'I hadn't stopped watching him since the beach... I felt in love again'
Molly McCloskey's new novel follows the fortunes of Alice, an American who moves to Sligo towards the end of the 1980s and marries a local man. In this exclusive extract from When Light is Like Water, Alice reflects on a romantic afternoon by the sea
That night we had a fight. Eddie came home soon after I did. He opened a bottle of wine while I cooked dinner.
Almost immediately, he realised I'd been drinking. He asked me who with and I said, "No one."
"Alone?" he said, and I said, "Well, I was out."
When I told him where I'd been, he said, "Why on earth would you go in there?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Well, it's not much of a way to spend an afternoon," he said.
"I enjoyed myself."
He rolled his eyes.
"Oh, don't be dull," I said, in a tone I hoped was teasing.
He looked at me, puzzled. "Is this the first time you've done that?" he said, meaning sit in the pub all afternoon. His tone was tinged with disapproval.
It was the first time, and yet I felt disproportionately guilty, as though this were a habit I'd kept hidden from him.
I also resented his judgment, which sounded disconcertingly parental.
"What if it wasn't?" I said. "Would you be ashamed of me?"
"Did you do something to be ashamed of?"
"I did not," I said.
"Then what are you talking about?"
What was I talking about? It was my first, flailing attempt to push him away. Even in the dimness of my self-knowledge some part of me could see that.
"I don't know," I said.
"Well, maybe you should think about it."
"I know," I said flatly.
"You know, you don't know." He threw me a look, condescending and gently dismissive, that seemed to say he'd been put on earth to indulge me. "Maybe you should've married one of your pals from the band."
I looked at him. He got up from the table. I hadn't told him about that night. I could've, I hadn't done anything wrong. But maybe I wanted to see if he'd hear about it, and he had.
Eddie kept me closer to him after that, at least for a while, and I didn't know whether it was out of contrition - perhaps he regretted having scolded me - or whether he was afraid I might be drifting from his orbit. It was around this time, during the third year of our marriage, the year before we moved to the house under the mountain, that we began to drink more, and there were many mornings I awoke with a sharp, thrumming pain behind my eyes and a quiver in my hands, and a feeling that we were avoiding each other's eyes.
The nights would begin pleasantly enough: we'd meet in town or drive out to the Point for an after-work pint, with a plan to come home and cook.
But then we would decide to have our dinner out, and there would be wine, too much of it, and instead of going home after the meal we would go on for a late drink somewhere because - why not? Every now and then the night felt like a wave we could catch, reminiscent of our beginnings. But more often an edginess or a melancholy seemed to make its way into our drinking. There were times I felt I knew Eddie less well than ever, and I was shocked by whatever chutzpah, or hubris, had allowed us to undertake such an enormous thing as marriage.
There were also days that reminded me why I'd married him, days that seemed to relegate any unpleasantness or regret to the realm of temporary blindness or simple misconception.
One afternoon, Eddie phoned me from work and said he was coming home early and asked if I'd like to go mussel-picking at Culleenamore in Strandhill. He said we hadn't done that since our first summer, and did I remember how much I'd enjoyed it?
When we got to the beach, he reminded me how to go for the mussels lowest down on the rocks because they'd got less sun, and to choose those with the sharpest edges, as that meant they were younger. The tide was out, so that the sand banks a few hundred metres from where we picked were exposed, and in the distance we could see seals. Eddie knelt on the rocks, his trousers tucked into his rubber boots, the sleeves of an old jumper pushed up to his elbows. He was filling a bucket and I was on an adjacent rock, filling mine.
When he straightened, he waved to me and smiled. A few minutes later I heard him behind me.
"Got enough?" he said, and held out his hand for my bucket.
We climbed down on to the sand and, for whatever reason, he set both the buckets down and put his arms around me and pressed me to him. I could see over his shoulder a honey-coloured sky, the dune grass bending on the slopes.
He gave my hair a tug so that my face was lifted to his and he kissed me, then he walked up the beach to where the rest of our things were while I waited with the buckets. When he came back towards me, he was looking first out to sea and then down at the sand, like a sad little boy, and I felt a wave of pity for him. It wasn't the first time, and I didn't know whether to feel alarmed or reassured, whether pity and love were mutually exclusive or whether, on the contrary, they couldn't exist without each other. As we left the beach, black clouds pushed in out of nowhere, and by the time we were on the road, fat drops of rain had begun to fall and the houses either side of us were smudges in the downpour.
At home, Eddie steamed the mussels in white wine and we ate enormous bowls of them with crusty bread while the rain fell thickly beyond the sash window. Then we sprawled on the sofa, refreshed and tired from the sea air. I hadn't stopped watching him since the beach - as he was driving, as he cooked, as he uncorked the wine - and I felt as though I were witnessing something quietly spectacular. I felt in love again. I had the thought that all that was needed for us to thrive was for me to allow him to appear, even occasionally, in this light. I imagined him, not for the first time, in the distant future, and I was sure he would age into the sort of older man I had always liked the look of, weathered and sturdy and thick-set.
I knew, too, that he would stick by me, and that that was not something one found easily, or cast too easily aside.
When Light is Like Water is out now, published by Penguin