He handed the easel to the boatman, reaching down the pier wall towards the sea.

Have you got it?
I do, Mr Lloyd.

His brushes and paints were in a mahogany chest wrapped in layers of thick, white plastic. He carried the chest to the edge of the pier.

This one is heavy, he said.
It’ll be grand, Mr Lloyd. Pass it down.

He knelt on the concrete and slid the chest down the wall towards the boatman, the white plastic slipping under his fingers.

I can’t hold it, he said.
Let it go, Mr Lloyd.

He sat on his heels and watched the boatman tuck the chest and easel under the seat near the prow, binding each to the other with lurid blue string.

Are they secure?
They’re grand, Mr Lloyd.
I hope they’re secure.
As I said, they’re grand.

He stood up and brushed the dust and dirt from his trousers. The boatman lifted his arm, offering his hand.

Just yourself then, Mr Lloyd, sir.

Lloyd nodded. He handed his canvas pack to the boatman and
stepped cautiously onto the ladder set into the crumbling pier.

Turn around, Mr Lloyd. Your back to me.

He looked down, at the small boat, at the sea. He hesitated. Stalled.

You’ll be grand, Mr Lloyd.

Paperback of The Colony by Audrey Magee

He turned and dropped his right leg to search for the first step beneath him, his hands gripping the rusting metal as his leg dangled, his eyes shut tight, against the possibilities
of catching skin
cutting fingers
blemishing hands
of slipping
on steps
coated in seaweed and slime
of falling
falling into the sea

The step is under you, Mr Lloyd.
I can’t find it.
Relax your knee, Mr Lloyd. Reach.
I can’t.
You’ll be grand.

He dropped his knee and found the step. He paused, gripping still to the ladder.

Only two steps left, Mr Lloyd.

He moved his hands down the ladder, then his legs. He stopped on the third step. He looked down, at the gap between his feet and the low-lying boat.

It’s too far.
Just reach with your leg, Mr Lloyd.

Lloyd shook his head, his body. He looked down again, at his backpack, his easel, his chest of paints bound already to the journey across the sea in a handmade boat. He dropped his
right leg, then his left, but clung still to the ladder.
self-portrait I: falling
self-portrait II: drowning
self-portrait III: disappearing
self-portrait IV: under the water
self-portrait V: the disappeared

Let go, Mr Lloyd.
I can’t.
You’ll be grand.

He crashed into the boat, tipping it to one side, soaking his trousers, his boots and socks, water seeping between his toes as the boatman pumped his right leg against the swirl of sea splashing over the top of the boat, his leg feverish until the currach was again balanced. The boatman bent forward, to rest on his knees. He was panting.

My feet are wet.
You’re lucky it’s only your feet, Mr Lloyd.

The boatman pointed at the stern.

Go and sit down, Mr Lloyd.
But my feet are wet.

The boatman stilled his breath.

That’s boats for you, Mr Lloyd.

Lloyd shuffled towards the back of the boat, hanging from the boatman’s callused hands as he turned to sit on a narrow, splintered plank.

I hate wet feet, he said.

He reached his hands towards the boatman.

I’ll take my backpack now. Thank you.

The boatman handed him his pack and Lloyd placed it on his knees, away from the water sloshing still about the bottom of the boat.

I won’t object if you change your mind, Mr Lloyd. And I’ll not charge you. Not all of it, anyway.

I’ll carry on as planned, thank you.
It’s not common any more. To cross like this.
I’m aware of that.
And it can be a hard crossing.
I’ve read that.
Harder than anywhere else.
Thank you. I’ll be fine.

‘Calm day, thank God.
But that could change.
It could, Mr Lloyd.
Will it?
Oh, it will, Mr Lloyd.
So we should go now. Before it changes.
Not yet, Mr Lloyd.’

He closed the buttons of his waxed coat and pulled on his new tweed cap, its green and brown tones blending with the rest of his clothing.
self-portrait: preparing for the sea crossing
He reached down his legs and flicked the beaded water from his trousers, from his socks, from the laces of his boots.

Will you be staying long, Mr Lloyd?
For the summer.
That’ll do you.

Lloyd straightened the pack on his lap.

I’m ready, he said.
Shouldn’t we go?
Soon enough.
How long?
Not long.
But we’re missing all the daylight.

The boatman laughed.

It’s June, Mr Lloyd.
Plenty of light left in that sky.
What’s the forecast?

The boatman looked at the sky.

Calm day, thank God.
But that could change.
It could, Mr Lloyd.
Will it?
Oh, it will, Mr Lloyd.
So we should go now. Before it changes.
Not yet, Mr Lloyd.

Lloyd sighed. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sun, surprised by its warmth when he had expected only northern cold, northern rain. He absorbed the heat for some minutes, and opened his eyes again. The boatman was standing as he had been, looking towards land, his body shifting with the rhythm of the water that lapped gently against the pier wall. Lloyd sighed again.

I really think we should go, he said.
Not yet, Mr Lloyd.
I am very keen to get there. To settle in.
It’s early yet, Mr Lloyd.

The boatman reached into the inside of his jacket and took out a cigarette. He detached the filter and flicked it into the sea.

A fish might eat that, said Lloyd.
It might.
That’s not good for the fish.

The boatman shrugged.

It’ll be more careful next time.

Lloyd closed his eyes, but opened them again.

I want to leave, he said.
Not yet, Mr Lloyd.
I have paid you a lot of money, he said.
Indeed you have, Mr Lloyd, and I appreciate it.
And I’d like to go now.
I understand that.
So let’s go.
As I said, not yet, Mr Lloyd.
Why ever not? I’m ready.

The boatman drew deeply on the cigarette. Lloyd sighed, blowing through his lips, and poked at the boat, sticking his heels and fingers into the wooden frame coated with canvas and tar.

Did you build it? said Lloyd.
I did.
Did it take long?
It did.
How long?
Long enough.

self-portrait: conversation with the boatman
He pulled a small sketchpad and pencil from a side pocket on his pack. He turned to a blank sheet and began to draw the pier, stubby and inelegant but encrusted with barnacles and
seaweed that glistened in the sunshine, the shells and fronds still wet from the morning tide. He drew the rope leading from the pier to the boat and was starting on the frame of the currach when the boatman spoke.

Here he is. The man himself.
Lloyd looked up.
Francis Gillan.
Who’s he?

The boatman tossed the last of his cigarette into the sea. He cupped his hands and blew into his palms, rubbing each into the other.

It’s a long way, Mr Lloyd.
I can’t row it on my own.
You should have said.
I just did, Mr Lloyd.

Francis dropped from the ladder into the currach, landing lightly on the floor of the boat, his movements barely rippling the water.
Lloyd sighed
movements unlike mine
He nodded at Francis.

Hello, he said.

Francis tugged the rope from the ring in the wall.

Dia is Muire dhuit, he said.

The first boatman laughed.

No English from him, he said. Not this morning, anyway.

The boatmen lifted long, skinny sticks, one in each hand.

We’ll go now, said the boatman.

Lloyd returned his sketchpad and pencil to their pocket.

At last, he said.

The boatmen dropped the sticks into the water.

Are they oars?
They are indeed, Mr Lloyd.
They have no blades. No paddles.
Some do. Some don’t.
Don’t you need them?
If we get there, we don’t.

‘Lloyd gripped the sides of the boat, digging his fingers into the canvas and tar, into the coarse fragility of a homemade boat as it headed out into the Atlantic Ocean, into the strangeness, the unfamiliar’

The men pushed against the wall and Lloyd gripped the sides of the boat, digging his fingers into the canvas and tar, into the coarse fragility of a homemade boat as it headed out into the Atlantic Ocean, into the strangeness, the unfamiliar
the not
willowed rivers
coxswains’ callings
muscled shoulders, tanned skin
sunglasses, caps and counting
not that
the familiar
They moved towards the harbour mouth, past small trawlers and rowing boats with outboard engines. The boatman pointed at a vessel that was smaller than the trawlers but larger than the

That’s the one that’ll bring your bags, he said.

Lloyd nodded.

It’s how the other visitors come across.
Are there many visitors?
That’s good.
You’d be better off on that boat, Mr Lloyd.

Lloyd closed his eyes, shutting out the boatman. He opened them again.

I’m happy in this one.
The big one is safer, Mr Lloyd. It has an engine and sails.
I’ll be fine.
Right so, Mr Lloyd, sir.

They left the harbour, passing rocks blackened and washed smooth by waves, gulls resting on the stagnant surface, staring as they rowed past.
self-portrait: with gulls and rocks
self-portrait: with boatmen, gulls and rocks

How long will it take?
Three, four hours. It depends.
It’s ten miles, isn’t it?
Nine. That other boat of mine takes a bit more than an hour.
I like this boat. It’s closer to the sea.

The boatman pulled on the oars.

It’s that all right.

Lloyd leaned to one side and dropped his hand into the sea, spreading his fingers to harrow the water.
self-portrait: becoming an island man
self-portrait: going native

He wiped his chilled hand over his trousers. He lifted his pack and laid it behind him.

That’s risky, said the boatman.
It’ll be fine, said Lloyd.

He leaned against the pack and moved his fingers as though drawing the boatmen while they rowed
small men
slight men
hips, shoulders, backs
over anchored legs

Your boat is a different shape to the pictures in my book.
Different boats for different parts, Mr Lloyd.
This one looks deeper.

Deeper boats for deeper waters. The shallow boats are grand for islands that are close in.

Not this one?
No, too far.
Is it safe?
This boat?

The boatman shrugged.

It’s a bit late to be asking.

Lloyd laughed.

I suppose it is.

self-portrait: going native with the island men

And do they leak?
They do, Mr Lloyd.
The tar on my garage roof always leaks, he said.
That happens with tar.
Does it happen with this boat?
I patched it recently.
And do they sink?
Oh, they do.
Has this one?

The boatman shook his head, slowly.

Well, we are in it, Mr Lloyd.
Yes, he said. I suppose we are.

He reached behind him and again retrieved his sketchbook and pencil from his pack. He looked at the sky and began to draw
swirling and twisting
hovering, banking
cloudless blue
island series: view from the boat I
He looked then at the sea
rolling to shore
to rocks, to land
rolling from
white-fringed blue
green-fringed grey
island series: view from the boat II
A bird rose from the water beside him
black feathers
splashed white
red legs
one still dangling
island series: view from the boat III
He closed the sketchpad.

Was that a puffin?
A guillemot, Mr Lloyd. A black one.
It looks like a puffin.
Do you think so?
I really want to see a puffin.
You might, Mr Lloyd. If you stay long enough.
How long?
A month anyway.

He had packed a book about birds in his luggage, a guide with photographs, measurements, names, calls, winter and summer colourings, information about breeding and feeding, details about diving birds, skimming birds, plunging birds, details to differentiate terns from gulls, cormorants from shags, details that would allow him to draw and paint them, to blend them
into a seascape, a landscape
create them
as they already are

And do you have seals?
The odd one over this side, but there’s a colony on the island.
Wonderful creatures.
Terrible snorers.
Are they?
Terrible racket out of them.

The boat lurched forward, pitching him at the boatman’s knees, slamming his pack against his back. He straightened himself, brought his pack back onto his lap and shoved his sketchbook and pencil into their pocket. A surge of water rushed at his head and face. The boatman shouted at him.

Hold on.

Lloyd dug his feet into the boat’s ribs, his hands into its sides. He shouted back.

I told you that we should have left earlier.

The boatman yelled at him.

It’s the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Lloyd. In a currach.

Waves knocked the boat left, then right, shoving him from one side to the other, bouncing him, knocking him, rolling him, jerking his neck, his back.

You’ll get used to it, Mr Lloyd.

He dug his hands and feet deeper into the boat.

I don’t want to get used to it.
We can go back, Mr Lloyd.
No. No. We’ll go on.
You’d be better in the bigger boat.
I want to do it this way.
Right so, Mr Lloyd. Your choice.

Lloyd watched the two men as they rowed from one wave to the next.
island series: the boatmen I
agile strength
in a flat-bottomed boat
island series: the boatmen II
sun-stained hands
skinny sticks
slapping the ocean
island series: the boatmen III
leaning towards land
then away
towards and away
island series: the boatmen IV
on sea to come
on endlessness
He closed his eyes.

It’s better with your eyes open, Mr Lloyd.

He shook his head.

No, it’s not.
As you like, Mr Lloyd.

He snatched his new hat from his head, leaned over the side and vomited. He wiped his mouth and chin with the sleeve of his new coat. The gulls arrived and devoured what had been his, battling intermittently with their beaks.

Disgusting creatures, he said.
They’re not fussy, anyway, said the boatman.

Lloyd closed his eyes again.

How much longer?
We’ve just left, Mr Lloyd.
Yes, of course.
As I said before, Mr Lloyd, we can go back if you want.
No. I’ll be all right.

He slumped into the stern.

I hate boats, he said. Always have.
You might have considered that before now, Mr Lloyd.

Lloyd vomited a second time. The gulls swooped again.

I didn’t expect it to be this rough, he said.
It’s a calm day today, Mr Lloyd. Bit of wind on the water, that’s all.
It feels worse.
That’s the currach for you.

A surge of water splashed over the prow, over his chest of paints.

Are my paints safe?
As safe as we are, Mr Lloyd.
That’s comforting.

self-portrait: at sea

I’d like you to sing, he said.
We don’t sing, Mr Lloyd.
But I need something to focus on. Counting or singing.
Not in this boat.
I read in a book that you people always sing while rowing.
Not a very good book then, is it, Mr Lloyd?
I came here because of it.

The boatman looked past Lloyd, at the land behind.

You need a better book, Mr Lloyd.
It seems that I do.

Lloyd looked around him, at the expanse of sea.

And how do you know which way to go?
It can be hard all right in a fog.
What if one descends quickly?
That’s us then.
And who will know?

The boatman shrugged.

They’ll see we’re not home for tea.
And that’s it.
That’s it.

self-portrait: drowning I
white-capped waves
engulfing the boat
self-portrait: drowning II
cold salty water
burrowing into paints
into flesh
self-portrait: drowning III
diluting paint
fragmenting flesh
self-portrait: drowning IV
drifts of
grey brown
red yellow
blue green

How much longer?
A while yet, Mr Lloyd.

Screenshot from video rocky coast
Watch Audrey Magee read from The Colony
The Colony by Audrey Magee is out now in paperback.
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Audrey Magee

‘A vivid and memorable book about art, land and language, love and sex, youth and age. Big ideas tread lightly through Audrey Magee’s strong prose.’ Sarah Moss

About the Author

Audrey Magee was born in Ireland and lives in Wicklow. Her first novel, The Undertaking, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards. It was also nominated for the Dublin Literary Award and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The Undertaking has been translated into ten languages and is being adapted for film.

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About the Author