April 12th is the 30th birthday of Paper & Ink editor Martin Appleby. Don’t send him a card; buy his latest issue, number 10, instead. It’s the best one yet. You can get it from https://www.paperandinkzine.co.uk/shop where you’ll discover I’ve got this short piece in, which I’m really rather proud of -:
Long, long time since you were in these parts. An age. More. First thing you notice is the roads. So much better now. Motorways and dual carriageways replacing single file crawling behind ubiquitous tractors. You get off the boat, down the tunnel to the M50 and then your foot’s most of the way to the floor on the M4. Toll plazas and smooth blacktop instead of axle breaker pot holes is the modern way. EU money of course. On the road anonymity as you watch salaried commuters pulling an early swerve on a Friday tear past you, while you smooth past overstuffed family SUVs heading west for the holiday weekend. The exit is on you in minutes. No longer the half hour wait to crawl down into the town, listening to the river slip by, anxiously checking the petrol tank warning light, before the traffic broke and you nosed onto Main Street. Cars are a different breed this weather. Unrecognisable compared to years back. Computers like something from Cape Canaveral do all the thinking. Cruise control. Optimum fuel consumption. Wifi. Ipod shuffle. Estimated time of arrival. Far too early. The microchips don’t lie. Just over an hour from the North Wall. Less than half the time than when you took your leave.
You’re parked up outside Tesco. Yawning, eyes watering. Early start, 100 miles of good road and a sea crossing catching you up. Leafing through The Westmeath Examiner. Parish notices, court reports and GAA club news from Mullingar and Athlone. Places you’ve not been in half a lifetime. Shoppers come and go. Wheeling full and empty trolleys. Maybe clock the English number plate, but don’t give you a second glance. The wind shakes the leaves. You kill time. Waiting for the pyroclastic flat white from the Insomnia stall to cool. Waiting for the tolling of the Angelus bell, so you can book in soon as it’s turned six o’clock.
Half eight and you’re drying your hair on a monogrammed towel. Capital Hs everywhere. The Hilamar got flattened in the boom. Rebuilt as Harry’s in time for the slump and they didn’t ask your permission. Credit card room key from the Spanish fella on reception. Back in the past, he’d have been a language student. Spending the summer. Now, who knows? More his home town than yours. Second floor. Twin room. Street facing. Functional. Drop your bag on one bed and body on another. Two hour blackout. Bolt upright to the sounds of young ones roaring outside the window. Minor disorientation. Complimentary peppermint tea as you flick through the channels. Advert for the Late Late Show. Gaybo. Retired twenty years now. Shake your head and make for the shower. Tepid not boiling. Full power. Rinse away the sweat, the past and the present. Chemical fragrance barrier. Hair, face, mouth and pits. Get the kit on. Ralph Lauren. Paul & Shark. Middle class. Middle aged. Smart and safe. Golf casual.
Deep breath. Out the door. Light click and it’s closed as you skip down the stairs. Busier now. A few booking in. Loads more sweeping through and into the main hall. Distant sounds of 90s pop. Beautiful South; Don’t Marry Her and the next bit gets sung like Amhrán na bhFiann at Croker, third Sunday in September. Squeeze through the crowd. On the street. Cars outnumber people. A hundred steps closer to Connacht for the cash machine. Euros. Puint Éireannach long gone. James Joyce and Douglas Hyde forgotten. Drop into Coyne’s for a pint. A dozen punters watching Sky Sports News. Nobody talks. Nobody recognises you. Dungarven Helvick Gold; 4.9% IPA from Waterford. Take it to a stool by the window. Watching night fill the empty sky. Laugh at the memory of burnt coffee porter and bubble-gum lager. Hand over another €5 for a second pint. You could stay here until all hours, but it’s time to go when the text arrives; where you at? Fire one back to say you’re en route, drain the glass and leave, ignored.
Linen shirt flaps in modest breeze. Brisk walk back. Bound up the stairs. Scoot through the place and into the function room. Packed out. Sweltering. Loud. Helium balloons everywhere. Above the tables and hanging off the roof. Eyes grow used to the blue, UV gloom. Over the water they’d say Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials all partying together. That’s there; over here old fellas in suits and Dunnes Stores v necks look bored, swallow flat pints, ignore their smiling wives who sip on Powers and white. Their day has gone. Ones your age in stripey shirts and slacks. Coming out the other side of a decade long NAMA induced, post-bankruptcy hangover. G&Ts. Corona. Discreetly, you get a place at the bar. In the shadows. In the long grass. Sipping a Black Donkey Sheep Stealer; 5.6% Saison from Roscommon, feeling the lingering citrus, tart on your palate. Not bothered at the sideways stares and baffled glances you’re getting.
Focus your gaze on the young ones. The future. Better dressed than in your day, but still going for it. Raging full on. Drunk and happy. Singing and not caring about tomorrow. The Whole of the Moon. Jesus you hated The Waterboys, but the under 30s are near crying as they belt it out on the dancefloor and in the garden. The patio doors pulled wide open. Air comes in; cool and smoke dirty. Loads going in and out for fags and joints and dabbing. Forty and fifty somethings tag along. Scrounging blow and toot to look glamorous. A load of them. All ages. Inhaling the helium, then singing The Fields of Athenry like Donald Duck and collapsing in a heap on the damp lawns. Eejits. You’re laughing at the word. Not used it since you left, after Hillsborough and Tiananmen Square, but before the Wall came down or we’d qualified for Italia 90.
And now you’re back and she’s seen you. Stepping in from the garden. Waving. Your little girl. Aisling. Radiant and tall. Her hair long and garlanded with tiny flowers, yellow and blue. Slim like her mother. Smiling. A simple dress. Cut loose and natural. Barefoot. Coming towards you. More beautiful than the fading polaroids taken on the day she was born. You got sent them months later, but they’re in your wallet, always. More beautiful than the album Aisling brought to you after she left home. Pictures telling the stories of starting school, First Communion, Coralstown GAA team photos and the Leaving Cert school prom. More beautiful than the framed phot on the living room wall of her begowned and beaming at graduation or the drunken selfies snapped in Melbourne bars and the posed tourist shots in the shallows of Lake Rotorua. Still waving with the left hand and her right arm round the waist of her other half, who you’ve not met before.
She reaches you and there’s a blurred, teary hug and a kiss, then more hugs and she’s introducing you to Lydia who she loves more than anyone in the world and is almost as beautiful as Aisling. They’re showing the wedding rings that make them Mrs and Mrs and you’re laughing and crying at the whole world, as you get two bottles of Dom Perignon in a bucket of ice and you head out to the garden with your beautiful daughter and her beautiful wife. You’re drinking and shouting and roaring at the memory of the pursed lips, disapproving stares and twitching net curtains because you’d got her mother up the stick. The moralising and judgements that made her mother give Aisling away, then run off to die with the drink and the skag in a kip off Dorset Street. Long before Aisling had grown, but long after the scorn and obloquy that sent you away to England and kept you there until now. The knowledge of the ignorance and hatred that drove her parents apart and away sent Aisling to the Southern Hemisphere to find love and acceptance.
Now you’re all here where it began and so it ends. In Kinnegad. On the riverbank. Among those you love. That’s all that matters. Fuck the begrudgers.