folding over arthritic, and looked westwards at the afterimage of a sun long set. “Perhaps, perhaps it’s best they don’t remember us.”


Coachman Phillip found them three hours later: two old bags on the estuary front. He was out of breath by the time he reached them and had half a mind to give them a mighty pinch each on their backs where nobody would see. They wouldn’t have felt it anyway.

Header photograph © Lannie Stabile.

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