The Sun Has Got His Hat On

Sarah Tirri
December 10, 2019

A short story

Bantry Bay, Southern Ireland, the center of a small swarm. There were people everywhere, poets, writers, tourists, fiddle makers, all feeling the warmth they had forgotten they missed. The sun displayed itself in the faces of those whose mood was affected most by its miraculous appearance: The lady running the sweetshop looked like she had been… what? Delivered? The man running the Tourist Information Center welcomed me as if we had been separated by circumstance at birth, and now decades later, reunited, our bond, intact. And the lady at the ticket booth: She was used to smiling, you could tell by the lines around her eyes—spoke-like and beautiful. Today her smile grabbed those attending the literary festival. To be grabbed, one way or another, was why they were there.

The dock had looked much further away from my hotel balcony, my friend and I arrived ten minutes early. I sat on the old stone wall and wondered about the place. My eyes traveled across the water in a slow sweep, taking in the ripples and the reflections. I did not know that I was looking at a tomb. Thirty seven years before I began wondering, a tanker discharging its oil had exploded. The fifty men on board the Betelguese hadn’t stood a chance. I was glad I hadn’t known about their fate; life’s morbid details tended to activate my imagination in unwelcome ways. I would have likely started thinking about tears and flowers and slow singing. I would have likely forgotten where I was. I would have likely forgotten the sun was even wearing a hat.

The ferry left on schedule, its vibrating engines not exactly whisking its passengers to Whiddy, but who cared, the Captain didn’t; his name was Paul. Paul: a rode-hard and ruddy fisherman from Portugal, put up wet and glad about it.

My friends’ name was Smokey and we sat beside each other on the cold metal seating which had been designed for utility not comfort. I hoped the sun might warm it. I shifted position and wished my arse had more insulation. I wondered whether my Dad had been right. “Sitting on cold objects for too long will give you piles.” During the decade when he had started not to care, my Father would tell his dinner guests about his piles as well as a whole host of his more cringe-inducing stories: surgeries, marriages and problems with drains. Perry Como could regularly be heard crooning in the background and between sips of Beaujolais some of his guests would wince as if Perry could actually hear. I suspected Perry wouldn’t have cared less about my dad’s piles, just like my Dad.

As we began our journey over to Whiddy, Captain Paul raised his right arm to point to where the Mullet might make an above surface appearance, and we his passengers, cell phones at the ready, remained poised to Instagram another memory. Why were we all looking for proof that we had lived full and worthy lives?

“Over there, quick.” Several of us looked to where Captain Paul pointed. We scanned the general vicinity, but tired quickly. The maybe-appearance of the elusive grey residents wasn’t worth the trouble of having to remain alert. What most of the passengers really wanted to do was close their eyes and stare into the sun. Orange eyelids, difficult to Instagram. The sun, being an everyday part of my life back home was not as inspiring as the scenery, so I kept my eyes on the water which looked beautiful in its own right, no need for any type of fishy circus.

I was now Captain Paul’s only audience and he looked over with a grin and said in a husky accent, “Would you help me gut my catch later.” I looked down at the large plastic cooler where his catch would be flung; a grubby morgue, manufactured around the same time as the sun that had warped it… along with the wind and the salt and the steady use. Given a new destiny and the means to sink, I thought the cooler would make a very good reef; it was already half way there with crusty things gripping it, vacated homes of varying architecture among a landscape of kelp and moss.

“I would be delighted to help you.” I answered. I didn’t mind exchanging banalities. I reckoned myself to be the hundredth possible-deckhand he had solicited that month. I began to think about Mullet. Mullet are ugly, their eyes swollen, their fins sticking out where their ears should be, and their mouths? An optic horror that compelled one to scream while questioning the level of taste their Creator might or might not have been in possession of. But the truth was that big gray raw fish didn’t scare me. My brother as a young lad had worked at a supermarket fish bar. He spent forty hours a week making sure the customers were shielded from the ugly truth: Big, gray raw fish filleted to look civilized nesting in one inch square perfectly molded ice cubes. Big, gray raw fish didn’t scare me.

I brought my attention back to the present moment.

“What’s your biggest catch?” I asked the Captain. There was only the briefest of delay.

“My wife.”

At first I thought his response was of the involuntary sort, words stored and ready to upload when a deputy was sufficient to deal with humdrum moments. But I quickly realized that when Captain Paul had said, my wife, he had meant both words. He had spoken as if he was under oath. His wife was his biggest catch. I wondered whether she knew of the passion her husband wore for her. How could she not.

The ferry was nearing Whiddy and the protocols necessary to wind-down the journey began. I too re-attuned my attention. There were ten of us on the boat. The boy staring at me didn’t remove his gaze when I noticed him. There was nothing defiant about his non-reaction, he just didn’t think that sustaining eye contact with a strange woman he fancied was a big deal. He was thirteen or fourteen maybe, and bored. I suspected that going to stupid old Whiddy had been forced upon him by his parents; he would have preferred SeaWorld.

I looked at his sister. She was cold and the towel wrapped around her skinny frame possessed the quality of the hard-working variety kept only for spills, inadequate in all ways, threadbare and embarrassing. The slutty looking mermaid who’s once illustrious locks were now dotted with bleach stains didn’t look like she’d ever been appreciated.

The girl looked at me and smiled, she was cold but not shivering. Still, I would love to have been able conjure a thick super-fluffy bath sheet and hand it to her with a sermon: Honey, there are two types of towels in this world, ones that symbolize luxury in homes where necessity seldom factors—plenty of loopy threads and a long soft future, and those monstrosities I had to endure from birth—rags really—rags that represented my outrage that necessity always came first.

The girl didn’t care about towels or mermaids. The sun had got its hat on and she and her family had come out to play. I looked at the girl’s mother. Her eyes were closed; she was sunburned but looked quite happy about it, no—more like proud. She would return home triumphant with proof of the sunshine that no one could doubt. I looked at the girl’s father. He looked serene and otherworldly, staring into some pleasant elsewhere. His kids were the spitting image of him and this for some reason made me feel warm, or was it the sun.

The ferry docked. Thanks were offered, goodbyes were exchanged and all of us stood up to disembark. I was grateful I didn’t have piles. It was time for a walk around the chocolate box lid of an island and a wade in Irish water. Perhaps I would make an attempt at sketching? But then The Bank House caught my eye. Suddenly, a pint of cider was what I lived for.

As my friend and I walked up the boat ramp, I noticed a brawny silver-haired man wearing a black dinner jacket but with no shirt. His midriff was protruding but at some point in his life he had been fit, an ex-mariner perhaps, used to gales of salt and schedules of importance, navigating through choppy sea channels having to balance and suffice in small quarters. The ex-mariner wore a pony tail and his drawstring trousers were loose, rolled up to his knees above plastic sandals. He was standing in front of the pub and it was obvious he was the owner. My eyes bore into him. Surely he must have felt it. I would have done. Apparently not. Stop being so intrusive, I said to myself. The ex-mariner was talking to a small group of people; some looked unnecessarily alert—being shirtless incited that, others looked curious, one looked through the eyes of a man who trusted no one, but all listened until Kathleen came outside to greet her new arrivals. Kathleen announced that she would soon be accommodating us, but for now, her cats came first.

Kathleen’s eight cats were all from the same litter but varied in size due to their avarice or lack of it. Some were timid, others brazen, but all were focused on the food that Kathleen had scooped out of several cans. The fattest and fastest cat was guarding his portion which had come out in a big clump. The others were apparently still learning that being first was a very important part of life on Whiddy. I admired the fat cat’s fur but his rapacity upset me; I have a keen sense of fair play and root for the underdog whenever possible. The scene before me could not possibly continue. I knelt down, jammed my hand into the feline congregation and picked up the larger clumps of food, redistributing the wet mush, evenly. I then got up and chased my friend, waving my fishy fingers in her face. Smokey went screaming inside the pub. Good. This was where they kept the cider.

The bar stool was everything I wanted it to be: A welcome contrast to the cold metal seating that had brought me to Whiddy. My stool was the right height with a well-placed foot bar, it swiveled, allowing me to view all aspects of the bay, and most importantly, I faced the door. When it comes to facing doors, I liken myself to a mafia hit-man. I like to know my exit point, on which side the door is hinged, whether it swings in or out and how many steps it takes to get there.

I seldom drink pints of anything, but today I longed to. Smokey and I ordered the house brew and we saluted the sunshine and whoever its rays were warming. Kathleen now busied herself behind the bar, talking and joking with the patrons; but soon I noticed that her broad Irish accent with its musical lilt had seemingly transported my friend away from the present moment. Where did she go?

“Smokey, come back.” I said, hoping to break the spell.

Smokey had just finished reading a series of novels about a British nurse who time-travels back to eighteenth century Scotland. Kathleen’s deep rich accent, animate and strenuous floating across the bar, had seemingly inspired Smokey to switch personalities. She was now Cathleen with a proud capital C talking to Kathleen with an ever prouder K. Kathleen and Cathleen were soon trading photos of their grandchildren and decided that “of course” they must meet. I thought that marrying off toddlers so early was a little vulgar but also a pragmatic use of forethought. Hammering out the details early and making a plan was a big part of my friend’s individuality.

I was wondering why I didn’t drink cider more often when the ex-mariner walked into the pub with another man in tow. The other man, good looking and wearing a waxed anorak was amiable but reserved. I thought his mop of muddy red hair was perhaps his most distinguishing feature. My friend’s immediate reaction to his presence was as much as a surprise to me as it was to him. Smokey, no longer the polite American tourist had become some belligerent Celtic clan member overwhelmed by the impulse to warn the red-headed stranger about the perils of the sunshine and what this could possibly do to his fair skin. Smokey’s tone was that of an overly protective and intolerant mother chastising one of her fourteen children about the dangers of the elements. The red-headed man was taken aback. The red-headed man was surely thinking; Beam me right up Scotty. The red-headed man fled to the room next door. The ex-mariner stayed behind.

Waking up from her trance and back at The Bank House, Smokey took a sip of her newly pulled pint and readjusted to the fact that she was not an Outlander but a visitor in a foreign country where good manners were assumed essential to polite exchanges. I laughed. Smokey was unpredictable and today, more so. I think the sunshine had affected her like it had everyone else. Everyone was free… except the red-headed man who was doubtless wondering whether his equilibrium would return let alone his freedom.

"Are you the owner?” I asked the ex-mariner who was now standing to my right.

“Yes, indeed.” He smiled. “I laid the first stone when I was a young lad of eight.”

“Wow, that’s awesome,” said Smokey, reverting back to American vernacular.

Before I had a chance to make any further inquiries, Max formerly introduced himself, laughing. Instant gullibility from those he came across was something he was obviously used to.

“No, ladies, I’m in town for the literary festival.”

Smokey and I grinned. To be effortlessly duped had surprised us.

“Can I buy you a drink, Max?” I asked.

“Yeah. Great. Thank you.”

I couldn’t distinguish his accent. It was mix of Gaelic, a bit of cockney, with a touch of the Home Counties. The accent of a chameleon. I surmised quickly that Max would fit in anywhere, at ease with Queen Elizabeth or a Masai tribesman.

“It’s a beautiful view don’t you think?”

“Yes, the view is beautiful,” said Max, turning to look at the bay

 I was uncertain how Saturn, its one-hundred million year old rings and sixty-two moons and its thirty year journey around the sun came into the conversation, but it did. I listened to my new friend describe everything one could possibly know about the planet and how it looked from his four inch Newtonian telescope back atop the Galtee Mountains.

“The reason Saturn flattens itself into an oblate spheroid is because it spins so quickly on its axis.”

“Really.” Smokey and I said in unison.

“Yes.”…

That day we learned all about Saturn’s rotational speed; that it takes ten hours thirty-three minutes and fourteen seconds to turn on its orbit, that its rings are made up of carbonaceous dust and are two-hundred and ninety-two kilometers across. We learned that Saturn’s upper atmosphere, with winds that can reach up to five-hundred meters a second no less, are divided into bands of clouds which are made up of ammonia ice…

 “Is there any other kind?” I asked, jokingly.

 “Yes, cold hydrogen and sulfur ice mixes, as well as…”

It was quite obvious by this time, that Smokey and I knew nothing about ice or astronomy, but Max, our new science teacher, was kind enough to ask anyway.  “Did you ladies know that Saturn has a vortex over its south pole that resembles a hurricane, and Enceladus, one of its many moons has an ocean beneath its surface?”

Smokey and I looked at each other. “No we didn’t.” I said speaking for her.

The depth and range of Max’s knowledge was overwhelming, but for him, he might as well have been talking about the proper consistency of pancake batter. I wondered what else he knew. Could I ask him anything? Yes, he was definitely an affable brainy sort, but my son had once told me that I had the tendency to treat friendly strangers as if they were Court Jesters. I had strenuously disagreed with this assertion at the time, but inwardly vowed to check myself. Did such an unflattering trait really exist? How had I not noticed?

Smokey and I remained on our bar-stools listening to all there was to know about the stars and their various tendencies and behaviors. I told Max I thought he was one of the most interesting people I had ever met. He thanked me with the grace of a gentleman unused to adulation but used to an audience and began to talk about other things. Renewable energy. Russian poetry. The Congo. Smokey and I later considered whether Max was a charlatan, comfortably posing as brilliant, but we decided no.

As I sipped my cider, my mind presented me with the idea that Max was like an Asimov robot with a Positronic brain comprising a million quadrillion terabytes of effortless and stunning memory. How could one person retain so much information and recite it so brilliantly? There are times when I walk into a room and have no idea what I went in there for.

Another round was clearly in order, a cider for Max and I, and now a scotch for Smokey. Down-turning her smile to communicate sorrow, Kathleen declined the offer of a drink. Had she of had no responsibilities, she would have joined us, instead she drank tonic water and raising our glasses, we all said cheers to the sun.

My bar stool had not yet warned me that my arse had outstayed its welcome, but Smokey and I had given ourselves two hours, firm, no messing about. We had a long day ahead of us. I had won a coveted literary prize and was scheduled to read aloud that night in front of an audience. Besides, Smokey and I always have to give ourselves limits otherwise we end up existing without them.

“Shit.” I gasped. I was the first of us to notice the ferry was leaving the dock because I was the only one with a clear view of the bay. With the determination of one on a mission that must not fail, Kathleen dashed outside and began waving both her hands through the air in enormous half-moon circles. Captain Paul’s crew mate noticed her immediately and subdued the ferry’s engines.  Kathleen then twirled her finger in mid-air, beckoning him to do a U-turn. He did, immediately.

Smokey and I grabbed our handbags and lunged after Kathleen who was waiting at the top of the boat ramp to make sure the Captain didn’t change his mind. I hugged her and told her that I would remember her. Smokey and she hugged like the sisters they might have possibly been in some previous existence and then we began our dash towards the ferry… but mid-stride, Smokey suddenly slowed down and flung her left arm in front of my chest, announcing that we should walk at a calm lady-like pace so that we may step on board as if having a ferry do a U-turn was the most normal thing in the world. I wondered whether the other passengers would have been happier had they seen at least a token effort on our part to speed up.

Max had followed us outside but had retreated towards the rear of the pub to fetch a shirt he had been drying on the old stone wall. He had apparently jumped into the bay that morning to refresh himself after a long hard night talking to the redheaded man.

The Captain smiled and offered us his hand as we stepped on board.

“One more coming.” I said.

“Who’s coming?” said Smokey, frowning.

“Max, he ran out behind us.”

“Max who?”

“The guy we were just talking to. How many more Max’s have you met today?”

Smokey frowned, uncertain of my confusion and slightly annoyed by it.

"No more cider for you,” she said, before summoning a weak smile as if I was a person deluded enough to evoke pity but pleasant enough not to evoke irritation. She then made her way passed the life-ring and found a seat near to the front.

Captain Paul smiled at me but his smile was too full of compassion to be comforting. He then gestured for me to find a seat. I sat next to Smokey who, like everyone else on board had acquiesced to the beckoning of the sun’s rays. I looked towards The Bank House as it receded. Kathleen had gone back inside. I looked around for Max, he was gone.

As soon as Captain Paul re-oriented the ferry, he walked over to where I was sitting and put his foot on top of the cooler. As the ferry chugged slowly back to the mainland, I was still looking for Max who would now have to wait another two hours until the ferry came back.

“Do you know anything about Saturn?” Captain Paul asked. He did not wait for me to answer which was good because I was edgy. “What the hell.” I thought to myself.

“Saturn? Yes, as a matter of fact the man I met today told me…”

“Max has lived here a while,” said Captain Paul, wistfully.

“You know Max?”

“Yes. He lives here on Whiddy Island.”

“That’s odd; I thought he said he lived in the Galtees.”

“Well, sometimes the truth of his existence bothers him. He likes to pretend things are different.”

Confusion had somehow rendered my facial muscles impotent. I was not able to frown or pose another question.

Captain Paul looked out across the water. “Thirty seven years ago a boat went down here. Big explosion. No one survived except Max, who is not really alive in the way that you see life. He lives on Whiddy and talks to those who notice him.”

“You make it sound like he is a ghost.”

“Yes. In Portuguese we call people like him fantasmas da vida que nao conhecem.”

Captain Paul said nothing else and made his way back into his little bridge and closed the door. I could see him through the window reading a map or a book or something.

Smokey’s eyes were still firmly closed. Just like everyone else on the boat, except one man who was now standing. He was holding a pair of binoculars.

I remained still, and alert and uncomfortable. I re-lived the past two hours without skimming nuance or detail. I had always wondered what going mad might feel like. It was okay. I knew things about Saturn that I hadn’t known before. I knew about renewable energy and Pushkin. I had laughed a lot and said cheers a lot. Going mad felt okay.

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