She replied that she had been to France, having made two visits to a penfriend in Lyons. I took this as a cue to return to my solitary position by the dancefloor and resume my role as a steady drinker.
It must have been quite close to the end of the evening when I put my pint down, marched on to the dancefloor, and did my little jig with as much dignity as I could muster. Nobody had asked me to dance and no one was dancing with me. I suppose this is the one advantage of the modern discotheque. Had I been doing this on my own at the 1930s dancehall I would have been thrown out A girl suddenly grabbed me and started swinging me about by my arms. It wasn’t clear whether she was dancing with me or trying to soften me up for interrogation. Had an interrogation followed, I surely would have spilled the beans. She continued to swing me around until I was close to exhaustion. I wouldn’t have minded but I hadn’t even asked her if she’d been to France. When the record finished, the lights came up, and that was it, the night was over.
Except of course that no one was in a hurry to leave. Why should they be? With the music no longer blaring, here was the first opportunity for people to talk to each other.
On my way out, I bumped into Roisin who was in the queue for the cloakroom.
‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you,’ I said.
‘I’ve been talking to Paul.’
‘Who’s Paul?’ .
‘Paul is who asked me out this evening. This is our second date.’
‘Oh.’ I felt two hours of drink swell inside me. ‘I think you’re lovely, you know.’
‘Do you? That’s nice.’ She seemed genuinely chuffed, although presumably she could spot ‘3 am drunken boy at disco’ talk, when she heard it The thing is, I really meant it.
‘Do you like him?’ I said.
She hesitated and, like a politician, chose her words carefully. ‘He’s a lot more local than you are.’
She had a point.
In the brief conversation that followed I broke the fridge news to her, which she assimilated with surprising ease, and then I took her address promising to send her flowers in the morning.
‘You won’t. You’re just saying that,’ she insisted.
‘You’ll see. You’ll get the flowers. You’re my princess and princesses merit flowers.’
I don’t know whether Paul heard these last words as he arrived at his date’s side, but he didn’t look too pleased with me. I gave him an apologetic shrug, kissed Roisin on the hand, and set off on the long walk back to my lodgings. I fell into bed, and with a ringing in my ears and a spinning of the room, wondered how long it would be before the next time I didn’t sleep alone. It was like being nineteen all over again.
Westport was next. At breakfast Marjorie had said it was a lovely little town, and that I should go to Matt Molloy’s pub and get Mick Levell to sing the ‘Lotto Song’. This had made absolutely no sense to me, and for that reason alone it seemed an apposite destination.
Outside the florists, Martin the taxi driver had waited patiently in his taxi as I had collected my second bouquet of the trip, and he was doing the same now as I nervously walked up the path to Roisin’s front door. Even though he was clearly amused by my decision to deliver these flowers, he had agreed that it was the right thing to do.
‘Ah, if you said you’d bring her flowers, then bring her flowers. What harm can it do?’
She lived in a small residential estate, at number twenty-four. As I rang the bell, I felt more nerves than I had before performing at the Royal Gala. I didn’t know what to expect. The door opened and there was lovely Roisin, not wearing any make-up, unlike the night before, but somehow looking fresher for it. I smiled and brandished the flowers.
‘Hello, remember me?’
She looked absolutely horrified. Then she put her forefinger over her mouth indicating to me to be quiet and did something which I thought only happened in poor situation comedies. For the benefit of someone inside the house, she announced to me in a loud voice, ‘NO THANK YOU, NOT TODAY—WE DON’T NEED ANY.’
Oh no! Somebody was inside who shouldn’t know about me. I began to panic. God, what had I done? Perhaps last night things between her and second-date Paul had moved on a pace and he was in there, having stayed the night. Perhaps he had a vicious temper, a criminal record, and a penchant for brandishing things less benign than flowers. Was Martin’s question on the subject of the flowers—‘What harm can they do?’—about to be comprehensively answered?
Roisin leant forward and whispered to me. Even in these uneasy circumstances, it felt good to be close to her.
‘My aunt’s in the house.’
Her aunt? So what? What’s so special about her aunt? This was a new one on me. A jealous aunt?
Roisin must have known from the look of disbelief on my face that I was in need of elucidation.
‘Look, I didn’t tell you this last night, but I’m recently separated from my husband, and the family don’t know about Paul, let alone…’
‘The idiot with the flowers.’
‘Yes. I mean no. Not at all. You’re not an eejit.’
I bloody was. What if the husband were to turn up now? The jealous, violent psychopath of a husband.
‘YES, WELL THANK YOU. TRYAGAIN NEXT WEEK,’ announced Roisin for the benefit of the Aunt.
‘I’d better go.’
This had all been rather disappointing. I handed her the flowers.
‘Thank you, Tony. That’s sweet.’
‘Look, I’ve got a mobile phone, I’ll give you the number, if you ever feel like giving me a call.’
‘Although you’re hardly likely to.’
‘No, I will.’ She looked me in the eye. ‘I will call.’
Something about that look led me to believe that Roisin would call. She wasn’t out of my life forever. Not just yet, anyway.
I got back into the taxi of the gently smirking Martin, leaving Roisin to explain to her Aunt why a tradesman had brought her a bouquet of flowers.
‘I’ve done a receipt for you,’ said Martin as he helped unload me and my stuff by the roadside. He handed it to me. It read:
DATE: 19th May
TO: Dublin Road, Ballina
DRIVER’S NAME: Martin McGurty
‘Thanks, that’s really so kind Martin.’
Especially given the amount of his time I had taken up with florists and doorstep dramas.
‘I couldn’t take money off ‘the Fridge Man’ now, could I?’
I couldn’t argue with the logic, and was extremely grateful that this sentiment seemed to be shared by quite so many of his countrymen.
It was a beautiful day, and the sun shone down on me as I stuck out the thumb of destiny once more. By way of a coincidence, the best spot for my hitching turned out to be just round the corner from Roisin’s house, and I could actually see her frontdoor from the roadside. It occurred to me that I could see when the aunt left, and ft she did, I could make my way back to the house and Roisin and I could spend a blissful afternoon making love.
Twenty minutes later, the chances of that were ruined when Michael pulled his red Toyota over to the side of the road and invited me on board.
Michael was a self-employed builder who was headed for Swinford. He had heard nothing about my trip but thought it seemed a fun project. As we talked, the subject turned to the forthcoming general election, and I made the mistake of asking how the electoral system worked. As Michael explained it, I discovered that it wasn’t that simple.
‘The system we have works on the basis of a single transferable vote. You’ve only got one vote, but you may vote for everybody on the ballot paper.’
Already I was lost. He went on.
‘You vote with your choice, one through six, or ten, or however many people is on the ballot paper. If the person you vote number one for is eliminated then your number two vote becomes a number one vote for the second person that you chose.’
Ah, it’s all falling into place now.
‘…and thus your votes may be distributed until the fourth or fifth or sixth count until somebody is finally elected.’
No, you’ve lost me again.
‘It seems very complex, but it’s not actually.’
Come off it Michael, it is.
‘It was devised by the British so that a plethora of small parties would be elected and it would lead to division and a lack of cohesion. However the system works very well in Ireland in that it reflects the exact wishes of the electorate.’
As our conversation developed, Michael impressed me with not only his extensive knowledge of Ireland’s electoral system but also by the way he articulated it.
‘You know your stuff,’ I said.
‘Well, I’m interested. Not in a party political sense but in a general sense. The philosophy of ‘consent to be governed’ is something that interests me. Over here we consent to be governed in such a way, and where you come from, you consent to be governed in another. The problem in Northern Ireland is that there is no broad Consent to be governed, and that is what distorts their society.’
I was finding that it wasn’t uncommon to run into someone with Michael’s eloquent self expression. The people here liked to talk, and they did it very well.
He dropped me at a T junction where an arterial road from Swinford joined the main N5 road, which he told me had been built with the help of an EC grant. When he turned around to the back seat to sign the fridge, he laughed heartily when he saw the words ‘Mo Chuisneoir’ taped to its front.
‘That means ‘My fridge’ doesn’t it?’ he said.
‘I’ve seen it all now.’
About half a mile up the road I could see another hitcher. I had little choice but to start hitching where Michael had dropped me, but effectively by doing so, I was pushing in front of this other fellow. That didn’t seem right, and it made me feel uncomfortable. No doubt I was experiencing some kind of inherited British need to play fair with regard to queuing. I think its roots are in the colonial thing. Shooting hordes of insubordinate natives was acceptable when ‘needs must’, but jumping a queue was always quite intolerable. The whole raison d’etre for a vast British Empire had been a desire to teach the ignorant peoples of the world how to queue correctly. We British lead the world in queuing. (Well, we used to, until a few other countries pushed in front of us.) And here was I flouting my responsibility as a good British Citizen to respect this most basic of all human rights.
But what could I do? It was too far for me to drag my fridge and bags beyond this other hitch-hiker, and surely the onus was on him to rectify the situation. He must have been rather peeved that this other chap had pushed in front of him, but he showed no signs of marching down in my direction to protest.
This N5 was by far the best stretch of road I had come across since I had been in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t over-used. Cars and lorries came along at the rate of about one a minute. This was a frustrating length interval between vehicles, in that it was just long enough to feel that there wasn’t going to be another along for a while, and to sit down on the fridge and relax, only to find that the moment I had done so I had to jump to my feet and begin hitching again.
The N5 was disappointing on another front too. Faced with the rare sight of a relatively smooth stretch of road before them, the Irish drivers clearly felt the urge to discover the maximum speed of their chosen mode of transport. This meant that the poor hitcher was only noticed at the very last minute as the driver hurtled past, and was all too quickly an afterthought. Perhaps this is why the hitcher ahead hadn’t protested at my arrival in front of him, calculating that the breaking distance for any car that stopped for me, would be such that it would draw to a halt exactly where he was standing. Clever bastard.
I looked at my watch and saw that I had been there for over an hour. I didn’t mind one bit. I was enjoying some precious time on my own. As a lone traveller I had expected a good deal more of it, but the way things were turning out, these roadside vigils were my only oases of peace.
Jack screeched to a halt. An emergency stop. Of course. If you saw the man with the fridge by the side of the road, what else was there for it? Boy, Jack was excited. He was a big fan of The Gerry Ryan Show and said that he had been charting my progress since day one. I climbed into the lorry’s cabin which was packed full of boxes. There was only just room to squeeze in. I looked further up the road and saw that the other hitcher was still there. He can’t have been that happy, but was probably consoling himself with the fact that I would be decent enough to iaqdore the driver to stop for him too. I would have done had there been enough room.
As we drove past him I tried to do a kind of apologetic wave, which probably backfired and looked like I was rubbing salt in the wound. She waved back. She? I looked again and saw that, yes, it was a girl. Oh no! This offended my hereditary colonial sensibilities even more. For this, I would surely be hauled before the Viceroy of the Raj.
‘Now Hawks, as you well know, we take a pretty dim view of anyone who pushes in front of the next man—but there is only one thing good enough for a man who stoops so low as to push in front of a woman. Perkins! Take him away, and have him shot.’
Jack was going to Westport, and was delivering fire extinguishers. I had never thought of fire extinguishers being delivered, but I was discovering that everything got to be where it was by being delivered.
Deliveries made the world go around. They were certainly getting me around.
‘Elaine?’ said Jack on his mobile phone. ‘You’ll never guess who I’ve got in the cabin with me.’
Elaine didn’t guess, but Jack told her, and the phone was handed over for me to have a chat with her. It was an unusual conversation which hardly flowed, but the reason why it was taking place was an endearing one. Jack was excited to have the fridge man in his lorry, and he was excited to have Elaine as his girlfriend. I was reminded of something Gerry Ryan had said about my journey after I had spoken to him on my first morning.
‘It’s a totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.’
The same could be said of this phonecall.
Jack dropped me in the main street of Westport. I called out to a girl in the chemists, ‘Do you know where Mat Molloy’s pub is?’
‘It’s behind you,’ she said, seven months too early for panto season.
I turned round and there it was, a simple semi-detached two-storey property decorated in red and black. It was odd to think that Marjorie’s one mention of this neat little pub had been my reason for coming here to Westport, but that was the way I was allowing my journey to unfold. I was trusting my intuition. I elected to go in for a quick pint and then head for the tourist information office to sort out my night’s lodgings.
It was mid afternoon and there were only six or seven customers in the pub. However it wasn’t long before the winning combination of fridge and rucksack had everyone discussing the merits and drawbacks of this kind of travel.
‘How much was the bet for?’ said Niamh, who was working behind the bar for the summer.
‘A hundred pounds.’
‘And how much was the fridge?’ enquired an interested bystander called John.
‘A hundred and thirty pounds.’
‘Jeez, you’re an eejit,’ added Seamus, the pub manager.
‘Niamh, get this man a pint,’ concluded Geraldine, the boss and wife of the eponymous Matt, plus mother of Niamh.
I was beginning to understand how the Irish mentality worked. The more foolish, illogical or surreal one’s actions were perceived to be (and mine surely fell into one of these categories), the wider the arms of hospitality were opened in salutation. I now found myself surrounded by inquisitive customers and staff. Brendan appeared from behind the bar where he had been stacking bottles.
‘Has the fridge got a name?’
‘Well, no it hasn’t.’
‘Well you’ve got to give the fridge a name. You can’t be travelling around with a nameless fridge.’
A chorus of approval greeted Brendan’s sentiments.
‘What sex is it?’ asked Etain.
Things were moving too fast for me.
‘I hadn’t given it much thought.’
There must be a way of telling.
Amidst much amusement, a series of implausible methods were put forward, the most universally approved of which was proposed by John.
‘What you have to do is you have to put it between two donkeys of either sex and see which one of the donkeys makes a move for the fridge.’
I was happy to accept this method as incontestable proof of the fridge’s sex, but a distinct lack of donkeys restricted further progress down this particular scientific avenue.
‘Why don’t you give it a name which covers both sexes?’ said Geraldine. ‘You know, like Kim, Lesley or Val.’
‘That’s a good idea,’ agreed Brendan, ‘but you can’t call a feckin’ fridge Val!’
I concurred. No fridge of mine was going to be called Val.
‘How about Saiorse?’ suggested Seamus.
‘Yes, Saiorse. It can be a boy or a girl’s name, and it’s Gaelic for ‘freedom’. And you won’t get many fridges experiencing more freedom than that one!’ He had a point.
‘Full name Saiorse Molloy,’ said Geraldine.
‘Sounds good to me,’ I said, to cheers from the group. ‘I hereby name this fridge Seersha Molloy.’
Geraldine was clearly moved by this new addition to the family, because she asked, ‘Where are you staying Tony?’
‘Oh, I haven’t sorted it yet, I was going to find a bed and breakfast.’
‘You can stay in the flat above the pub if you want.’
‘Niamh, go and get the keys. Let’s put him and Saiorse upstairs for the night.’
‘Are you sure? That’s very kind.’
A good portion of my time on this trip was spent thanking people for their kindness.
I couldn’t have expected that a brief mention of the fridge’s surfing activity would cause such a furore. The response was immediate, and it was as if the gauntlet had been thrown down. My new-found friends took it upon themselves to rise to the challenge of coming up with something whacky for me and the fridge to do. The suggestion that Seamus should take it water skiing was gaining in popularity, but Seamus, an apparently practical man, seemed to have some difficulty with this notion, although the rest of us couldn’t see what the problem might be. Attach a rope, start the speed boat, and let Saiorse do the rest.
Geraldine introduced me to a couple called Tony and Nora, friends of hers and Matt, who had been visiting for a long weekend.
‘If you’re ever down in Ennistymon, we’ll take Saiorse scuba diving,’ said Tony, thrusting a piece of paper into my hand. ‘Here’s our address—you’ve no need to bother with hotels and the rest—you come and stay with us.’
‘Are you sure that’s not just the drink talking?’ I joked.
‘I don’t drink,’ he said, holding his orange juice proudly aloft.
This trip was full of surprises.
It was early evening before I got a chance to look around Westport. It would have been shameful if all I had got to see of the place was the inside of Matt Molloy’s pub. Westport had been a prosperous landlord town, designed by architect James Wyatt in the eighteenth century. It only took me ten minutes or so to do a full circuit, and discover that its streets radiate from a focal point, the Octagon. There was a monument here with St Patrick on the top, proudly having taken the place of a British dignitary after the demise of British supremacy. The words beneath him made interesting reading:
I AM PATRICK
A SINNER MOST UNLEARNED
THE LEAST OF ALL THE FAITHFUL
AND UTTERLY DESPISED BY ALL
Now that guy had a self esteem problem, no two ways about it.
I saw a signpost saying Westport Quay, and since it was a nice evening I decided to walk there. It turned out to be further than I had thought, but worth it. I was lucky enough now to be experiencing weather for which the west coast of Ireland is most definitely not renowned. Clear blue skies and a gently setting sun hung over Clew Bay as I headed up a dusty path towards a grand-looking house I had seen in the distance. It was quite magnificent, and in a wonderful location, with stunning views across the bay. It was clearly the landlord’s home around which the entire town of Westport had been built, to house the estate workers. I climbed through a hole in the perimeter fence of the grounds and indulged in a little trespassing. This was too special a house not to merit further investigation. Subsequently, I discovered that it was Westport House, and that by the following month it would be a commercialised tourist trap, but at the moment it was closed to the public and I genuinely believed that I was getting a privileged glimpse of some palatial splendour which was off limits to the hoi polloi.
On the walk back to Westport, out of nowhere some storm clouds appeared, and the heavens opened. I tried to hitch back, but the irony was that without my fridge, no one was remotely interested in stopping. By the time I got back to the pub, I was completely drenched. There was no one around from the afternoon’s ‘naming committee’ so I took the opportunity to sneak upstairs, dry off, and profit from an early night.
As I lay in bed, the sounds of the pub below reminded me of times when, as a child, I was trying to get to sleep when my parents were entertaining downstairs. There even seemed to be someone down below with the same booming laugh as my father’s, but presumably this man’s raucous guffaws greeted other people’s jokes rather than his own. But once I had nodded off, not even the traditional Irish music emanating from just beneath the floorboards could keep me from eight solid, sound, substantial hours of sleep.
Roisin hadn’t called.
One Baptism And A Blessing
I woke, washed, decided to fix myself breakfast, and soon found myself in somebody else’s kitchen. An awful place to be, especially if you need to make use of its facilities. There is no such thing as a simple operation, even something as modest as I was taking on—a pot of tea and a couple of pieces of toast—becomes a Gargantuan task and a severe test of patience. In somebody else’s kitchen.
I started well. I located the kettle and even managed to work out how to turn it on. The hunt for the tea bags didn’t go to plan, but after two or three minutes of slightly irritated opening and shutting of cupboard doors, they turned up in the one on the left just below the sink. Silly place for them, but I didn’t let that get to me, and at this point I was still relatively calm. The hunt for the teapot was futile. It had been naive even to consider attempting to locate it. Those of you who are experienced in other people’s kitchens will know that the teapot is always placed in the most idiosyncratic of locations, known only to close family members and passed down from generation to generation by oral tradition.
It got worse. They had no mugs. How could anyone have a kitchen with no mugs? This was a first. I looked everywhere. I covered every square inch of cupboard space, but there was not a mug anywhere. Except for me, the searcher, who for five full minutes was mug enough not to look in the dishwasher. Fifteen minutes later I was on the verge of doing something very silly with a sharp kitchen knife.
Fortunately I couldn’t find one.
‘That was very nice, thank you,’ I said to the waitress as she took away my plate, on which were the scant vestiges of a full Irish breakfast.
I was just heading out of the café when an elderly grey-haired woman approached me.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘you’re not the window cleaning company are you?’
‘It’s just that I’m meeting someone from the window cleaning company in here, and I don’t know them.’
I shrugged and left the café, not at all envious of the morning that lay ahead for her—routinely addressing strangers and enquiring as to whether they were from the window cleaning company or not. Quite why the rendezvous had been set up at a café and not at a suitable address, or why a little old lady should require a meeting with a representative from the window cleaning company, I couldn’t fathom. It didn’t matter, in fact it fitted nicely into the ludicrous design of things.
By lunchtime I was back in the bar, having finished with Westport’s launderette, and I was ready to say my goodbyes.
‘Are you sure you have to leave today, Tony?’ said Geraldine.
‘Well, I think it’s right to keep on moving.’
‘That’s a shame, because my husband Matt is back from Dublin tomorrow and I spoke to him on the phone and he’s dying to meet you.’
‘Another time, Geraldine, another time.’
‘Well, will you have a quick pint before you go?’
This was dangerous. I had been here before. I had to be careful.
‘Go on then,’ I succumbed. Immediate surrender on the willpower front.
‘Frank should be here in a minute,’ said Niamh.
‘Yes, Frank. From the local paper, The Mayo News.’
‘Local paper? What for?’
‘He’s going to get some photos of the baptism ceremony.’
‘Oh. I didn’t know about that.’
Brendan’s head popped up from below the level of the bar.
‘We christened Saiorse yesterday,’ he said, ‘today we baptise her.’ Clearly this had all been decided in my absence, and who was I to stand in the way of a group of people who were set on baptising my fridge?
Just as Geraldine delivered me a pint of the black stuff, a young guy called Brian called into the pub, complaining of a hangover of epic proportions after having been on an enormous binge the previous day. He was pale and extremely shaky on his feet, and as he took hold of his pint, his hands were trembling. Shortly after he had been introduced to me, I announced to the group, ‘Well, I’ll just go upstairs and get my stuff, and then well get on with baptising the fridge.’
Brian looked at me in utter disbelief at what he had just heard. He glanced at the others and was even more perplexed by a set of expressions which showed no signs of having heard anything remotely out of the ordinary. He turned to me again, and was about to say something.
‘Don’t even ask,’I said.
He nodded obediently. He wasn’t ready yet. We all knew he needed to finish that pint first.
The baptism ceremony took place on the pavement just outside the pub and was a humble affair. It constituted myself, Geraldine, Niamh, Brendan, Etain and Brian (who was now in the know), all gathering in deference round the fridge. Brendan held a small bottie of Babycham which was to be used in place of champagne, and the rest of us stood around wondering quite what was expected of us, whilst Frank enthusiastically took photos. Slowly a crowd of well-wishers gathered, some out of curiosity but I suspect most out of a complete absence of anything else to do.
Suddenly I seized the initiative. I cleared my throat, took a step forward and declared, ‘We hereby name this fridge Saiorse Molloy. God bless all she rides in.’
It was a short, but few would deny, quite brilliant speech. Brendan poured some Babycham over the fridge and everyone cheered. One of the more nonconformist religious ceremonies was over.
Etain had disappeared up the road immediately after the formal service, but now she returned, proudly clutching a large blue certificate which she handed to me. It read:
From Saiorse, a name of Irish origin,
Faces problems head on
Admired for its originality, dedicated to worthy causes
A kind and generous fridge
It always stands firm for its principles
It does not have to get its own way always
Others think it is an extremely clever fridge
From Matt Molloys Pub
May 20th 1997
I was quite touched. I hadn’t been given a certificate since I had passed Grade Six piano, and this one meant a great deal more.
As I stood and waited on a narrow band of road just outside Westport, it suddenly dawned on me that I had hardly seen any two-door cars. All four-door. Of course. One of the benefits of being in a good Catholic country. Fridge hitch-hiking is made easier by the fact that people have large families and therefore buy four-door cars. The neat little Fiat Punto that pulled up in front of me fifteen minutes later had been the first two-door I had seen.
‘We heard you at breakfast, didn’t we, Jane?’ said Billy, from behind the wheel of the hire car.
‘Yes, they had the radio on the hotel dining room and we started listening more closely when we heard your English accent.’
‘So, when we saw the fridge, we knew it was you.’
‘This is the first time we’ve stopped for a hitcher. I keep telling him to stop but he won’t—will you, Billy?’