Two ladies in their sixties made ground through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. The sky above Lough Gill was deep blue and the world was fat on the blood of summer. The speed limit was carefully abided and all the turns were slowed for. There was the carnival air of a fine Saturday in June. A vintage car show had drawn a crowd in 1920s boaters and blazers to Kilmore; the old Fords and Triumphs honked cheerfully in the sun, and the ladies as they passed by smiled and waved. There was a lengthy queue for the ferry ride to the lake isle of Inishfree, there were castles to be visited, and way-marked walks to be hotly trailed. All the shaded tables outside the village pubs were full and tinkled with glasses and laughter, and children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.
‘When it gets a good old lick of weather at all,’ Ernestine said, ‘this is one powerful country.’
‘No place to compare,’ Kit sighed, and the summer growth swished heavily against the Toyota’s side windows on a tight bend after Tully.
Ernestine was big, with the high colour of a carnivore, and her haunches strained a little against the capacity of her cream linen trousers in the confined space of the driver’s seat. Her mottled, fleshy arms were held tensely erect as she steered – she had learned to drive later in life. Kit, slightly the younger, was long-necked, tightly permed, and thin as a cable. She had a darting glance that scanned the country they passed through and by habit she drew her companion’s attention to places and people of interest.
‘Would they be hair extensions?’ she wondered, as they passed a young blonde pushing a pram along the roadside verge.
‘You can bet on it,’ Ernestine said. ‘The way they’re streaked with that silvery-looking, kind of . . .’
‘Cheap-looking,’ Kit said.
‘A young mother,’ Ernestine said.
‘Got up like a tuppenny whore,’ Kit said.
‘The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?’
‘I am watching. And that horrible, horrible stonewash denim!’
‘Where would the whore be headed for, Kit?’ Kit consulted the road map.
‘Leckaun is the next place along,’ she said. ‘Only a stretch up the road from here. Her ladyship is headed into a pub, no doubt.’
‘Drinking cider with fellas with earrings and tattoos,’ Ernestine said. ‘In by a pool table. In a dank old back room. Dank!’
‘You can only imagine,’ said Kit, and she made the sign of the cross. ‘A jukebox and beer barrels and cocaine in the toilets. The misfortunate infant left to its own devices.’
‘Would we nearly stall for a while in Leckaun, Kit?’
Kit pondered this a moment.
‘No,’ she decided, ‘we’ll hit on for the castle. There’ll be a nice crowd there for sure.’
Onwards through the county the Toyota mildly sped, and the ladies had the windows buzzed down a little for breeze: it brought the medieval scent of the old-growth woods. They had been on the road since early morning but there was no tiredness yet – the excitement of the outing countered that.
‘A Cornetto would go down a treat,’ Ernestine said.
‘Ice-cream weather most certainly,’ Kit replied.
They turned to smile at each other. They hoped to have the need to buy ice creams soon enough, and more than two.
Castles were good. The car park was almost entirely full. Ernestine manoeuvred – after a couple of chubby attempts that brought sweat to her forehead – into the last available space. As the engine cut the car filled with the sound of anxious birds and the nearby chatter of the castle visitors. For a moment, the ladies pleasantly listened – they did love a summer-afternoon crowd. The lake waters the castle kept guard of sat as heavily as the blue sky above; each was a suspension of the other.
‘Or would we chance a scone, Kit?’
‘It would hardly put us in the ground, Ernestine.’
The coffee shop, housed in a sensitive glass extension to the castle, was beautifully busy. Bored dads and tired mams lolled there over gazpacho soup and expensive sandwiches – there was organic cola and baked treats for the kiddies. Ernestine and Kit took their places in the thick of it all. Often, in the quiet winter months, back in the bungalow, in the midlands, they spoke of how it was they were perceived in the world. What were they taken for, they wondered, out there amid the light and gatherings of summer? Maiden aunts, they supposed, or a pair of nuns who had left – after some shabby soul-wrenching – their order, or maybe as discreet lesbians just a little too aged for openness. What was certain was they would be taken for gentle, kind souls with their aunt-like smiles to seal the contrivance.
KEVIN BARRY is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Dark Lies the Island. His debut novel, City of Bohane, was a New York Times Notable Book, won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, was short-listed for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the Costa First Novel Award, and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature for There Are Little Kingdoms, his debut story collection. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Best European Fiction, among other places. He also works as a screenwriter and playwright. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.
Excerpt from “Ernestine and Kit,” from Dark Lies the Island. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Barry. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.