The bike is rusted to shit. It is somehow spindly-looking despite its clunky, high Nelly frame that must weigh forty kilos or more. Its only merit is a wide basket which is just a shopping basket attached with brightly coloured bungee straps. I wonder whether Jill stole the basket from Durcan’s in town. “Have you tried the bike yet?” She wafts around the corner of the white-washed cottage. The walls are so bright in the July sunshine that I find myself squinting in their reflected glare. As if to intensify this, Jill is dressed head to toe in varying shades of expensive-looking cream linen. “I think it’ll be fine.” I briefly consider throwing my leg over the absurdly wide saddle that is set, I think, a little too low for me, but decide against it. Let’s just get on the fucking road already. Aine appears around the corner, snapping the lid shut on a bottle of suncream. She has been nagging me to get ready for our cycle trip for the last hour. Yet I am ready to leave before she is. Sometimes sisters are so predictable, they’re boring. She proffers the sticky bottle of kids’ factor 50 at me. It is royal blue with an orange lid and boasts an illustration of two stick kids on the cover that looks suspiciously nineties-era to me. It could be a relic from our childhood. I shake my head but breathe deeply as she passes to catch the overripe banana smell that immediately transports me to beach trips with my mother. I am eight years old again and wriggling away from the insistent hands that paste as much white lotion on me as they do on my younger, paler, frecklier sister. “Thanks a million for lending us your bike, Jill!” Aine says brightly. She leans on the handlebars of her slim Raleigh bike which she remembered to bring on the train from Dublin. “Well, I just hope it doesn’t break down on you. It’s not half as nice as your lovely city bike, Emma, but it’ll do.” I murmur thanks and busy myself with wheeling the bike across the new wooden patio towards the stepping-stone pathway, down the garden and out onto the boreen. I don’t want Jill to see my automatic eye-roll every time she mentions Dublin, with that distracted, near-wistful tone of voice. As if she wasn’t from the capital, where she lived her entire life up until last year. We call out our goodbyes loudly enough for Dad to hear from inside the house as we awkwardly maneuver our bikes around the Montbretia blooming on either side of the pathway, quaking in the sun like little fires. “Let us know if you need anything from the shops,” Aine calls out. For a moment, I think she’s addressing Dad before realising that she is talking to Jill. I doubt he is conscious, missing the sunniest summer in a decade as his morphine-induced afternoon naps lengthen like the bright evenings. My sandals stick and sink slightly into the softened tarmac as I swing my leg over the crossbar. Melting tarmac seemed to be a rarer treat in our childhood, to be manipulated beneath our fingers into tiny peaks and lakes, bubbles of black liquid burst beneath our graceless, stubby fingers. An old wives’ tale instructed the use of butter to get rid of the sticky black residue. Mum would present us both with a shallow saucer of margarine each time we returned with blackened hands. I don’t think it ever worked but we still dipped our fingers, expecting cooled greasiness to follow the warm stickiness. Aine is already at the end of the lane, turning onto the busier beach road. We head against the traffic inland, towards the main road. I hesitantly flick the ancient gears upwards as we climb uphill, passing our nearest neighbours’ farm. I peddle furiously to stop the loose chain slipping and am pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the gears change. The breeze is light but insistent enough to carry the tangy smell of surf and the sweet scent of cut grass. In the farmyard abutting the road, I spy a few shiny black bales of newly sheared grass. It is early to start baling but Autumn is squaring her shoulders and clenching her fists, ready to spring. Our progress is slow along the beach road. Cars shoulder into the shallow ditches as they encounter one another, forcing us to pull in by field gates and watch SUVs and long audis try to navigate the one-way road. Finally we reach the main road and edge the crossroads to head south towards Killadoon. “Whose idea was it to cycle to the Clapper bridge?” Aine puffs behind me as we reach the top of the hill on the main road, passing another neighbour’s farm. “Dad’s,” I call back. I can’t continue the conversation because our voices are intermittently overtaken by the noise of cars zooming by. Cycling the main road makes up only part of the trip but it really is unpleasant, particularly in the heat. I slow down as we crest the hill, mindful that even on her fancy bike, cycling is not Aine’s strong suit. Since we’ve arrived, Dad has been suggesting activities for us to do whenever he wakes and sees us in his bedroom. Lingering of any sort seems to disquiet him so we gabble excuses as to why we are on our phones or reading a book by his bed, waiting for him to wake up. Everyone, including Dad, seems to be hiding the truth from one another that he is dying. “Will we be off the main road soon?” Aine shouts over the roar of a tractor chugging by. “Yes! It’s the right turn before the church at Killeen. Not far now,” I call over my shoulder, trying to fake some enthusiasm. Aine won’t moan about the cycle, bless her. There is an unspoken pact between us to carry out whatever activity Dad decrees for the day, regardless of whether we want to do it. As if it will make him better. It must be the hottest day of the year. The sea winks at us, laughing at the two eejits pumping away at pedals when they could be floating in the blue. If he hadn’t said anything, we would be at Carrowniskey beach, or Carrowmore, maybe, where it’s sandier and there are fewer kids learning to surf. Aine would drive us afterwards into Louisburgh and we’d spend the rest of the day by the river, drinking takeaway machine coffees from Durcan’s, or Gala as it has rebranded, reading the papers and licking cold Twisters. Instead my calves whinge from the weight of the bike. A trickle of sweat articulates itself along the length of my spine. I spot the steeple first and then the familiar jagged teeth of the graveyard across the road from the church. Without thinking, I spin the handlebars to a sharp right angle and start across the road, towards the boreen winding to the bridge. Simultaneously I hear Aine screech my name and a car beep loudly. I shut my eyes and when I open them, I am across the road, winding slowly towards a ditch. I wrench the brake so tightly the handlebar bites into the fleshiness beneath my thumb, a surge of adrenaline clattering, unpunctual and overeager, around my body. I look behind to see a silver BMW disappear over the hill with a marked beep. Aine is by my side now, braking neatly beside me. “Christ, what happened?” she cries. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I just-” “You didn’t even look before crossing! You probably gave that driver a heart attack.” Her voice is high and loud, rising above the heavy hedgerows. “I can’t believe you didn’t look before you crossed the road. You were nearly killed!” The only thing to do is hang my head and experience what it is like to be the seven-year old kids my sister teaches. “I’m sorry, Ms. Hayes,” I mumble, faking a lisp. A smile tugs at both sides of her mouth but she is still glowering at me. “It’s not funny. Jesus,” she retorts, kicking at her pedal and gliding away. I tail her downhill. From now on, the road is flat or sloping towards the sea. The islands linger on the horizon; Inisturk straight ahead, a pirate ship with its fleet of Cahir Island lurking alongside. Further north, Clare Island is a mysterious sea creature arching itself out of the water before descending to mysterious depths. Inisbofin is southwards, a pod of dolphins about to slip over the horizon. I only realise my hands are still shaking when I reach for my brake as the bike picks up speed towards the bottom of the hill, propelled by its heavy frame. I ease its impatience, allowing for Aine to stay a few metres ahead. I can tell from the back of her neck, something about how her shoulders are set, that she is still quietly angry. Soon, I will be not only the eldest sibling but the oldest of the immediate family. I will be all she has and I can’t brake properly. We cycle in silence that isn’t silence until someone breaks it. “Is this the Colony?” She is offering a truce. “Next house.” There is nothing to explain the history except for a bronze plaque reading ‘The Colony’ nailed to the low stone wall bordering the squat, old house. Dad complains that there should be an information board explaining that the house is a relic of the attempt to establish a Protestant Evangelist colony in the heart of Catholic Mayo. He argues, each time we cycle here, that history is erased if it is not remembered, however shameful it is. I don’t voice my opinion that I understand why there isn’t any recognition of the Colony and their blatant exploitation of starving peasants in the Great Famine. Souperism is the term: forcing starving people to convert just to get a bowl of something. “Did you ever write that piece, in the end?” Aine is shielding her eyes from the sun, squinting at me. Her bare arms are already turning rosy, despite the ancient suncream. “I started it, actually. Last week.” Finally. It was Dad’s idea to write a piece on it. All of my best pitches are his; popularising lesser-known local history for travel sites and the occasional paper. After all, I can hear him say, translating internet gossip into clickbait articles is not journalism. “It is a pity, though,” Aine says, rising on tippy-toe to position her bum back on her saddle. “That there’s no information.” I smile because I don’t know whether consciously or unconsciously she is echoing the conversation we have here. That’s a lot of what family is, I suppose: going to the same places, out of tradition or lack of imagination, and hearing one another say the same things. I rock backwards onto my heels and push at my right pedal to glide aimlessly forward. Aine has not moved and my front wheel crashes into her back. “Aine, move!” I look up to see what has distracted her. A sheep stands in the middle of the road, blocking our way. Not an unusual sight, in these parts. Its legs are set slightly apart, as if to take up as much space as possible, but this seems unnecessary. Its creamy-grey fleece is almost comically thick, as if it has been swaddled in six Aran jumpers, quadrupling its size to three or four times a normal sheep shape. It makes its black face appear tiny in comparison, with ebony flashes of eyes. “Jesus, it’s massive,” I exhale. “Should sheep not be sheared around now?” “It’s a ram,” Aine corrects me. Teaching senior infants does make her an expert on farm animals. Now I notice the thick horns curling around his dwarfed face, arching upwards from the skull before looping down towards its hidden mouth and curling outwards again, as if to form a second curl of horn. “Don’t the horns tell you what age the ram is?” I ask. I have designated Aine resident expert. “I think so. It would make this one an old lad.” His eyes flicker back and forth between us. As soon as Aine stops speaking, he opens his mouth and displays a row of small, straight teeth. He lets out a short, impetuous baa. He closes his mouth and then opens it again, his eyes still flickering between us, as if anticipating interruption. He lets out another, longer, louder noise. I look over at Aine. She is looking back at the sheep but her chin is bobbing weirdly. I realise she is struggling not to laugh, trying to keep the sheep’s insistent eye contact. He lets out another barking sound and we lose control, letting our bikes drop clumsily to the ground. We are bent over and banging our chins on our knees, howling. Our laughs pollute the pollen-thickened summer stillness, interrupting the low thrum of working bees and the chatter of water running under the nearby bridge. We laugh and laugh and look up at him, frowning back at us, and start to laugh again. “He’s the absolute spits,” I choke, between bursts. “I can’t believe we found the sheep version of Dad.” It’s in the grey-flecked coat above his eyes, lending the appearance of distinguished-looking, overgrown eyebrows. It is the impatient composure as he waits for our silliness to pass before he continues his point. I can picture the sheep at the top of a lecture hall, in one of Dad’s pastel-coloured, wool-mix shirts. I start to laugh again, imagining it. My ribs hurt as I straighten, pointedly not looking at Aine who is still wheezing. The ram has not moved. He watches me return to a standing position and then steps forward. His body follows his wool-thickened chest. He takes another step. “What’s he doing now, Aine?” She has caught her breath back and is staring at the approaching sheep. Ram, rather. “I’m not sure. I thought our laughing would have scared him off. He’s quite bold for a sheep.” “Ram,” I correct her. He takes another step forward and then does not pause before the next and the next. My heart lurches. There’s something intimidating about him. He’s tall, nearly up to my hip, and his horns are sharp and coarse. “I don’t think he took the joke well,” I attempt to inject a breezy tone into the words but they slow and sound like a warning. He is angling towards me, closing the last metre of space between us. There’s nothing to do but freeze; sudden movement might freak him out. When the outer tip of his left-side horn is five inches from my thigh, he stops and looks up at me. There’s something expectant in his eyes. “Aine! What the fuck is he doing?” I hiss. I can’t look away. “I don’t know! I’ve never seen a ram do this.” He bows his head quickly, horns leaping groundwards, and stares at the daisies growing in the middle of the road for a long second, perhaps two. Then, equally abruptly, he wrenches his neck back up to look at me. “Aine!” “This is going to sound a bit mad,” she whispers. We are both interacting sotto voce, as if he can hear us. “I think he wants you to pet him.” At this, the ram steps forward again and angles his body against my legs, so the skin of my knees are buried in the soft wool around his upper belly. He is shockingly warm and I can feel his short breaths causing the wool to jump and tickle my shins. He looks up at me. I take a breath and place the flat of my hand between the two horns. Back and forth, slowly. He lets out a long, soft baaa. It sounds approving. “Bobby!” The sound sails over our heads and lands in the ditch beyond us. I jump and feel the rough bumpiness of ram horns graze my thigh as his head twists around, following the sound. “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” The ram launches into a staggering trot, at an alarming speed for his size, towards the Colony. He reaches the gate and utters that distinctive sound that seems to imitate a dog bark. An older man pushes open the gate and Bobby goes wild, leaping on the spot like a lamb. He butts the man’s faded corduroys, stepping on his olive wellies with his hooves to get closer to him. “I hope he wasn’t disturbing you,” the older man smiles. “He can get very excited around new people.” He has stretched over on one side for his fingers to graze the ram’s head. “Not at all,” I murmur, hypnotised by the ram’s open-mouthed grinning. “Why is he like that?” Aine asks. “Bobby? Ah, his mammy rejected him when he was born so we took him into the house. He thinks he’s our dog now,” the man grins, turning back to the house. We linger until he disappears inside the house, Bobby trailing his heels without a backwards glance at us. We want to note every detail for the retelling, and the telling again after that, of the ram at the Colony. We cycle home quickly in the diluted afternoon, silently anticipating Dad lamenting the lack of an information board. Bobby will be added to the family history of the Colony and it will be told once more in his darkening room as the evening impatiently treads closer. Family history is erased if not remembered.
Hannah Harman Conlon is from Dublin and lives in London where she scribbles as much as possible about strangers on the Tube. She has been published in The Irish Times and contributes to the editorial team of An Capall Dorcha, a literary and visual arts journal. She is currently finishing her first novel.