Swimming at Rogie

By David Gardiner

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It’s good of you to ask, but I’m perfectly all right. I’m just sitting here looking at the sea. I’m not planning to top myself or anything like that.

Yes, I took them off because I was thinking about having a wee swim in Rogie. Just thinking about it. It would be a daft thing to do, really. I haven’t got swimming trunks or a towel or anything, and the sun’s low in the sky. I’d have to go back to Molly’s house in wet underpants. I’d probably catch my death of cold.

Yes, I did mean Molly Regan. You know her, do you?

Your aunt? Surely you’re not Bilshie Travers’ son? … Oh, his grandson. And so Molly would be your great aunt. God, is it really as long ago as that? Yes, I suppose it is. When I was your age I thought time went on forever; that I could be or do anything I wanted. And then suddenly there was no time left and I hadn’t done any of it. Sorry, I’m talking like an old fart now. Pay me no heed.

Yes, of course I knew Bilshie. I was brought up in Bundoran. I left here when I was fifteen – when my parents split up. We went to school together, me and Bilshie. We used to play together right here, swim in Rogie together. Of course that was before … Well, it’s all donkey’s years ago. Wouldn’t mean a thing to you.

How did you know that’s what I was thinking about? … Really? I didn’t know I was staring at it. You’ve got it though. I’m Cormack Malloy. That little statue and the plaque were put up in memory of my brother Neil. ‘Maria Stella Maris’, Mary Star of the Sea. A fat lot she did for wee Neil when he swam out past Rogie Point. A fat lot anybody did. A fat lot I did myself.

I suppose they still tell the story, do they? … Don’t they? No, of course, silly of me, why should they? Loads of people have lost their lives at Rogie. I remember when I went to school here one or two young cadets from Finner Camp used to get drowned pretty well every year. Young peacocks showing off to the girls. Why should Neil be remembered more than any of them? … Well, yes, that’s true. There is the statue and the plaque. None of the young soldiers had that. That was my father’s idea. And I may as well tell you the honest truth – I hated him for it.

Why? Because it was one of his ways of making me feel like shit. Of rubbing my nose in it, so that I could never forget about it for a second. As if I ever could. And it made him look good – the saintly father putting up the statue to his poor drowned son. Drowned because his elder brother couldn’t be trusted to keep an eye on him. Couldn’t be relied on to do what he was told. Was too self-centred and woolly-headed to carry out the simplest instruction. Neither of them ever told me to my face that they held me responsible, that I was to blame, but it was as plain as day that they thought it. Instead of saying it to me they said it about me, tore strips off one other about him giving me too much responsibility, not treating me like the half-wit that I obviously was. Only a child, my mother said. A silly wee boy. How could you be daft enough to let him go out swimming with Neil on his own. Without going with him. Without watching him. They bad-mouthed one another for two years after it happened, with me as piggy-in-the-middle. Finally my mother couldn’t stand it any more and left him and took me to England with her. That’s why I have this strange accent, why I don’t sound like a Bundoran person any more.

I'm sorry. You must be very bored with my auld reminiscences.

You really never heard how it happened? Okay, I’ll explain it to you if you're sure you're interested.

It was in the school holidays one Saturday. Me and Neil put on our swimming trunks like we always did if it was decent weather and came down here with the beach-ball. We weren’t supposed to go to Rogie, just to the beach – the ‘strand’ as we called it. Do they still call it that?... Rogie was for real swimmers, just like it is now, I suppose… Yes, that little concrete wall has always been across the end of it, so the tide fills it up and even when the tide’s out it stays deep in there. In fact there was a wee diving board back then – you can still see the marks in the cement where it was bolted down --- but they took it away after the accident. They tried to stop people swimming in it at all for a while, but they couldn’t of course. Folks have been swimming at Rogie since time began. They had a volunteer lifeguard for a while after that too. They couldn’t afford a proper one. But all the fuss faded away after a few months. Bundoran's a seaside town, it lives on tourism, you can’t keep harping on about danger and death and drowning. I’m surprised they allowed the statue, really. Of course I never swam in Rogie again myself, or anywhere else for that matter. I could hardly bear to look at the place after that, let alone swim in it.

Anyway, where was I? Yes, the two of us came down to Rogie with the ball, and there was a crowd of boys already in the water, half a dozen or so of them, and a few girls sitting around on the rocks watching. Your grandfather was probably one of them in the water, but after the shock of it all I could never really remember who was there and who wasn’t. It was like trying to remember a nightmare. All that would come back to me was the feeling, the sickness in my stomach… Not that it matters. Your great aunt was there all right. I had a crush on Molly Regan all the time I was at school. I suppose you could say we were boyfriend and girlfriend. At least we used to kiss when there was nobody around and hold hands sometimes even if there was. That’s what having a girlfriend meant when you were thirteen and went to the Christian Brothers Secondary School. You were lucky to get as far as that really. That's how it was back then. I suppose it’s all different now. … Isn’t it? Really?

It’s funny, it only seemed to be the boys that swam in Rogie. The girls just watched. Maybe they had too much common sense. Too strong a self preservation instinct. Because it was never safe, really. Never. Once you got out past the Point, just the other side of that concrete wall, you could feel the pull out to sea. Sometimes strong, sometimes not so strong, but if you didn’t know about the currents you’d be in trouble very quickly. And at high tide you wouldn’t even see the wall, you could be swept out before you knew it. Of course we all thought we knew about the currents. The truth is, no part of Bundoran Bay has ever been safe, it’s all rocks out there, and currents that change from one minute to the next. It’s never had a fishing fleet or a harbour, you can’t get anything bigger than a rowboat safely in or out of it. But before Neil got drowned the old Bundoran folk thought they knew all about it. There were old men who used to swim right from one side of the bay to the other every day of their lives and never got into trouble. They couldn't do that now, could they?

Yes, you're right, something did change. Just about the time Neil drowned. You see, it was the summer that the Erne Scheme came into operation. The hydroelectric dam at the Assaroe Falls, and the thing they called the Tail Race. It was the used water from the power station, coming out from Ballyshannon like the jet from a fire hose forty feet across, where there used to be the big wide gentle mouth of the River Erne.

I remember well them building the power station, and the day they started it up. All the school kids were taken out to see the machinery when they were making it. There was this generator thing, easily as big as a two-storey house, and the bit that went around, the spindle bit in the middle, was so well engineered and so well balanced that a child could reach up and turn it with one hand. There were pictures in the paper of us doing it. Back then it was the most magical thing I'd ever seen in my life. I hadn't the foggiest idea how it worked or what it was for, I just thought it was beautiful. Like something out of a Dan Dare comic or one of the space opera serials they had at the Saturday matinee at the Adelphi. They told us electricity would be so cheap they would be giving it away free like water, it wouldn't even be metered. That was a bit of irony, wasn't it?

But I swallowed it all. I wanted to be a scientist, or an engineer, or a rocket pilot, and I really believed that I could. They say science made great strides in the last fifty years, but we expected more. We thought we would have cars that flew instead of using roads, robots doing all the dirty work of the world, cities on the moon and under the sea, matter transmitters that could send you to Australia in the wink of an eye, time travel, aliens in space suits wandering around the streets, spaceships heading off for the stars, people living hundreds of years and wanting for nothing… It never happened of course. None of it. Okay we've got computers and mobile phones that can do a few clever tricks, but none of that stuff. Cars still run on petrol, they still crash, computers aren't intelligent, you can't talk to them, the world's in a worse mess than it's ever been. But I believed in science, I really believed in it.

Sorry, I'm losing the point. I was telling you about the Tail Race, wasn't I? I don't know exactly how it works but they said it was the principle of the hydraulic ram. You squeeze the river in to make it turn the turbines – the same amount of water but in a much narrower channel, much faster. Something like that. You probably know what I'm talking about, don't you?

Don't you? I thought you would, living here and everything. It's just a big jet of water, straight into the sea. You can even see it if you stand on the top of Rogie Point. It's a faint brownish colouration and it goes out from Ballyshannon like a big curved fan – out into the Atlantic. Sometimes it almost touches the end of Rogie, other times it's a bit further out. It depends on what the sea's doing. The currents get all mixed up. We thought it wouldn't affect Bundoran because we're two miles down the coast from Ballyshannon, but we were wrong. We didn't understand how big a difference it would make. Not back then. Neil disappeared around the end of the Point in a couple of seconds, and nobody ever found a thing. Not him, not the beach ball, nothing. Nobody knows where he ended-up or how long it took him to drown. The coastguard looked for him all day and the following day too, everybody who had a little boat went out, even the army helicopter from Finner Camp.

That's right, I was the one with him when it happened. I'd just turned thirteen and he was ten, but he was a far better swimmer than me, far more of a daredevil, far more stamina, far more confidence. And I suppose you could say those were the things that killed him. Somehow, the ball got kicked or thrown beyond the sea wall and Neil went after it. It was all over in seconds. Even when I knew what had happened I didn't take it seriously enough, he was such a good swimmer, I was sure he'd be okay, he'd be back, or maybe he'd found some little rock around the corner of the Point and he was sitting there for a joke, having a laugh at us. It was the kind of thing he would do. I lost precious minutes before I raised any alarm. And even when I began to realise that it wasn't a joke, that it was real, I didn't know what to do, who to tell. I ran all the way down to the strand to tell the beach-guard. There were adults nearer than that. Other people I could have told.

I didn't think anybody had seen exactly what happened. Certainly I hadn't. All I knew was that there were a lot of boys around Neil's age playing with the beach-ball in Rogie. My mind was on other things... No, it wasn't Molly, your Great Aunt Molly as she is now was there all right, but it wasn't her that distracted me. It wasn't her I was talking to, trying to impress, trying to get off with. It was another little girl, a girl by the name of Akila MacDonald. Isn't that a wonderful name? Her father was one of the engineers working on the Erne Scheme. There were hundreds of foreign workers in the town then, it was the most prosperous Bundoran has ever been, before or since. Her mother was a Nubian – some kind of an Egyptian that he had picked-up when he worked on the Aswam Dam. She was dark-skinned and exotic, and so lovely… and to be honest with you, from the moment I first saw her I couldn't get her out of my mind. That's who I with when Neil had his accident. It was the first time I'd actually managed to get talking to her. I'm not blaming her or anything, that would be ridiculous, but I think if she hadn't been there… but then life is full of 'ifs' and 'buts', isn't it? If this, if that, if only…

Sorry, I didn't mean to dry up like that. I couldn't help it. Where was I? Oh yes, Akila MacDonald. Little Akila. I've told you a lot more than I intended to now – I suppose I may as well tell you all of it. If you want me to, that is?

Well, I said that I'd always assumed nobody knew exactly what had happened. How the ball got kicked out to sea. That was what I thought for all those years, decades, in fact. And what did it matter? The ball had ended-up out past the Point and Neil had gone after it. What did the details matter?

But today – yes, this very day – I discovered that somebody did know what happened. And… as you can probably understand… it came as a bit of a shock. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to talk about this, it's maybe a betrayal of a confidence, but I'd like to tell somebody. In fact I think I actually need to tell somebody… and damn it, right or wrong I'm going to anyway.

You know about your aunt's illness, don't you? How serious it is? She wrote me a letter, to my digs in London. I don't know how she got the address after all these years. But it was great to hear from her again, even if the circumstances were sad. She said that she had very little time left, maybe weeks, maybe only days, and she wanted to see me one more time before the end. I was very flattered. I thought she wanted to talk about the old times back in Bundoran, the times we shared here, all the might-have-beens. So I bought my ticket and over I came – I've been staying at her place the last couple of nights. And in a way it was the old times she wanted to talk about, but for one very specific reason.

I don't know what it's like now, my childhood is probably like the Dark Ages as far as you're concerned, but Bishie and your aunt and me – we were good Catholic boys and girls, brought up by the priests and the nuns and the Christian Brothers, and the whole driving principle of our lives was guilt and fear and self-hatred. Everything was a sin, a mortal one or a venial one, and there'd be some kind of torture in the life to come for every little thing you did wrong, every thought word or deed that wasn't completely in line with the teachings of Mother Church. Maybe we didn't believe it so literally as we got older but it was always down there somewhere, just under the surface. It was the basic way that all of us saw the world. And what Molly wanted, needed from me, was simply forgiveness. She couldn't die in peace without it. You've probably guessed what it was she needed forgiveness for, haven't you?

Yes, your Aunt Molly it was who had kicked the big beach-ball out to sea. Deliberately, knowing exactly what she was doing and what effect it would have – more or less. It would cause a commotion and I would have to stop trying to chat-up Akila MacDonald and deal with it. That was why she did it. Nobody noticed that it was her and of course she never told a soul afterwards. Not even the priest in Confession. And she didn't want to carry that sin, or guilt or whatever it was, to her grave.

And I forgave her instantly, and sincerely, and without a moment's hesitation. It was one of the easiest things I ever did in my whole life, and maybe one of the best.

And then I went down to her sitting room and I looked at a picture of myself on the mantelpiece over her fireplace. Me when I was about twelve or thirteen in my school uniform – one of those official school ones that they used to take every year. One that I never knew she had, that she'd kept for all those years. And I looked at that naïve, pimply-faced scatter-brained immature little thirteen-year-old and I spoke to him. I said 'Cormack Malloy, you pathetic little wretch, I forgive you too. ' And I meant it. And it worked. Just as easy as forgiving Molly Regan. Even easier, because what she had done had been a deliberate, malicious act, born out of jealousy, even if she hadn't the least inkling of much damage it was going to cause; but all that that little runt of a schoolboy had done was just to be silly and irresponsible and unthinking.

My mother was perfectly right. I was too stupid and immature to cope with the responsibility I'd been given. That wasn't the same as doing something wrong. That was just the sin of being young. How could I not forgive myself for that? How could I let it dominate my whole life for decades, turn me into the sort of person I became? Because I think it did. I don't mean I dwelt on it all the time – you can't, you have to get on with living and try to cope with whatever the days bring, but it was always there in the background, and it poisoned my life. Even that's wrong, because what I should say is that I allowed it to poison my life. I used it as an excuse to stop trying, stop reaching out for my dreams, such as they were, jog along and let life wash over me without taking any initiatives or accepting any responsibility, always expecting things to turn out for the worst and usually proving myself right.

I'm not saying I would have done anything wonderful, I wasn't going to shake up the world of science or engineering, but I might have done something. Maybe by the age I am now I would have been able to stand in front of some big beautiful hydroelectric power station, or a bit of shiny stainless steel medical machinery, or a gas-powered car or something, and say: 'I helped to design that. I helped to build it. I helped to make the world just a tiny, tiny bit better than it was. That's what I did with my life.'

But I can't say that. I haven't done anything with my life. All I've done is play the role of the poor little guilt-ridden wimp who screwed everything up a few weeks after his thirteenth birthday. And God forgive me, I didn't even know that I was doing it.

And that's a tragedy. Waste of potential is the only real tragedy that there is. If there was no potential there in the first place it wouldn't be a tragedy. But I flatter myself that in the case of my own wasted time on earth, there was.

You've done well to listen to all this auld drivel. I don't know whether there's any lesson to be learned from it or not. Maybe the lesson is to forgive yourself first and everybody else after. Or just to pay attention when you're supposed to be looking after your wee brother. Anyway, the time's all gone for me now. Molly and I are the same age, she's only got a few weeks at best, I wonder how much longer I'll have? I'm not going to shake up the engineering world or anything else in whatever time's left for me, that's for sure.

But I think I'll do just one thing, right here and now. Maybe you could keep an eye on my clothes while I'm doing it. I'm going to have a swim in Rogie.