As I neared Holyhead the weather improved. Soft, white clouds that had been travelling with me for the previous couple of hours silently disappeared, leaving a brilliant, blue sky. The sunlight reflected off the chrome of oncoming traffic making me squint and smile at the same time. It was a glorious day and a great start to my summer holidays.
Driving down to the sea the reception on the car radio was sporadic, and picking up RTE was a real hit and miss affair. Not having listened in since Christmas I was eagerly looking forward to it, when Larry Gogan’s dulcet tones suddenly filled the car. As I drove slowly around a steep bend he said ‘And now Mary, what is a gelding?’ There was a momentary pause as the Just a Minute Quiz contestant gathered herself, and answered. ‘It’s a horse with no pe..’ she answered, as the radio reception disappeared into a haze of loud, electronic crackling. I had to grin, and thought ‘Yes, almost home’.
Holyhead, never the most attractive of towns, was looking fine, bathed as it was in the strong sunshine. Flowerpots overflowed with blooming plants and freshly painted railings stood out against grey walls. Lines of paintings hung from the railings where artists and enquiring tourists chatted and haggled over prices.
The ‘art fair’ was a pretty addition to the town’s image and, although there were not as much on show as could be seen on a Sunday morning at Merrion Square, it was busy and drawing keen attention.
The town was alive, with tourists dressed in brightly coloured clothes, strolling easily.
There was a fair amount of sunburnt skin on view, indicating the glorious weather that had been hanging around North Wales for the last few days. There had been no such sunshine in smoky, old London which had, as usual, managed to act like a sweat box making travel on the underground unpleasant, while the sun fought hopelessly to escape from behind a thick covering of greyness. No sunburn there, just frayed nerves and short tempers.
I drove slowly towards the docks, passing the Cead Mile Failte pub on my left, outside of which a small crowd of happy revellers were enjoying a ‘last drink’ before boarding the ferry. One man was playing a guitar, another was tooting on a tin whistle, while the others around the table sang, and cheered when I honked my horn. ‘Nice one,’ I heard somebody shout in a familiar accent, as I slowed and waved over.
A couple of hundred yards further on I joined the end of a long, crawling queue that was working its way towards the magnificent ferry that awaited. ‘Here we go,’ I thought and rolled the window down.
Living in North London I hadn’t been to the coast in months, and when I closed my eyes I soon imagined walking on the quiet expanse of the strand at Brittas Bay where the fresh air could purge even the most blocked and needy spirit.
A friend at home had rented a small house there for a month and he had invited me to stay over for a few days. I was looking forward to spending some time there as it would be a perfect way of relaxing and unwinding from the stress of living in crowded London. Also, taking a walk on the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire was always therapeutic and an absolute must for all returnees. I would do that with Mum and Aunt Liz, that would be fun and, of course, there were always calorie-laden ice creams to consume.
This was going to be my first visit home on holidays since my dad had passed away, and I felt that it was going to painful. He had been one of three fatalities when, out of the blue, a drunk driver crashed his skidding car into a bus shelter. It happened so quickly that there was no chance for any of the victims, who were all killed immediately. It was a tiny crumb of comfort that he had not suffered, but beyond that it meant little to any family members. Anyway, my mother, although hurt beyond words managed, as I knew she would, and when her sister, Liz, moved back to Dublin to be with my mother and I could hear the improvement in her voice when we spoke on the telephone.
This was great news, and now I was looking to seeing both her and Aunt Liz, whose farm in Roscommon I had often visited on school holidays. Playing there was always a novelty and my young imagination was let loose as I chased Indians, rounded up stray cattle and built campfires where I sat at the end of a tough day with John and Peter, two local boys who had joined my crew as we drove herds of cattle to the great, dusty market in Abilene. They were wonderful days and thinking about them brought a smile.
I was lost in daydreaming about another roundup when the sharp blast of the following car’s horn made me sit up and hurriedly join the now slow moving line of cars.
The new ferry seemed a mile high and was truly impressive. I’d heard about it from friends who had been on it recently, but I was taken aback when I was up close. The thought occurred that Noah would have got some serious amount of animals on board if he’d had the chance, and boy where would we be now. Interesting….and already I liked the idea of travelling on this new star of the sea. The ferry swallowed the seemingly endless amount of cars and trucks like a giant, gorging whale as I parked and made my way upstairs and joined the growing crowd of travellers.
The smell of fresh paint and newness was strong and the main area was as hectic and noisy as Moore Street on Christmas Eve. The place was bright and airy, the floors spotless, unlike those on many of the old ferries when I first travelled across the Irish Sea.
Children screamed at each other and their parents, as they dashed about like headless chickens, dodging baggage and jumping on seats. At least they had seats to sit on I thought, as I tried to find a place that was relatively quiet.
I travelled the length of the ferry and marvelled at the amount of people aboard, and the shops and restaurants that were doing business. I passed a cinema that was showing the latest summer blockbuster, and I thought that maybe I’ll come back later and watch it. Must get a seat, I told myself again, and spotted one against a far wall. I flopped down heavily, put my head back and sighed in relief. ‘Almost there,’ I said quietly and closed my eyes.
I drifted off to the rhythm of the ferry and seemed to have dozed for ages before a familiar voice made me open my eyes.
‘Howya, Chris,’ said a grinning Paul Kavanagh, a friend who I used to play football with in Dublin. I had almost slipped off the seat and was only stopped from hitting the floor by my knee wedging itself against my neighbour’s haversack. I straightened up and shook hands while he crouched down and started to chatter at a mile a minute as only Paul could. ‘Knackered, eh?’
‘You’re not joking,’ I replied, rubbing my eyes before running my fingers through my hair in the faint hope of waking up. I yawned, loudly. ‘No offence, Paul, I just needed 40 winks. You know yourself’.
‘More like 140,’ he laughed, as did the others sitting around me.
‘Jeez, I thought he was dead,’ sniggered a big bloke as he elbowed his friend. ‘Hey, your man’s actually alive,’ he added, sending his friend in to a fit of giggles.
‘Yeah, and at least he’s stopped bloody snoring,’ chirped somebody else as Paul suggested a pint.
‘It’s a miracle,’ the big bloke added, as he cracked open a can and passed it to his friend.
The bar was packed and difficult to stand at as the ferry moved up and down in the uneven sea. We also moved from side to side while people staggered about with great difficulty. The only person making easy progress was a guy who was obviously drunk and unconcerned with the staccato movement of the ferry. He moved freely while those around him clung onto banisters and tables in a desperate effort to remain upright.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and here in the middle of the Irish Sea, I was witnessing one, as homo drunkus moved with ease in a straight line from his seat to the toilets. It was a stunning insight, and made me think of astronauts careening about on the space station – and they were sober!
‘Welcome home…nearly,’ said Paul, handing me a pint. ‘And here’s to both of us having a good time.’
‘Absolutely…and it’s really good to see you, Kav. Slainte,’ I said, and we hooked our elbows onto the bar and hung on. Drinking on a rolling ferry was not for the faint hearted, and we had to try and anticipate each rise and fall of the ferry and before taking a sip. It led to some funny moments, but it did the trick as it took our minds off the rest of journey that passed quickly.
We discussed holidays and Dublin’s chances in the All-Ireland championship before swapping phone numbers. Without realising it we found out about mutual friends back in London, and we arranged to meet up for a few less buoyant beers in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn, a pub we both knew and which was close to where we worked. Things were looking good, and we were now only 30 minutes from home.
I went out on deck and the stiff breeze was invigorating. The loud cawing of dozens of seagulls overhead made me look up as they swooped and played in the clear air. They looked and sounded like they were having fun, maybe even welcoming me home, and I hoped that some of their excitement would be coming my way.
As we approached the coast the waves lessened, and the spray was refreshing after the stuffy atmosphere of the bar.
A few lungfuls of fresh air made me feel light-headed, but it was a million times better than being just another poor, sweaty commuter on the hot and fetid underground.
I made my way to the front of the ferry, gripped the railings and enjoyed its rise and fall. ‘Dublin, you’re looking good,’ I said into the breeze, where only the seagulls heard my words. The twin towers at the Poolbeg Power Station, with their red and white painted hoops, were getting bigger and clearer with every forward movement of the ferry. To the left, a fleet of small yachts off Dun Laoghaire harbour, their sails flickering in the sunshine, were enjoying a perfect day for racing. Beyond the city I could see the Dublin Mountains, their outline a jagged edge against the blue canvas of the western sky.
I stayed where I was for a few minutes, smiling as the salty air tugged at my shirt and tickled my nose. Now, only the sound of a flapping flag intruded, and I closed my eyes in blissful anticipation and said once more ‘Yes, almost home.’