To Be Continued, continued
Another tale in the lifelong friendship of two sexagenarians...
Hold your horses if, like me, you have horses, because the next decades all seem now, in retrospect, to fall together in a blur, a big, long, sometimes messy, but always heartening, blur.
The raven-haired girl and I have been in and out of each other’s lives with unerring contrapuntal precision, typically personally awash in our own particular life stages and lamentations for what is nearly our entire lifetimes. We’ve often been mired in the muck of the turmoil life seems to have reserved for those like us for whom the sailing has never been smooth. In fact, were we unable to swim, I suspect we’d have drowned decades ago, not simultaneously, but we’d be gone.
Our problems and challenges and disappointments and heartbreaks and grief have been decidedly our own, and unique to each of us, and the trajectory of our lives very different, just as life is for most friends. And, yet, as disparate as our individual treks and events may have been, as far-flung and apart physically and geographically as the business of living has deposited us, there is always the return, to recount, console, renew and re-engage. No matter the different music underscoring the opus of our lives, despite the idiosyncratic discords, and badly- or well-timed arpeggios that moved us in our self-composed rhythms, we always managed to find – at every select juncture – a cadence in which enough that was harmonious carried us to the next meeting.
Chronology would only blur and render less significant and splendid the memories I hold from all those years. In fact, the one that first springs to my mind happened well into our friendship, at the end of spring term when we were between second and third year university, me wholly an Arts and Humanities collegian; her totally Math and Science, two disciplines that continue to render me inordinately stupid.
It was 1974 and, at some point, I had decided that the pair of us should hitchhike around Ireland for a month or so. Maybe we both decided but, since I’m the one born in Ireland and who would visit with relatives every summer, and knew my way around the country fairly well, I suspect I weighed in more heavily on the brainstorm. She, ever the scientist, thought it a perfect opportunity to collect various native and indigenous (to Ireland) plant species, which she would gather into a large and rather cumbersome botanical plant press.
Hitchhiking may always have been a bit of a dodgy business but, back in 1974, in rural Ireland where we’d planned to trek, it was just the done thing. The youth of the western world was traversing the globe, thumbs raised, learning on the fly about Europe and India and Asia and South America and wherever the fancy betook them. And, I knew Ireland very well, and the good humour and welcoming nature of the Irish people, so that was that. We’d hitch our way through the south of Ireland, stopping at Youth Hostels each night, certain that such would be achievable and rather a dawdle; free from the constraints of parents and responsibilities, testing our newfound independence in the relative safety of my home country and its people.
And, given I couldn’t possibly step foot upon the island of Ireland without visiting relatives, we’d set aside a few days to spend in Belfast which, given it was smack dab in the midst of “The Troubles”, may have struck fear into the heart of any but me, as I’d spent every summer before (and after) in the thick of it. And, most important, my relatives were great craic; I spent most of every stay with them in gales of laughter. The Irish sense of humor is legendary; the Northern Irish sense of humor is wicked.
As our university term ended in April, and my erstwhile friend was set to begin a summer job in May, we booked our three-week adventure across the waves for mid-April. Remember, these were the days before Internet or instantaneous accessing of information when one would just head off and hope for the best.
However, April in Ireland is not known for its balmy, dry days well-suited to countryside travels on foot. April in Ireland 1974 was further bereft of the many Youth Hostels we had read dotted our planned route. Yes, there were some open; most weren’t. Of those that were open, most were abysmal, damp and lacking in all but the most rudimentary sleeping and eating facilities. We would leave any given hostel the next morning as wet as we had arrived there the night before.
In those events that a hostel eluded us, nor was there a hotel in sight where we might rest, warm and lighten our already meagerly-stocked wallets, we would sleep in fields - waking up to cows peering down upon us – and beaches – waking up to a tidal turn - under our silver ‘thermal’ blankets. ‘Space blankets’ they were called; and they had just come on the market for happy wanderers such as ourselves. Sadly, they had yet to acquire the stamina and fortitude to protect and secure the user against the elements as do those available now, nearly 50 years on. I recall (and have photos of) the pair of us quickly taking advantage of any perceived stretch of sunlight and absence of moisture, hanging our backpacks-ful of wet socks, underwear and such on farmer’s fences, for all to see.
We had no trouble getting rides. We were über cool, with our gargantuan backpacks (mine sporting a Canadian flag to distinguish us from any other international contingents). We quickly learned the trademark hiking stance and amble, walking backwards, left arm out with a thumbs-up (right-hand drive over there, remember). We were driven in luxury in the Mercedes Benz belonging to a member of the Irish government, crammed into wee cars designed to hold four with a mammy, daddy, three or four wains, all trapped under our packs and sleeping bags, and it was great. My favourite was the back of ancient pick-up trucks or animal wagons, especially when the animals were in there with us. Thankfully (with my animals rights vocation and veganism, all animals were en route homeward and not market-ward). We did have the odd bad pick-up – two to be exact – but we escaped none the worse for wear and, in the grand scheme of things, those were but the stuff of great stories a few years on. Piffle. Paltry. Bastards, though.
And Dublin. The adventure would have been impossible without Ireland’s capital and fair city featuring prominently. The plan we had assembled involved arriving at Dublin Airport, then making our way to a hotel we’d already booked and, the next day, lugging our much-too-heavy baggage on our backs to a bicycle rental shop I’d found in some tourist literature. I, at least, envisaged proper bikes, three speeds minimum, but perhaps as many as ten; and was wholly ‘dropped on’ (Northern Irish for ‘very disappointed’) to find the only bikes available for rental were small trek bikes, that could comfortably seat no more than a 10-year-old on their banana-shaped seats. They were yellow, they were tiny, they were ridiculous and they were all we had so, ever game-faced, we set off on our pre-planned three-day biking tour around Dublin and environs.
I doubt we’d gone an hour before we had to stop. I have a picture of my friend, sitting on an old, low stone wall, leaning on her bike, her backpack and sleeping bag off to one side and her head resting in her hand. It can be summed up thus: “NOPE. NOPE. NOPE.” I’m not sure how much longer we persevered in our original plan that day, nor why I had forgotten how many hills there are in Ireland, but we had the bikes returned and were back in the hotel later that first day of our three-day cycling jaunt.
From Dublin, eventually, we took a train up to Ireland’s North, politically part of Great Britain, but historically and rightfully the six counties that should be in the Irish Republic, but – thanks, England you Imperialist Thug – aren’t. I was born in the capital city of “Northern Ireland”, Belfast, and it was there we headed to visit my many relatives who would be only too happy (and indeed they were) to welcome and entertain two Canadian lassies in their early twenties and keen for the disco scene. It was ‘diabolic’ (at that time, the expression meant ‘fantastic’).
When we arrived at the train station in Belfast, I more or less had my bearings as I’d spent the three previous summers in the city. I managed to get us to the wee house near the city centre where lived three of my mother’s unmarried cousins. As it happened, not even one of the cousins was home when we arrived, so we dallied a few doors down where a neighbour (another singleton who lived with his equally singleton brother) had a wee mechanic’s garage. Both were in the shop and we had quare craic the four of us, me trying to remind them who I was and, then, why I was there, and who was with me. Dinny (Madden; I forget the brother’s name) kept a vigilant eye on my mother’s cousins’ house and, eventually, the two sisters – Kitty and Betty – returned. We were ceremoniously ushered the few doors up Barrack Street and into the scullery of the O’Kane family home for, indeed, these three had lived in it their entire lives, and their parents before them.
Once settled and tucked into soda and wheaten bread, cups of tea and whatever else they eagerly offered us, word went out to the nearest telephone and the call was made to another cousin (their sister) at whose house I (and my family) would always stay when in Belfast. Not long afterwards, my second cousin once-removed (and my best friend at the time) arrived at the Barrack St. house of his aunts and uncle and whisked us just outside of Belfast to Lisburn, high on a hill overlooking the city. There we spent many of our days, in no hurry at all to leave the comfort and more than happy to be spoiled but, eventually, we moved on, taking a train farther northward to the town of my mother’s birth, Portstewart, on the North Atlantic coast.
We left our mark on Belfast that year; at least my friend certainly did. They were quite used to me so I was nothing special and, of course, I was as Irish as any of them. My friend, however, hails from Greek and Italian origin and, in the Belfast of the early 1970s, that was an exotic blend indeed. When we finally returned to Canada, my mother couldn’t wait to recount to me what her cousin had told her in a phone call the day of our arrival in Barrack Street. The two ould boys, Dinny Madden and his brother, had been honoured that we would stay and chat with them for as long as we did. And they’d obviously been blinded by my friend’s beauty. Said Dinny Madden’s brother, “You see thon wee black one? You see her? Sure I could et thon wee black one.”
Trust me. That is a paean of a compliment.
We made our way from the very north of the country down the west coast, in much the same way as we’d made our way the first days and nights, hitting the odd hostel, settling for fields, eating a lot of chocolate and drinking ghastly sherry or port from wine skins. We’d planned to spend the last few days of our vacation – by that point more of an exercise in endurance than vacation – back in Dublin. I remember being absolutely exhausted, moreso than I’d ever experienced in my life. And we were sick of hauling around all our dirty clothes in backpacks much heavier than at the outset because everything in them was wet.
On the main street in Dublin, O’Connell Street, there stands the symbol of Ireland’s resistance to - and liberation from – English Imperialism, the General Post Office. It was from this headquarters that the rebels of 1916 directed their war against the full might of the British forces. I would go on, years later, to write my Master’s thesis on the Easter Rising as it was called but, even then, I recognized the iconic import of the GPO. But for all its historic significance, at that point it was but a post office and we set about getting boxes and wrapping paper and piling all the soiled and disgusting bits of our personal effects together, packaging and addressing them, then purchasing sufficient postage to send them on their way, far away from us.
Thus relieved of half our weight, we set about to enjoy our last two nights in Dublin. Of those two nights, I remember only the last. We were in a pub somewhere deep in the city centre, possibly a bad idea as we had to be up at 5:30 a.m. to get to the airport for our return flight. I knew that the extreme fatigue I had been feeling was threatening to turn into a cold or flu and, by 11:00 p.m. or so, desperately wanted to go to bed. I announced this plan to the acrimony of the assembled, those being my friend and the many young Dubliners – every one male – swooning over her.
SHE DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE. And, who could blame her, basking in the admiration of such eager consorts? But I am me and I said, “Fine. Stay. Just hope you make it to the airport in time,” and off I stomped, likely enraged but, as this sort of thing tended to happen a lot when we were with the opposite sex – her being centerpiece and me being enraged – I suspect I may have thought my mother’s thought, “Slap it into her,” and fully expected her to miss the flight. Not my problem. Not my fault.
Back in the hotel, I was not in the least surprised to realize I was about as sick as I had ever felt in my life: throat, head, sinuses, nose, nausea…the lot. I ordered a hot toddy from room service, which helped a wee bit, but spent the night awake and unwell. At some point just before the 5:30 wake-up call, my friend did, in fact, make it back to the hotel.
The rest is a blur of gathering things, somehow getting to the airport, my whining constantly about how sick I was and, by the time we were airborne, completely losing my hearing. I know I whined but, even more, I raged because she was not in the least sympathetic, not even empathetic. Nor concerned. She told me to quit complaining and buggered off to sleep. Oh, I was fierce with the rage and the fever upon me.
Somehow, I emerged from that fever dream – nightmare more like – and we were back in Canada. The second I was home, I was in bed where I stayed for two weeks, in and out of sleep and fever and barely able to walk to the bathroom. I have never been that sick, before or since. But, eventually, I recovered, and it was May and it was warm and sunny and I’d lost weight what with all the being sick business (and that was always a plus, though a minus in pounds).
I got a letter from my friend who, you may recall, had to start a job in May. And it was a hell of a hard job, too: picking tobacco. I know I’m a terrible person. That’s not in question. I can prove this by describing the smug self-satisfaction I felt upon reading her letter. She was finally not only empa- but symp-thetic about my ailment because, just as I was settling into my two-week recuperation in bed, tended by my mother, she was starting early morning-long day sessions out in the sun and heat. And, oh my – oh joy – that was when she came down with the very ailment that had felled me. She, however, had to work through it. To this day I don’t know how she managed it. Nowadays, I’m a bit nicer and less fresh from the fever and can truly muster sympathy for her situation at the time, but I can’t deny my petty pleasure – after her angrily demanding I quit complaining about being sick on the plane home – that she had got whatever it was, too, and was denied even the comfort of a sick bed.
I fully acknowledge this is a bad trait of mine, and humbly repent for my unbridled joy at the time.
The very day I got out of bed, dressed and felt well, I received a notice that there was something for me to claim at the post office. As my family and I would get parcels occasionally throughout the year from our relatives in Ireland, learning that a package awaited us was always the stuff of great excitement. My mother and I immediately drove to the main post office in downtown Kitchener. As she waited in the car, I went in with a bit of money in case there was customs owing. There wasn’t.
I got my parcel and hurried back to the car to open it. We were both wondering who would have sent me something so soon after I’d got back, when I noticed familiar writing on the package. Barely two tears into it, the stench that filled the car was beyond ghastly.
Sure wasn’t it my parcel of filthy wet clothes, three weeks more disgusting than they’d been at the glorious GPO on O’Connell Street, Dublin?