Different Ways To Drown

Her mother was humming in the kitchen. On her street, boys kicked a ball to each other, their shouts mixed with the sounds of her father and her neighbor’s chatter.

“Ah, here she is,” William said, when he turned to see Agnes standing in the gloomy hall. The carpet was scuffed. Her legs were thin and pale, and her hands clenched by her side.

From his position outside the front door, only fractions of Agnes’ father were visible — a chin, strands of hair, the hand holding his cigarette, his foot coming out to kick the ball that rolled toward him. She glimpsed a boy in short pants before William took up the doorway and blocked the sun. His hands came out in front of him and teased her closer. They were lined, empty hands.

“That one,” she said, pointing to his right hand.

“Ah, now,” he said, and she knew she was right, but the exuberance stayed in her belly.

She waited until the magic hand went behind the ear and came back holding the coin before she let the breath out.


Even now, she forgets to breathe — it might be the smoke from a fire, the way the light flows through a window, or the space a body takes up in a doorway that reminds her of William, before the shape fades into a recognizable figure, and she realizes her chest is tight and remembers to let the air out.


A yellow haze of sunlight fell through the door with the summer heat. A punctured ball rippled along the road and stopped by her father’s feet. There were no screeches of kids at play. No dirty, snot-nosed boys remained on the streets to run for the prize.

The boys Agnes’ age were too old to play on the streets. A few were down the road throwing stones and petrol bombs at the soldiers.

She’d never tired of the game. A few times when she’d guessed the correct hand, William had surprised her with a 50p. Those occasions were enough to keep her interested.

William looked older, loose-shouldered, not like a man of magic at all. The air was starting to quiver with the shouts and commotion. William and her father stepped away from the doorway to see what was going on. By the time she smelled the petrol, Agnes’ mother was pulling her up the stairs and her father was shouting at them to get away. The sun was behind him. There was a moment of quiet before her mother screamed.


The slam startles Agnes. Her heart is in her throat, a living thing that might crawl upward and out her mouth. How many times does she have to tell her daughter? Her fingers clench the peeler. The potato skins lie in the sink. It’s easier if she lets the peels fall onto the newspaper and wraps them up to throw them in the bin, like her mother used to do, but she hasn’t done that since she was fifteen years old, and she left her mother in the kitchen to run into the hallway.

Her daughter, Vanessa, is home, yet the clock above the sink is the only sound. The rain is falling on the window, a sliding, hypnotic motion that helps. Sometimes, Agnes’ anger is too quick to control.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to slam,” Vanessa says.

Agnes breathes, nods, and says okay, but she doesn’t turn to see her daughter at the door of the kitchen in her navy uniform. Times like this, her daughter’s vulnerability can be too much to bear.

“Hello, Mrs. Coyle.”

Sinead is here. Agnes feels a mix of disappointment and shame, from not having her daughter to herself, and thinking of her daughter standing in the hall with her friend, possibly putting a finger to her lips in a gesture of silence, or maybe just tense with worry that Agnes might come storming out in her rant of “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The last time she wasn’t sure of what she said and calmed to feel her heart had slithered back into place and see her daughter’s tear-lined face.

“Hello, Sinead,” she says, while drying her hands on a tee-towel. “Are you girls hungry?”

Her daughter has not stepped into the room yet. She’s cautious around her mother.

“A little,” she says.

Agnes has the flame lit under the soup. The kitchen is bigger than the kitchen of her youth. Her window looks out at a yard big enough to hold a bike and a wheelbarrow as well as the coal shed. There’s a garden at the front of the house, enclosed by a stone wall and bearing some potted plants. Agnes has not yet found her green fingers. There was no garden where she grew up. The front door opened onto the street that she hasn’t stood in for seven years, not since her father died and left her an orphan at twenty-five.

“Come in, take your coats off.”

Sinead is taller than Vanessa. She’s lighter on her feet, moving into the room and throwing her coat over the chair. Vanessa takes care of her, pulling out a chair and getting her a drink. The rain sends flickers on their figures. Agnes is broad and solid, a woman whose shadow takes up room. The soup is potato and leek, and Agnes fills up their bowls while Vanessa cuts the bread.


Agnes doesn’t linger with the girls. She drifts to the hall. Sometimes she expects to hear the clatter of a ball against the road and the screech of children, but there’s a green close to the house where the youngsters play. Anyway, things have changed. The last time she stood in her childhood house after her father’s funeral, Vanessa was four years old, and the street was quiet, though she knows memory can’t be trusted like that, because she remembers her mother pulling her up the stairs, and the soldiers at the door, as if she were in a bubble of silence, when there were screams and shouts and shots.


The girls’ voices are low from the kitchen. She hears Vanessa’s laugh and would like to go back to them and be part of it, but she goes upstairs instead and starts packing for the holiday by the sea. For two weeks, her suitcase will be at the side of the bed, waiting for offerings. She’s afraid that she’ll forget everything otherwise. Tom says nothing about it. She’s the same going on a day trip or to a restaurant, spending hours getting ready and always double checking herself, nervous of what she might forget.


“Mam.” The house is quiet. Vanessa is in her jeans and sweater. Her hair falls over her shoulders. She’s gotten taller but stands as if she wants to hide the fact.

“Can Sinead come with us this year?” she asks.

“There’s no room in the caravan,” Agnes says, though they know families of six that manage to stay in them. Lying open on the bed, the suitcase looks as if it’s vomiting out clothes.

“Da won’t be there for the first week. Please, just for a wee while.”

Agnes sighs and says no. She wouldn’t be able to do that. It would be nerve-wrecking to be responsible for someone else. She expects Vanessa to argue that she doesn’t want to go without her friend, that the holiday is boring. Even her father doesn’t like it. He’s restless when he’s there, smoking too many cigarettes with his need to do something with his hands. Vanessa is thirteen now. Her silences are heavier, and more personal. Agnes has caught her studying her with a look that troubles her. There is a hint of it now, and Agnes straightens in preparation, but Vanessa stays tight-lipped and leaves without a word.

She’s quiet during dinner, though Agnes suspects she’s spoken to Tom about Sinead. His long legs are spread out in front of him. His hands have been scrubbed but still hold flecks of oil from car engines. Stubborn dirt is stuck in his pores and under his nails.

The television is on in the room next door. Voices rumble toward them. “Sinead could go for a few days,” he says. “She wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

“And what if something happens to her, who’ll be to blame then?”

Her tone is like a wall to climb over, and he must have decided that he doesn’t have the energy, because he nods and takes a cigarette out of his packet. At the opened back door, he sparks the match. She hears a dog barking and little else. Daylight is still held in the sky at 7p.m.

“I’ll take a half day Friday, get down to ye early,” Tom says.

He blows out the smoke and looks at her, and she sees the kindness in his eyes, and something softer than that — an understanding that makes her want to wrap herself up in him. The first weeks of meeting him, she’d told him she’d left her home because of William’s murder, but it wasn’t until she brought him to meet her parents, that he saw her cry over it.

“She’ll be grand once she gets to the beach. She always is,” he says while his cigarette smolders on the ground outside.


Their bus stops at small towns along the way. When her parents were alive and she took the journey from Letterkenny with Vanessa, the bus stopped at the border. Soldiers with rifles boarded to inspect bags and Agnes held Vanessa on her knees with a tightness that made Vanessa squirm.

Now, the passengers shuffle in and Vanessa hardly stirs. She’s quiet with her shoulder leaning on the window and looking away from her mother. Outside the fields are a dark green. The stone walls separate them from the road. Vanessa doesn’t sit straighter or nudge her mother in excitement with their first glimpse of the sea.


Narrow paths lead from the caravan park to the sand and sea. Vanessa knows some kids from previous years. In a few days, the Dublin family with twin girls will arrive. Another family from Tubbercurry, who manage to sleep six in the one caravan, a granny, two boys and a girl with their parents will be there within the week. But now most of the caravans are empty. They walk the beach after they’ve packed everything away and had something to eat.

Vanessa doesn’t run into the water. She walks by the shore kicking the sand. Seagulls cry for the sea that looks grey in the dimming light. At night, Agnes is conscious of the waves rushing towards them and has the sense that they might drag them away, caravan and all.


The sun’s reflection is lost in the white rolling waves. Agnes has a blanket down by the shore. Vanessa’s in the water. A toddler runs into the sea screeching with the waves and comes out again, followed by his laughing mother. His father stays close to the water, not as tall or as thin as Tom. His belly protrudes over his swimming trunks.

Agnes looks to the place her daughter was. The sea is empty, and she stands trying to see her. That all too familiar sensation comes to her chest, a tightening like a screw that makes her gasp in relief when she sees Vanessa’s blonde hair reappear. She looks like a mermaid, disappearing and re-appearing above the murky water. The waves lift her up with white foamy fingers, that grip and ease.

Agnes isn’t worried until she sees the father look towards Vanessa and start to run. His urgency makes him topple forward. Agnes is sprinting after him, screaming and the mother grabs her toddler, as if drowning is an illness that’s catching. The water is ice cold, sharp like a knife on Agnes’ legs. She wants to scream at the waves to stop. She feels like a child, standing still, unable to move any closer, as if her actions might determine the outcome. Someone’s beside her, an arm is around her. She hears a woman’s voice. “It’s okay.” And through streaming tears she sees it is, he has her daughter. They look as if they’ve been spit out by the waves.


Vanessa vomits sea water and her little body racks with sobs. For hours she doesn’t stop shivering. Her legs are wobbly. In the caravan, she’s too tired to stand underneath the dripping shower before changing into dry clothes and curling up in the mattress. There are voices from other holiday makers, a screech from a child, a parent’s shout.

Agnes lies behind her daughter, feeling the smallness of her. Tentatively, she puts her arm around Vanessa, half-expecting to be pushed away but the girl only curls up tighter. There isn’t much room on the mattress. Agnes hangs on for dear life, feeling her daughter’s silent crying and the fear in her. She’s sure Vanessa’s eyes are open and she’s staring at the gap in the curtain that shows the darkening sky. Agnes knows what it’s like to lie like this. She remembers too well how she’d lain on her bed afraid to close her eyes and see the burst of blood on William’s face. No matter how many times her mother cleaned the pavement, there was always blood.

She feels a need to talk to Vanessa, to bring her back to her. I know how you feel, she could say, but she doesn’t want to talk about the soldiers searching the houses or the hours of fighting that ended with the army barricading the streets, allowing no-one in or out. The morning after William died, she’d heard her mam run to the local shop, and didn’t move an inch until her mam came back, empty-handed because the shop had run out of bread.

The sea is a low murmur, and it is a similar sound to the rush of voices that sent ripples of hope onto the Falls Road. The women and children saved us, she could say. On the third day, thousands of them walked miles and broke through the barricade.

“What a sight — all those women flowing through the street,” she whispers, and feels the easy shallow breathing of Vanessa’s sleep.

Her body is stiff when she rises from her sleeping daughter and opens the door of the caravan. The sea is a dark reflection of the sky. Stars ripple on the surface. There’s laughter from one of the caravans, a rustle of the sand. Her daughter stirs in her sleep. She’ll wake soon, shaky, and still in shock, though too ravenous to stay on the bed. Vanessa will sit curled up at the table, while Agnes makes sausages and eggs. She’ll leave the door open, and the cool night air will drift inside and sit with them at the table. The silence will be broken by the sizzle of her cooking, and then the rumble of the sea.

Click here to read L.M. Brown's compositional note.

Image: Inch Beach Sunset, Mr. Seb, licensed under CC 2.0.

L.M. Brown:
In July 1970, the British Army’s search of a house on Falls Road caused fighting that ended with the soldiers barricading the streets and calling a three-day curfew. Three civilians and a photographer were killed. The moment I read about this, I thought of Agnes, a young bystander who witnesses her neighbor get shot, and then is supposed to go on as normal.

There was always the juxtaposition of the Falls Road fighting and the roar of the beach in the story. In earlier drafts, Agnes’ parents take her away to the sea to help her cope. In later ones, Agnes is remembering the yearly trips she took with her daughter, Vanessa, who has already moved out. Agnes is regretting the strain that exists between them because she could never talk about her experiences.

It took some help from my writer’s group to realize that this strain was the crux of the story. I had to bring Vanessa back to the house as a young girl and show her growing up with a mother who she couldn’t understand and who sometimes scared her.

After Vanessa’s near drowning, there’s a moment when Agnes feels able to finally talk. Her daughter is shivering with shock and fear and Agnes could simply say, “I know how you feel.”

But it’s not only about her — she may be ready to talk, but is Vanessa ready to listen? And so, we have this continuous dance between people — those moments where things might be righted, or they might not, and the gap between those experiences that people share and the ones they cannot.

L.M. Brown
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