Category Archives: Ireland

Little Old Wine Drinker

I checked my watch and saw that it just after five o’clock. Time to go, I thought, and scooped up my jacket from the back of the chair. The rest of the guys in the office were doing the same, except David, who was tapping keys and staring at his computer screen. ‘Are you coming, or what?’ I said ‘because I’m off. Now.’
David looked up. ‘Sorry, Chris, be with you in a mo.’ He made a silly face. ‘I just got lost somewhere in cyberspace and forgot the time. Ok?’
‘Come on Spock, or we’ll be late.’

Shelbourne Hotel

Shelbourne Hotel

We walked through the rush-hour pedestrian traffic along Baggot Street and Merrion Row to the Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green. The pavements were colourful and busy in the warm air, the sun still high and bright on this late June evening. Summer had most certainly arrived, and the happy looks on peoples’ faces said wonders for ‘taking the sun’. It was one of those ‘good to be alive’ days and the city seemed to hum to an easy rhythm.
‘Well, what’s it going to be like Chris?’ David asked, a sheen of sweat glinting above his top lip.
I stopped, and he did the same. ‘I told you already, it’s a wine tasting night and it will be fun. What more can I say?’
David was uncertain and he fiddled with the top button of his shirt. ‘Will there be many at this thing?’ he asked a little nervously. He put his finger down the top of his shirt and pulled it a little looser.
I could see that he was uncomfortable but what was I to say. ‘Yes, there’ll be plenty of wine lovers here and, more importantly, there will be lots of good wine to taste. And, sometimes they have lovely cheese. You like cheese don’t you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then you’re going to love it.’
‘Sure…..except that.’
‘Except what?’
He looked me straight in the eye, licked his lips before saying ‘I never drank much wine before and …’
I smiled. ‘Don’t worry, nobody’s going to poison you, if that’s what you are thinking. It’ll be ok.’ I leaned closer. ‘And there are always plenty of nice girls at these things.’ I winked, it was the best I could do, and he seemed to relax – a little anyway.

The lobby of the hotel bustled with life. Everywhere people moved about, greeting one another and their laughter reflected the glorious weather outside. If it was atmosphere you were after then we were in the right place, and a good evening lay ahead. It was, after all, the culmination of the wine tasting course that I had been attending for the previous six months, and I was really looking forward to the event. Barbara, one of my classmates, told me that the Last Night was not to be missed, and she had been to three of them. Sadly, my fiancé who was meant to attend, too, had twisted her ankle playing tennis a few days before, and that is how David was here.
I spotted the sign ‘Wine Tasting’ and we headed down a corridor and came to a large room where tables were set out with glasses and baskets of bread. I signed in for myself and David and we pinned our badges to our lapels and mingled with the noisy crowd. Considering that no wine had yet been consumed the rumble of conversation was palpable. Anticipation is a great thing, I thought, and we moved to the table where Barbara and Liz, the fourth ‘member of our team’ were chatting. I introduced David as a work colleague who was ‘new’ to the wine game. They both smiled and said that he would have a great night. ‘Your first time?’ asked Liz wickedly.
David flushed immediately. ‘Yes, my first time,’ was his awkward reply before he took off his jacket and let a low whistle.
‘Liz, you’re terrible,’ I said.
‘First time for everything, eh,’ she quipped and fixed the front of her low-cut dress.
David flushed even more and I thought that he was going to have a heart attack. ‘You ok?’
‘Fine, just fine,’ he said, lying through his dry lips. ‘I’ll be fine, just watch me.’ He nodded, and I nodded back.

Cheers!

Cheers!

The noisy conversation was broken by the sound of someone tinkling a glass. A hush descended on the room and the course director, Hugh Clarke, welcomed everyone and told us that we would be tasting some fine wines tonight. He gave a few hints of what was to come but not enough for us to guess exactly what that might be. ‘He’s such a tease,’ said Liz and I saw David’s face redden.
‘So if you are all ready, we’ll start,’ said Hugh as bottles of wine wrapped in dark paper were brought to each table. I picked up the bottle and poured wine into the girls’ glasses and then into both mine and David’s. I held my glass out in front of me and swirled the wine about. ‘Nice colour,’ I said and the girls mumbled agreement.
Liz held her glass up to her nose and sniffed deeply. She released a throaty moan of sheer pleasure that had David reddening even more. ‘Smells like ripe berries and…..succulent peaches,’ she cooed and breathed in another nose full of the wonderful aroma.
Barbara took a sip and noisily washed the liquid around her mouth. She leaned slightly back and then swallowed the golden liquid and smacked her lips loudly. ‘That was great,’ she said ‘and a fine way to start the show.’
I also swilled a mouthful of wine and agreed that it was wonderful. ‘Sauvignon Blanc,’ I said ‘and it’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted.’
Both girls nodded agreement while David downed the whole glass in one go, and reached for more. ‘Yeah, that was great,’ he said ‘want some more?’
The girls declined and I told him that he should really take his time and try to enjoy the flavour. He drank the second glass in the same fashion as the first while I ate some bread and looked about the room. A few people waved over and one guy, Dermot, gave me the thumbs up sign. Was he grinning at the excellent wine he’d just taken or did he envy my good fortune in spending time with Barbara and Liz? I held up my glass and pointed to it. Dermot shook his head in response and burst out laughing, spilling wine on one of his table mates.

Grape Expectation

Grape Expectation

Hugh Clarke told us to try bottle number two and I again did the honours. The deep red colour was like the purple in Caesar’s toga and the aroma had all the imperial qualities too. I held my glass up to the light and watched the colour change as I swirled it about, giving the wine a chance to breathe. Barbara did the same and dipped her nose into her glass. ‘Hmmm,’ she said ‘I’m getting something spicy, like…..plums, maybe’
I sniffed also and agreed. ‘Yes, definitely plummy alright. And with a hint of……vanilla.’ I took another sip.
Liz loudly washed the wine about in her mouth before spitting it into the spittoon beside her. She licked her lips deliciously. ‘Merlot?’ she said, raising an eyebrow.
Barbara replied. ‘Yes, and wasn’t it so velvety?’
I spat out and said that it certainly was a fine wine and that Hugh was spoiling us. ‘I told you that it would be good,’ said Barbara breaking another piece of bread.
Beside me David was pouring and drinking his second glass of the purple pleasure. For a guy who, although not the most talkative man of I’ve ever met, he was almost struck dumb and adding hardly anything to the evening. ‘You ok?’ I asked quietly and his reddening eyes showed more than mild embarrassment. He loosened his tie some more and lowered another mouthful of wine. ‘You’re meant to sip it,’ I said.
‘Yeash,’ he replied, the first hint of a slur slipping into his voice.
The next hour passed pleasantly as Hugh Clarke provided us with some of the finest wines any of us ever tasted. Barbara was really delighted with a Pinot Noir from Burgundy while Liz and I were thrilled with a magnificent Shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia. The flavour of rich chocolate and fruits was sensational, and my star turn of the night. When Liz said in a very sultry voice that it tasted just so on her tongue David vomited his mouthful of wine over my shirt such was his surprise at her choice of words. He excused himself immediately and went off to the bathroom, his embarrassment more acute than ever.
‘Is he always like this?’ asked Barbara.
I shrugged. ‘I don’t really know, but he’s usually got something to say for himself at work.’
‘Maybe I’ve upset him or something, offered Liz. ‘I mean he’s hardly said a word to either of us all night, has he?’ Her comment was still hanging in the air when David walked unsteadily back to the table.

Bubbly - ab fab!

Bubbly – ab fab!

Hugh Clarke again tapped his glass and the room went quiet. ‘And now for our final bottle of the evening. This will be champagne, and it’s one of my favourites, so I’m sure that you’ll all enjoy it.’ With that the waiters moved about filling glasses and we all enjoyed the bubbly stuff. I had often found champagne gave me heartburn but this stuff that I was drinking was in a league of its own such was the quality. The bubbly was ‘doing the business’ as the din of conversation in the room rose like the bubbles in my glass. Everyone was smiling, apart from David, who had plopped down heavily onto his chair and said loud ‘I’m pissed.’ He then fell off the chair and hit the floor with dull thud.
I put my glass down and with the help of a guy from the table beside us we got David back into his seat. He rocked back and forth before putting his head on the table and passing out. His arms hung down loosely and he looked like a broken puppet.
Liz shook her head. ‘You know the old saying ‘In vino veritas’ – in wine there is truth.’
I nodded. But as I looked at David snoring I realised that Liz was, well, almost right. ‘I think that should be ‘In vino very smashed,’ I said and reached down and shook my drunken friend awake. The girls were still laughing when I put my arm under David’s shoulder and led him away from his first, and last, wine tasting. It was an experience that I didn’t forget and, thankfully, one that David couldn’t remember.
Cheers!

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Filed under Dublin, Humour, Ireland, shelbourne hotel, short stories

High Point

 

Church in Clonskeagh

Church in Clonskeagh

The recent news that Big Ben would be silent for the next few years, as the famous Great Westminster Clock Tower and bells underwent refurbishment, brought back a fond memory. Being there had been a high point, but only one among many such ‘high points’ that I have experienced.

Since I first climbed the steep, iron ladder in my local church in Clonskeagh many years ago I have been fascinated with the views from such tall buildings and the perspective each offered. At the end of that maiden ascent, my first ‘high,’ I was filled with nervous excitement as I looked out over the Dublin Mountains; all the way into the city and across the blue waters of the bay to Howth. It was better than I had expected, and I have never lost that sense of anticipation of what it was like ‘going to the top’.

Over the years I have had the good fortune to visit many places and always tried to make time and climb to the top of local towers and steeples.

Torre di Lamberti

Torre di Lamberti

From the top of the Torre di Lamberti in Verona the red-tiled roofs stretched below me like the cover on a great jigsaw box. The skyline of New York was stunning in the early, morning light from the top of the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate Bridge was a tiny speck in the distance from the observation platform of the Campanile at Berkeley. However, a nighttime climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe where a cold, whipping wind brought some unease, the lights of Paris sparkling in their pre-Christmas splendour made it worthwhile.

Sometime later when I worked in Westminster, I used to walk past and invariably looked up at its most iconic landmark, the Great Westminster Clock Tower . Being part of the Palace of Westminster there is a high level of security but my boss, thankfully, arranged for me to join a group of sightseers. I was excited and, on the appointed day, strained my neck looking up at the famous tower as it lay against a clear, blue sky. High above, the north clock face sparkled as the hubbub of anticipation spread among the group.

Our guide led us into a small entrance where he told us about the history of the tower and its impressive statistics. It stands 315 feet high and the four clock faces were the largest of their kind in the world when erected. Each is twenty-three feet across and is made of over three hundred pieces of opal glass. The minute hand alone is fourteen feet long, and looked every inch of it when I passed by and looked down through the gap in the face and imagined Richard Hannay hanging from it in the climax of film The Thirty Nine Steps. Higher still, and onto the last of the 334 limestone steps, we came into the small belfry where five bells silently waited. There are four small bells that ring on the quarter hour and the Great Bell, better known as Big Ben, which strikes on the hour.

Great Westminster Clock Tower

Great Westminster Clock Tower

‘Right, ladies and gentlemen,’ said our guide ‘it’s almost noon, so please get ready for a lot of noise. It’s pretty loud.’ He grinned, placed his hands on his ears and some of the group copied him. I was standing about four feet from Big Ben, with only a wire mesh preventing me from reaching over and tapping it. It’s huge, weighing over thirteen tons and is over seven feet tall. Up close it’s truly impressive but the sound, when it came, was awesome.

First came the quarter bell and some people cheered, their eyes lighting up excitedly. A woman beside said something but I couldn’t hear her, while all around people were giggling. Then there was a slight pause before the hammer struck Big Ben for the first of its twelve rings. The noise was deafening and I felt my chest and head almost explode with the din. After seven or eight rings I started to laugh, and couldn’t stop. The woman tapped me on the arm and shouted ‘What is it?’

‘I was wondering where Trevor McDonald was,’ I cried, wiping tears away. The sound was incredible but the bell’s purity of tone left only a fond memory. I still enjoy going ‘to the top’ but the experience of visiting Big Ben will live long, and loud, in my memory. Ding dong indeed!

Verona, from above

Verona, from above

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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, short stories, Verona, westminster

Ireland – November Reign

A joyous moment ne’er before seen 

With the underdogs oh so keen

They cut no slack

For the men in Black

As the stadium rocked for the Boys in Green.

 

Congratulations Ireland on a magnificent performance and unforgettable win!

 

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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, Rugby, Sport

Time Heals

On the day Joseph left Dublin the sky was cold and grey, reflecting his mood. He had to leave, he knew that, to get away and forget about the last eighteen months. After all the good times they had shared the surprise and pain of rejection was just too much to bear. Now, as the plane raced down the runway and lifted into the air he felt a weight slipping from his shoulders. He closed his eyes and determined to put everything behind him and embrace the future. ‘It’s over,’ he whispered ‘that’s it.’ A new beginning, a new life with all its endless and exciting possibilities awaited, and he was going to grab it with both hands.

Empire State

Empire State

New York was everything Joseph had dreamed it would be and the pace of life was both exciting and exhausting. It was so full of life that he often laughed about its non-stop energy – when he got a chance! So, with a few contacts in his notebook he managed to organise some interviews, and less than after arriving he had landed a job with a small magazine. The Pip was a weekly issue that covered entertainment, sports and all the cultural events going on in the ‘city that never sleeps’. He was kept busy and soon forgot the pain that had brought him here. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ as his mother had said at the airport, and he was beginning to believe her.

His apartment was a world away from what he had been used to at home. His old bedroom was almost as big as his entire apartment on the fourth floor of a large, brownstone building on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t cheap – nowhere in Manhattan was – but it was only a ten minute walk to Central Park, the centre of the universe for those who lived there. There were plenty of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs that only began to liven up when the sun went down. It was invigorating and he couldn’t get enough of it. The Big Apple was his lifesaver and he bit into it as hard as he could.

Over the years there were plenty of trips back to Dublin for holidays and family events. The Celtic Tiger was gorging all around him and the city had changed completely. Gone was the innocence, he noted, and he was happy not to be a part of it. The old ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’ had gone and it was now replaced by something much less caring. As a caustic radio commentator observed Ireland had now become the ‘Land of Taints and Dollars’.

Back in New York, Joseph was promoted and that allowed him to move into a larger apartment, and one with a better view. From here he could see a piece of Central Park and, beyond, the towering elegance of the Empire State Building. In the early days he would often sit by the window and enjoy looking at the magnificent view. He watched as the night silently closed in, the day replaced by the sparkle and glitter of a thousand lights.

Life was good for Joseph and got even better when he met Lisa at a book launch. She was the photographer commissioned to take pictures of the author and guests attending the cocktail party. David Cortez, the author, was a friend from his earliest days in the city, and Lisa took quite a few pictures of them as they chatted and joked with other members of the New York literary scene. Joseph noticed her dark hair, brown eyes and the shape of her mouth that laughed at the edges, all reminding him of someone from Dublin – someone from a previous life. It was a surprise, and although it stirred a few memories, both good and bad, he was intrigued.
‘You seem lost,’ said David.
‘Yes, the photographer reminds me of someone.’
‘You’re grinning, you know that?’
Joseph nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s just that I feel some old memories stirring.’
‘That’s good, right?’
‘The best I can say is ‘Yes…and No’ if you know what I mean.’
‘Only too well, my friend. Only too well.’

Lisa moved in with Joseph about three months later and it was the happiest time of his life. He was working at a job he loved, in the most exciting city in the world, and he had Lisa by his side. They were very happy and loved being together; walking in the park, snuggling on the settee and watching television or eating in their own favourite, Italian restaurant nearby. They talked so much and Lisa made him laugh more than anybody had ever done. He was hooked, absolutely and completely, and knew he was the luckiest man in New York City.

All that changed however, on a cold, snowy day in early February. Lisa had an assignment on Coney Island and on her way home a drunk driver crashed into her car killing her outright. Joseph was devastated and not sure how to carry on. There were many nights he cried myself to sleep and his circle of caring friends watched him, and slowly, one day at a time, he emerged from the pain and darkness. He was tired, beaten and in need of a break, so after sorting things out with his boss he went home to Dublin.

It was cold when he arrived but a hug from his mother soon warmed him up. She was looking well, as usual, but Joseph noticed that her memory wasn’t quite as sharp as before. He said nothing and was delighted to be at home, listening to her voice again and tucking into her cooking. The portions weren’t as big as those in New York but they tasted better. Less was definitely more, he thought, as he licked his spoon clean.

East Pier

East Pier

One day his friend Ted called in and they went for a stroll on the East Pier like they had done many times before. Sometimes they went to Sandymount Strand, but as they both wanted ice creams they headed to Dun Laoghaire.  It was quiet and they only had the cawing, diving seagulls for company. Across the bay in Howth windows sparkled and winked in the sunshine, and the salty air was enticing. ‘Nothing like this in the Big Apple,’ Joseph said as the wind tossed his hair.
‘Yeah, it’s nice here today,’ Ted said as a yacht sailed by. ‘I prefer it like this when we almost have the place to ourselves,’ he added, taking in the bay and the antics of a brave windsurfer.

Joseph always loved being here and it was the memory of this place that he would conjure up when stuck on the subway in New York. It made those crowded moments bearable. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle it?’ he often asked himself. Fresh Sea Air – who wouldn’t want some of that? It was a cracking idea and he smiled at the thought of seeing travellers on the sweat subway sniffing the fresh air of Dublin Bay. Flann O’Brien would, no doubt, have something pithy to say about ‘such an invention’ but then people were now buying and carrying around bottles of water. That was a surprise, and maybe another was coming. One day, perhaps.
‘Never guess who I bumped into the other day?’ Ted said when they sat down at the end of the pier.
Joseph shrugged. ‘No, who was it? Bono?’
Ted laughed. ‘Would you stop for God’s sake.’ He coughed and put his hand to his mouth. ‘I met Catherine, your old flame.’
Joseph’s heart missed a beat. ‘Oh, yeah.’
Ted leaned close. ‘She’s looking well…and she said to say ‘Hello’.’
Joseph slapped Ted on the shoulder. ‘You’re messing, I know you.’
Ted laughed. ‘I’m not, honest.’ He turned to Joseph. ‘I’m not making this up, I wouldn’t do that. Come on, man!’
They had been friends for over twenty years and Joseph knew that Ted wasn’t joking. It was good to hear about Catherine but what did it matter.
They watched in silence as a tanker headed for Dublin Port, and the colourful sails of a yacht filled as it cut across the water. He saw it all but he was soon lost in thought. He was back on that day. He couldn’t stop it and like a film director watching a story unfold, it all came rushing back.
‘Why?’ he said.
Catherine sniffled and wiped an eye with the back of her hand. ‘I’m sorry, really, really sorry.’ Another sniffle. ‘It’s my fault, it’s got nothing to do with you…you are the nicest guy that I know…the nicest that I’ve ever met!’
Joseph felt numb.
‘It’s just that…oh, I don’t know how to say what I’m thinking…. I’m confused!’
He didn’t hear much more, at least he couldn’t remember what she had said, as he was too upset by the icy words. The world around him was quiet but he was mind was spinning.
Joseph turned and realised that Ted was speaking. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘I said, I’ve met her a few times in the last year or so, and she always asks for you.’
‘That’s nice to know, but…… isn’t she happily married?’
‘Well, from what I learned she’s now happily divorced. Apparently the marriage went pear-shaped after a few years and her husband turned out to be a nasty piece of work.’ He gave a little shrug. ‘You never know, do you?’
‘No you don’t…and aren’t you full of surprises, eh?’
Ted leaned back against the granite wall. ‘Hey, I just thought I’d pass it on.’
They sat in silence and watched more yachts heading out to sea, their sails filling in the stiffening breeze. It was a beautiful scene and another one for Joseph to recall deep beneath the streets of New York.

Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

The following summer Joseph realised that his mother was not as strong as he always hoped she would be and he decided to return to Dublin. He had been away a long time, but with the opportunity of setting up a branch of the business in his home town, he decided to go home. He had done well in New York and now he was looking forward to going home and the new challenge that lay ahead.
‘You’re always welcome here, you know that,’ said Paul, The Pip’s boss, when they shook hands for the last time. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he added, with a wink.
Joseph smiled and knew that he would miss him.

The first few months back in Dublin were hectic. He set up an office, made contacts and got to know the ground rules. His background in New York opened a lot of doors and before long the business was running nicely. It was never going to make a fortune but the folks in New York were happy and that was what mattered. He was happy too, happier than he thought he would be. He enjoyed linking up with old friends and keeping an eye on his mother. He liked being home, and walks and talks on the East Pier and Sandymount Strand helped confirm his decision.

Summer gave way to autumn and the leaves changed from green to gold. It was a lovely time of the year, the colours radiant and giving their all before the winter set in. It was on one such day that he crossed Merrion Square and ducked into the familiar surroundings of Greene’s Bookshop on Clare Street. It was a place where he had spent many a happy hour, lost among the crammed shelves and tables of books. It was his Aladdin’s Cave and the place where he discovered so many great writers and their stories. He loved the old shop, its unique atmosphere and character so different to the new, bright chain stores. Greene’s may have been a dinosaur, but it was his favourite one.

Greene's Bookshop

Greene’s Bookshop

He browsed the shelves, picked out a book and began reading. This was a real treat, and as he thumbed the pages he became aware of someone close by. They were invading his space, and in such a small shop it was not what he expected. To his left he could hear a customer talking with a shop assistant and he heard the cash register open and close.
Joseph had just flicked another page when he heard the person next to him say ‘Hello’.
Time stood still and Joseph heard the air rush from his nostrils. He closed his eyes for a moment, all thoughts of his book now gone, as he realised he knew who was beside him. It was quite a surprise and he took a deep breath before turning his head and looking at Catherine.
‘Hello,’ he said and awkwardly dropped the book. They both bent to pick it up and banged their heads together. It was like a scene from a comedy sketch and they laughed and rubbed their heads.
‘Two heads are better than one,’ said Catherine.
He loved that sound and the way her eyes smiled. She was his ‘brown-eyed girl’ just like the one Van Morrison sang about. Looking at Catherine it was easy to understand why Van the Man had been so captivated.
‘I suppose so,’ he said, replacing the book on a shelf.
‘I heard you were home, Joseph,’ Catherine added. ‘And may I say that you’re looking well.’
‘Thanks, and you’re not looking too bad either.’
She frowned, eyes narrowing, taking everything in.
‘It’s just that I didn’t realise that Ted was such a liar. I’ll have to have words with him when I see him again,’ he continued watching her eyes.
‘Why, what did he say?’
Joseph paused wanting to make sure that the words came out correctly. ‘Well, he told me that he met you and that you were…looking good.’
‘And…?’ an eyebrow rose.
‘Well, from where I’m standing I think you’re… looking great.’
She pursed her lips but didn’t reply.
‘How long has it been?’ he asked.
She took a long time to reply as all around them people moved about. She stepped closer to let a man with a briefcase and a bag of books pass, and he could smell her perfume, a fragrance he recognised. ‘A while…a long while.’
He couldn’t stop the smile coming, and didn’t try. ‘In that case I suppose I should get the coffees. Still white and one, is it?’
Catherine smiled and then they made their way down the creaky stairs and into the autumnal sunshine. The coffee smelt great, and in that moment Joseph remembered his mother’s words ‘Time heals all wounds,’ and he wondered if she was right. She usually was, and he didn’t see any reason to start doubting her now. After all, mums know best!

Two's company...

Two’s company…

 

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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, Sandymount Strans

‘It’s for You…’

Crisp and clear

Crisp and clear

A chilly, breeze blew across the cobblestones and the wedding group shivered, again. The photographer waved his hands wanting us to get closer and, when all was ready, he looked through the eyepiece and said out loud ‘Cheese.’
We grinned, smiled or whatever as the flash went off, briefly lighting the grey afternoon.
‘Don’t move,’ cried the photographer ‘another one, please.’ When he was finished we broke into small groups and stood about chatting about the ceremony while older weddinggoers, more familiar with such events, headed for the comfort and warmth of a car, and onto the hotel. It was a few weeks before Christmas and the day was crisp and clear, with the sun only a temporary, but welcome, presence.

We climbed into Tony’s car and we drove along the Coast Road, past Clontarf and a windswept and empty Dollymount Strand where the  last vestiges of the setting sun were reflected in the windows of the houses that looked upon Dublin Bay. And just beyond the beach, in the dark waters, the white horses were galloping ever closer.
At the hotel in Howth I stood in front of a big fire and warmed my hands. ‘Don’t hog it,’ cried Kate as she discreetly eased past me and bathed in the warm glow. She couldn’t hide her delight and cooed with pleasure. ‘I would love a hot whiskey, darling,’ she said and kissed me on the cheek.
‘You and the rest of them,’ I said and went to the bar.
I also bought drinks for Tony and Claire and went back and re-joined Kate who had now recovered and was ‘warm all over.’ That was great as I once again stood in front of the blazing coals. It was invigorating and soon I stepped away and let some other freezing souls enjoy the fire of Howth.

Fire of Howth

Fire of Howth

Bill, the groom, was my best friend and we had met on our first day in school. Growing up we played football for the same club; robbed orchards; mostly liked the same music; learned to drive within a few months of one another and later chased girls. It was the best of times, and I now wished him the best of luck in the new phase of his life that was just beginning. He and Caroline met at a barbecue two years ago, and he was now happily wearing a new wedding ring. And a smile wider than Dublin Bay.
I was delighted for the new couple and accepted a drink when Tony came back from the bar. It was early and the noise level was already beginning to rise. What would the night bring, I thought, and deep down an idea began to form? I tried to grab it but it was too quick for me, so I let it go and downed a mouthful of a creamy Guinness. ‘Cheers,’ I said to the other three, and ‘here’s to a great night.’

The conversation around the dining table was lively, as the eight of us had plenty of fun ribbing one another, something that we had done for years. That night it was particularly entertaining and helped along by mucho vino. They say that it loosens the tongue and Dave was on fine form telling jokes. ‘You dirty old man,’ laughed Kate when Dave told a particularly rude one. The time passed quickly and, with the speeches over, the dancing started. The DJ turned the music up and soon the floor was packed with giddy dancers.
Over the next hour or so I met and talked with friends and Bill’s cousin, Alex, who I had not seen for a long time. He had moved to Los Angeles and was doing very nicely in the music business and living near the beach. He invited me to ‘drop in’ anytime and I carefully put his business card away. And it was just after he joined the dancers that the idea came back, and this time I got a hold of it. I grinned, lost in thought, and then went off to find Kate, Tony and Claire. It was going to be a team effort but I knew that I would be singled out as the ringleader. I didn’t care, and for Bill, who had played pranks on me before, it was ‘pay-back time’.

I gathered the merry pranksters together and I laid out the plan.
‘You’re mad, he’ll never fall for it,’ said Kate, shaking her head.
But Claire loved it. ‘That’s a great idea, Joe, and crazy enough to work,’ she said and looked at Tony who was grinning his face off.
We spent another ten minutes going over the plan until we were happy. ‘Well, Claire, are you ready?’ I asked.
She took a last sip of wine, smacked her lips and nodded. ‘Let’s do it,’ she said and took up her position beside the public telephone at the end of the bar.
I spotted Bill dancing with an aunt, and I nodded for the game to begin.

Claire picked up the phone, dialled the front desk and asked for Bill. ‘I’m calling from California. Can you get him quickly, please, as this is costing me a fortune.’ She kept a straight face and her American accent was acceptable, especially as it was dulled in all the background noise.
Tony and I watched as a staff member came up the stairs and was pointed over to Bill. He leaned close to hear what she was saying and then he was off down the stairs two at a time. We let him get to the bottom before we made our way to the small landing, and waited.
Behind us, Claire now playing the part of Bill’s old, Californian flame, Debbie, waited as the receptionist handed over the phone.
‘Hello,’ he said and Claire answered with a big, friendly ‘Hi, there, Bill, what a surprise, eh?’
I could see him hold the phone close to his ear, concentrating on the words coming ‘all the way from America’. He was relaxed and crossed one foot over the other and talked with ‘Debbie’. Tony tapped me on the back and whispered, ‘He’s going to kill you.’ I nodded as Bill kept talking. I could just hear him say ‘…how did you find out?’ when Claire put the phone down. She was laughing hard and had to wipe the tears from her eyes.
‘Hello, hello, hello…’said Bill as the line went dead. He shook his head, handed the phone back and turned around. Then he stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up. It was like a scene from a movie when he saw us and we couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
‘I’ll kill ya, Joe,’ he cried and scampered up the stairs.
He didn’t, thankfully, and The Night of the Caller has not been forgotten. And as time moves on I am very much aware that somebody out there has my number, and is just waiting to ‘make that call’.

'It's for You...'

‘It’s for You…’

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Joyce and Stream of Consciousness – kind of!

 

Sandymount Strand

Sandymount Strand

Arguing with the guy you know who can beat you – I had never thought of it like that before but it makes sense, especially now as I am walking on Sandymount Strand with nobody within two hundred yards, and I can hear words go back and forth inside my head as the argument carries on. And I am nervous because I feel that I might just lose. How crazy is that? Very, I thought, and I wondered which one of those arguing had responded. I stopped, looked around making sure that I was still out of earshot of any beach walkers, and said ‘What’s going?’ There was a long silence and I heard nothing as both voices seemed to have, well, lost their…you know. It was a weird moment and I remembered that James Joyce, a keen stroller and habitué of the strand where I now stood, was fond of using stream of consciousness in his writing, a literary device that awakened the world to its subtleties in his most famous work Ulysses, a book that is considered a difficult read by many who pick it up and one of the greatest ever written by countless others. That such a difference of opinion should exist is partially a response to Joyce’s idiosyncratic style with his referencing of mythological and historical characters; differing chapter layouts where various rhythms reflect the story being told at that point and his use of the stream of consciousness technique that permitted the reader to be ‘inside the character’s head’ and in the story like never before. This was a new and radical approach that did not win favour at first, except with a small number who saw the liberating aspect that he had revealed. Being ‘inside the character’s head’ was not only interesting and revelatory but, as many readers found out to their surprise, an uncomfortable place to be, as much for its unexpectedness as its lack of familiarity, and the not-knowingness of what was coming a step too close to a reality they thought they had left behind, if only for a little while.

Joyce's magnum opus

Ulysses – book for thought

Yes, Jimmy, my man, you have managed deliberately, of course, to ‘get under the skin’ and show normal life in all its simple and twisted moments; a life that happens more surprisingly that we ever imagined; where what we see is not always what we think it is and where the opposite is equally true, and where stream of consciousness, although a wonderful addition to the writer’s quiver of literary techniques is above all, to put it simply and something that I suspect Jimmy recognised because he was such a sharp observer, about thinking people thinking as they move through the day, as they have since the dawn of time.

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Filed under Art, Dublin, Ireland, James Joyce, Sandymount Strand

The Mystery Train

It was another wonderful, bright summer morning as I got dressed and then went downstairs for breakfast. Exciting smells floated from the kitchen as my mother sang along to the music on the radio. She put tea and toast down on the table, and smiled. ‘Are you looking forward to the journey?’
‘Of course, Mum,’ I said. ‘Where do you think we’ll be going? Any ideas?’ I took a bite of toast and a mouthful of hot tea and looked past her to the blue sky beyond. A trip on the Mystery Train on such a brilliant day was something to get excited about, and it was no surprise that I spilled tea on my clean shirt.
‘Easy cowboy, it’s going to be a long day, so slow down and take your time. Ok?’

I nodded and brushed flakes of toast from my mouth with the back of my hand and went to get the camera. It was my job to make sure that we brought it when we went for a picnic or a spin in the Wicklow Mountains, and I was certainly not going to forget it today. I had already been on a Mystery Train journey a month before and, with all the excitement and anticipation, I had forgotten to bring the camera. It was a disaster as the train took us to Wexford town where a colourful circus troop had paraded up the main street and we had no camera to capture the tumbling acrobats, amazing fire-eaters and jugglers. ‘Let that be a lesson to you,’ Mum said later. She wasn’t upset, just letting me know that if I really wanted something then I would have to pay attention. We were ready to go and, as she rinsed our teacups clean, I got the camera and checked that there was a spare roll of film in the bag. We were set for the day and made our way on the bus into Pearse Street station, wondering all the while, where we would be heading?

The Mystery Train

The Mystery Train

The long, incline to the main platform was busy as truck drivers delivered and collected bags of mail and the smell of burning coal was everywhere. I got excited when the train driver gave a loud blast of the whistle, before it stopped a few feet from where we were standing. He wiped his brow with his sleeve leaving a dirty mark. He grinned. ‘Want a look?’ he said.
My heart skipped a few beats. ‘Me’, I said looking around to see if he was talking to someone else.
He nodded.
‘Go on then,’ said Mum ‘while I go and get the tickets.’

I handed the camera to her and that photograph she took of me and the train driver on that Iron Horse is a fond memory.
The driver reached down a big hand and the next moment I was standing on the running plate of a train for the very first time. ‘Wow,’ I cried when he opened the coal hatch and the blast of hot air made me jump. Deep inside I could see the white heat of burning coals as my new best friend expertly tossed a shovel load of the dark fuel into the blazing furnace. He shut the hatch and pointed at the whistle’s cord. ‘Go on, give it a try?’
I took a deep breath and pulled hard on the cord. The scream of hissing steam was so loud it made me shake with nervous laughter. The driver smiled and when I looked down onto the platform Mum was giggling into her handkerchief. It was an unforgettable moment and we hadn’t even left the station! As the driver helped me back down onto the platform he said, ‘Thanks, partner, hope you enjoyed that!’
‘I sure did. It was absolutely brill. Thanks.’
‘Good, and I hope that you enjoy the journey.’
‘Do you know where we are going?’ I blurted out.
The driver grinned down from his smoky throne. ‘Of course, I’m driving the train after all.’ He shrugged. ‘And it’s going to be good. Ok?’
I nodded. ‘Ok, partner.’
He laughed and gave the whistle another shrill blast.
Finally a guard waved his green flag and the train slowly chugged out from beneath the dirty roof and into the sunlight. Beyond, the tracks seemed to stretch forever, all the way to our mystery destination. Soon the train built up speed, and before long I could hear the familiar clickity-click as we sped along.
Mum handed me a hard sweet and told me to ‘make it last’.
Dublin was far behind us and still we had no idea where we going to end up. I loved journeys on the Mystery Train and today had already been special. Was it going to get any better, I wondered, looking at the funny shape of the mist from my breath on the window? All the while Mum ‘rested her eyes’, lost in the travelling rhythm. I didn’t disturb her and continued to look at the passing landscape and thought of cowboys riding across flat plains that stretched to the horizon. The smell of the rushing smoke added to the images of cattle rustling and dangerous stampedes that were running around my head. We still hadn’t come to the Shannon, the big river, or was that the Mississippi, and I sucked hard on my sweet.

The big river...

The big river

The train eventually slowed and stopped in Athlone. I was disappointed, kind of, as I had been to Athlone many times on my way to Roscommon where Mum’s sister lived. Aunt Lilly was my favourite aunt and, although I had not seen her for months, she had sent me a nice birthday present and a postcard of the Eiffel Tower from her holidays in Paris.
‘All stay on the train,’ shouted the Inspector as he moved along the platform. ‘This is not the destination for the Mystery Train, so please stay where you are, thank you. The train will be leaving any moment.’
At the head of the train I saw the driver jump onto the metal ladder and after a blast of my whistle we were off again. ‘Well, Mum, where do you think we are going?’ I said as the train crossed the Shannon, where small boats floated and passengers waved up.
Mum leaned back, her head resting comfortably on the high seat. ‘Don’t know….but it might be Sligo. You never know.’
‘Or Galway,’ I answered.
She closed her eyes again, and nodded. ‘Could be….you’ll just have to wait and see.’

Wild horses

Wild horses

The train rattled along as I imagined Indians in war-feathers with murder in their eyes trying to jump aboard. Grey, stone walls were the boundaries to ranches and every home a place where cowboys returned at night with tales of derring-do and chasing wild stallions. This was the West alright, my west, and I was heading deeper into it, not knowing what lay ahead. Pioneers, that’s what we were, and still the train rattled on.
Just as I was expecting a raid from Indians hidden near the bend in a river, the train slowed. And kept on slowing
Mum opened her eyes and looked at me. ‘I think I know where we’re going!’ she said a note of surprise in her voice. She sat up, looked out the window, and smiled.
The look on my face asked its own question.
‘You’ll know soon enough,’ she said and playfully tossed my hair. She was giggling now and didn’t stop until the train pulled up at the station and the Inspector announced that we had reached our destination.
‘All out,’ the Inspector shouted again, ‘this is Roscommon, the end of the line for today’s journey. You have until six o’clock to get back here for the return trip. Have a nice day!’
Without any further ado we stepped into the heat of the station and headed down the road to my aunt’s house. I knew Mum had been surprised when the train stopped, but it was nothing like the look on my Aunt Lilly’s face when she opened the door. And I remember them laughing out loud, and the magical day I spent rounding up stray cattle on the ranch in the big garden at the back of the hacienda.

Round 'em up, Cowboy!

Round ’em up, Cowboy!

 

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Filed under Art, Dublin, Ireland