I never tell anybody about my gift. Nobody really wants to know when they are going to die. I remember when I first happened upon it, not something I’m ever likely to forget. I was thirteen years old, a gawky schoolboy with all that entails, rebellious, playing at being a man, ready to fight with anybody, most especially my parents. I was at Heuston Station, about to catch a train to what seemed at the time like escape, three weeks of freedom in an Irish-language school in West Cork.
As I was about to board, my mother insisted on hugging me and in that moment, I could see it all vividly. The white rental car that my father was driving, the pilgrim coast road, the metal of the crash barrier giving way, a tumbling, and the wreck on the rocks below. Mammy watched my dad die, wondering if she might survive, but she didn’t.
It was a half-hearted hug at the train station; she must have been sure I would pull away. But I didn’t, I held her tighter. She must have thought that strange. She must have been happy, perhaps seeing again that fragile little boy obscured within.
I didn’t say anything. Why would I? I had no reason to think anything would happen. The Presage was strange, discomfiting, and it kept me awake that night until my adolescent mind and body eventually conceded to tiredness.
The first sixteen days of the Gaeltacht camp were fun in that perfect teenhood way of knowing no better. There were half cans of cider, pretending to be a little drunk, single cigarettes shared five ways, stolen kisses with a red-haired girl beneath an old stone bridge.
We were in morning Irish class, a two and a half hour daily endurance test of abstruse tenses and wearying words. There was a knock on the door that broke the monotony. Then, two teachers in closemouthed conservation at the head of the room. A sad shake of a head and a look of pity directed at me.
“Daithí, an cuma leat teacht liom?” David, can you come with me? He was a tough man, strict, and I knew from the softness in his voice, the way he called my first name, that things were about to change.
I lived with my aunt and uncle in their house by the coast. She was the kindest woman I ever met. He was good to me too, though his days were well-filled with long-distance driving and that kept us distant even though he was the one who was my blood relation.
The afternoon my auntie collected me from the Gaeltacht, she held me tight in her arms. I could see her in her own bed, her husband, her two daughters, her son, and me, gathered round as her shallow breath gave way to a nothingness.
It was a few weeks after I began to live with them. She came to my room; it must have been one or two in the morning. She sat at my bedside, rubbed my back softly. I never needed someone so much as in that moment. I don’t know how she knew. Maybe that was her gift.
I told her about the Presage, how I had seen the closing moments of my mammy’s life. She asked if I hadn’t imagined it, if it had not been some strange moment of déjà vu.
“No,” I said, “because I’ve seen when you’ll die too.”
“Don’t be silly, my pet,” she said, “I’m not going to die. I won’t leave you.”
“It’s not like that.”
She rubbed my back again, so ever, so softly, until sleep came.
Three months or so later, my aunt’s sister came to visit from Boston. She was a gentle woman too. Taller, thinner, more urbane. Her soft Irish accent was still there, but accented with an American astringency. She was single, though not single as I later came to realise. And she took me in her arms, and my aunt could see my face transfigured as the Presage took hold.
We didn’t speak of it until the sister had returned to Massachusetts. It was almost as if my aunt could not stand to have the conversation.
“You saw something,” she said, as she sat at the end of my bed.
“Her heart is failing,” I said.
“It is. Did you overhear us talking?”
“No, I just saw it.”
“When is it going to happen?”
“I can’t say,” I said, though I could have.
“Can’t say or won’t say?”
“You have a gift,” she said.
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
This time, it was her turn for bitter tears, as I drifted away from her toward the morning.
I haven’t been a good person most of my adult life. It was hard for me to get close to anybody, as any physical contact beyond a handshake brought me face to face with their mortality.
The Presage grew stronger in intensity as I grew up. Where once I could only see what would happen, later I began to feel it too. Bursts of the excruciating pain of a cardiac arrest, the feel of your head crashing against the pavement after being knocked from your bike, the unremitting bone pain of metastatic cancer.
For a time, I tried to use it to my advantage, to think of ways in which I could profit. But there were limits to that. Nobody wants a clairvoyant to tell them the day and manner of their death.
There were other ways in which you could make money from a person’s passing. If they were especially important, you might win a bet on who would replace them. If they died in a plane crash, you could short the stock of the airline. But the confluence of coincidences needed to give me that much usable information was always too great.
That changed one night. There was an old classmate from college; I knew she always liked me, more than liked really. Years after university, I bumped into her in a bar and as she left, she gave me a semi-drunken hug. I braced myself and in that moment, the Presage told me she had not long left, a brain aneurysm that would take her one Friday morning as she stepped out of the shower.
I knew she had done well for herself, had eschewed the journalism we’d both studied and set up a creative social media agency. She had sold it to an international firm. She had her own home in Rathgar, worth at least a million and a half, a beach house in Tarragona, paintings on her walls that daily appreciated in value, and an expensive sports car.
I asked her for her number, said we should meet for lunch. We met. It was a whirlwind romance, intentionally so. I’m not proud of it but it made me rich enough that I could work to the tapping of my own drum.
It was a few months after she died; after I’d passed through a respectable time of mourning. I needed to get out of Ireland, get away from the cold, the rain, the damp. My own health was beginning to suffer; the mild childhood asthma that had been little more than an inconvenience most of my life was getting to be a nuisance. I was on a steroid inhaler twice a day. It would often take two or three rounds of antibiotics to clear the respiratory infections that now came at least twice every year.
It made me think on the impermanence of my own life but no matter how hard I wrapped myself in my own arms, I could never get the Presage to tell me when my own time was to come. Maybe that was all for the good.
I got it in my mind to travel down the west coast of France, and across the north of Spain to Galicia, a pilgrimage of sorts to see where it was that my parents had died. I spent a few nights in Nantes, and Bordeaux, in Bilbao, and Santiago before taking the train to Vigo. I rented a car at the station and headed south.
The road was evidently much changed in the years that had passed; safer now and it was all but impossible to tell where the accident might have happened. I drove as far as A Guarda, and came back slowly over the mountains; loose horses and sheep roaming the fields and the road, a minty smell of eucalyptus drifting through my car windows, my lungs filling, clear as a bell. As I descended towards Baiona, the sun drifting down towards the curving bay, the islands of the Atlantic in the distance, the warmth of the air, the promise of a new start. I knew there and then this is where I wanted to live.
I learned Spanish on my phone, by reading children’s books, and watching TV with the subtitles on. Word by word, it came to me. And I remember how much easier it was to get to grips with compared to French, or worse, Irish, the only other two languages with which I had ever been familiar.
I lived in a small house by Playa América, swam in the ocean waters every day, let the waves crash down upon me, and allowed the sun to dry me off. I kept to myself, read book upon book. I bothered nobody and no one bothered me.
I would have been happy to stay like that, no prospect of human contact aside from ordering a pastry with a café con leche, or an Estrella with calamari or octopus. It wasn’t much of a life but the Presage had made me a solitary creature.
I never meant to fall in love, still not sure how I let it happen. There was a little restaurant at the plaza in Sabaris, overlooking the narrow river. It had an outdoor terrace where you could while away a warm and easy evening, your head buried in a novel or watching the world pass you by.
There was a waitress there, my age I supposed, late thirties, maybe early forties. I began to find myself there more and more often. The food order became an exchange of greetings, then a conversation, that got a little longer with every passing visit. I told myself it was good to be able to practice my Spanish for real – better than speaking into my iPhone anyway.
One night, I’d had three, perhaps four beers. The sultry day had given way to the balm of the evening, and as I went to go home, I decided another drink in the bar across the road could do me no harm. I was sat outside on a plastic chair, sipping my drink, absorbing the last of the sun when she came over, her shift finished for the day.
We talked, and talked, switching between our mother tongues. Her English was much better than my Spanish, but she had been compassionate enough to see I was just trying to do my best. She was forty one; her marriage had splintered because she could not have children. When she told me that, she almost began to cry, and I – against all the better instincts I had developed – went to comfort her.
It was strange when we ended up holding each other, because each time I would brace myself for the Presage. But every time, the intensity diminished and it never did come. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t; no more than I could explain why it ever happened in the first place.
It wasn’t that my gift was gone. It was still there the day I met her mother, and still there when I met her sister Emilia. Both of them would live to a day in which their earthly bodies could no longer carry them, so there was no reason for sadness, no reason at all for me tell Gabriela.
Those eighteen months in the little beach-house, our wedding in the church of Panxón, our honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains, the near-endless hours spent lying on beaches, our drives in the mountains, road trips across Iberia, I look back on them with bitter fondness. It was a time when I knew happiness for the first time since all those years gone by, back to a small village in West Cork before a teacher softly called my name.
When she told me she was pregnant, I think she could see the fear in my eyes. We never talked of it but it was there, unspoken, suspended, poised above us throughout the time our baby grew. I became more nervous as the months passed by until the night we found ourselves in a Vigo maternity hospital.
The doctor asked me if I wanted to cut the cord, as if I would have been able. The midwife wiped the infant child clean, handed him to his mam. Gabriela held him tight against her until she was ready to let go. I held my son, and the Presage told me what was to come. I turned away, the tears uncontrolled.
“Are you OK?” said the midwife.
“It’s just,” I said, “it’s just overwhelming,” the words forced out beneath a hoax of a smile.
Three years, that was all. I could have had three years with him. It wasn’t nothing. I composed myself, watched my exhausted wife succumb to sleep. I kissed her on the forehead, kissed my son in the cot beside her. On the street below, I got in my car and drove off into an empty life elsewhere.
Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency campaigner in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working, or hanging out with his kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.