My bi-annual trip to England was long overdue. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Although I love seeing my family and friends, since Lesley and I bought a ramshackle farmhouse in the rural west of Ireland, those trips back to my homeland have slowly slipped down the order of importance on my ‘to-do list’. I had a good excuse for delaying, I always do. This time I was writing another book; volume two in my Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series.
Sure, it was a time sensitive project, something I wanted to complete while the creative juices were still flowing, but would a week away from my desk really have made such a difference? Probably not. In truth, I find myself looking at Britain with mild distaste. I guess it’s a defense mechanism, like the sanctimonious attitude of a reformed smoker – a necessary protection against the constant longing. That nagging toothache of doubt. The question that gnaws at my conscience in those sleepless hours. Would our lives had been better if we hadn’t moved to Ireland?
The 7am flight was delayed an hour. Not the fault of my beloved Ryanair, but rather the chronic overcrowding in the skies over London. I didn’t mind. My father was a pilot. He once told me, “Take-off is optional, but landings are mandatory. Before you take to the air, make sure you have somewhere to land!” These wise words have served me well as a metaphor for cautious planning – something we blatantly disregarded during our sudden decision to move to Ireland.
After almost a month of delightfully warm and dry weather in sleepy County Clare, Stansted Airport was surprisingly cold, with low drizzly cloud and a chilly breeze. For some inexplicable reason, it took longer to achieve temporary possession of my hire car than it did to make the 500-mile flight from Ireland – including the delay. Undaunted, and with commendable daring-do, I threw the little Fiat 500 into the hectic mid-morning motorway traffic and headed north-east.
I’m happy to report my trip to England went well. The hotels were clean, comfortable and welcoming, the weather perked up nicely, and I got through the week without damaging the hire car. Furthermore, I had a lovely time catching up with friends and relatives.
Although I was only away for a week, I soon missed the company of my dogs, especially on my long morning walks, a routine I was keen to maintain – particularly as I was battling to lose a little weight after the long Irish winter. The hotel in Essex was just a mile from our old house, but in my absence the familiar farmland and woods had been transformed into a confusion of roads, housing estates and industrial parks.
Throughout the week, I had stuck to trudging along the main roads, trading air quality and silence for half decent pavement and the ability to walk a little faster, but on the final morning of my visit I took a different route.
For half a mile I had walked alongside a delightful elderly Swiss lady – also a recent returnee to the town. She was striding along at an impressive speed and breathlessly venting her disapproval of the traffic, litter, noise and terrible air quality. We chatted for a while and shared some memories of how the old market town had once looked. Eventually I spotted a cycle path leading into a small park, and with a friendly wave, we parted ways. This new path took a serpentine route following a small stream, alongside a modern housing estate. As it was early in the morning there were few people about, so for a while I was able to lengthen my stride and burn some calories.
After three miles, I turned and headed back towards the hotel. On the return leg I passed a few commuters, eyes down, chatting on their phones and walking purposely towards the station for the early train. The dog walkers seemed more affable, inclined to make eye contact and mumble “good morning” as they passed. Just before the path reached the main road, I noticed a tall, dark-haired man approaching. He was walking a small black poodle. It had a pink collar and a blue bow tied to the fur on its head. A smile twitched his lips but faltered as the gap between us closed. His eyes danced a cautious jig, flicking from mild fear to confusion. A frown creased his forehead as his stride inadvertently slowed. Recognizing the face I hadn’t seen for twenty-five years, I clicked my fingers and pointed.
He politely shook my outstretched hand, but his smile was guarded.
“Nick Albert,” I offered.
“Niiick!” he smiled. “How the devil are you?”
“Oh, I’m just grand. How are you?”
“Fine, fine,” he replied.
I knelt to fuss his excitable poodle. The ridiculous blue hair-tie came off in my hand.
“Sorry.” I grimaced handing the bow to Karl.
For a few minutes we shared some banal pleasantries, but much time had gone by since our last meeting and we were no longer friends – if we ever were. I shuffled my feet in embarrassment as Karl looked over my shoulder for escape.
“Well, I’d better get on…” we blurted, almost together. With a smile and a nod, we went our separate ways.
A little further up the road, I spotted an old concrete signpost almost buried in a hedge. Like a simile for the life I left behind, it indicated the original route of a disused footpath. It was overgrown, but passable. Figuring it would be a less unpleasant walk back to the hotel than trudging along the dual-carriageway, I stepped over the nettles and set off in a new direction.
Although I frequently had to crouch to pass under the overhanging hawthorn and wipe away the occasional cobweb, I made good progress. The mud underfoot was dry and well-trodden, albeit scattered with discarded beer cans, cigarette butts and the detritus of someone’s clandestine drug use. High in the trees, a song thrush made desperate efforts to make itself heard over the roar of the morning traffic.
As I walked, my thoughts drifted back to my meeting with Karl. From what he had shared, in the quarter century since we had last met, his life seemed almost unchanged. He was a contented bachelor, living in the same house and still working at the same company. His life had stability and permanence. But much like my walking route, my life had taken a much different path, eventually leading Lesley and I to a derelict farmhouse in the wilds of rural Ireland and a career as an author. Had I stayed on the same path as Karl twenty-five years before, how different would my life be today. Would I be so happy, or as content? Who can say?
In an exquisite moment of irony, at that moment the old footpath I was following terminated abruptly at the entrance to a field. The hotel was nowhere in sight. My legendary sense of direction had failed me again! With the aid of Google maps, my smart phone and a good bit of head scratching, I managed to figure out where I was and plot an approximate route back to the hotel. Heading towards the loudest traffic sounds, I pushed through a prickly hedge and, with a whoop of excitement, slithered on my bum twenty feet down a steep grassy embankment towards the road below. As my feet hit the curbstone, stopping my descent, there was a squeal of brakes and the angry toot of a car horn. Smiling like a village idiot, I turned my eyes towards the stationary car, only to find the disproving face of a policeman staring back at me. Feeling mildly self-conscious, I stood and casually brushed the dry grass from my trousers. His window slid down.
“What the hell are you playing at?” he shouted. “I nearly hit you.”
“Sorry.” I gave him my best attempt at an apologetic grimace. “You see I got lost and I was trying to find my hotel.”
“Where’s your car?” he growled, his eyes interrogating mine for any sign of dishonesty.
I was about to launch into a long answer, explaining how my car was back home in Ireland and that I was only on holiday, exploring this once familiar countryside, but the words stuck in my throat.
“At my hotel,” I croaked.
“Why aren’t you driving?” he demanded.
“I wanted some exercise. 10,000 steps,” I explained, pointing at my wrist before realizing my fitness tracking watch was back in Ireland.
Apparently satisfied with my explanation as evidence I wasn’t a risk to myself or others, he half rolled his eyes and sniffed. “Be more careful.”
“Yes sir,” I mumbled, feeling like a naughty schoolboy.
He sighed and delivered some parting advice. “Walking around here is bad for your health.”
“I don’t suppose you could give me a lift back to my hotel?” I shouted as he drove off. Apparently not.
Stansted airport was oppressively hot and horrifically busy. It was the worst I have ever experienced and rather a challenge to someone used to the quiet solitude of rural Ireland. Although I had been reacclimatised to crowds for a week, I quickly found myself becoming stressed and irritated by the noise and heat. Fortunately, I knew of a quiet corner where I could enjoy a cup of tea while I read a book or watch the planes land. I settled down and waited patiently for my flight to be called. My solitude was soon interrupted.
“Jees! That’s some crowd!” The person who sat next to me was a tall, pasty-faced man, aged around thirty-five. He wore ripped jeans, scruffy trainers and a white nylon t-shirt. There was a confusing jumble of tattoos on his arms and hands. Encircling his neck was an elaborate drawing of a snake, culminating with the head on his left cheek, it’s fanged mouth open as if protecting the wearer. I tried not to stare.
“It certainly is,” I agreed, smiling. “If I hadn’t found this quiet corner, there was a chance I was going to bite someone!”
He laughed at my quip. “I know the feeling. Where’re you headed?”
“Me too. I’m going to see my Uncle.”
“Are you flying to Shannon?” I asked.
“Knock,” he replied, with a shake of his head.
“That’s north of Galway, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “You visiting?”
“No. I’m heading home.”
“Oh. You live in Ireland?” He looked at me with renewed interest.
I nodded. “County Clare.”
I pointed towards the crowds. “I’ll be pleased when I’m away from all this and heading back home.”
“This country’s gone mad,” he whispered, his voice heavy with sadness.
“It’s certainly changed since I lived here,” I agreed.
“Have you been gone long?” he asked.
“Almost fifteen years.”
“There’s a coincidence. I’ve been away for fifteen years too!” He smiled and tapped the snake’s head. “Hence the tattoos.”
“Army?” I asked.
“Jail. Just out last month. I can’t believe how my old patch has gone downhill.” He shook his head sadly.
“Surely it’s not that bad?”
He snorted. “I actually felt safer in jail!”
We chatted for fifteen minutes, reminiscing about the England we had left behind and laughing when we realized how our paths may have crossed when we were younger men. I thought he seemed a thoroughly pleasant fellow, with an interesting story to tell. His flight was called first, so we shook hands and bade goodbye. As he picked up his bag, he leaned over and patted me on the shoulder.
“You’re okay,” he said. “Some people wouldn’t talk to an ex-con.”
“I try not to judge.” I shrugged. “There by the grace of God and all that…”
“Weren’t you worried I was going to stick you with a knife?” He grinned disarmingly, but there was an undertone of deadly seriousness to his question.
“Well…” I shuffled my feet in embarrassment. “We’ve both been through security and the metal detectors, so I figured…”
He stared into my eyes for a moment, then threw his head back and roared with laughter. “I hadn’t thought of that!”
I watched him walk away, shaking his head and laughing all the way to his gate. All-in-all, he was one of the nicest people I met on my trip.
I was almost tearful as my flight approached touchdown. Ireland looked particularly inviting, by virtue of a spectacular sunset glinting off the waters of the Shannon estuary.
As usual, my wife was late picking me up at the airport, but I didn’t mind waiting.
“When I was ready to leave, I let the dogs out on the lawn so they could have a pee,” Lesley explained.
“Let me guess, Lady ran off?” Our ageing and profoundly deaf Foxhound has an irritating habit of deciding to launch a hunting expedition at the most inconvenient times.
My wife huffed and rolled her eyes. “She spotted a fox near to the chicken run and that was it! Kia and Honey went with her. It took forever to get them back.”
“She’s just doing her job,” I explained, smiling.
“But I’m really late.”
I patted her hand. “Not to worry, I’m just glad to be home. I truly am.”
The roads were quiet, almost empty, even though it was early evening. We drove slowly through a small village, giving a friendly wave to a group of people enjoying an alfresco meal and a pint of Guinness.
“What are you smiling at?” Lesley asked, a few minutes later.
“That sign outside the pub we just past.”
“What did it say?”
“Veg of the day – chips.”
Lesley laughed. “Welcome back to Ireland!”.
Early the following morning, I took the dogs for a long walk up through the forest. Pausing for a few minutes to take some pictures, I delighted in the solitude. Up here high in the hills, miles from the nearest car, the air is fresh, thickened only by the heavy scent of pine and the humid aroma of peat and gorse. The butterflies and bees are in abundance and the birds compete with each other, not the roar of passing traffic.
I breathed deeply and nodded. There is no doubt, moving to Ireland was the right decision. England isn’t a bad place, it’s just different. A throwback to a previous version of me. Somewhere I no longer fit. It’s not like Ireland, not like home.