Headlights by Daragh Fleming

I couldn’t see the water. The waves crashed on the shore in a slow intention melody. I could hear them crashing as they tried to seduce the coastline. The waves always seemed to me to be a good metaphor for hard work, for grinding it out. A slow, almost unnoticeable effort to wear down the land they lapped at. Years of agonising Sisyphean toil that appears for all intents to amount to nothing through the lens of daily life. Yet when you step back and really look, when you see how the land was before and how the land is now, you see that the waves have managed to move the land entirely, to shape it and change its appearance. The waves have always reminded me that with enough work and persistence, you could move anything or anyone.

I sat there on that cold bench by the ocean in the middle of night. The summer had vanished some weeks before and given way to the colder bite of autumn. My scribblings were illuminated by the headlights of my car that idled nearby. White-knuckled hands were cold and swollen, but I’d driven all that way to sit by the ocean and write those words, which would probably end up not being worth the trip. I thought I might find something profound on the paper if I made some over-the-top excursion in search of them. If I made some romantic gesture to the universe she might give me some beautiful words in return. The flies had found me quickly in the yellow light of the headlamps, and buzzed around my fingers which choked the notepad too tightly. It was black faux-leather that was soft which felt more expensive than it was.

Something happens sometimes at night time that is a bit inexplicable. At least it feels inexplicable to me. I’d have had a fine day for myself that just happens to end with me having a few hours alone in the house. The loneliness would creep in with the darkness. Everyone else has made plans and is out somewhere else, and I watch their Instagram stories and feel a bit sad for myself for not having made plans. I might have had a grand day of it yet I suddenly feel lonely and alone and sort of pathetic and I don’t know what to do with that. This was one of those nights.

I decided to go for a drive and made the call to bring a notebook and pen with me just in case. I later found that the pen was cracked and that it was a disaster to write with, but it was far too late by the time I’d noticed. I left from Douglas and drove through the city centre. I drove down Patrick Street and up MacCurtain Street and everything seemed normal somehow. It seemed like people were out and able to enjoy themselves and I found myself pleading for them that it would last long enough to make whatever was coming next bearable for people. It had been a tough year for most and I hoped that the thin veneer of normality would pull people through the oncoming winter. People sat in the outdoor seating of pubs with lovely pints, maybe their first pints in forever, and they smiled and laughed and I doubt anyone could even see the cars passing through the joy those pints were bring them. You could have looked on that seen and believed that nothing had changed at all in the last year.

I kept driving then out towards Little Island through Tivoli, and before I knew it I was on the motorway and I was singing a chorus of tone-deaf enjoyment to songs written by sad people about sad things. I always listen to sad songs when I’m sad because it makes me feel a bit more human to know that I’m not the only one to have ever felt sadness.

I wasn’t sure entirely of where I wanted to be going but it felt nice to feel the road beneath me and hear the engine working to keep up with the demands of my right foot. Before I got to Midleton I decided that I wanted to hear the songs the beach made so I made for Garryvoe, which seemed a bit mad for that time of night but I wasn’t up to much else. I knew as I was driving that if I’d heard of anyone else doing what I was doing, that I’d have said they were a weirdo or something, and I cursed myself a little bit then for being so judgemental.

There were very few other cars on the road once I passed Midleton. Those that were fled the countryside for the bright lights of the city not so far away. A van tailed me for a while but turned off up some unknowable road. The only lights after that were my car’s headlights illuminating the dark rural roads. I allowed my mind to romanticize what was going on, that what I was doing might be something that would happen in a movie or something. I thought about how my friend’s dad had killed himself a few years ago near a different beach to the one I was heading to, and wondered if his drive had felt the same way. I wondered if it felt like it was some picturesque moment that wouldn’t really end. I thought about how cold the ocean would be at that time of the evening too, at that time of year. The days were already drawing the cold out of the earth. I thought about how I had nothing better to be doing with my time on a Friday night, and how most people wouldn’t have been taking this sort of trip to the beach in the dark.

The hotel that sits just on the coastline by the seaside village appeared then, and I even considered checking in for myself for the night. It seemed like a nice place to wake up and look out of the window at the ocean. I could have coffee and some breakfast delivered to the room and I could watch the approach of the ocean. I thought about how odd I would think that would be if someone else did the same thing again, and forgot about it. I pulled up into the public car park not far from the hotel anyway, and the place was complete darkness aside from the beacons of my car. I switched off the engine and already I could hear the waves crashing softly. The tide was well in and the water was threatening the rocks that protected the coast from its erosive persuasions.

Sitting there on the bench I wrote my forgettable words in a scratchy hand. Things I thought were profound to say but would no doubt read as corny and immature. I wrote a bad poem. I knew it was bad when I was writing it but I finished it anyway. I scribbled down some thoughts about the climate and lockdown and the passage of time. I reckoned none of it would make sense if anyone were to read those words.

Not long after I was sitting on that bench, two other cars pulled up just down from where I was, facing in the opposite direction, facing away from me. Well, it was a 7-seater and a van rather than two cars. People got out, flash lights were turned on and they began to whistle and call a name I cannot for the life me remember. I was fairly certain they were looking for a lost dog.

Being on that beach front on my own, on that bench, and having people show up out of nowhere and park alongside me, gave me a fierce nervous feeling. I thought they might be watching me, investigating a strange car in the area they’d never seen before. Members of some neighbourhood watch checking out the behaviour of a stranger. I thought they might approach me and ask me what I was doing and I’d have to tell them. I knew that they wouldn’t believe me if I told them I was just there to write because I wouldn’t have believed that either. A young man, on his own, scribbling in a notebook in the dead of night at the seaside didn’t sit too well at all if you gave it some thought.

They walked up and down the beach for a bit, calling for their dog as I sat their writing in the light of my car’s headlights. I was afraid they’d come too close to me and see what I was doing and think I was writing a suicide note or something and then they’d call the police and there’d be all sorts of drama.  There might be newspaper articles  the following morning about these men saving a life and I’d have to awkwardly explain away the situation. I’d have to convince my family and friends and everyone else that I wasn’t at that beach to end my life. I’d have to explain to them that I was only there because I was lonely and bored, and I thought it was something someone like me ought to do, and that thought alone made me feel entirely embarrassed because I knew they wouldn’t believe any of it.

The thought of all of that made me profoundly anxious, so I got back into my car. I allowed the automatic lights to dim themselves as I sat in the safety of that car, away from the innocent strangers looking for their lost pet. I sat there for a few moments listening again to the waves which I could still here through the closed doors. I thought about driving further down the beach to find a new bench without any intruders, but the romantic energy of the moment had passed. Instead, I turned on the engine and allowed my headlights to guide me back home again.

Daragh Fleming is a young author from Cork, Ireland. Fleming combines a conversational style with a thoughtful insight to explore complex themes. His writing his influenced by a background in psychology and linguistics which gives his work a unique voice. 

Twitter: @DaraghFleming

Instagram: @DaraghFleming

Website: thoughtstoobig.ie