T H A T O F B O N E
Riona Judge McCormack
Go to Halong Bay, everyone said, and so they almost did not. This was one of the things that had brought them together in the early days: a shared suspicion of what everyone dictated.
But when they reached Hanoi in their second week the city was grey and unlovely. The walls of their room in the Old Quarter closed inwards, rank with moped fumes and fish; the tannoys mounted on the streetpoles woke them from fitful daytime naps. And so, without quite intending it, they found themselves booking a berth aboard a junk.
“She floats?” Michel asked the guide when they first saw her. The Indochine rode low in the greasy harbour water, her sails loosely furled.
The guide laughed nervously. “In fact, this is very good boat.”
One of the other tourists snorted, quietly.
Inside, the rooms were larger than they had expected, panelled in warm wood. Brass fixtures winked from the adjoining bathroom. Laura sat experimentally on the edge of the double bed.
“It’s nice,” she said reassuringly to Michel. “Really. This is good.”
When they went up, the other couples had already claimed spaces on the upper deck, watching from behind mirrored glasses as the first of the islands slid into view. Laura rested her elbows on the wooden railing and leaned into the warm breeze. The day was grey still, steeped in mist. The great islands, weights of mounded rock, seemed to glide by on the surface of the water.
For a long time there was quiet on the deck as the day darkened and the islands kept coming.
“Heck of a thing,” one of the Australians said eventually.
Then the ship lights came on, one by one, and the talking began. People drifted down to buy drinks from the panelled bar on the lower deck. Another couple invited them to sit on a nearby lounger, the boy sliding up next to his large-chinned girlfriend to make room.
“Bloody marvellous,” the boy grinned. “Never been on a boat before. You seen the bedrooms?”
“Marvellous,” echoed Michel in his best British accent, and they laughed.
“French.” Michel inclined his head toward Laura. “Irish.”
They had just met, the couple explained. The girl was from Lancaster and the boy from Morecambe, but they had only found each other out here, while teaching in Korea. “Imagine that!” they chorused together, delighted.
They did not stop touching each other while they spoke. Laura was conscious of her own hands, lying on her lap, and the space between herself and Michel.
“What about you two?” the girl asked.
“Oh,” Laura said. “We’ve been together a long time.”
“Four years,” Michel said.
“Must be nice,” the girl said, patting the boy’s hand. “Knowing someone like that.”
Laura knew Michel was watching her carefully. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.”
There was a round of good-natured shouting from below, and feet on the stairs that led to the bar. The Australians had returned with their drinks. One, a piña colada in each hand and his shirt wrapped around his head, squatted in front of their loungers.
“What about it, yeah? You game to jump in the morning?”
“Off the top. At dawn.” He indicated the invisible water below with an elbow. “It’ll be amazing, yeah?”
She could see that Michel would not say no. The massed humps of the islands passed them slowly, black on black, the lights of the boat travelling no distance at all across the water.
Michel roused her from sleep when the light was just rising. Laura shivered on the upper deck, the boys jostling one another in their shorts, pale legs ungainly in the truthful light. The Lancaster girl had not made an appearance.
“You go,” one of the boys said.
Below, the water was strangely soft, as though not quite as heavy an element here. It lay in greyish swathes of silk.
“Chickens,” Laura said, and still looking at them she stepped off.
The fall was longer than it seemed from above. She was grateful for that, for not knowing. In the fall she had the luxury of fear.
Then she was in the water and it was warm. When she regained the surface she floated, easily. Above, the round moons of their faces watched her uneasily and she realised they were waiting for her to speak, cry out, shout. She tried to arrange her features into a smile.
“It’s good,” she called.
While she lay on her back they fell into the water in succession, splashes that were soft and swallowed themselves. Around them the Bay still slept.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Michel, stroking towards her.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Beautiful.”
The boys had begun sweeping arcs of water at each other, shrieking and spluttering. Michel circled her.
“I thought this was helping.”
“It is…” she said, and could not think how to continue.
“It is not a crime to smile.”
She blew out her breath so that she sank into the water, down into long seconds of deep nothing and the beat of her own heart.
In their cabin that night she woke to darkness. Through the portal window she could see nothing. Somewhere out there, the islands were still passing.
“I thought you did not even want it.”
She turned and saw him watching her, awake.
She turned away and he put a hand on her forearm.
“Laure,” he said, pronouncing it the French way, as he used to when taking her to bed. “Laure, shouldn’t you let it go now? Let yourself be happy again?”
“Please,” she said. He let his hand fall and she stood, barefoot, and crossed to the door.
The air outside on the deck was cool and strangely saltless. They had hung a rope across the stairway but she stepped over it easily, bare feet sure on the wood.
The upper deck at night was inky-black. Lounge-chairs loomed at angles. She made her way to the lefthand edge – bow or prow? she could never remember – and stepped on a lounger, and from there onto the wide wooden railing. The water below was a dense, lapping absence.
Beneath her, the junk rolled, slowly.
They had lost the child in the eleventh week. She had not wanted it, that was true. But Laura was not prepared for how she had felt. She did not know how to tell Michel that she was not unhappy; she was not anything. In the month since, she had been strangely numbed, empty and clear, like glass. Or water.
For a long time she stood there, balanced on the railing, while the ship moved on the black water. There were no stars.
“Chicken,” she repeated to herself, but found she could not do it. Like the thought of returning to Michel’s bed, she knew, this time, just how long the fall would be.
Over lunch in the bar on their last day aboard, she heard voices from outside. There were boats out there, small paddle boats loaded with biscuits, string bracelets, cans of Coca Cola, cigarettes. They drew up alongside the junk and waited.
“Not a blinking bit of peace, is there?” said the first Australian, still shirtless.
“Jesus but I’d love a smoke.” The Lancaster girl leant down over the side. “Here, one of those, please.”
Laura bent down next to her. In the boat below, a woman looked back up. She was crouching braced against the movement of the water. The prow of her small boat was heaped with inlaid boxes and ivory circlets, and among them a brass bowl.
The boat-woman saw her look and offered it up, along with a wooden baton.
“No,” said Laura, backing away. “Sorry. No, thank you.”
The woman stood easily in the boat, her arms out with the bowl and the baton, and Laura, afraid the woman might fall, took them. The bowl was surprisingly heavy. Experimentally, she tapped it with the baton – a short, dull clunk.
“No-no,” said the woman. Still standing, she took Laura’s hand in her own and straightened it, then balanced the bowl in the flat of her palm so that the brass base was barely touching skin.
“Yes,” said the woman, rising and falling with the water. “Yes.”
This time when Laura struck the bowl a single, clear note rang out, high as laughter across the surface of the bay. Long after the note had died she heard it still in her palm, and somewhere else too – in her breastbone, yes, just there, as though tuned to a frequency exactly that of bone. She touched the place.
In the boat, the woman put her hand on her own chest. A mirroring.
From the far islands a bird returned the call, long and low. It was what Laura’s people would have called a keening – and she wanted to tell the woman this, about the place of mourning in her country, about the rituals for acknowledging a loss. About how she had tried it herself once, alone in their Ranelagh flat with the noise of the night traffic running by, opening her mouth and nothing coming, on her knees on the linoleum floor. This woman would understand, Laura felt. She would understand the hold of silence.
Instead Laura leaned into the railing and called to the unseen bird. Oooooo-wah, she called, even though the other passengers were staring. Oooooo-wah. Something was loose in her chest that could not now be put back.
RIONA JUDGE McCORMACK has spent nine years working in international development, and has recently begun to write fiction in her stolen time. In February, she was awarded the inaugural Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize for her story ‘BackBurn’. Her work has been Highly Commended in the London Magazine Short Story Competition, and shortlisted for a range of international honours, including the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. She has been published The Irish Times, Southword and F(r)iction Series, among others, and broadcast on RTE Radio One as part of the Francis McManus Award. She currently lives in Johannesburg, where she is editing her first novel.