We docked at the end of a deserted pier and I was disappointed to see no royal welcoming party with a beautiful, sexually frustrated princess waiting to be wooed by her knight in shining armour. (Or man with fridge—whichever came first) A couple of scruffy looking islanders eventually emerged from one of the four dwellings in the metropolis which surrounded us, and began speaking in Gaelic with Rory and his crew. One of them gave me a hand lifting the fridge ashore and I took the opportunity to garner some information.
‘I’m looking for Patsy Dan, the King of Tory.’
‘I thought he might be here to welcome me.’
‘Maybe he’s suffering after last night’s boozing.’
‘He likes a drink, does he?’
‘I didn’t say it.’
He smiled and jumped aboard and started passing breeze blocks to his extremely scary looking colleague. I had absolutely no idea if inbreeding took place on this island but if you were going to bring a case that it did, then you would produce this fellow as your most convincing piece of circumstantial evidence. I continued to address the one with whom I had already spoken, assuming that of the two, he was the least likely to have killed a man.
‘What time is Patrick Robinson leaving with the Americans?’
‘Oh, he left an hour ago.’
‘I’d say it was around an hour, anyway.’
‘I thought he wasn’t going until tomorrow morning.’
‘Well, the Americans decided they wanted to go today.’
J looked around at this tiny bleak outpost of civilisation, and saw how the Americans might have arrived at the sudden change of mind. There is obviously a fine line between peaceful and desolate, and small and downright boring, and the Americans had clearly crossed it.
‘So, no one’s going back to the mainland today?’
‘The first boat back will be the mail ferry tomorrow at midday—if it’s running.’
Damn. So either I went straight back with Rory after the bricks had been unloaded, or I stayed over and blew out Antoinette and her colleagues at RTE. I called out to Rory, ‘Rory, how long is it going to take you to unload the bricks?’
‘Oh, around half an hour, I’d say.’
Was that all? After all the trouble I had gone to getting out to Tory Island, was I really only going to stay here for thirty minutes? That would be ridiculous. And then there was the other issue. Princess Brida. Would it really be possible to secure her hand in marriage in that time? I doubted it. I looked at my watch and saw it was one o’clock. Once again I called to Rory who was busy unloading and really didn’t need these distractions.
‘Rory! Patrick Robinson has already gone, so I’d like to come back with you if I may, but if I’m not back here by half past one that means I’m not coming.’
He nodded, doing his best to look like he gave a shit.
The inhabitants of this tiny isolated island must have seen a great number of strange things in their time, but had they ever seen anything so odd as the arrival of a man pulling a fridge on a trolley and carrying a bouquet of flowers? The few people who were around the quayside stopped what they were doing and stared, completely unable to deduce what sequence of events could have led to these two particular items being transported in tandem.
I had to find Patsy Dan, and the flowers had to reach their princess. My load and I rumbled to a halt before an old man who was gaping as if weights had been hung from his jaw.
‘Do you know where yer man Patsy Dan is?’ I asked, my use of ‘yer man’ a recent affectation intended as an affectionate nod to the vernacular.
He surveyed me and my belongings and then slowly winched his jaw up to join the rest of his face.
‘Patsy Dan? Oh aye, he won’t be far away.’
This is the one thing you could be sure about saying of anyone who was on the island. It hadn’t helped much.
‘Will he be at home?’
‘Oh aye, I imagine he will.’
‘Where does he live?’
The old man proceeded to give detailed directions, all the time guardedly eyeing my fridge and bouquet of flowers, but not feeling able to broach a questioning of their presence here.
‘How long will it take to get there?’ I enquired.
‘Oh, I’d say about six or seven minutes.’
I assumed he’d taken into account that I would be slowed up a little by the fact that I was pulling a fridge behind me. Six or seven minutes there, and six or seven minutes back. That left under a quarter of an hour to win the hand of a princess and I didn’t hold out much hope. Even if her name had been Princess Slapper I still would have had my work cut out. Then again, I could stay over…
As I pulled the fridge up the hilly dirt track which led to the King’s residence, I decided that unless I fancied the princess something rotten, I was going to take the boat back with Rory McClafferty. The sun was still shining brightly but even so there was a bleakness about the place vfhjch said anything but ‘Come, stay, and enjoy’.
A man in a pair of dungarees, resembling an extra from the Waltons, confirmed that I had followed the old man’s directions correctly.
‘That’s right. He lives right there,’ he said proudly.
If there were any perks for being the King of this island, then superior accommodation wasn’t one of them. I was now looking at a white bungalow which fell some way short of being a palace. I knocked on the door and seconds later there appeared a stocky, rugged looking man with a fair moustache and a peaked cap where his crown ought to have been.
‘Hello, are you Patsy?’
‘Patsy, I’m Tony Hawks.’
I took ‘failte’ to be the Gaelic for ‘welcome’ but it could just as easily have meant ‘Get lost!’. If it did, Patsy must have been impressed with my riposte, ‘Thank you.’
I had an answer for everything. Boldly, I went on, ‘I’ve got some flowers for your daughter because she’s a princess, and princesses merit flowers.’
‘Oh dear. She’s not on the island. She left this morning to go to the mainland for a couple of days.’
They say that liming is the secret of good comedy. It can be advantageous in other areas of life too.
‘She would have been here,’ Patsy explained, ‘but she went with Patrick Robinson because the Americans wanted to leave early.’
That decided it, I was going back with Rory.
‘Well, you can have the flowers then, Patsy—or give them to your wife, let the Queen have them.’
‘My goodness, tank you. Tank you very much.’
‘It’s a shame about your daughter not being here, I was hoping to many her and then become a prince.’
‘Oh my goodness, well I don’t know that it would be so easy but you would have to do a lot of talking and a number of meetings and so on. Would you like a cup of tea?’
It felt like this was being offered as the next best thing.
‘I’ve just about got time for a very quick one, but then I’ve got to get down to the pier otherwise the boat will go without me.’
And so tea was taken in the palace’s cramped kitchen and five cordial minutes were spent discussing the life of the islanders and their struggle to remain on Tory during the 1970s and 1980s when the Irish government was doing its best to get them to leave. Not so very long ago there had been open sewers running down the island’s streets, and hot water and electricity had only been acquisitions of the last twenty years. We talked of how Patsy Dan came to be King, the story being that after the last King had died, his son had turned the job down on the grounds that there was too much responsibility, and Patsy had landed the position pretty much because no one else on the island could be bothered to do it. No protracted and bloody power struggle here, instead a plethora of forged sick notes and new versions of evergreen excuses used to get out of things at school, cleverly modified for the purposes of evading the throne.
‘I’d love to become King but I have a verruca, and also my mother doesn’t aflow me to wear anything metal on my head like a crown, or else I get a migraine.’
On a couple of occasions Patsy leant in towards me to emphasise a point, and a whiff of his breath suggested to me that his predilection was for drink a little stronger than tea. I looked at my watch and was impressed that I could smell this much alcohol on his breath by only twenty past one. Twenty past one! I had to get going. I jumped to my feet and my stomach emitted a loud rumble almost by way of reminding an indolent brain that it would appreciate some food sooner rather than later. Realising there were two more hours at sea immediately ahead of me I scanned the work tops until my eyes alighted on a fruit bowl.
‘I wonder if I could have one of your apples?’ I asked the King. (I apologise for this last sentence sounding like an excerpt from a children’s book, but it’s what happened.)
‘My goodness, oh aye, go ahead.’
I took an apple, which came to feel like the physical embodiment of all that I had achieved here. I made apologies for a ridiculously short sojourn and Patsy countered with his own for not having been at the pier to greet me when I had arrived. We quickly posed for a self-timer photo outside the palace, and goodbyes were postponed when Patsy insisted on coming to see me off, making it his business to pull the fridge for me so that I could, in his words, ‘take a rest from it’. He was filled with admiration for my fridge journey mainly because he was convinced, despite my two attempts to persuade him otherwise, that I was walking round Ireland with it As if I’d take on a project as stupid as that.
As the fridge rattled satisfactorily down the hill back to the sea, I felt pleased at the way the audience with the King had gone. It had been considerably more successful than my previous encounter with royalty, and I had an apple to boot By Appointment. My only regret was that the parley with the King had come close to matching for brevity the one I had had with a Prince. At the quayside a huge pile of bricks signalled that the boat’s departure was imminent.
Patsy shook my hand and uttered his most memorable words, ‘You know Tony, I may be the poorest King on Earth, but I am a happy one.’
This had a nice ring to it and a fair measure of profundity. Of course, it might just have been a line that rolled off the tongue for tourists, and the truth might have been altogether different, but as the boat pulled out of the harbour and he stood on the pier smiling and waving, I liked to think that he understood better than some, how to handle life, love and monarchy.
Gary didn’t seem to have much time for my desire to have an early night.
‘Ah, don’t be so silly, come and have a couple,’ he said. ‘I’ll pick you up at nine.’
It was too late, he’d gone, and he was sure to be back.
Gary lived in Dublin and was thin, around thirty years old and a TV sound engineer by trade. He had landed the job of my driver for the following morning as a result of having a good friend in this area and owing somebody at Live At Three a favour. Before he had arrived, ostensibly to say ‘Hi’ but in reality to offer to take me up the pub in the evening, Antoinette had phoned and told me that under no circumstances was I to allow Gary take me up the pub in the evening.
‘Yes, she said the same to me,’ said Gary in his strong Dublin accent as he sat down alongside me and popped two pints on one of Hudi-Beag’s sturdy tables.
‘She said that under no circumstances was I to take you up the pub hi the evening.’
‘Oh right. Do you know, if she hadn’t have said that I probably wouldn’t have come. She just made me curious as to what havoc you could wreak.’
‘Antoinette thinks I drink until I can’t stand up, and insist on bringing people down with me.’
‘And do you?’
‘Oh yeah. But don’t worry about that now, that’s hours away.’
I had a feeling ‘Houdini’s’ was going to live up to its name tonight.
We were joined by five or six of Gary’s friends, a couple of whom I had met the other night when, over a quiet pint, we had tried to secure the use of a helicopter.
‘Did you get out to Tory?’ one of them said.
‘How was your flight?’
Their faces were pictures of incredulity when they heard that no offer of a helicopter had been forthcoming.
Another voice piped up, ‘Did you have a good time out there?’
‘Yes, I met the King and he gave me an apple.’
‘Good. So it wasn’t a waste of time.’
This last remark was delivered without any hint of sarcasm, the speaker simply not listening to my reply and automatically offering a response of anodyne approval. A few of the others looked a little bemused by the mention of an apple, but chose not to pursue the matter further.
Gary informed me that our destination for the TV interview was going to be by a roadside just south of Armagh in Northern Ireland. Apparently the RTE mobile unit were filming just outside Newry in the morning and so we were going to record an interview for Irish television in a province of the United Kingdom. It was definitely a little odd, and it meant my going back on myself, but I was learning to go with the flow and not question anything too fully. The subject of Northern Ireland being raised, it prompted a short discussion on ‘the Troubles’, with Gary revealing himself to have quite strong views. Although he wasn’t candidly anti-British, I decided I didn’t wish to cross him on the subject after several more pints had been downed.
The audio backdrop to our conversations was provided by Dave, a drunk whose intoxication had led him to believe that he could still remember his entire repertoire of traditional Irish songs, and that this was the time and the place to present them before the public. Fortunately for him, the public were good-natured and long suffering. Obviously it was only a question of time before Dave’s musical 10,000 metres was over and he could be seen draped over a bar stool, but he wasn’t ready for the finishing tape yet, not whilst this final, interminable lap was still causing others a modicum of discomfort. He was selfless in that regard.
I didn’t want this evening to turn into an all-nighter, but Gary had other ideas, and at closing time declared as much.
‘Let’s all go down to Dodge’s and get really pissed.’
‘No, I really must go now,’ I said, sensing that Dodge’s wasn’t going to offer a sophisticated finale to the night’s proceedings. Naively, I looked to the others for support It wasn’t forthcoming, and I faced something of a barrage of viewpoints which weren’t wholly in favour of my calling it a night.
‘Tony, it’s completely at odds for a man who travels round Ireland with a fridge just to go home to bed.’
‘I know, I know, it’s just that I’m really tired and—’
‘Yeah, yawn, yawn, we know that, but we’ve got to do the ‘One for the Road’ thing.’
‘I’ve got to get some sleep, I really must.’
‘So it’s true that English people are wimps.’
‘I’m sorry but I am tonight, I really am.’
I stood up, hoping this might help matters but Gary was quick; ‘Sit the fuck down, cos you’re not going home.’
I sat down. This was ‘Houdini’s’, and my escapology skills fell some way short of what was required. In the end it was my own sozzled befud-dlement which brought about my liberation. I stood up again, turned to Gary, and tried to look determined.
‘I’m going to go now, I’ll see you in the morning, James.’
James. I called him James. Oh, it was a reasonable enough mistake to make, getting someone’s name wrong at the end of the evening, but of all the incorrect names available to me, I had to go for James. Gary’s expression seemed to change and I became momentarily anxious that he had taken my error as a Freudian slip, and that I saw him as ‘James’, my subservient Irish underling and chauffeur for the morning. I felt conspicuous, the old English landlord figure, benevolent maybe, but still a symbol of centuries of injustice.
Tiredness had made me paranoid. Everyone was laughing, and although there may have been a hint of the riled in Gary’s demeanour, his parting shot to me was delivered in a genial enough tone. It also bought me my freedom.
‘Tony, after calling me James, you should definitely go home.’
The walk home was exactly the one I had made when I had first arrived in Bunbeg three days ago. It ought to have been easier now, without a fridge and rucksack, but somehow it seemed further, no doubt the meandering gait of a man in the trough of physical condition doubling the distance to be covered. Back at the harbour, I sat on the quay and looked up at the stars, and then down at the gently shimmering water, the green and red lights of the harbour entrance providing a dash of technicolour to this, the tableau for a black-and-white movie about idyllic rural life. I decided I liked it here, and I felt a fellowship with all those who had left Ireland for London, New York or wherever, but had still maintained an unfaltering devotion to this, their pure and precious motherland. I let out a loud belch which rather brought my romantic reverie to a vulgar conclusion, and reminded me that thinking was best done in the morning, and sleeping was always the best option at night.
At 8.30 am I woke with an erection. There was no call for this—I wasn’t in the company of a beautiful woman, nor had my awakening interrupted an erotic dream, it was simply my body’s chosen way of saluting the new day. This phenomenon of an unwanted, unnecessary and more often than not unsightly erection, is undoubtedly a design fault by God. God did pretty well all round, creating oceans, clouds, wind, snow, whales, tigers and obstinate sheep. He had a heavy workload and no one could deny that the Almighty turned in a top-notch performance. But in one particular area—the design and implementation of the workings of the human penis, his work was sloppy. God, bless him, was accountable to no one, but if he had been, what would his school report have been like?
· GEOGRAPHY…. 10⁄10 Excellent. Especially well done with the Ox Bow lakes.
· HISTORY….10⁄10 Very well done. If you hadn’t created Time’, this would have been a free period.
· MATHS…. 10⁄10 Everything seems to add up.
· ENGLISH….9⁄10 Good, but you could have made them better at ‘making a scene’.
· RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION….8⁄10 You could have been a bit clearer about which is the right way, but most humans seem to worship you anyway, so you’ve got away with it.
· BIOLOGY…. 2⁄10 Design of the human penis, poor. See me.
After breakfast, The Gerry Ryan Show called and asked if I could give them a quick update on how I was getting on; presumably his listeners had been on tenterhooks as to whether I’d made it to Tory or not I relayed all the news and told Gerry I was heading for County Sligo today, conveniently forgetting to mention the extraordinary route I was going to take to get there.
‘Will you be watching the FA Cup final tomorrow?’ he asked.
I’d forgotten about that.
‘Well, yes I’d like to. Is it on TV over here?’
‘It is. I’m sure you and your fridge will find a suitable pub to watch it in. Have a good weekend now, won’t you?’
‘Yes, and you, Gerry.’
I was pleasantly surprised when Gary turned up only half an hour late, proudly announcing that he had gone to bed at 6.30 am. My appearance on Live At Threehad depended totally on Gary being ‘Live at Ten Thirty’, which at 6 am must have been an evens bet, at best. I looked at him, frail and gaunt, his blood vessels coursing with alcohol, and began to wish that I did have a driver called James, with boiled sweets by the dashboard, a flask of tea and a rug in the back seat. Instead I had a wild man who was about to turn me into a road accident statistic.
‘Get hitching then!’ he croaked, in a voice about an octave lower than I recalled.
The previous night we had agreed that it would be wrong for me to accept a lift from Gary without having ‘worked’ for it, in the form of hitching. So, as Andy assembled his family for a formal seeing-off ceremony, Gary drove off to turn the car around and I dumped myself by the side of the road and stuck the old thumb out.
Seconds later a car pulled up. The window was wound down, and a frail, gaunt man with alcohol coursing through his veins called out to me, ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m headed for Northern Ireland, just south of Armagh.’
‘That’s lucky, so am I. Jump in.’
My goodness, what a lucky break.
I was sad to leave Andy, Jean and family, Bunbeg House having been home for an eventful three days and three nights. Andy had refused to let me pay for my accommodation, and only after a long struggle had he finally accepted some money towards a phone bill which I expected to have been doubled by the whole ‘helicopter incident’. As Gary drove me away up the narrow lane with which I was now so familiar, we passed a van coming the other way with ‘Donegal Plumbing Repairs’ written on its side, and I felt proud that if nothing else, my legacy at Bunbeg House would be a better quality shower for those in Room Six.
Gary entrusted me with the map reading but was unforthcoming when I asked for our exact destination.
‘Just get us to Armagh, and we’ll worry about the rest after. I’ve got a fax somewhere with all the details on it.’
I proposed a route which Gary approved with a worrying insouciance.
He was only concerned with specialising on his half of the bargain—driving. I hoped he was up to it.
‘Are you not knackered?’ I asked.
‘Ah no, I’m grand. I only need three and a half hours’ sleep.’
Gary was a vigorous driver. He should have had a sign on his wind: screen saying ‘No Concessions’, because he was uncompromising in pursuit of the shortest route between two points, and paid little heed to the discipline of driving on any particular side of the road, or to the well being of his passenger. What made things worse was that this was a hire car and Gary cared little about the future state of its suspension, and so I was bounced along Donegal’s roads at excessive speed to meet my TV crew, or if it pre-empted it, my maker.
Even though the scenery was passing quicker than I would have liked, I was still able to observe its wild beauty. Be it the impressive Errigal Mountain, its quartzite cone almost making it appear snow-covered, or the dramatic cliffs and marshy valley of the darkly named ‘Poisoned Glen’. As we hurtled past, Gary told me something about a vengeful British landlord who had deliberately poisoned the waters of the glen, but I failed to take in the finer details, finding it difficult to concentrate when each bend in the road threatened my very existence. We overtook on another blind comer and I felt my appearance on Live At Three was about to be usurped by a slot on Dead At Noon.
At Strabane the roadsigns changed and the distances were marked in miles instead of kilometres, marking my return into British Sovereign Territory. This was the province of Tyrone, and we were soon whizzing through its county town, Omagh, where the playwright Brian Friel was born. His play Philadelphia Here I Comewas no doubt inspired by these surroundings, and might just as easily have been called Anywhere Other Than Omagh, Here I Come.
It was another sunny day, with a few clouds around, but threatening to turn into something of a scorcher. But I still couldn’t understand why I was feeling so hot Then I discovered the reason.
‘Gary, do you know that the heater is on full?’
‘Yeah, I can’t work out how to turn the thing off.’
I gave it five minutes of my time and achieved very little other than the establishment of the fact that I too was unable to turn the thing off. I made use of the only piece of equipment in the car which I understood, and wound down the window.
At Aughnacloy we were back on the border again and Gary made a short detour to show me the staunchly loyalist estate where the citizens had seen fit to paint Union Jacks on the paving stones. It was almost as if they had felt the need to be literal about the word ‘flagstones’. Not to be outdone, on their estate the nationalists had the Tricolour adorning their pavements. A battle for souls, under the soles. Would that the conflict had been fought entirely with the paintbrush.
I consulted the map and alerted Gary to the fact that Armagh wasn’t that far off now and he instructed me to rummage in the back for the fax with the details of our rendezvous.
‘Of course, the area south of Armagh is one of the few identifiable danger spots of the Troubles,’ he said, the beginnings of a grin suggesting that he was going to relish what was to come. ‘It’s bandit country. We should see a lot of army activity round there, and there’ll be choppers in the air and all that. Do you know about the sign they’ve put up near Crossmaglen?’
‘It’s a picture of a gunman with the words ‘Sniper At Work’ written underneath. When the nationalists first put it up, the British Army took it down. But then they made another one and put that up, and when that was taken down they made another, and so it went on until the British gave up and they just leave it there now.’
All rather sinister. I tried to lighten the mood by suggesting that the British Army should put their own sign up with a picture of a sniper crossed out Who knows, it might do the trick; for the most part it works for’No Right Turn’.
It must have looked odd, my arse being presented to oncoming traffic, but that was an unavoidable bi-product of my back-seat rummaging. I couldn’t find the fax anywhere.
‘It must be in the boot,’ said Gary with confidence, and so we stopped the car just outside Armagh and did a joint boot rummage.
‘Have you looked under the fridge?’ asked Gary.
‘No, I haven’t but-Well, look under the fridge. I bet the bloody fax is under the bloody fridge.’
We looked, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t anywhere, because the man who only needed three and a half hours’ sleep had failed to put it in the bloody car. He pretended to be unconcerned.
‘It’s all right, because I remember that Antoinette said that the meeting point was somewhere on the Armagh to Dundalk Road.’
I consulted the map.
‘But Gary, as far as I can see, there are two roads to Dundalk, a big main one, and the B31, which is much smaller.’
‘The B31? I’m pretty sure the B31 was mentioned.’
Everything about Gary’s countenance suggested that he was anything but ‘pretty sure’ of the BSI’s involvement in the day’s plans. However that was the route we took until I realised what was going on here. I was being driven to an approximate area in Northern Ireland in the faint hope that we would casually run into a mobile TV unit, and the only reasons for suspecting that we might possibly be in the correct ‘approximate area’, were the vague recollections of an overtired man with a hangover. It made little sense and I insisted that we stop at a call box and phone the Live At Three office in Dublin.
From a British Telecom phonebox, I made an international call to the Republic of Ireland, and a flustered secretary at RTE gave me the address of our rendezvous and I took down the directions. I looked at my watch. It was 1.30 pm. At least we had time on our side, the crew couldn’t be far away and we had an hour before everyone at RTE would start to panic.
‘What we’re looking for, Gary,’ I explained, ‘is the Silverbridge Harp GAA Club. Apparently we take the R177 five miles south of Armagh.’
Gary was now the chief map reader, his cavalier driving skills temporarily rendered surplus to requirements since we had ceased having anywhere to head for. He studied the map and shook his head in frustration.
‘I can’t see a feckin’ R177 anywhere.’
Calmly I took the map from Gary, sure in the knowledge that I would be able to pat the page, point to a specific spot and in a patronising tone, say, ‘There. The R177.’
And I surely would have done had I been able to see a feckin’ R177 anywhere. Jeez, where was it? The reason for our failure to find this road was not discovered until much later, but it was a result of the numbers and letters of the roads changing when they left the Irish Republic and entered the United Kingdom. At some stage in the past, one government or other had decided that the cultural identity of a nation couldn’t be preserved without it having its own letters and numbers for a road. And, to be fair, you can see their point of view, I mean I’m hardly going to feel British and proud of it if I’m driving down the R177, but if I’m on the A29, then I’m far more likely to be infused with a strong feeling of allegiance to the Crown, and be an altogether more rounded individual. Unfortunately Gary and I remained ignorant of this particular bureaucratic pearl of wisdom and became progressively more lost as a result.
We considered stopping and asking directions to be an admission of our own deficient orienteering skills, and so resisted it for as long as we felt it possible so to do. When we found that we were no longer on the B31 but instead on an industrial estate just outside Markethill, we made a U-turn both with this policy and the car. The arrival at an industrial estate is something which always seems to happen to me when lost in a motor vehicle and with alarming regularity. Usually I take the sight of these brightly coloured, pre-fab units as a cue either to become hysterical or tearful. On this occasion I showed great strength and did neither, believing that weeping openly or screaming might undermine Gary’s confidence.