The view from the field is spectacular. Behind us rises the mountain, Round Seefin: domed, treeless, majestic. At the very top it is grey with scree, descending into dark brown scrubby heather, and then green patches of grass dotted with sheep. The pastures are chased with the thin lines of human activity, a palimpsest of walls and lanes. The lower slopes and hedgerows crackle with yellow whin bushes; the light breeze carries the faint scent of coconut from them. The field and lane are bordered by imposing dry stone walls. Built of round boulders and large rocks, there are gaps through which daylight can be seen, but this is not a sign of poor construction: they have impassively withstood scores of punishing Mourne winters. In front of us, beyond the neat white cottage and a scattering of ash trees, can be glimpsed the azure line of the sea, etched on the background of pale haze. The sky over us is almost cloudless, just a few thin wisps of cirrus.
Mercifully, summer had finally arrived for the wee girl’s first camping trip. Up till yesterday the weather had been atrocious. I’d had visions of the rain bucketing out of the heavens, drumming off the flysheets; cold, miserable children running barefoot through the freezing downpour to snuggle up with their parents in the warmth of the house. But the girls had slept soundly, cosy in their sleeping-bags and layered blankets; no frights, no drama. She’d been excited; looking forward to it so much. I am happy that it had worked out perfectly; we’d all had a brilliant time. But now, in the early evening, it’s time to go home to Belfast. We pack up and climb into the car.
My daughter is in the front next to me, and our friend in the back. As we crunch gingerly down the rutted, rocky, potholed lane, the stones rattling alarmingly on the bottom of the car, the scene in front of us changes constantly; in one place the whins have caught fire, and stand in charred clumps, some of them miraculously still flowering atop their blackened stalks. Further down, the view opens up and we can see the expanse of the sea more clearly – we are surrounded by bright primary colours: yellow flowers, blue sea and sky. The wee girl chats away to us; it’s a proper six-year-old conversation: oh daddy! The car doesn’t like this road; and, look! A pigeon! Then, as we roll gently onto smoother gravel, her tone changes and she enunciates solemnly, like a Victorian spiritualist: Deep and hollow, in a dark, weakening sky. I ask her where she got the quote from. I made it up, she says nonchalantly. Mary, in the back, is as stunned as I am, and asks her to say it again; she repeats it effortlessly. The line is totally out of context with the beauty all around us, and the light, cheerful talk. There is nothing melancholy about her; she’s now happily chuntering on about swimming. I recall the sight of my dead, sunken eyes in the bathroom mirror this morning; it’s a different landscape in there, alright. But how does she know?