It was unusual to get a lift from a couple, especially with geordie accents. Well, almost.
‘Technically we’re not geordies, we’re from Middlesborough,’ Billy had explained.
‘Oh. I’m sorry about the cup final.’
‘Oh God, Tony. What a day. Thank goodness we’re not back home. Course, we’ve lost Ravanelli, Juninho and Fester already.’
And so my first foray into the wilds of Connemara was complemented by a detailed analysis of Middlesborough’s tragic season. Maybe it took the edge off my enjoyment of the bracken browns and soft violets of the mountains, but Billy and Jane had been decent enough to stop and give me and my fridge a lift, and they needed to get this football stuff out of their system. Better out than in, and I knew I was performing a necessary service by being the ears for their pain.
Just between Where the team really went wrong’ and ‘How the manager should build for the future’, I had enough time to look out of the window and recall the snapshot of my new-found friends from Matt Molloy’s waving me goodbye. Hey, I thought, they were more than friends now, they were family. Well, the fridge’s family. In less than twenty-four hours we had achieved a genuine bond of affection which we had unwittingly formalised and cemented in our own childlike baptism ceremony. I reckoned I’d miss them.
Billy and Jane were on holiday touring around the west of Ireland and they absolutely loved the place. Jane was adamant that she wanted to uproot and settle there.
‘It’s great now, but maybe you should have a look what it’s like in the middle of winter,’ I said, offering creditable circumspection.
‘Can’t be a lot worse than Middlesborough,’ said Billy, suggesting that he mightn’t need too much arm twisting on the subject.
‘So what exactly is Kylemore Abbey then, Tony?’ asked Jane.
‘It’s a convent of Benedictine nuns.’
‘And you’re sure you want us to drop you there?’
‘To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m sure of anything, but it feels like the right place to go next.’
There was a pause, before Billy asked, ‘Do you mind if we ask why?’
‘Not at all. It’s just that this guy Brendan said that I ought to get the fridge blessed by the Mother Superior.’
Another pause. This time Jane broke the silence. ‘Well you can’t say fairer than that.’
And you couldn’t It may have been nonsensical, and whimsy bordering on the cavalier, but it certainly wasn’t unfair.
You first see the abbey when you turn a corner in the road and the imposing turreted building becomes visible across a reedy lake, on whose shores it sits, sheltered by the wooded slopes of the hillside climbing steeply behind it.
‘Wow!’ gasped Billy. His exclamation, though not eloquent, couldn’t have better summed up the sight that was before us.
In the abbey car park, Jane stooped over Saiorse to add her signature, and I noticed that the space available for such scribbles was filling up rather quickly. All the gang at Matt Molloy’s had signed, plus a good proportion of the well-wishers outside the pub. Not having any connection whatsoever with the fridge or its owner had proved no disincentive for the shouting of ‘Give me that marker pen so I can sign the feckin’ thing!’
As I wheeled the fridge into the reception area of the abbey craft shop, iirtheeorner of my eye I could see Billy and Jane watching me in amazement. It occurred to me that the reaction I was eliciting from people was almost becoming the fuel on which I was running. The more extraordinary my behaviour, the more I became liberated by it I was on a roll and confidence couldn’t be higher. There was no stopping me or Saiorse now.
The girl in reception looked taken aback. Nonplussed even. Yes, definitely nonplussed, and she did it rather well. Mind you, she had good reason for such a complex expression, for what I had asked her almost certainly didn’t form part of her normal daily routine.
‘Would it be possible to see the Mother Superior?’ I had said. ‘I want to get her to bless my fridge.’
‘I’ll get Sister Magdalena,’ had been her reply.
That’s right young lady, just pass the buck to Sister Magdalena as soon as things get a little tricky, why don’t you?
Sister Magdalena looked long and hard at the fridge.
‘And you’re walking round Ireland with it?’
‘Hitching. Oh I see,’ she said, ‘and what are you raising money for?’
‘I’m not. I’m doing it to win a bet.’
No she didn’t. She didn’t see at all. She went on, ‘Well, Mother Clare is busy at the minute, but she may be able to see you before prayers.’
‘Oh, that would be terrific.’
It would also give her something to pray about.
I took a stroll in the abbey’s grounds, along the lakeside where I was surrounded by fuchsias and rhododendrons. I arrived at a small chapel, which I later discovered was built by the abbey’s original owner, Mitchell Henry, a Manchester tycoon, landlord and member of parliament for Galway. He must have had some affection for Norwich Cathedral because he had instructed this Neo-Gothic chapel to be built as an exact replica in miniature of that church. Thankfully, the architects had the wisdom not to scale everything down, meaning that the chapel could be entered without going down on one’s hands and knees and crawling through the door.
Mother Clare was a delightful woman with a gentle open expression. When Sister Magdalena announced to her what I was doing, her face lit up and she exclaimed, ‘Good heavens! What have you got in the fridge? Is it any harm to ask?’
‘I’m afraid it’s got my dirty clothes at the moment.’
‘Well, at least they’ll stay cool. And you’re taking the fridge all around the country?’
‘Well, congratulations to you on your energy and enthusiasm.’
‘I was wondering if you could bless the fridge and then sign it.’
Naturally. It was all in the day’s work of a Benedictine nun.
They must have taken a shine to me, these nuns, because I was invited to stay for an evening meal, but was then disappointed to find that this involved sitting on my own in a special visitors’ dining room. I had hoped to sit with the nuns and quiz them about their lives, perhaps even ask one of them out. I like a challenge. After dinner I was asked if I would like to come and watch their choir practice. I did so, but soon regretted having said yes. They practised for a long time, and to be fair they needed to, but for me the novelty wore off after the first hour and a half.
Still shaken by the ordeal of choir practice, I was driven into Letterfrack, the nearest village, by Sister Magdalena. This was very pleasing, for when I had begun my journey I hadn’t expected to get a lift from a nun. On the way, I sneezed quite loudly.
‘Bless you,’ she said.
How nice to hear this from someone with the appropriate qualifications.
The Longest Night
Some sort of music festival in the area meant that there were no vacancies in any of the bed and breakfasts in Letterfrack. Sister Magdalena left me outside a building which bore absolutely no resemblance to an old monastery, which was called The Old Monastery Hostel. A hostel, eh? I wasn’t without misgivings, but at least its name maintained the ecclesiastical flavour to the day’s proceedings. I went in and found nobody about. A message, chalked up on a blackboard, greeted travellers on arrival. Welcome. Please make yourselves comfortable by the fire. Someone will be with you shortly. Everything you need is on this floor; kitchen, living room, bathrooms and toilets. Breakfast is served at 9 am downstairs in the café. Breakfast is free and includes hot organic scones, hot cereal and organic coffee and tea. Relax, be happy and enjoy your stay.’
Too many things were organic for my liking. Without a pair of sandals, a musty aroma of henna about me, or my hair in a ponytail, I felt that I wouldn’t be welcome here. I turned to my left and found myself in a large dormitory. Bunk beds seemed to be everywhere. For the first time on the trip since day one, I began to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I selected a top bunk and marked out my territory by dumping my rucksack on it. I wheeled the fridge over to the window and left it there. I had made it into the dorm without anyone seeing that it was mine, and here was the opportunity to have a night off from the attention that went with being its owner. Besides, I thought it would be quite fun to let everyone in the hostel view each other with an element of suspicion, trying to establish which one of them was the idiot travelling around with a fridge. It might be the source of some healthy uneasiness.
A Chinese-looking fellow came in. I said ‘hello’ but he didn’t respond. Either his knowledge of English didn’t stretch as far as ‘hello’, or he was a git. Looking around the vast dormitory I could see the evidence, in the form of rucksacks dumped on bunks, of about fifteen other potential gits. Two nights ago, when I had lain in bed and wondered when I would next find myself ‘not sleeping alone’, this wasn’t what I had in mind.
A young American couple came in, and I realised that the dormitory was mixed. The couple were followed by a big lady who I took to be Dutch. I was working from size alone, so this was a long shot. Whatever nationality she was, she had a greater grasp of English than the Chinese chap, because when I said ‘hello’, she said ‘hello’ back. I smiled politely at her and then turned to him and gave a look which was designed to say ‘See, did that hurt?’ He didn’t see though, he was busy laying socks out on his bunk. It looked like he had embarked on some kind of ancient ritual in which the future could be read in the socks.
I caused at least three disapproving sharp intakes of breath from the room when I plugged my mobile phone into one of the power points to recharge it.
‘Sorry,’ I announced, realising that this sort of behaviour was about as incompatible with organic scones as you could get.
It had to be done though, because I knew that The Gerry Ryan Show would want to talk to me in the morning, and besides, enough ground had been covered now to warrant a call to Kevin in England in order to let him know that his hundred pounds was in some jeopardy.
‘Hello, Kevin?’ I said, sitting on top of a stile halfway up a mountain in the Connemara National Park.
I don’t have many good things to say about mobile phones but one plus point is the freedom they offer you to choose exciting mountainous landscapes for your office space. A short walk from the hostel had brought me to a spot where, to the north, I could see moorland dominated by the Twelve Bens mountain range, and to the west, the deeply indented Atlantic coastline with its many inlets and creeks. I was looking forward to Kevin’s next question.
‘Whereabouts are you?’ he obliged.
I told him, at some length.
‘And what about the fridge? I suppose you dumped that days ago?’
‘No. I’ve still got it with me, well, not exactly at this moment, it’s back at the hostel.’
‘Hostel? So you’re living like a King then?’
‘Most of the time I am actually.’
Unfortunately like the King of Tory.
‘Yeah, yeah, I bet.’
‘I’m just warning you that it looks like I’m going to do this. I am going to hitch-hike round Ireland with a fridge. So you’d better start talking to your bank manager about arranging a one-hundred-pound overdraft.’
‘Look, you’re not even halfway round yet. Things will go wrong. I’m not going to start to worry until you’re a couple of miles outside Dublin. The thing you forget is—’
The line went dead as the signal disappeared.
At least that’s what he thought. The fact is that I had pressed the button which cut him off. Another plus point to the mobile phone. I didn’t need a dose of cynicism just now. I shouldn’t have called. Showing off. I just hadn’t been able to resist it.
As I walked down the hill back to the hostel, for some reason I began singing the Johnny Nash song, ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone, I can see all obstacles in my way.’
I stopped and said to myself, ‘No, I can’t. That’s the beauty of this. I can’t see any obstacles at all.’
I had cut off the conversation with Kevin just at the moment when he had been about to point out what some of the obstacles might be. I figured that the person who didn’t know that there were any obstacles, was always going to be ahead of the person who had to go around them because he or she knew where they were. This philosophy could either get me to where I wanted to be, or land me in hospital as a result of having run headlong into something which had very little give in it.
It was a straight choice. A walk down to the local pub, or an evening in the sitting room with the hardy backpacking community. For health reasons I chose the latter.
The sitting room was a large room with a dining table at one end and a great open fire dominating the other. The dining table was full of people with dyed hair and pierced noses, with their heads buried in thick paperbacks. By the fire, there were some chairs where a less formidable looking group were seated. The most comfortable looking armchair was occupied by the hostel dog, and moving him would clearly be considered sacrilege and wouldn’t win me any friends. However, there was one tatty looking chair free, so I sat down in it. Immediately I felt conspicuous. It had been a bad mistake not bringing a book in with me. Everyone else appeared to be reading, and it looked as if I was there purely to keep the others from this laudable activity. Seeing that the kitchen was within easy reach through an archway, I stood up, clasped my hands and rubbed them together.
‘Right,’ I said, like an embarrassing teacher who was trying too hard to be liked by his pupils, ‘does anyone want a cup of tea?’
Most ignored me completely, but some managed to look up from their reading and shake a head. The class of 4b were a tough lot Wholesale rejection. Not a good start.
Moments later, and for the second time in a day, I found myself in somebody else’s kitchen. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find the tea bags anywhere. After some banging about and cursing under the breath which must have aggravated the readers in the sitting room, I was forced into popping my head round the door with the humiliating question, ‘Does anyone know where the tea bags are?’
There was at least one tut, and two sighs. An American guy, who was nearest to the fire, looked up at me, ‘Do you not have your own?’
‘You’re supposed to bring your own.’
‘Oh, yes, of course.’
I sat down, thinking that someone would find it in their hearts to offer me one of their tea bags. Initially no one did, but when I concentrated on looking really forlorn, the American girl on my right capitulated, ‘You can have one of my tea bags if you want. But they’re lemon and ginger. Do you like lemon and ginger?’
I had no idea. Independently of each other, I had no aversion to either, but I had never experienced the two together before. Why should I have done? I didn’t experiment with drugs.
‘Lemon and ginger? Yes, I think so, thanks, that’s very kind of you,’ I replied, taking the tea bag and disappearing back into the kitchen to cover it with boiling water.
On my return, the American girl watched with interest as I took my first sip. As the tea collided with my taste buds, I immediately came to the conclusion that ginger was as beneficial a partner to lemon, as mittens were to concert pianists.
‘Mmm, interesting flavour,’ I coughed, only just refraining from my initial instinct to spit it straight back out again. ‘Interesting’. What a splendidly ambiguous adjective. It was my favourite euphemism for food that I didn’t like at dinner parties.
‘Interesting recipe…interesting flavour’. Interesting that you contrived to create such a hideous, foul tasting dish.
I began to chat with the two Americans, and couldn’t work out whether they were just good friends travelling together or whether their relationship went beyond that. I certainly didn’t want to be kept awake tonight by any noises which might clear the matter up. There were two others sat by the fireside. One was a Swedish girl, who joined in my chat with the Americans, and who had a large and fresh-looking love bite on her neck, which I hoped hadn’t been the product of a night spent in this hostel. The other member of the fireside team was a girl who I found rather pretty, and whom I would have sat next to if the hostel dog hadn’t got in there first. She said nothing, but read constantly. However, at faintly amusing moments in our conversation, she smiled, which made me suspect that she wasn’t really reading but eavesdropping on a conversation to which she wasn’t prepared to contribute.
‘So what are you doing here in Ireland?’ I was eventually asked by the American guy.
I attempted to give as little away as possible but my caginess only served to make him more inquisitive, and as the questions continued, I eventually made the mistake of revealing that I was in Ireland because of a bet.
Naturally enough, he wanted to know what the bet was. I lowered my voice and told him about the fridge business. Suddenly, the pretty girl who was reading, looked up from her book.
‘Are you the guy with the fridge?’ she asked.
‘You stole my lift.’
‘Yesterday. You stole my lift.’
Up until this moment, the coincidences in my life hadn’t been that impressive. The best I had managed involved bumping into people I knew at airports. Sleeping in the same dormitory as the girl who I had pushed in front of when hitching, was probably going to edge into the lead. I owed her an apology.
‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I said.
‘It’s all right.’
‘I would have asked the driver to stop for you too, but there simply wasn’t room.’
‘Because of the fridge, right?’
‘I waited two and a half hours there, you know.’
All right, don’t make things worse. I felt bad enough as it was.
Tina was hitching around Ireland before returning to her native Denmark to study psychology. Like so many from her part of the world, she had that disarming ability to fully participate in an English conversation without anyone else needing to make the slightest compensation for the fact that it wasn’t her native tongue. She was extremely pleasant and I began to feel very bad about the hitching business. Had we been in a hotel, I could have got to my feet and said that the least I could do was buy her a drink, perhaps even order a bottle of champagne, but in present circumstances my hands were tied rather. All I could do was offer her a cup of lemon and ginger tea, provided my American supplier didn’t let me down. In the event, I took her address in Denmark and promised to send her an atonement present. She smiled courteously and went off to bed. As she reached the door I had this terrible urge to call out after her, ‘I’ll be up in a minute, darling’, but I realised there was no audience for such a remark, and restrained myself.
When the conversation started to dry up, I said my goodnights and made my way into the dormitory. It was dark, and I was unsure of which bunk was mine. I became conscious of the immense embarrassment I would feel were I to crawl into the wrong bunk. The big Dutch woman, Tina, and the unfriendly Chinese man were all potential victims of my disori-entation and their reactions to a visitor climbing in to join them could range from a welcoming embrace to a kung fu kick to the groin or screams that this was the wrong kind of atonement present. However, I could just make out the faint outline of the fridge, which was by the window, and knew if I got to that, I could take my bearings from it and work my way back to my bunk. This was yet another first, a fridge used for navigational purposes.
I tried to undress as quietly as I could, but the more I tried, the more clumsy I became. I knocked belongings off my bunk and on to the floor, and very nearly toppled over whilst attempting to remove my jeans, getting my foot stuck in one of the legs. Each sound I was making seemed deafening. I was developing a heightened awareness of sound which wasn’t going to be my ally when I shortly took on the formidable task of falling asleep.
It began well enough though, as I got comfortable rather quickly. But it soon became apparent that I was making the same mistake I make when I try to get to sleep on planes. I think too much about the whole process. As I wriggle into a newly coiled position in the inadequately proportioned airline seat, I think to myself, ‘Yes, that should do it…that’s a comfortable position…five minutes of that and I should be right off.’
Of course it is only a matter of seconds before a slight ache develops somewhere in the body and you realise that this posture isn’t the gateway to uninterrupted slumber that you had hoped.
I’m not a light sleeper and have no problems in this department normally. In fact I’m good at sleeping. I sleep well. I make hardly any mistakes. If there was an Olympic event called ‘sleeping’, I would have a good chance of being selected for the British team. Actually, I think they should introduce ‘sleeping’ to the Olympics. It would be an excellent field event, in which the ‘athletes’ (for want of a better word) all lay down in beds, just beyond where the javelins land, and the first one to fall asleep and not wake up for three hours would win gold. I, for one, would be interested in seeing what kind of personality would be suited to sleeping in a competitive environment. And what a prospect—a commentator becoming excited at a competitor ‘nearly nodding off, or expressing disappointment at the young British lad tragically being woken by a starter’s pistol, when only another five minutes in the land of nod would have won him a bronze. (And who would want to miss the slow-motion action replays?)
I looked at my watch. It was 1.30. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been close to falling asleep. It had nearly happened twice. On each occasion my drift towards this peaceful state had been disturbed by a small explosion. This was the hostel’s central heating system which had been spitefully designed to fire up every forty minutes. The intervals between explosions afforded enough time for one to get extremely sleepy, but not sufficiently so to avoid an abrupt awakening at the next outburst from the hostel’s boilers.
At 2.00 am, most of those who had been lucky enough to relinquish consciousness had it restored by the noisy return of the occupant of the bunk below me. Telltale signs such as belching and singing, suggested that this man, when faced with a straight choice of what to do with his evening, hadn’t gone for the healthy option. It wasn’t escaping my notice that this man had made the correct decision for this situation, for as soon as he had completed a blundering and noisy shedding of his clothes, his head hit the pillow and he began snoring. Well, not quite. He was almost snoring. The deep breaths were there, and the accompanying snorting sounds were there too, but only at a faint volume. It was clear this man had the potential to snore very loudly, but that this was something he preferred to warm up to. It was vital to fall asleep before he reached his full volume.
I failed in this regard, and one hour later he had worked his way up to a level of snoring which would have won him medals in the European Championships. All the evidence was there to suggest that in another quarter of an hour he would reach his peak, and produce snores which would rival some of the best in the world. I was alone in my concern because I could tell from the clearly audible breathing patterns of the others in the dormitory, that everyone had managed to fall asleep except me.
Being on the receiving end of snoring wasn’t a new experience for me, but I had never experienced the sound coming from directly beneath me before. Somehow this made it considerably more disconcerting, and gave the distinct impression that some kind of geological upheaval was imminent. In the dead of night rational thinking vanishes, and although Ireland wasn’t renowned for its earthquakes and volcanoes, at least two clamorous rumbles from beneath my bunk made me sit bolt upright in fear.
I’m against the death penalty. I believe that it is a mistake to show that killing people is wrong, by killing people. However I’m not against the random killing of people who snore. Okay, I accept that it is harsh, barbaric and against every decent human value, but the simple fact is that there is no other cure for snoring. People have tried myriad remedies, and none of them work. All right, you can wake them, but they’re only going to fall back to sleep again and begin all over again. The only truly effective way to stop someone snoring is to kill them.
I lay in my bunk considering my options. Suffocation seemed the most appropriate, but strangling I liked also. My feeling was that there wasn’t a court of justice anywhere which would not be sympathetic to the mitigating circumstances of my present plight. But then, quite suddenly, he stopped. He just stopped snoring as if he had received news from a politician that a ceasefire had been agreed. The silence was no comfort. I knew that this was only a temporary cessation of hostilities and that he would begin snoring again soon, so I was aware that this next period was crucial if I was going to fall asleep. I had to act now. I rolled on to my side, closed my eyes and offered up my consciousness.
There were no takers. Evidently, mine wasn’t a personality suited to sleeping under this kind of pressure. I had no place in the British Olympic sleeping team after all. It was one thing falling asleep in training, and another when you were up against the clock.
The night dragged on.
Here, in brief, are the other major events of the night: 3.30 am. Drunk recommences snoring.
· 3.45 am. Sympathy snorer on other side of dormitory starts up. (Stereo effect created.)
· 4.30 am. Get up and go to toilet. Stub toe on corner of bunk.
· 4.33 am. Return from toilet and stub same toe on different corner of bunk.
· 4.55 am. Give serious consideration to shouting at the top of my voice, ‘LOOK EVERYONE, GET OUT OF MY ROOM!!’
· 5.05 am. Consider suicide as an option.
· 5.07 am. Reject suicide as an option on the grounds that it would be too noisy, and wake people up.
· 5.15 am. Decide this night is penance for stealing Tina’s lift. Give up, and resign myself to a night of no sleep.
· 6.31 am. Decide killing is too good for Chinese-looking man. Will take contracts out on his loved ones.
· 8.00 am. Decide to get up.
· 8.01 am. Discover that I have an unnecessary and unwarranted erection.
· 8.01-8.30 am. Wait for dormitory to empty.
· 8.32 am. Dormitory almost empty. Risk getting up. Big Dutch lady sees unusual bulge in my boxers. She smiles.
· 8.40-9.10 am. Breakfast, spent avoiding eye contact with big Dutch lady.
· 9.30 am. Leave the premises, swearing never to stay in a hostel again, as long as I live.
The longest night was behind me.
Down And Out In Galway
The nation needed an update on my recent adventures. On air, Gerry Ryan astutely picked up on one common thread which ran through them all.
‘Tony, you seem to be spending most of your time in pubs, I think it’s important to point that out at this stage.’
‘Well, the trouble is, Gerry, I can’t get out of them. I go in and I’ve got a fridge in tow, and it isn’t long before the exit door is barred and that’s it, I’m stuck there.’
‘I must use that as an excuse myself one day.’
He was right, of course; I had been spending most of my time in pubs. The irony is that the one night when I didn’t go anywhere near one, I ended up with less than two hours’ sleep.
‘Watch out folks,’ said Gerry, winding up our interview, ‘he’s in Letterfrack, and he’s heading for Galway today, so if you see a gentleman looking reasonably benign with a fridge by his side, please do stop and say hello and if he doesn’t seem threatening, well then, please give him a lift. Bon voyage once again Tony, we’ll keep in touch.’
I pulled the fridge down to the roadside, tired, but knowing that these conversations that I had on national radio were the equivalent of filling a vehicle’s tank full of petrol. I was fresh in the minds of the nation’s drivers and once they set eyes on the fridge, they were only too happy to throw open that passenger door.
Then a problem. There was only one spot suitable for hitching, and someone was already hitching in it. I wasn’t prepared for this. I ought to have been. Eighteen years of Tory government back home should have left me comfortable enough with the concept of competition.
‘Oh hi,’ I said to my peer, nervously, ‘I’ll just move on twenty yards or so shall I?’