The pub was large and it looked like three separate rooms had all been knocked through to create an open-plan effect. Two large screens at each end provided the focus for everyone’s attention. Everyone that is, except for the resident drunk. Actually, I think this man was a guest drunk, possibly on loan from another pub, with a transfer fee under negotiation. Confetti in his hair and a smartish suit suggested that he had come straight from a wedding reception. Presumably he had drunk the free bar dry, and his hand had been forced into carrying on his good work elsewhere. At this precise moment this man was the most drunk man in Ireland, and the lead he held over his rivals was a substantial one. Using his tie as a microphone he stood at one end of the pub, just belqw the TV screen and sang his interpretation of Bob Geldof’s ‘I Don’t’Like Mondays’. It was tuneless, loud, and unpleasant. Too close to the original for my taste. He then began jumping around as if someone had put five thousand volts through his body. If it hadn’t been for his exclamation, none of us in that pub would have had the faintest idea what he was doing.
‘EAT YOUR HEART our MICHAELFLATLEY!!’ he bellowed at the top of his voice.
Ah, that was it then. He was doing River Dance. His exertions were such that I thought he was going to have a heart attack there and then. Instead he took a huge swig from his pint mug and distributed an equal share of the beer within it, between his mouth and his suit.
This man was creating an enormous distraction for the majority of those, like me, who were in the pub primarily to watch a game of football. But there wasn’t a sign of any antagonism towards him. The drinkers simply smiled, laughed or shook their heads good-humouredly. This hadn’t been my natural reaction, but I soon realised that the best way to diffuse my irritation was to smile along with the rest If you can’t beat them or join them, laugh at them.
I was grateful to him really. He was more entertaining than the football and his ‘songs’ helped to drown out the commentators’ bland analysis. I could just make out the distinctly nasal tones of Trevor Brooking.
‘That’s five times that Ravanelli’s been offside, and it hasn’t even been marginal—he’s comfortably off.’
I should say he’s comfortably off, I heard he was getting £20,000 a week.
Chelsea won 2-0. They scored their second goal when I was in the toilet. I felt a little for Middlesborough; after all, their season had involved them getting to two cup finals, losing them both and being relegated from the Premier league. What does a manager say to his players after a string of such devastating failures? I’m not aware of there being a satisfactory euphemism for ‘you are a bunch of losers’.
I bet it wasn’t as bad for the players as the fans. Most of the players would be transferred to another club within the week, but the fans would continue to live in Middlesborough with their shattered dreams. It’s probably just as well they don’t have the Death Notices on local radio up there.
As I sat in this Sligo pub I momentarily forgot what I was doing here in Ireland, such was my empathy with the Middlesborough fans. I knew the pain. I had been there. The last team to lose an FA Cup final and be relegated in the same season had been Brighton and Hove Albion. I had been to Wembley and seen my side lose 4-0 to Manchester United, the largest margin of defeat for any club since the second world war. Frankly it had been an embarrassment. Still, at least I hadn’t taken along a toy machinegun.
When I left the pub, the most drunk man in Ireland was increasing his lead over any potential rivals, having just lost a head to head race to down a pint of beer, and was now shouting at the bar staff, demanding two large brandies. He must have had a strong constitution—but few would deny that it was in need of some reform.
At Abrakebabra, I collected my stuff, said I had enjoyed the football even though I hadn’t really, and ordered a taxi on my mobile phone.
‘Could you drop me on the road to Ballina?’ I had said.
‘No problem, it will be about five minutes,’ they replied.
I waited outside Abrakebabra for twenty minutes. Eventually a thickset man in his twenties, who I had seen eyeing my fridge with interest, approached me.
‘Were you on the television yesterday afternoon?’
‘I thought I recognised y—…well, the fridge. Where are you headed?’
‘I’m waiting for a taxi to take me out to the road to Ballina where I’m going to start hitching.’
‘Wait here, I’ll go and get my van. I’ll take you out there.’
Excellent. I had mastered my art to such a degree that I could get lifts now without even hitching.
Kieran made fruit and veg deliveries. (But in his busy daily schedule he obviously found time to watch daytime television.)
‘I was just on the way home when I saw you. I had packed up for the day but then I realised I had forgotten to deliver six cucumbers, so I had to get the van back out again.’
All part of the stresses that go with the job. So, I owed this lift entirely to six cucumbers. Tick that one off—another first.
‘It’s very kind of you to drive me out here like this.’
‘Ah it’s a pleasure. You don’t meet an eejit like you every day.’
Kieran drove me about five miles out of Sligo past the beautiful Ballysodare Bay.
‘Look at that,’ he said, ‘God’s television.’
We arrived at a fork in the road where the smaller N59 branched off to Ballina, and it was time for me to get out and set myself up on the roadside. It was just after five thirty, and I was on the road again. Literally. I didn’t know what was coming next. I was getting hooked on the unpredictability of this whole fridge experience. There was only one thing I could be sure of, and that was that it wouldn’t be long before one of the agreeable drivers in this agreeable country plucked me from the roadside and bore me ever onwards.
An hour and a half later I was still waiting, and I was beginning to feel rather low. With an over-confidence bordering on arrogance, I had thought that I could just leave a town whenever I felt like it and pick up a lift with great ease, but the reality was that in another hour it would be dark and I would have to give up and get a taxi back to Sligo. Could my liver handle another night in the Strand? I slumped down on to the fridge, tired and despairing.
Two very young children, a little boy and a little girl, walked past. The boy viewed me with some interest and asked, ‘What are you doing?’
It was a question I had begun to ask myself.
He nodded. He seemed satisfied even though he clearly didn’t know what ‘hitch-hiking’ was.
‘Are you just after coming from school?’ the little girl asked.
I shook my head, more in disbelief than in answer to the question. What cross circuit of wires in her brain had caused her to arrive at a question like that? A complete absence of the application of any logic whatsoever. She would have a great future in this country.
Finally a car stopped. But the driver got out and crossed the road to the Convenience Store.
For the next ten minutes all the drivers seemed to be solitary lady drivers, and for obvious reasons, solitary lady drivers don’t stop. Especially on a Saturday night and when the hitcher has a fridge. A priest went by, but he made a signal with his hand, pointing to the left, meaning that he was turning off very shortly. Quite a few drivers had done this and I respected it as a courteous gesture, even if nine times out of ten it was probably a downright lie.
Another twenty minutes dragged by. Clutching at straws, I decided what I was lacking was a card to hold up with my destination written on it. Up until now I hadn’t bothered with this hitch-hiking accessory since I had no real need for one. It didn’t matter particularly where I ended up, any kind of lift, provided it was in roughly the right direction, was good enough for me. The nice lady in the Convenience Store provided me with a piece of cardboard, and after a little creative work with the marker pen, I went back to my hitching with renewed vigour, and with a ‘BAL-UNA’ sign held proudly aloft.
It didn’t make a scrap of difference. Well it did actually, now the drivers knew exactly where it was that they weren’t going to take me. It was almost half past seven. I decided twenty more minutes and then I would give up and call for a taxi to take me back to Anne Marie’s. Three unsavoury looking youths turned the corner and headed towards me. For the first time on my trip I felt a little uneasy. It was Saturday night, they looked a tough lot, and I was something of a target for those in search of alternative amusement. Would they say anything? Worse still, would they do anything? I held my breath and closed my eyes, but they passed by without a word. Quite whether I was all too confusing a proposition for them, or whether they were simply law abiding, upstanding citizens, I do not know. Perhaps the fridge made me look hard.
I was about to give up, and had just started to gather my irregular belongings together when a Vauxhall Cavalier pulled up. I watched it suspiciously, expecting the driver to get out and go across to the store, but he remained in his seat and looked over his shoulder at me. I ran to the car window.
‘Are you going to Ballina?’
‘I am too.’
I had lucked out again.
Chris had been at a goat fair earlier that day, and afterwards had made a brief visit to friends in Sligo for early evening drinks. He had seen me on the way into town and identified me as the strange fellow he had heard talking about his fridge journey earlier in the week. He hadn’t been surprised when I was still by the roadside as he headed out of town again. He had hitched around Ireland himself many years ago and had found that one of the longest waits he had endured was when he was trying to leave Sligo. He reckoned that Limerick was another difficult place to get out of, so I logged that useful information away in my foggy, weary brain.
One of the more tiring aspects of hitching is a need to be sociable and make conversation with whoever is driving you. It would be considered poor form to accept a ride, hop into the passenger seat and then simply to crash out until you reached your destination. How I longed to do just that, but instead I chatted merrily away, energy ebbing from me with each sentence, until Chris dropped me at the address of the lady who had offered me free B&B.
One of the more tiring aspects of accepting an offer of free accommodation is a need to be sociable and make conversation with whoever has offered it to you. It would be considered poor form to turn up, dump your bags, crawl into your bedroom and order an early morning alarm call. How I longed to do just that, but instead I chatted merrily away to Marjorie, energy ebbing from me with each sentence, until the tea was drunk, the cake was eaten and I finally plucked up the courage to mention just how exhausted I was. I apologised and said that I simply had to grab a couple of hours sleep, and Marjorie understandingly showed me to my room.
It was a beautiful room too, with splendid views over the River Moy, thanks to the elevated position of the guest house at the top of a steep bank. I thanked Marjorie again for her kindness.
‘Think nothing on it, Tony. When I heard what you were doing I just had to ring the radio station and offer you a room. I think it’s a great idea.’
Of course it was. I had never doubted it.
It was close to 8.30 when I got my head down for a couple of hours’ nap.
When I awoke from the deepest of sleeps it was only 8.45.1 got up to go to the toilet and looked out of the bathroom window, and saw the sun shining on the river. From the east. It was morning. I had napped for twelve and a quarter hours. And I felt rather good for it.
‘Did you sleep all right?’ asked Marjorie, at breakfast.
‘You could say that.’
Having taken note of my choice of breakfast, Marjorie shuffled off leaving me to admire the view of the river and chat to the other guests. I surveyed them and elected not to bother. There were three of them, a young married couple, and a lone obese German man, and they were all sat at one table together and clearly not having a very comfortable time. They were saying absolutely nothing to each other and their silence seemed to have a terrible stranglehold over them. The sound of their cutlery clinking on their crockery echoed round the dining room and seemed to be amplified tenfold. It became apparent that for all of them, the task of introducing words into the proceedings was becoming, increasingly hard with each passing minute. They hung their heads over their plates with grim determination and resolve, knowing that the sooner their food was eaten, the sooner the whole unpleasant experience would be over. I was glad I wasn’t sat at their table.
Marjorie’s voice seemed deafening when she arrived with the most wonderful plate of breakfast. Over tea, the previous day, she had told me that she had written two cookbooks, and even with as simple a meal as breakfast, she clearly wanted to demonstrate her skill in the culinary field. I had no objections, smoked salmon, tomato, and beautiful fluffy scrambled egg suited me just fine. As far as I was concerned, she fully deserved the Michelin One Star she had told me she craved. But what’s the big deal there? I have never understood the need to have one’s cuisine endorsed by Michelin. Who cares what they think? No one is looking for food which corners well.
Marjorie was knocking on the door of middle age, but had the impressive zeal for life of a much younger woman. After the young couple, and the now even more obese German had fled the dining room for the sanctuary of their rooms, she explained how she and her husband had separated, and how she felt she was undergoing a new start and was more positive than ever about the future.
‘I’m going for it!’ she said. ‘I think that’s why I knew I had to make contact with you, because with what you’re doing, you’re going for it too.’
I knew what she meant, but I had never expected my fridge journey to be used in comparison with a marriage break-up.
‘So, are you taking that fridge back out on the road today, Tony?’
‘Well, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest, and I think I may have been overdoing it a little, so would you mind if I stayed here one more night—I fully expect to pay.’
‘You’ll do no such thing, you’ll stay here for nothing and there’ll be no argument about it. So, what are you going to do with your day today then?’
‘Oh, I think I’ll just take it easy, do some reading and writing, maybe take a walk down by the river.’
‘Oh. My friend Elsie is coming over at one o’clock. She’s a character—you just have to meet her. I’ll warn you though, you might need a valium.’
Marjorie hadn’t exaggerated. Elsie, an effervescent and voluble woman, cut short my leisure time when she arrived an hour early, and marked midday by planting a big wet smacker full on my lips.
‘You’ll have to excuse me, Tony, but that’s the way I do things,’ she spluttered as I reeled back in shock. ‘Did I come too early?’
She may have done, but I certainly hadn’t.
‘No, you’re fine, I’d nearly finished reading.’
Elsie wasn’t slow in coming forward. Within two minutes of our having met, she showed me a poem she had written and asked me to read it. As I endeavoured to do so, she continued to talk, telling me how she wrote and sang songs too and was making a CD soon. Unfortunately Elsie’s incessant spoken word meant that concentration on her written word was impossible.
‘It’s very good,’ I said, handing the poem back and hoping that she wouldn’t wish me to comment on its subject matter.
After a delicious lunch, which I could only fault in its alarming proximity to breakfast, the two ladies took me on a tour of the sights of Ballina. The fridge had to come too, and at all points along the way, at Elsie’s and Marjorie’s insistence, the fridge was to be paraded as a celebrity for all to see.
We visited Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths in Enniscrone where I had the privilege of having seaweed draped all over me whilst immersed in an enormous bath full of hot sea water. It seemed a ludicrous idea but was surprisingly relaxing. We dropped in at Belleek Castle, a stately home set in a thousand acres of woodland and forestry on the banks of the River Moy, but we couldn’t look round it because viewings of the castle were by appointment only. That’s what estate agents say, isn’t it? We were hardly going to buy the place.
On the way back, a drink was taken in the clubhouse of the golf club where the ladies had begun taking lessons. I was to learn a lesson here too. As I wheeled the fridge into the bar on its trolley, Elsie announced at the top of her voice, ‘THIS is TONY HAWKS FROM ENGLAND! HE’S BRINGING A FRIDGE ROUND IRELAND! YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD HIM ON THE GERRYRYAN SHOW.’
Elsie’s announcement was greeted with silence. The relaxing golfers eyed me with suspicion and returned to their conversations. Marjorie, Elsie and myself drank our drinks without one person coming over to talk to us or have a joke about the fridge. I felt sure that this wasn’t the customary frostiness of golf clubs we were experiencing here, but more of an example of ‘Irish Begrudgery’. I remembered someone in Hudi-Beags announcing this alleged national trait, and I understood it to mean that people would have little time for you if you forced yourself upon them or announced your greatness, instead of allowing them their own time and space to discover it for themselves. This was something else to log away in my now-crowded brain, but I found room just beside ‘limerick being a difficult city to hitch out of, and ‘England and Portugal being the only EC countries without minority languages’.
Throughout the afternoon Elsie kept up a constant stream of jokes and ribald remarks, each of the latter followed by the apology, ‘I am sorry about that, but that’s the way I am.’
In fact, she said, ‘I am sorry about that, but that’s the way I am’ so many times that I began to wonder whether that wasn’t the way she was, at all. Whatever she was, she was a good friend to Marjorie.
‘A while ago now when I was low,’ said Marjorie, when Elsie was out of earshot, ‘I called Elsie eight times in one day. And when I called the eighth time, she behaved just like it was the first. Now that’s a friend.’
Or someone with a very poor memory.
It was a beautiful evening, the mile or so walk to the pub hugging the bank of the River Moy, with the setting sun casting its soft final rays over the river’s steadily flowing waters. I felt inspired by Marjorie and Elsie. Two women in their fifties who were going for it. Marjorie with her cookbooks, and Elsie with her poems and songs. I had no idea whether either of their efforts were of a high quality, but that didn’t seem to be the point. Far more pertinent was the joy it was bringing to them.
Sometimes in life you’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching.
The pub was called Murphys, a newly and tastefully refurbished bar which was packed full of young people. Young attractive people. Young attractive girls. I ordered a pint and allowed myself to get a little excited. I leant against the bar and scanned the room for my favourite. She wasn’t hard to find. She was sat at a table in a slightly elevated section of the pub, talking with two guys. She had dark hair, big sparkling eyes and a mouth which I felt needed to be kissed. I was considering how pleasurable an experience this might be, when she looked up and saw me looking at her. I didn’t look away. She gave me a kind of half smile and went back to talking with her friends. Good. The half smile was a good sign.
Perhaps at this point I should take a moment to explain how, in the area of the pursuit of women, I have always demonstrated an exceptional adeptness for deluding myself. I have always been able to convince myself that I’m doing much better than I really am. With an assured grace and on gossamer wings, I fly in the face of reality, never seeing the crash landing that awaits me. On this occasion, for example, I had completely dismissed from my mind the fact that the object of my interest was in the company of two males who, no doubt, were just as aware of the kissability of her mouth as I was.
When she left her friends (for in my eyes that was clearly all they were) she came to the bar to order a drink, and was almost alongside me, presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t afford to miss. However, I made the mistake of thinking too much about the opening line. By far and away the best option in this situation is to say the first thing that comes into your head and not worry about its quality—the thinking being that if the girl likes the general look of you, she will be moderately forgiving in the first few minutes of your advances.
On this occasion it was just unfortunate that the only line which kept forcing its way to the brink of being spoken was, ‘Are you aware that of all the countries in the EC, England and Portugal are the only ones with no minority languages?’
After hearing a line like that, not many females, however much they like the look of you, would think ‘Hey, he sounds like the kind of guy I’d like to spend some more time with’, and the ones that did were probably best avoided.
Her transaction at the bar was nearly completed and I knew that I had to say something, and fast.
‘Is there a pub quiz on tonight?’ I blurted, averting my eyes from the sign saying ‘Pub Quiz Tonight’, which was up on the wall directly in front of both of us.
‘Yes,’ she replied warmly. ‘You can come and be in our team if you like.’
Inwardly I punched the air, whilst on the cool exterior I attempted to give the impression of being rather blase about the whole idea.
‘If you like,’ I said, and then, thinking I’d overdone it, added, ‘Thanks, that would be nice.’
Her name was Rosheen (which I later learned was spelt ‘Roisin’), and she wasn’t with the two guys at the table, but with a crowd of friends who were further up the bar to my left. With great politeness, not normally afforded to a stranger who had just asked you a stupid question, she introduced me to all her friends, one by one, but their names were ju& sounds which I failed to absorb, such was my fixation with her, the mistress of ceremonies. It mattered only that it was her name I remembered. Roisin.
Lovely Roisin. With the kissable mouth.
Annoyingly, Roisin began talking to two girlfriends and I fell into conversation with Declan. I had nothing against Declan other than the fact that he wasn’t Roisin, and therefore had a mouth which I had no desire to kiss. He asked what I was doing in Ireland. I had hoped I wouldn’t have to answer that question for some time, and tried to cope with it without mentioning the fridge.
‘So you’re just travelling around for a month then, are you?’
‘Grand.’ A beat, then, ‘So what made you decide to do that then?’
The questions went on until the truth, the ridiculous truth, was inveigled out of me.
To my relief, the pub quiz began before word of the fridge could reach Roisin, for although I wasn’t ashamed of what I was doing, I wanted to break the news to her myself. An explanation of what I was up to could sound silly if it wasn’t handled sensitively.
The quiz was about pop trivia and I was a useful addition to their team. I knew the answers to the first four questions and it wasn’t long before everyone turned to me for either the answer, or confirmation of someone else’s. In the second section of the quiz, the quizmaster played the first few bars of a record, and we had to name the artist. I was good at this too, definitely on top form tonight, but I was aware that when it came to pop trivia there was a fine line between impressive and tragic. I crossed that line on the fifth song in, when after only three or four notes I called out, ‘That’s The Time Of Our Lives’ by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes!’
I did it excitedly and with too much gusto, and at a volume which readily offered the information to our rival teams.
Throughout the proceedings I kept a close eye on Roisin, secretly hoping that when it came to pop quizzes, she had a yen for men who could get ten out of ten. She had looked over on a couple of occasions and rewarded me with a half smile, and this had given me enough encouragement to move over to her.
‘How are you enjoying it?’ I said, without inspiration.
‘Oh, it’s a craic. You’re a bit good, aren’t you? I think we might win this.’
‘What’s the prize?’
‘Well, all the names of the winning team go into a hat, and the name drawn out wins a champagne dinner for two at the restaurant upstairs.’
Another half smile. God, she was beautiful. I suddenly realised that we had to win this, and that the way my luck was going, mine would be the name drawn out of the hat, and she would be my date for the champagne dinner. The quizmaster fired the final question, ‘What was Neil Diamond’s first number one hit as a writer?’
The team turned and looked at me. The difference between outright victory and second place probably hinged on this one question. Brilliantly, I knew the answer.
‘UB40—‘Red Red Wine’.’
We had done it! All the questions right. Now all we had to do was wait for fate to decide who got the sexy dinner.
Ten minutes later (to my chagrin, all of which had been spent chatting to Declan) the quizmaster’s PA clumsily halted our conversations.
‘We have one team with all the questions right tonight, so good going there.’ He then read out the answers, ‘…and that one was of course one of the toughest questions of the night but the answer was…Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.’
I looked at Roisin. She smiled back. A full smile this time, none of that half smile business. She saved that for losers.
‘…and so we come to the final question of the night. What was Neil Diamond’s first number-one hit as a writer? And the answer of course is ‘I’m A Believer’ by The Monkees:’
I didn’t look at Roisin, but apologised to the rest of my team.
‘I’m sorry, I thought it was ‘Red Red Wine’,’ I mumbled to the floor.
‘Ah, who cares?’ said Declan, generously.
I was born into the wrong generation. How I would have loved to have been a dashing young man in the 1930s and 1940s when dance bands and orchestras played at dancehalls, and you could hold your partner close and whisper sweet nothings as you waltzed her into your heart.
I have never liked discos. I have never understood why, in a place specifically designed for people to meet each other, an environment has been created in which you can’t be heard unless you shout. Shouting is unattractive. It’s certainly not my style, and I doubt that it brings out the best in most of us. Why have we put together a twilight entertainment world which is tailor made for the Reverend Ian Paisley? For my own part I have always preferred a gentler approach to courtship, and there is no doubt about it, dry remarks lose something when bellowed.
These places are great levellers intellectually, the sharpest mind reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator—that of being understood. At one of these ‘Nitespots’ (and that’s another irritation—spell ‘night’ correctly or don’t spell it at all) a typical exchange might be:
TONY: (Shouting at a girl) Would you like to dance?
GIRL: (Shouting back) What?
TONY: (Shouting louder) Would you like to dance?
GIRL: (Shouting) Yes, I have. But just on a school trip to Calais.
TONY: (Shouting a bit louder still, directly into the girl’s ear) Not, have you been to France?—Would you like to dance?
GIRL: (Shouting) Yes please, I’ll have a large gin and tonic.
TONY: (Under his breath) Greedy cow.
GIRL: I heard that.
The club we were now in, which was in the basement of Murphys, had all the unpleasant features that I had come to associate with these places—overcrowded dancefloor, booming bass, strobe lighting and mindless remarks from the DJ. Perfect for making me feel uncomfortable. I felt I had gone back in time and was reliving one of countless unsatisfactory teenage evenings. It was a nightmare, but most of all because I had completely lost Roisin.
She was here, at least she had said she was coming, but I couldn’t see her anywhere in this crowded sweaty hellhole. Naturally, were I to bump into Roisin and find myself marching off hand in hand with her to the dancefloor, I would have found the whole ambience entirely more agreeable. As it was, I was reduced to drinking beer and watching girls dancing. Man at his most atavistic.
I engaged in a brief social shouting match with an English girl from Finchley. Thinking how awful it would be if Roisin was somewhere in the club and just saw me standing around like somebody’s Dad, I asked the Finchley girl to dance.