Close encounters make life worth living
On Sunday afternoon, Oliver and I were sheltering in a stone barn waiting for the rain to ease off, breathing in the delicious aroma of turf and hay and trying to think of words that rhymed with banana, when a pleasant-looking, greyhaired man wearing overalls appeared from nowhere and asked us shyly if we’d like something to eat or drink.
‘I felt if we came back in a decade, nothing would have changed’
‘My mother saw you duck in here and she thought the boy might need a bit of cake.’ I hesitated. ‘She’d enjoy chatting with you. We don’t get many visitors.’
This I could well believe. We’d been following the merest suggestion of a path around the northern edge of the Mizen Peninsula and, in three hours, had barely seen a bird, let alone a human being. We were a few miles from the most westerly point in Europe, perhaps a 30-minute drive along twisty lanes to a shop, twice as long to a bank. Remote wasn’t in it.
At Oliver’s age, I took similar walks with my own father, as he had with his father. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was considered perfectly normal to stop at a farm and ask to buy food or a meal. By the 1960s, it was not, but if my father was aware of this, he showed no sign of it. Much of my childhood was spent hiding behind him as he knocked on farmhouse doors seeking refreshment.
The odd thing was that, although the farmers and their wives were clearly surprised by the request, most complied. We would sit in the kitchens of complete strangers, eating our fill. When my father, having had ‘just one more glass of your excellent beer, since you insist’, pulled out his wallet, few would accept payment.
If Oliver was embarrassed, it was not by me, at least, but by the effusive hospitality we received. Our hosts sat us by the kitchen range and, as our clothes gently steamed, prepared a lavish tea. Direct questions are considered impolite in this part of the world. Instead, one ‘says the wrong to come by the right’, which involves making what are clearly erroneous statements that the other party must then correct: ‘By your accent I can tell you are from Dublin’, ‘It’s a shame Oliver has no brothers and sisters’, ‘You’re lucky not having to see patients on a weekend.’
We discovered as much about them as they discovered about us. It was a not untypical story for rural Ireland: the elderly widow and the unmarried son eking out a living from a small, unimproved farm. They had a few cows, a few sheep, a few chickens. Although they had barely any neighbours, they had many friends and, from time to time, nephews and nieces visited from England, America and Australia. There was a comfortable rhythm to each day, each week, each year.
I felt that if we came back in a decade, two decades even, nothing would have changed, although I knew this was ridiculous. Anyway, if they were discontented, they hid it well. When we came away, we left our address and hoped that one day we could repay their hospitality. I thought of Maupassant: ‘It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living.’
Twenty years ago, it was Jack who came walking with me and supplied me with one-liners for my columns. Some escaped chickens on a boat led to ‘All hens on deck’. Strong, homemade beer resulted in ‘The shock of the brew’. On being served eel, he suggested ‘Eel meat again’.
now—well, to be accurate, next Saturday—he’s getting married. When he was born, his ears stuck out to such an extent that a friend asked if he was straining to hear. His first word, shouted while I was holding him outside our London flat, was ‘taxi’, accompanied by a frantic waving of his arm, which produced a screeching of tyres, followed by a ‘Where to, guv?’.
Thanks to a bit of shameless nepotism, his lovely fiancée, Greta, was the Frontispiece recently (April 19). He adores her and, ever since he brought her home, we have adored her, too. Still, for all the joy their marriage brings it has rekindled poignant memories and serves as a reminder that, once they leave home, they rarely come walking with their dad.
Outside, the weather was alternating between sun and rain. As each squall came off the Atlantic and made its way up Dunmanus Bay, the sea turned from silver to dark grey and then back to silver. ‘We lead such busy lives,’ I said to Oliver. ‘Yes,’ he replied, thoughtfully, ‘we have no mañanas.’