Short Story – Girl Pilgrim

Girl Pilgrim


https://images.app.goo.gl/dHcNAUw4uGwyV8nB6

June 1990

That was the day my life took a different path. Well, it was probably two days really because one ran into the other and to separate them would be impossible. We got the bus to Santiago de Compostela. We were hungry and a bit hung over so the first thing we did was look for a tapas bar. I had begun to realise that in Galicia the only thing that really matters is the food. At home, the grottier looking the cafe, the grottier the food tends to be. Not in Spain. The tapas bars and cafes are very basic, many of them advertising the food with sun-faded photos in the window, but the food is top-notch. We stopped at a cafe and plonked ourselves outside on two plastic chairs in the sunshine and Bea ordered.  Pulpo, calamares, jamon serrano with tortilla and some Padrón peppers. I was used to Bea telling me that the Galicians had the best fish in the world. She was probably right. I stopped short of suggesting that it was very likely that half the fish came from the sea around Ireland. Since I arrived in Vigo I’d been living on a diet of fish and Manchego cheese.  Before we got on the bus we even visited the old lady at the port to eat some oysters. For the ‘resaca’; the hangover cure, according to Bea and rightly so, the oysters seemed to do the job.  I could handle the oysters but for some reason, when the food arrived, the jelly-like part of the octopus was a step too far.

When we finished lunch, we weaved our way through the crowds on the narrow streets lined with bars, stalls and souvenir shops and made our way to the main square. The square was vast and busy with tourists, many of them with backpacks making their way to the Cathedral. There was a Galician folk group performing beside the old Parador. The costumes reminded me of old gypsy costumes but the music they played sounded like a group of Celtic musicians from the west of Ireland. They were even playing bagpipes for God’s sake. I hated the sound of bagpipes.

“Come on and we’ll pretend we’re pilgrims.” Bea said and we crossed the square making our way to the Cathedral.  We were very giddy, as Bea insisted that we put on an act of the exhausted pilgrim when we climbed the steps, so as not to look like the imposters that we were. When we entered through the large doors everyone was lining up to place their hand on a pillar with a carving of St James in the middle of a vast portico dripping with Medieval carvings. We joined the queue, and both took turns to place our hand on the spot. Even in our giddiness the moment was not lost on us. The pillar was worn from the countless pilgrims that had stood there over the centuries and you could feel the grooves of the hands that touched it before. We paid a quick visit to the interior of the Cathedral to look at the gold altar with its famous statue of St James and when we got back out into the scorching sunshine, leaving the cool interior behind, we were back laughing hysterically and decided after all that effort we deserved a beer. 

One beer led to another and after an afternoon enjoying the sights and smells and especially the bars of Santiago, we got a late bus back to Vigo. We were on a roll, so we decided to continue.  First there was the Salsa club and the taxi afterwards and the bars on the port and the other taxi and the night club. Bea met up with her friends and by the time we hit the night club there were about ten of us. And that’s when it all gets confusing, and my memories begin to blur.  I have flashbacks of faces. Of dancing and loud music. Of dancing with him. Of looking for Bea and not finding her. Of finding her. Of going back to his friend’s place with Bea afterwards. Of me being out of it and letting him undress me.  Of me freezing and thinking this couldn’t be happening but knowing it was happening.  Of me getting up from the bed and fumbling for my clothes. Of me sitting on the steps outside waiting for Bea.  Of me witnessing a spectacular sunrise but feeling completely detached from the beauty all around me.

June 2003

On the day of her graduation from junior school I was looking at all of the little faces on the stage feeling a roller coaster of emotions. They were all so young and innocent and had so much life ahead of them. The graduation ceremony was full of joy.  Songs full of hope and dancing and the speeches about going out into the big world. I knew that the next few years wouldn’t be easy for Anna going into the new school, teenage years and all the rest. I thought about the day she was born, looking into her eyes and laughing because she was looking right back at me.  I knew that if she could have spoken, she would have said “What?” Like, “Just get on with it.”  So, I did. And now looking at my twelve year old, I was proud of how I had just got on with it. How we both had.

She was laughing at something her friend said, and I was struck by how beautiful she looked with her red hair lit up by the sunshine streaming in the glass door.   She was taller than most of her year. A lot of the other children hadn’t had their growth spurts yet. She caught my eye and waved down at us. Peter squeezed my hand and said, “She’s a cracker isn’t she.”  Her grandparents were sitting beside us. Anna was their first grandchild. Grandad’s little buddy or his ‘doppelganger’ as he used to call her when she was little. Nana filled the gaps when I was working or studying for exams. Baking with her and listening to her incessant chat. I could never thank them enough for what they and my younger sisters did for me back then and how they accepted my silence. They had long ago reconciled to the idea that they would probably never know how Anna came into our world. They were just happy that she did.

“Hi Mum. Where are the boys ?” Anna was disappointed the little ones weren’t there. She loved showing them off to her friends because according to her and her friends, her twin brothers were “soooo cute!”. 

“They’re with Tina. We don’t want any distractions on your big day.”

“We’re going over the harbour for a celebratory lunch for the day that’s in it.” Peter ventured. He’d taken a half day. “Nana and Grandad are coming too.”

“Great. I’m having calamari.” Anna beamed, still high on the joy of the occasion and enjoying a big hug from Nana, who was telling her for the millionth time what a great girl she was and how proud she was of her.

June 2013

“Mum can we meet for coffee. I’ve some news for you”. I couldn’t work out if Anna sounded happy, or nervous or sad. She wouldn’t elaborate on the phone, so my mind was racing. I had blocked out two hours from work and got the Luas up from the Criminal Courts. I was waiting in Arnotts café. Anna was coming from work too. She was doing well on her graduate placement. She was working very long hours and I was glad she’d taken the year out after finishing college. She had inherited my talent for being late so it was anyone’s guess who would get there first. I had just sat down at a table and I watched her walking towards the coffee shop. She was wearing a long flowery dress with her Doc Martins and her hair was tied up in a ponytail. She looked so young and vibrant.  The teenage years had been rocky enough, but she had got on with it, got through school and college. She was finally working and earning a few quid.  She had also moved in with her boyfriend John, and they seemed to rock along nicely. She saw me, gave what I thought was an apprehensive smile and came and plonked herself down opposite me.

“Hi honey. What’s up?”  I was impatient.

“Hang on and I’ll get the coffees” and off she went. Arriving back with two mugs and a muffin, she settled into her seat and proceeded to divide the muffin in two.

“Well, you’re probably not going to like this, but I’ll get to the point. I found him.”

“Found who?” It was a stupid question and I knew it.

“You know who Mum. My father, the sperm donor or whatever you want to call him.”

The shock of what she had just said was slowly beginning to register. Not the language she used. That was normal for us. It was what she had told me. I felt a wave of panic at the thought that she had made contact with this man. Thinking about it brought back too many uncomfortable emotions that I had successfully buried a long time ago. As Anna had got older and began to ask questions, I found myself wondering if I was right to exclude Anna’s father. Whether I should have at least given him a choice to be involved. But I figured I’d left it too late. Anyway, I couldn’t give Anna the answers she needed. I wasn’t ready to go there.  In recent years she’d stopped asking questions which I found unnerving. Now I understood why. She had taken control of things herself. I shouldn’t have been surprised. That was Anna. I looked into her eyes, and she looked back at me defiantly.

“What?”

What indeed I thought. So many questions. What? When? I didn’t need to ask ‘why’ of course.

“How? I mean, how do you know?”

“To cut a long story short Mum, I found your old friend Bea on Facebook. Tina told me about her, and I messaged her and eventually after emailing her loads of times, I got it out of her. She said you broke off contact with her.  She had no idea that you were pregnant.”

My mind flashed back to a Facebook message I saw from Bea about a year before. I hadn’t opened it. Bea and I had met when I was on an Erasmus in Madrid. It was easy to break the link in the early 1990s. There was no Facebook and of course no mobile phones. I had gone back to Dublin and continued with my life. Knowing I was pregnant made me work twice as hard and I had made a good life for myself and Anna, even before I met Peter. Meeting Peter and later having the boys had created a very nice little family for all of us. I had always tried to convince myself that having a great Dad in Peter was enough for Anna. And it was on many levels.  He couldn’t have been a better Dad to her. When she was difficult during her teenage years it was Peter who calmed her down and kept the peace between us. Deep down I had long accepted that there would always be a part of her she needed to reconcile

“How can you be sure Anna?”

“He was a school friend of Bea’s. I am sure.  She spoke to him, and I messaged him on Facebook. Anyway, we’ve done the DNA and its confirmed.” She looked at me and continued to speak “I’m not angry. Well, I was a bit, but I’ve calmed down now. I know you had your reasons. But for fucks sake Mum.  He didn’t even know I existed.”

Anna had every right to be angry with me. As a teenager, when she started to ask questions about her father, I told her it was a ‘one night stand’. She knew that was all I was prepared to say about how she came into the world. At the time I knew it didn’t feel right, but I really didn’t think it was rape. We were both very drunk. Of course as I got older I grew to understand that it was a grey area and that I was no more capable of giving consent. But they were different times and we hadn’t a clue back then. It was long before the Me-Too movement, not to mention the Repeal movement. In truth,  I was not long on options at the time, but I never once regretted the choice I made. I could have got the boat if I really wanted to.

Most of all I was so glad for Anna’s sake that these days things were out in the open and more talked about. I was glad that the lines are less blurred. I’d had a chat with the boys about it too. About consent and respect. They looked at each other rolling their eyes up to heaven. “Yeah. Mum. We know all that.” Peter thought they were a bit young for that conversation, but I assured him that I’d heard too many horror stories and I wasn’t taking any chances. He knew not to push it any further.

“Ok love. So, what now?” I said resigned to the reality of the situation.

“I’m going to meet him. I’m going to Santiago in a week. He wants to meet me.”

“Do you want me to come?” I knew what her answer would be before she replied.

“No.”

June 2015

Peter and I left the boys with their grandparents and we arrived in Santiago de Compostela three days ago. On Thursday we travelled to Vigo to see Bea. We are back in contact now and she has long forgiven me for cutting her out of my life. We stood and hugged for what seemed like an eternity, both of us crying and laughing at the same time. We were so happy to see each other again after so long. It was Bea who brought Anna to meet her father that first time she met him. I can’t thank her enough for her kindness and how she gently smoothed the way. I sat with Bea in the garden by the pool looking out at the sea and we talked about old times. Her husband Juan and the two children made me and Peter so welcome. We promised to meet up again soon. To make up for lost time.

On Friday Anna arrived with John.  They had taken two weeks holiday to walk the Portuguese section of the Camino. They were full of chat and enthusiasm telling us about the different characters they had met along the way.  They had hugged St James in the Cathedral when they got to Santiago, and I was teasing Anna because she always referred to religion as ‘mumbo jumbo’. She knew well that I shared that view. 

“It’s not religious Mum. It’s spiritual. You guys have to do the Camino. The boys would love it too.“

The four of us sat over dinner and chatted for hours hearing all of their stories. I was happy for her. She has embraced her Galician roots with pride and clearly a sense of need. As if she was making up for lost time.  Her Spanish is now far superior to my own. I loved listening to her chatting away to the waiter in fluent Spanish. She insisted on doing the orders. Calamari, octopus, salted cod. Anna was anxious to impress Peter and me with her knowledge of all things Galician.  “Did you know that you get the best fish in the world in Galicia?” I smiled.  “Think I might have heard that before.”

Yesterday I met her biological father. I met Rodrigo. Anna had shown me photos of him, so I already knew what he looked like. She had also shown me photos of his wife Laura with their daughter, Anna’s half-sister, Amaro. Amaro had the same colouring as Anna.  I also saw a photo of Anna with her grandmother, ‘abuela Maria’. Yet I still wasn’t really prepared for how I would feel about meeting Rodrigo. There were so many thoughts going around in my head and I was anxious. Peter offered to come, but I said that for this time I would prefer to be alone. Besides he was minutes away on the phone if I changed my mind. So, I crossed the square, which was full of the day’s stream of pilgrims and made my way to the coffee shop where Anna was waiting with Rodrigo. He had his back to me when I approached, and Anna was leaning forward in deep conversation. I noticed he reached out and patted her on the hand in reaction to something she said to him. I felt a tinge of emotion, maybe even jealousy. I wasn’t sure. She saw me and smiled.

“Hi Mum. I’d like to introduce you to Rodrigo.”

There was no sarcasm in her voice, and I realised how relieved I was that she called him by his first name.  She had always called Peter ‘Dad’.

Rodrigo stood up and shook my hand. I could tell he was apprehensive.

“Louise, very nice to meet you.”

Rodrigo’s red hair had long since faded to grey and his beard was neatly trimmed. The years had been kind to him. Looking into his eyes my memory of the tall Galician boy, that I had danced Salsa with, came back to me as if that memory had never gone away.

And that was it. I sat down and joined them at the table and over the next hour we made polite talk about our lives. Both of us had gone into Law and we mentioned that, but I did not dwell on the area of law I specialised in. We talked about our other children. But mostly we talked about Anna. He thanked me for bringing up such a wonderful girl. He told me how blessed he felt that she had come into his life. There were no recriminations. No questions asked by either of us. We both knew there was no point in looking backwards and without saying anything we accepted things the way they were. I thanked him for the kindness he and his wife had shown Anna. When we got up to leave, he hugged Anna and promised he would see her very soon. We shook hands and as he held my gaze, his eyes welled up with tears. I squeezed his hand and then we hugged each other. It was a long, firm hug full of emotion. Whatever had to be forgiven was forgiven. It was clear that we both had a strong bond in Anna. That was what mattered now. After a moment Anna took me gently by the hand, and we walked away quietly. Neither of us speaking. Although I did not turn around, I knew Rodrigo was standing watching us until we turned the corner. 

Today I got up early and left the others having breakfast in the Parador. I wanted to say goodbye to the Cathedral before we go home. I wanted to say goodbye to Santiago de Compostela, until the next time, when I plan to arrive as a genuine pilgrim. The Pórtico da Glória was closed off for conservation so I couldn’t place my hand in the worn handprint. I was disappointed to hear from the guide that it will no longer be possible.    

There was organ music playing inside the cathedral and the whole interior was infused with a strong smell of incense. Mass had just ended and some people were filing out whilst a quiet stream of pilgrims continued to arrive. I sat down towards the back of the Cathedral. Looking up at the vast Romanesque vaulted ceiling and the gold carved altar with the Statue of St James in the centre, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by everything that had happened over the last few days. I thought back to the last time I was in the Cathedral with Bea, twenty-five years ago. I was thinking about how young we both were and how our time together was full of laughter. We had no idea how our lives would change that day. And then I began to sob uncontrollably. I don’t know how long I was crying for but when the tears finally stopped flowing, I felt calm.  Calmer than I had in a long, long time.

There was one more thing I needed to do before I left the Cathedral. I quietly moved along the row of seats and out into the aisle. An American pilgrim, who had been watching me, moved aside to let me into the queue and I nodded in appreciation. They were queuing up to hug the gold statue of St James. Today I didn’t feel like a fake pilgrim.  I didn’t feel the need to pretend. I reckoned St James would know full well that I’d travelled a long road to get here.

I climbed the narrow stairs behind the altar and waited my turn. When it came, I put my arms around the golden statue of St James and found myself getting giddy again at the thoughts of me doing such a thing. For a non-practicing Catholic I surprised myself sometimes. However, in that moment I felt overcome with a sense of peace and happiness.  Like my fellow pilgrims I had reached the end of a very long journey. I thanked St James for everything that had happened in my life and for the people I had around me. I knew in my heart that from today life would be different. Different in a good way.
– END

Cathedral in Santiago de Compestella
https://images.app.goo.gl/CUTSrmxfiURi6EAk8

Knights, Fights and Automobiles

Amongst other stuff…

Yesterday was a grey day. One of those days where there’s no wind. No rain. Just grey. To add to the greyness, I had to head north to Drogheda to do an NCT (National Car Testing) on the car at lunchtime.  So, the weather was the perfect backdrop for such an occasion. I was running a bit late. When I pulled into the test centre there was a queue out the door. Everyone masked up and feeling the cold.  Inside the prefab-like building there were only three seats available to sit on, with the majority of seats marked off with large Xs of yellow and black  tape. It had all the appearance of a crime scene. I sat down. The seat was cold and the door was wide open. I spotted a handwritten sign saying coffee only three doors up.  I didn’t hang around.

Lord Farquaad, Shrek https://images.app.goo.gl/17QUMsguVwr2PBqVA

For all the charm that Drogheda has, as well as its intriguing history, you will not find any of that charm in the Industrial Estate. The Industrial Estate is called the Newgrange Industrial Estate. It doesn’t live up to its great Stone Age namesake, which is only down the road. Anyway, I found the source of the coffee which was a premises that looked like a gym. It had  a small coffee area to the front. I wanted to get in out of the cold and it was a much better option than sitting in the bleak waiting room waiting for news on the car.

I asked the man behind the counter if it was a gym and he told me it was a Mixed Martial Arts gym. He seemed to be the owner and he told me he was previously a professional fighter.  Given my little knowledge (McGregor of course), I made some comment along the lines of it being the ‘heavy stuff’. He told me it was a great outlet for the youth in the area, which I don’t doubt. Anyway, the big decision of the day became which of the selection of protein balls I would choose. The day was already looking up.  So, with the decision made, I sat at the single table with my coffee and took out my book.

The book I was reading came from a box of books that I found when we moved house again two months ago. My late sister-in law, Helen, had asked me to store them in our under-floor storage area of our old home on the beach. On the day I found the box, I was being ruthless.  I was in the mood that anything excess should be either given to charity or sold. I even looked up the price on eBay to see what these books would be worth. Thankfully they weren’t worth much and I’m particularly relieved that I came to my senses when the panic surrounding the move died down. The box was filled with a collection called The Great Writers Library, which pretty much contains all the old classics. Some I’ve read a long time ago, but the majority I haven’t. So, I decided to try and work my way through them in the hope of some enlightenment.

Helen was great for signing up for the collectors editions, that you would see advertised on the 1st of January every year. (There’s a box full of magazines of the Great Artists somewhere too). Helen was also the kind of person who loved giving gifts and I am so grateful to her for the unexpected gift of these books . She was the best aunt to my children and all her nieces and nephews. Cancer took Helen from us far too early.  

So, I’m sitting reading my book and the owner of the Mixed Martial Arts centre asked me what I was reading. I jokingly said that “would you believe I’m actually reading about fighting”. I said that it was a bit before Mixed Martial Arts time. That it was about knights, kings and all that stuff.  But it did get me thinking that fights will always go on, no matter how civilised we would like to think we are. Back in the day it was fighting to the death for the entertainment of the onlookers. Nowadays it’s still entertainment, but not to the death. Well, it’s not supposed to be anyway.   The rules have improved. The book is Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I’m about half-way through and much to my surprise, given the subject matter, I am really enjoying it. When reading about all these duelling knights I can’t help but think of the great line from Lord Farquaad in Shrek “some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

And while I’m on the subject of things not changing that much over the centuries, I read two Thomas Hardy books from Helen’s collection. (Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Harrowing stories of injustice, homelessness, class, privilege, abuse of power, and I’m not talking about last week’s Sunday newspapers – although I could be.

Not long before we left our bungalow (compliments of the receiver not to mention some dodgy planners) I was pulling out of the driveway, and I noticed two large minibuses pulling into the field across the road. Out came a group of, probably foreign vegetable pickers, and for a solid four days they went to work on the field.  I could see them stooped over the vegetables as I came and went. In Hardy’s day, farm labourers walked from farm to farm looking for work. Nowadays they arrive by minibus. I hope they are well paid, with the the cost of housing and all that…. And while I’m on the subject of hard work, there’s also the Polish winkle pickers who park their cars at the White Wall across from my parent’s house. They walk with the tide out to Shenick island and stay overnight on dark Winter nights, coming back in with the next low tide, some twelve hours later.  You can see their torches shining at night, but most people wouldn’t even know they are out there.

It makes me think of a quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles when she was working in the fields of ‘Wessex’;

They worked on, hour after hour, unconscious of the forlorn aspect they bore in the landscape, not thinking of the justice or injustice of their lot.”

Stonehenge
https://images.app.goo.gl/5z1vFpUhkBbBRb3h7

There’s another scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess and her husband, Angel, find themselves unexpectedly at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, “a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain”.

I’ve seen Stonehenge from the road. It catches you by surprise and it is a such a wonder for sure, standing proud in the landscape. I would like to return and stop a while some day. Newgrange, is our Stone Age monument. It is one of my favourite places to visit, but it has been a while. When I was a child, we visited it regularly with our parents. I loved the beautiful kerb stones at the front of the passage grave with their concentric patterns and the long cool, musty smelling corridor that leads down to the burial chamber. My favourite part was when the guide turned out the light making it pitch black and then they would recreate the sun coming up the passage-way for the Winter Solstice. All of a sudden, the burial chamber would light up and you could see the corbelled stone roof above and imagine what it was like all those millennia ago. It was breath-taking to think that we were standing in a Neolithic tomb that was even older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

I remember on one occasion, in the late 1970s, my little brother, on his way down the passage way, stuck his hand into a gap in the rocks (as kids do) and pulled out a wad which contained seven old Irish pounds. It was a small fortune at the time. My parents reckoned some wealthy American tourist had made an offering to the Druid Gods and we were the beneficiaries. They went back to the shop to declare the money and the lady smiled and said it was our lucky day. So that was the day we had the take-away from the chipper, compliments of the Stone Age Gods. The following week my aunt and my cousin went to Newgrange but didn’t have our luck, despite checking in every nook and cranny on the way down the passage-way!

When I left the gym, the owner wished me luck with the car test. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The car failed. So, I’m back down on the 17th of December and I’ll pop in for another coffee. I might try and head over to Newgrange afterwards for old time sake. It will be coming up to the Winter Solstice and I hope the sky clears to let the sun light-up the burial chamber.

PS I went for the Reeses protein ball. Highly recommend.  

Newgrange Kerb Stone. https://images.app.goo.gl/ufkfAxavkn8R55np8

Cock-a-doodle-doo

I’m in Portugal at the moment and there’s a cockerel nearby and he’s lost his ‘doodle doo’. He makes it as far as the beginning of the ‘doo’ and then his voice cracks to a wheezy sound. Poor fella. I can’t see him, but I envisage a battered looking character that has been pulled through a hedge backwards and is missing a few feathers.

Portuguese Barcelo’s Cockerel

I love the sound of the cockerel. It always evokes hot places and memories of travels abroad. In Spain the cockerel doesn’t say ‘Cock-a-doodle doo’. It says ‘Qui-quiri-qui’. (sounds like; kee- kiri -kee) Seriously!  I’ve heard them in Spain and believe me it’s ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’ all the way. 

Lately I’m feeling a bit like the cockerel in more ways than one.  I’ve lost my voice.  Or I think I’ll call it my ‘doodle-doo’. When you shout out loud and nobody is listening, you just get tired of it all. I can hear it being said. (you see what you do is attack the messenger). ‘That angry woman. She just has sour grapes because she didn’t get her planning’.  Well, here’s my version of it.

‘That angry woman (no apologies) Who is angry because a powerful and conflicted planner, aided by his friends (all subordinates of his), stopped her family’s planning’.

Simple as. Except it’s not really that simple because of the collateral damage which we continue to live with. So, for the sake of our family, I will continue to be angry- if that’s ok. But I won’t get bitter – because that’s on me.

When I look up the symbolism of the cockerel it says “the rooster crows into your life to add to your bravery, pride, prudence, strength and honesty”.  It makes me smile. I especially love the fact that the cockerel (or rooster) is the symbol of Portugal – ‘a symbol of faith, good luck and justice based on the legend of the Old Cock of Barcelos’. I’ll take that too.

In Portugal the cockerel says ‘Co-co-ro-có.’  (beats the Spanish version). So maybe my friend has lost his ‘ro-có’, not his ‘doodle-do.’  But nevertheless, he keeps on trying. I’m inspired….

The Write Club

To save some the effort of reading this blog, it is not about planning. It’s not a true story. It’s fiction.

About two months ago I joined The Sea Road WriteClub and it’s nice to have to make things up for a change. It’s challenging but good fun too. The man behind The Sea Road WriteClub is Gary Quinn, a writer, editor and very patient writing coach. At the end of the course Gary has merged two groups to form, (and I hope you don’t take offence lads), what you might call in our case- a ‘middle age’ short story club (as opposed to a book club). Gary is still at the helm, guiding and maintaining order. It’s early days, but after one meet up on Zoom and a short story each, I can tell it will be a good laugh.

So, encouraged by Gary, I am going out of my comfort zone and putting up my first fiction short story below. I would highly recommend Gary’s writing courses for anyone, anywhere (thanks to Zoom) and of any age!

Way Up High

   “Look Frank. Look, it’s the Eiffel Tower.”

   Danny was shaking Frank’s shoulder to get his attention. Frank kept playing his DS and shrugged him away.

   “Get lost Danny.”

   Frank was just about to get to the next level in Super Mario Bros and Danny’s shaking wasn’t helping his chances. Besides, he was still pissed with Danny. When they had got on the plane Danny got his own way, of course. “I bags the window seat,” he’d said and, of course, Mum let him as usual.

   There’s only two years between them but Danny always got his way. Frank knew it was pointless to argue. He could see his Mum was tense with all the packing and getting to the airport. She said he could sit at the window on the way back. He knew it would be night when they were coming back.  It’s not the same, he thought.

   Frank’s Mum was sitting reading her book beside him in the aisle seat and his Dad was sitting beside the girls, reading the paper with his earphones on. Frank’s big sister Carol had come along on the holiday this time. She was minding Sheila, who was colouring in her Princess colouring book. The food had come and gone. They were all allowed get a sandwich and share a large packet of M&Ms. Of course, Danny dropped some on the ground and had to squeeze down to pick them up. He was so annoying, Frank thought.

   Danny wouldn’t give up and kept shaking Frank’s shoulder. “I swear Frank. it’s the Eiffel Tower.” Frank gave in. “Danny, you just made me lose a life.” He leaned over to look out the window and there it was, the Eiffel Tower.

   “Wow,” was all Frank could say at the sight. All was forgiven.  There it was, the Eiffel Tower way off in the distance below them. It was tiny. A miniature figure standing tall above the morning haze. He looked at it between his thumb and forefinger and studied it carefully. It really was amazing.

   “Mum you got to look at this,” he said, as he nudged his mother. She put down her book and pretty soon the three of them were huddled together looking out at the Eiffel Tower. “Can we go to the Eiffel Tower some day Mum?” Danny piped up.

   “Of course we can,” she replied. Mum never said no, Frank thought. He liked that because he knew that she actually would love to bring them but whether it happened or not was another story. He thought how cool it would be to pop down from the airplane and land on the top of the Eiffel Tower like the kind of thing Super Mario does in his DS game.

#

   Frank could remember that day as if it was yesterday. Their excitement on seeing the Tower, the thrill of the skiing holiday ahead of them. That was back when things were going well at home and when they had their fair share of holidays. How times have changed, Frank thought to himself. Anyway, he was interrailing with the lads now and having a great laugh. He reckoned he’d passed his third-year exams and he was happy to be over half-way through college. The last few days had been full on, especially Antwerp, and last night Frank took it handy compared to the others. He left them, half-comatose in the Airbnb in Montmartre and said he’d meet them all at Gar de L’Este at 2pm to get the train to Stuttgart. His cousin Johnny promised he would get Frank’s rucksack to the station. Without saying anything Johnny knew the significance of the date and that Frank needed to be alone for a bit.

   From the Airbnb Frank figured it would take one change on the Metro. He stood looking at the metro map and decided he would aim for Trocadero Station. That seemed like a good idea. He made his way down the steps, swapping the early morning sunlight for the busy underground world beneath the city. People were rushing by on their daily commute and he watched with a detached interest.       

   Hopefully the pickpockets aren’t up yet, he thought. His Mum had warned him and insisted he took the ‘fanny pack’, as she jokingly referred to it, using an American twang. Her old sense of humour was returning and he was glad he had the money belt.  He checked it for the fifth time already that day. It kept everything safe. Well, so far anyway. Turns out all the lads had one.  The metro pulled in and he squeezed into the corner beside the door, trying not to get in the way. Everyone looked so well dressed around him he thought. No eye-contact. That suited him fine.

   An ad caught his attention on the metro. It was an image of two surfers. Probably Biarritz, he thought. He had tried to get the lads to go there but he was out-voted. They wanted to head east to Germany, Budapest and Croatia. Next on the list, Frank thought, and in fairness Ryanair fly there. He remembered the family holiday when they spent three nights in Biarritz. The surf was awesome. He remembered when they opened the hotel balcony door they could hardly hear with the roar of the waves. Danny turned it into a game. Opening and closing the door to let in the roar. It was like canned laughter where you could turn it on and off. Later in the evening he and Danny had stood out on the promenade watching the surfers riding the waves. He wished he could join in but knew that at the ripe old age of 10 he wouldn’t last a minute with those waves. They would make mincemeat of me, he thought. That day Danny and Frank made a promise that they would come back when they were older.

   He also remembered the day back home when he and Danny took the SUP board out without telling Mum. It was the May before they went to Biarritz and Mum had popped to the shops. The sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea to drag out the SUP board from where it had been lying at the side of the house for the winter.  Frank remembered thinking that they would stay close to the shore so they wouldn’t need the lifejackets. But the water was very cold and Danny fell in and had to cling on to the board. He was making it very hard for Frank to paddle and a cold wind was blowing them further away from the shore. Danny started to cry.

   “I’m scared Frank. I’m freezing.”

Frank thought about what they said in the lifesaving classes. You have to encourage and keep the spirits up.

   “Keep kicking Danny, you’re doing great. We’re nearly there Danny – keep kicking. Well done Danny. Nearly there.”

   It took all their strength to get back to shallow water. Frank jumped in and hauled Danny with the board onto the beach.  They had been dragged way down from opposite their row of houses but were happy to get back on the sand. Frank remembered how scared he was that day. How things could have turned out very differently. He remembers his mother running down the beach towards them and how he played it all down. He could see the look of anxiety on her face. He knew she was angry but too relieved to hold on to it, knowing they had learned a very hard lesson.

   When he finally arrived at his Metro stop Frank was glad to get back out to the sunshine. It was already getting hot and there were more tourists milling about. They all had the same idea obviously. He stood for a long time taking in the sheer scale of the Eiffel Tower, now just across the river from him. A lot bigger than the first time, he thought.

   Never in his life did he expect to be so blown away by something man-made. It looked so modern, yet it wasn’t. His eye followed the iron girders from the latticed arch between the four vast pillars, right up to the pinnacle. Frank couldn’t imagine anything more majestic, where engineering is in complete harmony with art. He figured that Leonardo DaVinci would probably approve.

   Crossing over the bridge, Frank thought about that day exactly five years ago. The mood always changed in the house around this time of year coming up to the anniversary. He was glad he was away, even though he knew it was a bit selfish of him. They all had their way of dealing with it. The girls with their music and Dad getting stuck into his work. Sheila had gone off the rails a bit for a couple of years around the time of her Junior Cert. Getting in trouble in school and he knew she was drinking.  Carol came back for a while and tried to look after everyone until she broke with the pressure of it. They were all broken of course, but thankfully life was gradually getting back to the new normal.

   His father had aged at least ten years over-night, but it was his mother Frank worried about most. Afterall she was there that day. She had to live with the memories in her head. A horror show that must have played out on repeat, over and over.  But in recent months it was getting better. She began to laugh again. Her dark sense of humour has probably kept her alive, Frank reckoned. But there was a time when they all thought they would lose her too. Not just because of the crash. She was broken up pretty badly, but her spirit was shattered. It was the anger and guilt she felt because she was spared and Danny wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t her fault of course, but on a deeper level she blamed herself. Frank thought about that phone call from his father exactly this day five years ago and how when he picked up the phone his father’s voice had taken on a strange tone.  He knew immediately that something terrible had happened.

   “Frank, it’s your Mum. It’s your Mum and Danny. There’s been a terrible accident. I’m heading to the hospital. I’ll ring you when I get there.”

   He knew his father was crying and it frightened him.

   Walking across the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower Frank paused to look down at the river below. He was always drawn towards water. He watched a boat that was taking some tourists along the river. Himself and Danny were saving to buy an Opi that Summer. They were lucky to have the sea at the end of their garden. They were going to sail out to the islands every day. Or so they said. Mum wasn’t too pleased at the thoughts of the garden filling up with yet another boat. Between kayaks, SUP boards, the inflatable dingy and the old Measel, all stored at the side entrance of the house, it was getting very cluttered. But Dad of course was all for it. Frank thought that if he ever had kids, he’d buy an Opi and sail out to the islands with them.

   Making his way to the other side of the bridge, Frank could see the queues beginning to form at the base of the tower. He was glad he got there early. He stopped by a stall and bought a souvenir key-ring.   It caught his attention because the little Eiffel Tower was almost exactly the same size as the first time they had seen it on the plane. He attached it to the loop on his small backpack and headed towards the ticket booth. The cost of the ticket would be a big chunk out of today’s budget Frank thought in amusement. Less beer money. Probably not such a bad thing.

   It was a drunk driver that killed Danny. Mum and Danny were coming back from a physio appointment and one minute they were listening to the radio and the next minute it was lights out. Frank didn’t want to think about it, but he always imagined how it must have been for his mother knowing instantly that Danny was lying dead beside her. The fire brigade had to cut her out of the car. She had a broken leg, a fractured wrist and broken ribs. Danny on the other hand looked totally unscathed but his internal brain injuries were catastrophic. Luckily, he wouldn’t even have been aware of what had happened.

   Frank thought about the days that followed the crash. People coming and going, Dad in and out of the hospital. Relatives and friends dropping dinners, cakes, sandwiches. The day of the funeral. Danny’s team doing the guard of honour and everyone crying. Dad was pushing Mum in the wheelchair behind the coffin with Danny’s favourite ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing in the church. Frank couldn’t think of the singer’s name. He was a big Hawaiian lad, he remembered.  People were so kind and they were heartbroken too. Danny was loved by everyone. He was the joker in the family. It was clear that in his short fourteen years on the planet he’d had a big impact on many people.

   Having stopped off to take in the views half-way up the tower Frank was thinking how he was glad the Eiffel Tower was still standing. He remembered watching the fire at Notre Dame on the news only a few months before and listening to Emmanuel Macron promising to rebuild it in five years. They went to see Notre Dame yesterday. The shell of the cathedral was eerily impressive with the mangled mass of burnt masonry and metal sticking out. Five years was a big ask but, on saying that, the scaffolding was up and restoration was already full steam ahead. Paris had suffered its own share of trauma. The security was evident in the Metro stations. They had nearly cut Paris out of their trip because of the terrorist attacks but they felt a sense of duty to go. It had been their original plan and besides, they got a great deal on an Airbnb. An ill wind that blows and all that, Frank thought to himself.

   When he got out of the lift at the viewing platform at the top it was pretty crowded. He took no notice and found a spot at the edge facing the river. He stood staring out over the city taking in the sight below him. Paris, the city of great art, food, and culture.  He loved the quiet hum of the expanse below.  He admired the way the streets splayed out with a sense of purpose and how the Seine teased this order by beautifully meandering through.

   At times Frank focused on different views of Paris’s landmark buildings. He saw the Sacre Coeur on its hill in the distance. They had spent the evening in Montmartre yesterday, climbing to the top and wandering around the streets looking at the artists. That was before they went for food and then later to the bar down the road from the Airbnb. He saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. He remembered the time his mother had told him how her Grandparents visited the Arc de Triomph but, when they arrived it was closing for the day. Her grandmother had spoken in her flawless French to the concierge, saying something like, “Excuse me. Do you realise that this gentleman (referring to her husband) fought in the battle of the Somme in defence of France.”  With that the concierge stood to attention and saluted the old man and took them on their own personal tour of the Arc de Triomphe. Frank loved that story. He thought about his own grandmother and how she had passed peacefully only months before the accident.

   Staring out over the city, many thoughts were racing through Frank’s mind. I’ll find a bistro, grab a croissant and ring Mum when I’m done here. She’d like to hear that I made it to the Eiffel Tower. She would definitely remember Danny asking if we could come here. They will want to know how the holiday is going and that I’m still alive. I’ll fill them in. Well, a sanitised version, he thought with a chuckle.

   They had gone down with Sheila to visit Carol in Wexford. To get away for these few days. Carol had a new baby and, in all fairness, Frank conceded that he is cute, as babies go.  The baby’s name is Michael Daniel, which was nice. It was great to see how much Mum and Dad doted on him. In fact, Mum jokingly said that grandchildren are much nicer than children. So, she is getting better. Life goes on, I guess. He thought about how lucky he was that he got to share the first part of his life with Danny.

   Looking up at a cloudless blue sky Frank could see the vapour trails of airplanes flying above Paris.  He enjoyed the thought that there was probably someone looking down from way up high. Smiling to himself he quietly said, “Look Danny, Look. It’s the Eiffel Tower.”

Day Trips and Camper Vans

This weekend the camper vans arrived in Skerries. They were lined up all along the South Strand, on the sea-side of the road. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many camper vans in one place. It’s a sure sign of these times, with hotels and guesthouses out of action. And without querying the distances travelled, it is very Covid friendly.

Skerries was full of visitors. The whole of Red Island became a car-park for the two days. There was little grass left free of cars. People were having picnics on the grass tucked in behind their cars, enjoying the sunshine and sheltering from a biting wind. Even on the hottest, calmest days there is always a breeze at Red Island.  

We call it Red Island but it’s not an island really, it used to be way back before the sands silted up over time to connect it to the mainland. Now it is linked to the town by the harbour road with its bars, restaurants and coffee shops. It is the little peninsula that separates the beaches. The sandy south strand with the off-shore islands and our north strand with the deeper water and views along the coastline as far as the Mourne Mountains to the North. If you look at an aerial view of Red Island and the harbour, you will see the outline of St Patrick’s goat; the goat that the Skerries people stole from him many centuries ago. So that’s where it went. It was under his nose all along!

Our youngest, Mike, wanted to get out of Skerries. He has barely set foot outside the town in the last year,  so myself and Michael were happy to indulge him. The sun was shining and we took the top down on the car and headed off, as we say in Skerries, “under the bridge”.  We decided to avoid the coast and make our way into Dublin, using a sort of reverse psychology. If the city was coming to us, we would go to the city.

Dublin’s Docklands with the Pigeon House chimneys in the background

When we came to the end of the motorway, we took the tunnel to the docklands and crossed over the river Liffey. To the left we could see large ferries moored up along the docks and of course the red and white Pigeon House chimneys in the distance marking the mouth of Liffey and Dublin Bay.  Looking right towards town, the bridge designed by Calatrava stands out proud amongst the modern buildings in the Financial Centre. But my son of course was focusing on the Aviva Stadium straight ahead. His favourite view, he proclaimed. It is a striking building on the horizon.  It rises up above the old houses in all its glassy glory.  But it’s the great memories of all those rugby matches that were coming back to him and his father as well as the dream of playing one day in that stadium in a green (or Leinster blue) jersey. We took the old route and drove past the Aviva, for old times sake. Sadly, it is silent for the moment but hopefully it won’t be too long before the roar of the crowd returns to Lansdowne Road.

There was an eerie quiet about the place. Not a good quiet because you can’t help but think about all of the businesses that have their doors closed and the human stories behind this. Our mission was simple really. It was to seek out human life and maybe find somewhere to have lunch. We were half tricking ourselves into thinking that it might be possible to sit down outside a restaurant. Soon. But not yet.

We finally found an open carpark at the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. It was only half full. I felt like an extra in a zombie apocalypse movie walking through the shopping centre in my mask with all the shutters down except for the odd coffee shop and Dunnes Stores supermarket. When we got outside to Stephen’s Green there were people about, wandering around in the sunshine in summer clothes despite the cool breeze funnelling up Grafton Street. There were no buskers dotted along Grafton Street closely guarding the prize busking spots. Sadly there was no music.

We decamped to the park in Stephen’s Green and sat on a bench eating our lunch and looking at the ducks on the pond and people going about their lives. In Stephen’s Green it’s clearly the pigeons that rule the roost. They have developed the art of swooping towards you in the hope that you get a fright and drop what you are eating. It obviously works sometimes because they were all at it. It was a pretty unnerving game of chicken but then again us seasiders are well used to the Seagulls and their antics, so we knew not to show weakness! You would have to admire the pigeons’ ingenuity in their attempts to outwit us. Despite the onslaught it was still good to have a change of scenery. It was nice to see people out in the sunshine. You could momentarily forget you were living through a pandemic.

We drove back to Skerries doing our usual spin around the harbour before heading home. The harbour wall was also busy with people sitting on it and leaning against it, soaking up the sun (and also soaking up plenty of alcohol too). The tide had gone out, so the SUP boarders and swimmers, that were there before we left, had moved on, but the beach was still busy. In fact it was so busy on the harbour that apparently the restaurants had run out of drink! We can’t blame the visitors for this because, of course, the locals were out in full force too.  Our eldest, Sally-Anne, was proud of the fact that at the end of a very busy shift on the harbour, she managed to enjoy the last pint squeezed out of the last keg of Guinness. Well deserved.

When we got back to the South Strand it was about four in the afternoon and the town was beginning to empty out. The camper vans had dwindled in number and we were able to reclaim a parking space outside the house. We had a lovely day, but I think I will wait until Dublin opens up again before I venture back.

Hopefully the fact that everyone was outside will mean that we will not end up paying a price for the taste of freedom we saw playing out this weekend (sad news coming out of India is a worry). But then again someone in this house got his vaccine today and my parents, who are fully vaccinated, got to hold their four and a half month old grandchild yesterday for the first time. (There’s another little grandchild in Australia we are all looking forward to meet soon). Also Mike headed off this evening to play his first nine holes of golf in almost a year. So, no matter what, it is different to this time last year. Things have moved on and there are many reasons to be hopeful.

Busy weekend on Skerries harbour Image- Eibhlín Kearns

The ‘Why’

I started an online “Write your book” course a couple of weeks back. My friend Margot put me on to it. It’s really interesting. Apparently, the big driving force behind writing is knowing your ‘Why’ and once you have that clear in your head everything else flows from that. It makes sense to me. When I think back to the day I was sitting in the kitchen last June, I remember a very clear ‘Why’ coming to me in terms of writing the blog. I have written on and off since then. It was a beautiful sunny day at the end of June. The kitchen was the usual chaos. Everybody was sorting themselves out for lunch around me. Michael had arrived in with the shopping. I was sitting at the top of the table looking out at the view. There was a full tide and the sea was a greenish blue. The islands were lit up by the sun and ready to receive the visitors that would head out in their boats, kayaks, paddle boards etc. Leo was packing his rucksack to head off to Shenick island on the SUP Board. The others were all heading out to meet their friends. The magnetic pull of the harbour was in full force and not just for the kids in the family.

Skerries Harbour

It was one of those Skerries days when everything that was going to happen would be outside, which was a good thing of course with the pandemic. Things had been relaxed since the first lockdown. The teenagers could now gather in groups (socially distant of course!) and all of the kids who should have been in places like America or Canada on their J1s were still in Skerries.  The grass area at the back of the harbour beside the Sea Pole (or ‘Casa’ as it became known) became the go-to place during the day where groups of kids would sit around in circles chatting with each other. A new game of ‘Spike Ball’ was also a big hit and there were mini tournaments taking place. At night they would decamp to the North Beach. The more beers that were had, as the night went on, the less socially distant it became. But they were outside which was enough to keep Covid at bay. Despite the obvious disappointment of not being able to travel, it was very clear they were all having a great Summer.

I needed help with the technological stuff and I was delaying Leo and testing his patience. WordPress was doing my head in. I was doing Leo’s head in. It just wasn’t making sense and all I wanted to do was to get started. I didn’t care about slick design. If I could only upload the odd photo, that would do. Easier said than done, but we got there in the end. Leo headed off down the field with the SUP Board and I battled away with the laptop. No outdoors for me that day. I was like a dog with a bone.

So, before I ever thought of writing, I was given a ‘Why’. (Thanks very much- some bloody ‘Why’!) But joking aside I am oddly grateful to have been given a ‘Why’. At the beginning, this ‘Why’ was very clear.  There were certain things I needed to say. And I did, up to a point. Nobody has tried to silence me yet, but I guess if they did, they would have to identify themselves- which wouldn’t be such a clever move! I still haven’t given up on the old ‘Why’, but it is evolving.  There’s so much more I could say but do I really want to dwell on the past the whole time? These are questions I find myself asking. Shit happens. Maybe time to move on?

Our friendly gnomes

I’m now sitting at the head of the same table but with a very different view, in more ways than one. The seagulls are creating quite the racket outside.  One of Margery’s garden gnomes is grinning in the window at me, which makes me smile. One of the kids has obviously gone to the trouble of putting the gnomes on the windowsills facing in. I suspect the aim is to freak Alice out.

It’s great to be back in the middle of the town. Moving from our home was far from easy but we are in a good place for the moment. This Summer Leo can cross the road with the SUP Board and head off to the islands. The others can walk around the corner to the harbour, ‘Casa’ and the Springboards and (hopefully) hang out with their friends. Since Monday Alice is walking to school. Happy days. No more fights with her younger brother in the car because she’s making him late for school….again.

I am also grateful to the two Foxes who got me thinking. To Margot who is always encouraging all of her friends to be positive and to Anna Fox who is running the online writing course.

And in the meantime I will keep working on the Why…..the Why Not?…..the Why the hell?…..the Why the hell not?….The Why us?……The Why not us?…So, back to the book. It would be an awful shame to waste a ready-made ‘Why’. Hmm….lots to think about.