Wednesday, 31 March 2021

An Unfamiliar Sky — Covid lockdown in rural Ireland


 This isn’t a golf story, but like my life, it has some golf in it.

 I hit my first golf ball in the summer of 1968, gave my first golf lesson in 1986 and my last on a showery morning, early in 2020.

 I can recall that first shot very clearly. It occurred in Scotland, late one summer afternoon on the hallowed turf of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the venerable home of golf. Unaware it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the stupid and frustratingly pointless business of using an unwieldy stick to manoeuvre an insubordinate ball through an obstacle course and into an unreceptive hole, that memory was solidified in my mind by other events.

At the time, my late father was an officer serving at Royal Air Force Leuchars and, therefore, an RAF member at the local golf club, which happened to be St. Andrews. Lucky us! That evening, Dad was playing golf with another RAF officer. Although I had no particular interest in the proceedings, I enjoyed the evening sunshine, searching for golf balls in the long grass, and the important responsibility of carrying his bag. As we neared the end of the round, Dad asked if I would like to try hitting a shot.

“Okay,” I shrugged nonchalantly.

He tossed a ball onto the ground and handed me one of his clubs.

“Go on, have a go.”

My first few attempts moved nothing other than the air or a few clumps of grass. But after a bit of guidance on how to hold and swing the club, I managed to move the ball a short distance, in approximately the intended direction.

“Well done!” my father exclaimed, his eyes twinkling with joy. “Pick it up. It’s getting late. We’ll have to head in now.”

It wasn’t an auspicious start, and it might have been my last go at golf had I not noticed the golf ball was named after that famous fighter aircraft, the Spitfire. Back then, the plane was legendary — especially for a young boy living on an RAF base. My heart sang as I tucked the ball into my pocket. I was hooked and went on to spend many happy days playing golf with my father.

Unfortunately, that day didn’t end well. Whilst Dad and his friend swapped flying stories in the bar for a couple of hours, I nursed my lemonade, ate a sandwich and entertained myself by reading an old and slightly sticky golf magazine. Back in the car park, Dad’s alcohol-fuelled affability quickly evaporated when we discovered his car keys were missing. Along with his wallet, the keys had been safely tucked in the ball pocket of his golf bag. The wallet was still there, but the keys were nowhere to be found. They must have fallen out. Accusing eyes turned in my direction. Obviously, the apprentice caddy was to blame. We set off with borrowed torches to search the course, retracing every shot and footstep for a distance of more than four miles. At 11pm, dusty, sweating and tired to the bone, we trudged dejectedly back to the car.

“Should we check the bag again?” I suggested.

“I already did!” Dad growled.

“Let me look,” I pleaded.

By the light of two torches, we tipped the contents onto the nearby grass.

“They’re not there,” he said. “We’ll have to get a taxi.”

I jiggled the bag.

“I can hear something!” I exclaimed.

A more detailed search eventually revealed a small hole in the ball pocket, just large enough to allow a set of car keys to slip through and become trapped behind the lining. There was more irony than humour in our laughter. Back home, my mother found the saga of the missing keys to be an unbelievably tall tale. To this day, she is convinced our late return was entirely due to the smell of beer on my father’s breath.

 Apart from that significant moment when someone exchanged some of their hard-earned cash for a little of my knowledge, the first golf lesson I gave was only memorable because the client was the husband of a young teller at my bank. After raising some money for charity through my golf, I’d been featured in the local newspaper. Gillian had recently married. She recognised me from the paper and asked if she could buy a golf lesson as a birthday gift for her husband. I was happy to oblige. Besides, the money came in handy. The lesson went surprisingly well. John’s golf improved considerably, and I began teaching golf part-time. It was something I continued to do until we arrived in Ireland, and my hobby turned into a serious career.

 Me busy teaching some putting.

 

In theory, there was no reason why my twin careers of author and golf teacher couldn’t have lived happily together. Indeed, for a while, they did. With our renovations finished, I had enough spare time on my hands to teach most days, write a golf instructional column for the paper at the weekend and rattle off a few bestselling books in the evenings. Everything was looking rosy until the financial crash knocked Ireland for six. From that point on, the flood of golf lessons slowed to a trickle and ended as an irregular drip.

 As a busy full-time author, my decision to retire from teaching golf after 34 years seemed entirely sensible, but it was still a sad day. On 5th March 2020, on my way home from shopping, I popped into the golf club to hand over my keys, empty my locker and collect my things.

“How did it go?” my wife asked when I arrived home.

I dumped the shopping bags on the kitchen table and grimaced.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a gold watch and a party, but the subdued atmosphere in the golf shop was somewhat unexpected.”

“Who did you see?” Lesley asked as she helped me unpack.

“Only Jane. The shop was empty.”

Lesley tutted. “Did you upset her again?”

“Not at all!” I rolled my eyes, then added, “For once.”

Although she had a heart of gold and loved dogs, Jane was a somewhat fractious character, quick to hold a grudge and inclined to react explosively to the slightest perceived infraction. Whereas most people likened her volcanic eruptions to a toothless dog barking in the dark, being more black and white with social contracts, I took these things very personally.

“Anyway,” I continued. “My departure was acknowledged with nothing more than a curt nod. Jane was more interested in talking about this Covid thing. Apparently, it’s arrived in County Clare.”

“Oh no!” Lesley involuntarily brought her hand to her mouth.

Like many people, we’d seen the news reports about the strange new virus in China and watched the horrible scenes from hospitals in Italy. There had even been mention of a few confirmed cases passing through Dublin airport, but that all seemed a long way away from the sleepy west of Ireland.

“It hasn’t made the press here yet, but Jane has heard about it through her gossip grapevine,” I explained. “Apparently, a family of four returned from a skiing holiday in Italy last week. Initially, they’d all tested negative for the virus and had been cleared to return to normal life. The two children were back at school. The parents are a teacher and a doctor and had both been working. Yesterday, one by one, they fell ill.”

And so it began.

 ***

I’d last seen my daughter and my two grandchildren in November 2019, when I visited England for my mother’s birthday. Lesley had made her first trip of 2020 in February, but my April booking was already looking unlikely. My mother is 92 and medically vulnerable.

“You can’t visit mum, but look on the bright side,” Lesley said. “You’ll have an extra few days with Joanne and the kids.”

“Fingers crossed.” I grimaced with my reply. “But I don’t think I’ll be going. I hear they’re about to cancel all of the St. Patrick’s day celebrations.”

“Crikey!” my wife exclaimed, her eyes wide. “It must be getting serious.”

And it was.

A few days later, the government closed all of the pubs and shortly after, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation. He was calm, professional and straightforward. Ireland was in trouble. Urgent action was required to bring the infection rate under control and prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed. The country would enter a strict lockdown, with most businesses closed and non-essential travel forbidden beyond 2km. On the upside, perhaps mindful of the Irish famine, the government began immediate weekly payments to anyone losing income because of the restrictions. Authors and retired golf coaches need not apply! Nevertheless, it was an extraordinarily generous gesture, certain to save many people from destitution. Even now, those payments continue.

At Glenmadrie, little changed. We have a large house and a few acres of land, surrounded by miles of unpopulated forest and moorland. Up here, I can walk the dogs for hours, confident I won’t meet another person and, with enough space to hit golf balls, I can practice every day without going to the golf club. Our lockdown would be restrictive and occasionally frustrating, but it would be far from the ordeal many would have to endure.

Because our home is so remote, it is our habit to food shop around once a month. We have a large walk-in larder and oodles of kitchen cupboard space, so buying in bulk makes sense. With two big chest freezers, we also have room to store our home-grown vegetables and still have enough space for a months supply of frozen milk and bread.

My first ‘Covid’ shopping trip occurred early one morning, a week into lockdown. Dunnes, our preferred choice for food shopping, was well-stocked but eerily quiet. We had yet to receive guidance on face coverings, and they weren’t available to buy at that time, so nobody wore a mask. Most shoppers and all of the staff wore gloves. By common consent, we kept our distance and furtively glanced at each other, subliminally wondering if we were looking at ‘Patient zero’. Of course, we weren’t. At that time, the infection was racing unchecked through Ireland’s care homes, but the risk to shoppers was more imagined than real.

A month later, my next shopping trip was a completely different experience. Lulled into a false sense of security by my earlier trip, after taking the dogs for a leisurely walk,  I had popped into Ennis around mid-morning.

“You’re back earlier than I expected,” Lesley commented as I stomped into our sitting room. She was eating a late lunch. “Did you get everything on the list?”

“No, I did not!”

Ignorant to my simmering frustration, our dogs danced excited circles around me, vying for attention. I did my best to equitably share two hands with four dogs.

“What didn’t you get?” she asked, wincing as she sat forward. My wife’s bad back was playing up again.

“Pretty much everything.” I shrugged defensively. “The shops are all restricting how many people can be inside. I had to queue for 40 minutes just to get into the chemist. By then, the line for Dunnes was rather long. From what I could see, the staff were doing a magnificent job keeping everyone safe. They had a big marquee, a queueing system, the trolleys were being disinfected and there was plenty of hand sanitizer. But, by my estimation, it was going to be a three-hour wait to get into the shop. Apparently, Thursday is the day people receive their Covid payments. That’s probably why it was so busy.”

 

Lesley sighed. “I’m sorry you had a wasted trip.”

“Not to worry.” I delved into my pocket and handed over her painkillers. “We're not going to starve. I’ll go in early tomorrow. I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Thanks for going to the chemist. I appreciate you waiting.”

“Actually, it was rather entertaining.” I smiled at the memory. “We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the old boy in front of me wasn’t taking any risks. Anytime anyone walking along the pavement came even close, he bellowed, ‘Social distancing’ and, like a pantomime pirate, took a swipe at them with his walking stick. It was really very funny!”

***

A year on, Ireland is in its third lockdown. Although Lesley and I have been cocooned since the beginning, life at Glenmadrie looks much the same. Sadly, we’ve lost three dogs and gained several pounds. In 12 months, I’ve hit thousands of golf shots at home but played just two games. Apart from a few short weeks during the summer, the golf courses and driving ranges have been closed the entire time, as have most pubs, hotels and restaurants. I fear many will never reopen. My trip to England was eventually cancelled and with travel restrictions still in place, I have been unable to book another. It’s nice to chat with family on the phone and make the occasional video call, but it isn’t the same as being there. When I wasn’t producing lessons to help keep my young grandson entertained, I’ve continued writing my Fresh Eggs series and working on some other projects. Lesley has kept busy working in the garden. In the summer it looked better than ever. She has also excelled in dreaming up DIY jobs for me to do!

Ireland will endure and bounce back. Its people are stoic and resilient. Those I have spoken with have always taken an optimistic view, mentioning a renewed appreciation for family, our beautiful landscape and the benefits of working from home. At Glenmadrie, I have noticed a reduction in traffic along our already quiet roads, a welcome stillness in the air, and a sky unfamiliar since the boom in commercial aviation in the 1970s. Before Covid arrived, around 900 aircraft a day flew over county Clare. At maximum altitude, these silvery specks passed on their journeys between Europe and America largely unnoticed, save for a distant subliminal roar and a milky haze caused by the contrails they left behind. With air traffic reduced by as much as 90%, I am more aware of our solitude, the sounds of nature and, on cloudless days, a stunning blue sky. Perhaps every cloud has a silver lining after all.

 An unfamiliar sky

 

 

 

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