Published in 2015 in aid of The Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, Paul contributed the poem The Stranger He Owes the Most.
The Stranger He Owes the Most
When the boy reached the sand, he stopped,
waited for his mother’s hand. She guided him
across rounded stones, the wooden bridge,
onto the strand of Ballyconnigar.
That July, perhaps nineteen-eighty,
had been hot and they’d travelled
most days of their holiday to the beach.
His father drove the white Citroën,
the kind where the back suspension rose, and,
years later, the angular shape of the body would
still remind the boy of the Lotus from James Bond.
The Spy Who Loved Me his favourite film back then.
On the beach, his parents resting, the boy played
with older cousins. Castles built. Orange consumed.
Bags of crisps with melted ham sandwiches.
A flask of tea for adults no matter how hot.
Stuffed, into the water the children splashed,
the boy trying to paddle like his father had shown.
Until he went to stand and there was no sand.
Waving, his mother proudly waved back.
Shouting, his father said he never heard. But,
from nowhere, a tall stranger appeared and dived
right in. To swim out rapidly. To save the day.
To rescue a life that would not otherwise
have travelled far and wide. Would not have
body-boarded on Bondi and surfed on Newport.
Would not have jumped from a plane and bungeed
in Queenstown. Would not have witnessed Normandy.
Years on, the boy, a man, cherishes a Polaroid
from that holiday. His mother, in a green string bikini,
is standing by the James Bond car looking like a film star.
She is younger and fitter than her son is now.
With two boys of his own, it’s still hard for him to imagine
what it was like for her to watch her only son almost drift away.
To help, one Sunday he drives to Ballyconnigar, to walk with his
wife and children on the same strand he’d been dragged to.
But the beach is almost gone. Eroded away violently it seems.
And there is empty space where cliff houses once towered.
Breathing in fresh air, the man wonders why they never
travelled to other beaches back then. Not to Curracloe,
Morriscastle, Courtown, Cahore, Ballymoney, Ballyvaldon.
Had his mother and father been keeping up some tradition?
As children, had they peddled from Monageer to Ballyconnigar,
down the same road, by the same handball alley?
Discounting answers and history, this beach will still disappear.
The bridge and houses have already gone. His father, too.
Though his mother lives on. As does his double-o-seven,
in his dreams at least, the stranger he owes the most.
Ⓒ Paul O’Reilly