Chapter Six: Almha.
Mark woke up early on the second day of his summer holidays. He felt depressed but forced himself to get up and get ready to cycle to the newsagent’s in Wicklow. Thoughts of the locked study and 2000AD comic brought inexorable memories of his dad. The awful, gut-churning sense of loss had lessened but today would be particularly difficult.
In the days beforehand, he had convinced himself that turning fourteen would make it easier to cope with his loss. It hadn’t. Hitting this milestone without his dad around was unbearable.
What made it so bad was that Fintan had always taken the first week of Mark’s summer holidays off work; and they made the most of it: They got up at dawn and went hiking or cycling. Sometimes they played soccer. When the weather was good, they took Fintan’s yacht out.
They would come back from one activity, tear through the house getting clothing and equipment together and head out again, leaving a trail of devastation behind them. One day, Bree said they were like a pair of Tasmanian Devils, and the name stuck.
Some years, Fintan’s friend Hugh McMurnagh and his son Ferdia would join them for Taz Week. Hugh had been an engineer in the army and had been injured on peace-keeping duty in Africa. He wore a patch over his right eye. Fintan called him ‘Golly’ and teased him over it. Mark just thought it was cool.
Ferdia was two years older than Mark and had an insanely high IQ. There was talk of him having some type of mild autism. Mark thought he was overly particular and a bit fidgety but he got on fine with him for all that. Hugh often said Ferdia understood more about engineering, mathematics and the sciences than he did but Ferdia, for all his smarts didn’t seem to mind hanging out with the younger Mark. In any case, during Taz Week, age and intellect were set aside. It was an excuse for the men and the teenagers to do what men like doing best; behave like kids.
But that was other years. Before school had broken up, Hugh had called Mark’s mum and offered to take the week off but Mark wasn’t interested. Doing Taz Week without his Dad would be plain wrong.
Mark bolted down some cereal, fetched his bike from the garage and headed down the avenue.
Ireland was in the throes of a heat wave. It was a glorious summer’s day; the kind you remember for years, where the shadows are sharp and everything else seems hazy. It was a day of rich summer smells; of melting asphalt and freshly mowed grass and barbecues; a day where white contrails carved across the sky by silent jets kindle visceral yearnings to travel to faraway places. It was a day for laughter.
But there was no laughter in Mark. The heat of the sun and the distant shouts of children on the beach stirred nothing in him. There was a splinter in his soul.
He cycled down the avenue from the house, the sun beating down on the hat his father had brought him from Australia. He paused when he reached the road. A few kids on holidays with their families were playing soccer in the caravan park opposite. One of them saw him looking over the gate and beckoned him over. He considered it for a moment then shook his head and moved away.
It was four kilometers north along the winding coast road into Wicklow. Mark bumbled along in the heat, savoring the occasional breeze off the sea. He passed the caravan park entrance, then up a long gentle hill with wild hedges on both sides. At the top he passed the entrance to Silver Strand, a misnamed golden beach, and the road leveled. The hedge to his right was lower here and he had a spectacular view of the ocean. The vibrant green of the fields sloped away from him then gave way to the jeweled blue-green of the sea. Myriad sailing boats appeared as colored dots offshore. Further out, hazy cargo ships plied the horizon.
Mark cycled on. The heat and the rhythm of cycling had a hypnotic effect, and his mind wandered.
Ahead, an imposing 18th century octagonal lighthouse dominated the gorse-covered headland. The gently tapering walls of the tower rose to meet an elegant dome-shaped cap that had been added in the 1800s after lightning destroyed the original lenses and lanterns. A newer but equally defunct lighthouse known as the Front Light stood shabby and squat to its right, closer to the sea cliffs.
Mark recalled previous years when his dad had taken him out to Wicklow Head with its cluster of derelict buildings. Fintan loved the aesthetics of the Old Lighthouse, and had designed the logo of his architecture practice around it. Mark found it kind-of creepy. The windswept headland was desolate and eerie, and the abandoned buildings were somehow sinister. He always felt a frisson of fear and excitement as he got close to the Old Lighthouse. When he looked up, the height of the tower and the clouds scudding by gave the impression it was toppling onto him. If he lay at the foot of the tower the effect was amplified, and the urge to get up and run away was overwhelming. He wondered if there was a word for the enjoyment of fear. He hoped so; boys of his age could make good use of such a word. Wicklow Head scared the daylights out of him, no doubt about it but on some primal level, it called to him too.
“Towers have a subtle energy,” Fintan had said. “You can feel it as you get close to them. Your science teacher would disagree but it’s there nonetheless – at least in this tír.”
“In this what, Dad?”
But Fintan didn’t explain. He just shook his head like he’d said something he shouldn’t.
“Never mind, Marco. I’m just rambling.”
All this puzzled Mark. He knew towers were motifs of his father’s design style but he also knew this fascination and talk of mysterious energies came from somewhere within his father that was nothing to do with his being an architect. Still, strange as all this was, Mark thought he could feel this energy. He felt a peculiar compulsion to go out to the bleak headland on his own after dark sometime – if only to challenge himself. The thoughts of it sent delicious thrills of horror down his spine.
When they drove back down the access road, the Old Lighthouse swaying in the rear window from potholes, Mark felt a mix of relief and melancholy. Scary as it was, Mark felt for the grand old tower stuck out on the hill. He often had empathetic feelings for inanimate objects but never voiced them. Some thoughts were better kept to oneself.
The blare of a car-horn wrenched Mark back to reality and he found himself in the middle of the road. He swerved to the side and a car sped by barely missing him. He’d travelled quite a distance during his amble through his memories and the Old Lighthouse was now far over to his right. Shocked to alertness by the near miss, he focused on the job in hand. Harnessing the adrenaline, he worked the pedals harder. He was halfway along an undulating narrow straight, cottages and bigger houses now more frequent on both sides.
The hedge heightened once again to obscure the lighthouses and the headland. Soon the road widened and he came to the outskirts of the town. On he went, past the gates at the end of the lighthouse access road and along by the golf course.
The breeze whipped his hair. Now that he was on the flat, the pedals seemed to pump themselves in an effortless perpetual motion. Despite his cares, Mark was enjoying himself.
Ahead, the angular clubhouse on Wicklow golf course stood on a hill, surveying its demesne. Far in the distance, the soft curves of the Wicklow Mountains, blue in the summer haze, lay like discarded pillows on the horizon. In the middle distance was Wicklow Bay. The salt-water lagoon known as the Murrough glinted in the sunlight and the long curved beach along the Murrough peninsula bit like a sickle into the Irish Sea.
Now it was downhill all the way.
Click! The derailleur rattled into top gear.
He sped along the die-straight Dunbur Road with its honor-guard of detached houses, over the zebra crossing, then down the steep white-knuckle ride of Summerhill. Hard on the brakes at the bottom, he skidded to a halt outside the newsagent’s.
Head spinning and heart racing from the exhilaration of the hill, Mark dismounted onto wobbly legs. He steadied himself against the bike for a moment then chained it to the railing outside the store. Eyes adjusting to the dim interior, he went inside.
The store was an oasis of cool after the sun-drenched expedition from home. He got a bottle of water from the fridge and approached the counter. With practiced indifference, the girl took his money without looking at him or speaking once. He sipped the water and headed over to the magazine rack. He flicked through every issue of 2000AD on the shelf but none of them had the mysterious insert.
Maybe it was only put into mine. But by who?
Mark approached the girl again. She was reading a hardback novel that looked like it weighed more than she did.
She looked up, seemingly aghast at such politeness. Now that he could see her face, she was quite pretty; late-teens, with the air of someone that wished they were anywhere but behind the counter in a newsagent’s.
“Was there someone new working here yesterday?”
She looked at him like he was a particularly annoying wasp.
“No. Just me. So what?”
“Uh, no reason. Was there anyone weird or suspicious hanging around yesterday?”
“No, but there is today. You’re cute and all but I’m too old for you kid; buzz off.”
Mark blushed until his ears burned. “No, no – I’m not trying to ask you to go with me, I was just wondering if …”
“Seriously, get lost Dude, I’m busy.” She went back to her book.
In the shade of the store's awning, Mark took a long drink of the chilled water, adjusted his hat then braved the sunshine. He unchained the bike and pointed it back up the hill. Standing in the pedals, he started his journey home. His body occupied with the effort of climbing the hill, his thoughts took flight and turned, as they so often did, to the day his father left.
None of it made sense. How could he have just driven away and abandoned them? There were no problems at home; he was sure of that. His parents loved each other and they never really argued. When they did disagree, it was calm and rational – and it usually concerned Mark; like the day Fintan bought Mark his mountain bike:
“Finn, you’re going to spoil that boy!”
“Oh come on, every boy needs to be spoiled by his dad, once in a while; isn’t that right Marco?”
“It’s ‘Mark,’ for heaven’s sake! Don’t call him ‘Marco’; it makes him sound like some thug in a gangster movie.”
“Or a great adventurer; like Marco Polo. You’re going to be an explorer, aren’t you, Marco. Your life is going to be one great journey into the unknown and you’re going to explore every nook and cranny of it, aren’t you, son?”
Mark didn’t really follow what his dad was saying but he grinned and nodded. Bree rolled her eyes and went out to the kitchen.
Later, Mark heard his parents talking again:
“Look, I don’t want to keep banging on about it, but don’t spoil him, Finn. He needs to understand the value of things and if you keep buying him everything he wants he’ll have no idea what it’s like to have to work for a living.”
“And would that be so bad? Look Bree, my dad was never there. He worked himself to death to look after us and we only ever had just enough to get by. He had that damned stupid old Irish work ethic where every penny had to come through hardship. He worked hard – too hard -- and even as a child I knew it was killing him. I also knew – on some level – things didn’t need to be that difficult. I never want Mark to go through the hardship I did; I want him to be happy. I want him to know the wonders of childhood and the thrill of discovery for as long as he can.”
“Finn, you can’t rewrite your father’s life through your own actions or relive your childhood through Mark’s. Your father was a good man. You’re a good man - and a smart man - and you’ve made us very wealthy but you’re going to have to let Mark grow up and work for a living someday.”
“Of course he will. He’ll join the firm and work alongside me. It’s all for him; you know that, Bree.
“But he might not want to study architecture; might not want to join your firm. Have you thought about that? As he gets older he’ll get more independent and we’re not always going to be there for him. He’s going to need common sense and be as streetwise as possible; and if you keep mollycoddling him he’s not going to be prepared for life out there.”
“Oh, come on! He’s only a child. You’re talking like he’s about to head off to university or something.”
“Well, that day will come around quicker than you think and you’re going to need to be as prepared for it as he is.”
“I know you right. I know it but I can’t bear the thought of him wanting for anything.”
“You’re a good father Finn, and a great husband; just don’t spoil the boy.” She rapped him on the chest with a wooden spoon and kissed him. “And stop calling him ‘Marco’.”
Mark stopped the bike and burst into tears. It was so unfair. Summer holidays were what every kid looked forward to most but what good were they when they just gave you more time to think about the bad stuff? He walked the bike to the car park overlooking the golf course and the Glen Strand and sat at a picnic table. He cried his heart out until the whole knot of anger and frustration made its way to his throat.
“Why?” he screamed into the air. “Bastard! Why did you leave? Why?”
A pair of golfers on the tee looked over and one of them gestured at him to be quiet but Mark didn’t care. He kicked his bicycle and it fell over. He kicked it again. Then he kicked the leg of the picnic table. The wood hurt his toe through his training shoe but he kicked it again. This time he caught his shin on the edge of the wooden seat and pain exploded in his leg. He fell on the ground screaming in pain and anger and cried until his soul felt desiccated. He had no idea how long he stayed there but when he stopped crying, his leg and his heart were numb. He picked himself up and forced the rest of the water past the lump in his throat. After a few minutes, the worst of the grief had passed, and he thought about going back home. He had no idea what he would do when he got there but he needed the solace of his own room. His heart like lead, he got back on his bicycle and headed south.
No memory fugues this time, no appreciation of the views; he trudged on in the heat, counting the turns of the pedals. A while later he arrived at the avenue entrance. Stone walls flanked a pair of tall wooden gates. Polished stone plaques set into either wall read Almha. Straddling the crossbar, he tapped his access number into the keypad on the wall and the gates swung open. He cycled up the avenue; tree-filtered sunlight speckling the asphalt. After a minute he rounded a corner, and the house his father was so proud of came into view.
Fintan had designed his dream home before Mark was born. He had built it on a steep incline overlooking the coast, with the back of the house built right into the hill. The front was three floors of gleaming angular glass, uninterrupted by steel or concrete, which caught the morning sun like a glacier. The avenue ran three hundred meters up from the public road, then widened and ended at a curved stainless steel railing five meters from the house. Behind the railing was a semi-circular fish pond continuing right back to the glass front and extending the full width of the house. The glass frontage swept down and disappeared below the pool’s surface to basement level. From inside the glass-fronted basement, the view of the pool, illuminated by underwater lights, was that of a quiet tropical aquarium. The grounds were planted with exotic trees and vines which overhung the avenue, giving the impression of approaching a waterfall in a lush jungle grotto.
Mark stopped at the railing and dismounted. He pressed a button on his key-ring and a metal causeway, wide enough for two cars, rose out of the water. The causeway locked into place with a solid mechanical clunk and as the last of the water ran off the top, the glass-fronted garage door swung upwards. The railing before the causeway retracted into the ground.
Mark walked his bike over the rubberized surface of the causeway and into the garage. He maneuvered the pedals between his mother’s Volvo SUV and the wall, avoiding the empty space on the other side where his father's Porsche should have been. He couldn't bring himself to walk through the space it used to occupy.
Once his bike was stowed, he walked back across the causeway and pressed the button again. The garage door closed, the railing rose and the causeway sank back below the water. He walked across a footbridge to the front door, entered his personal entry code on the keypad and went inside. In the hallway a door on the right led into the garage area and a stairway led up to the first floor. He went upstairs into the main part of the house and put his hat in the closet.
“Mum!” he called.
No answer. He walked into the large open plan living area with its panoramic view of Wicklow bay and looked around. The bay looked beautiful in the sunshine and the distant curve of the coastline to the north, with the mountains behind it, was straight off a postcard. But there was no sign of his mum. He walked through to the kitchen and utility room area; still nothing. He pressed a button on the wall intercom.
“Mum? Are you home?”
After a moment the intercom crackled and his mum’s voice came back:
“Hi Mark. I’m up in the garden. Come on up, and bring some water, will you.”
Mark got a glass jug from the cupboard and filled it from the water dispenser on the fridge. He grabbed a glass and headed out of the kitchen towards the stairs to the second floor. On the second floor, in the front left-hand side of the house, was a spiral staircase hidden by a semi-circular wall of glass bricks. The staircase wound upwards into a cylindrical room which Mark’s dad had called The Watch. The room was eight meters across, with a circular leather bench seat around the inner wall. Mounted in the center of the room was a large telescope angled up towards a Perspex domed roof. A ladder led up from the floor to a metal walkway which ran around the inside of the room, three meters above the circular leather seat. On the floor of The Watch, a break in the seat gave access to a door which led out into the roof garden.
The Watch protruded from the top of the house where the glass and metal roof over the second floor bedrooms sloped back and joined seamlessly with the brow of the hill. Where the steel merged with the earth, the garden swept back from the edge, bounded by a railing at the front and brick walls at the sides that met in a semi-circle at the back. The garden had a clipped lawn surrounded by pebbled paths. At the back of the garden, in the semi-circle, was a rockery with a water feature from where neat flowerbeds ran to the front of the garden on either side. The door from The Watch opened into the front left side of the garden.
Mark walked out into the garden and saw his mum kneeling at one of the flower beds with a trowel. He brought the jug of water over to her and poured a glass for her.
“Oh thanks Mark; I was parched, and I was too lazy to go all the way down to the kitchen. Whoo, it’s hot!”
She took off her sun hat and fanned herself with it. Mark wished he’d brought his.
“Where did you go?” she asked, standing up and sipping her water.
“Into Wicklow; just for a cycle,” he said.
“I hope you were careful on the road. You know they drive like lunatics along there. Want some?” She proffered the glass. Mark shook his head and looked at his feet.
“No thanks. I’m going back inside in a minute.”
She cocked her head and considered him for a moment. He looked back at her and she could see the hurt in him. Tears sprang to her eyes and she pulled him to her.
“Oh Mark. You can’t stay inside for the whole summer.”
“But I’ve just been out.”
“I know, I know, but before you’d have been out all day.”
She cradled his head and stroked his hair. He leaned into her shoulder for a moment then pulled away.
“I’m OK, Mum.”
She held him at arms’ length and regarded him. “Are you sure?”
“OK then. I’ll be done in an hour and I’ll make us some lunch.”
“Cool. I’ll be in my room.”
Well, that was a fat lot of help!
Mark was in his room poring over the haikus. His mother's lunchtime explanation of cryptic clues, anagrams, common abbreviations and keywords had been fascinating, and a lot of it went over his head but he was starting to see the attraction of such puzzles. And that was all very well but none of it seemed applicable to the haikus.
“When all else fails,” his mother had said, “break the clues into smaller parts and solve those. It doesn’t always work but sometimes it gives you a fresh perspective.”
Mark tried that but those fresh perspectives were being elusive. He had a notepad covered with words and parts of words but he hadn’t found any anagrams, hidden words or abbreviations. He was about to read the haikus again when his cell rang. The screen said “Ferdia.” Mark groaned. He wasn’t sure he wanted to speak to Ferdia. The last thing he wanted was to burst into tears on the phone, and given that his dad had still been around the last time he and Ferdia had spoken, there was a real danger of that. The phone continued to buzz in his hand. Almost without realizing it, he pressed the Answer button and said “Hi Ferd.”
“Hi Mark. How are you doing?”
“Uh, I’m fine!” he said, his voice just a little too chirpy to be believable.
“Listen, I got your text, and I want to help, whatever the problem is.”
“The text you sent me earlier.”
“I never sent you a text, Ferd.”
“Yes, you did. I’ve got a text here from you that says: ‘Hi Ferd. Need ur help. Can u call me?’”
Ferdia emphasized the ur and u to show his disdain for text-speak.
“You sent it at half-ten this morning.”
“But I never sent you a text this morning.”
“Really? OK, I must have gotten it mixed up. Anyway, what are you up to?”
“Nothing much. Well, I’m trying to figure out a puzzle. Well, I think it’s a puzzle; it might not be.”
There was a moment of hesitation as Ferdia digested this.
“How can you not know if a puzzle is a puzzle or not? I mean... OK, Mark; that doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, there’s this poem my dad left for me in his computer...”
Mark told Ferdia the story of finding the haikus but left out the freaky comic book page.
Ferdia whistled. His voice carried admiration and a growing excitement.
“Wow! Good work, Mark. What do the haikus say?”
Mark read the three verses down the phone.
“Well, it certainly sounds like a puzzle; I mean with all that stuff about cracking the hidden codes. Do you want me to help you solve it?”
“Um, yeah sure. I mean, I’ve been looking at it for ages and I haven’t a clue. I was going to show it to my mum.”
“No! Don’t do that. Your dad wanted you to figure this out. If it’s something he wanted your mum to know he’d have just told her.”
“And what if it was something he didn’t want your mum to know? I mean, he hid it in the computer in an account under your name. I’m sure he wanted only you to know about it.”
“Mark, can you email those haikus to me? I’ll read them and see if I can come up with anything.”
“Uh, yeah, OK. I’ll go back to my dad’s computer and send them from there.”
“Good. This is exciting. A hidden message from your dad! Have you heard from him?”
“Uh, no. Nothing. But we still...” Mark’s voice trailed off.
Ferdia realized he had been insensitive.
“Mark, I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say. I don’t know how to talk about things like this.”
“It’s OK. It’s the same in school.” Mark’s voice started to crack. “People just stopped talking to me. Even my friends don’t call any more.”
“I’m so sorry Mark. It’s a really horrible thing to happen.”
Mark could tell this was just something Ferdia had learned to say in such situations. He couldn’t genuinely empathize with Mark. There were a few moments of heavy silence.
“Any... anyway, listen; after I got that text from … well, from whoever, I asked my mum if we could drive down and see you. My dad’s already down in Wicklow working on some engineering job. So my mum was wondering if your mum was interested in playing golf tomorrow. She was going to call my dad and find out which hotel he’s staying in and we were going to stay there. Even if you didn’t text me it sounds like you could use my help with those haikus anyway. What do you think?”
“Um, yeah sure. I’ll ask my mum.”
Mark brought the phone down to Bree. Her eyes brightened when she heard the McMurnaghs were coming down. She asked Ferdia to put his mum on the phone.
It was arranged in minutes. Bree wouldn’t hear of them staying in a hotel: Kiva and Ferdia would stay in Almha for a few days. There was loads of room; besides, Mark could use the company, and having Ferdia around would give her a break from worrying about him.
Bree handed the cellphone back to him. As she did she noticed a message icon on the screen.
“Hey, you have an answer-phone message.”
Mark looked askance at her.
“Mum; 21st century! They call it voicemail these days.”
“Oh well pardon me! You have a voicemail. Maybe it’s one of your friends wanting you to go to the beach or something.” I hope.
Mark remembered the missed call from Niamh the night before. He took the phone and went up to the roof garden. Sitting on a shaded bench he called his voicemail service. Niamh’s excited voice spilled from the phone. She told of men and trucks and strange lights up at the Old Lighthouse, and the cat being spooked, and her wanting to go up there and take a look.
Mark stared at the phone. Weird lights at the Old Lighthouse? Freaked-out cats? Was everyone’s life going bonkers? He walked to the front of the roof garden and looked over towards the Old Lighthouse. There were no trucks or anything else over there. The area was abandoned.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed Niamh’s number. Her cell rang a few times then went to voicemail. He left her a quick apology for not calling her back the previous night and rang off.
He watched the lighthouse for a few more minutes then shrugged and looked around the garden. He wondered how to kill time until Ferdia arrived. He knew he wasn’t going to get any further with the haikus and there wasn’t any point in hanging around the house. Maybe the beach wasn’t such a bad idea. He was bound to meet somebody he knew down there. OK, the beach it was! He went down to his room and grabbed his rucksack. He shoved his swimming shorts, sun-block and a large beach towel into it. Before he went downstairs, he let himself into the study and emailed the haikus to Ferdia. With his rucksack over his shoulder, he went down to the garage and unlocked his bike. He called his mum on the garage intercom, told her where he was going, and off he went. Bree was delighted he seemed happier today.
She was even more delighted when he cycled back up the avenue at tea time with a smile, a tanned face and the McMurnagh’s car behind him.
After dinner, Bree and Kiva settled down in the living room and got deep in conversation. Mark and Ferdia took the opportunity to sneak into the study and examine the haikus. A couple of fruitless hours later they gave up and joined the women downstairs. After hot chocolate, Mark felt exhausted and said he was going to bed. Ferdia excused himself too and followed Mark upstairs. He took the haiku printout from Mark's room and retired to one of the guest bedrooms. Mark got under the covers and was asleep in minutes.