Having escaped the bleak world of industrial estates, we sought assistance just outside Markethill, where Gary pulled the car over to the side of the road and I wound down the window to ask for directions. I found myself facing a belligerent looking band of labourers, hard at tea break.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, suddenly very conscious of my English accent, ‘but do any of you have any idea where the Silverbridge Harp GAA Club is?’
They looked at me, and then at each other. No one responded. Gary looked uneasy and leant over.
‘Don’t, worry, fellas, sorry to trouble you.’
He pulled the car away quickly.
‘What did you do that for?’ I said.
‘I think round here it’s best that I do the talking.’
His reasoning turned out to be sound enough. Recent violence and alleged complicity in it by the RUC had left temperatures running high in the nationalist communities, and we were in the very heart of one here. Gary pointed out that since the Silverbridge GAA club was a Gaelic Football Club, and something of focal point for Republican unity, it might arouse suspicion if someone with an accent like mine should wish to make a visit.
‘They are pretty tight knit communities around here, and they’ve got the wherewithal to have us followed.’
I didn’t gulp, but I wanted to. Followed? And then what? Would we be ‘dealt with’? In a pathetic attempt to appear unflustered I changed the subject and said something which confirmed, beyond all doubt, my country of origin.
‘Is it hot, or is it me?’
‘Course it’s feckin’ hot, the heater’s on full, you tosser.’
James was being over familiar.
The sun won its battle with the clouds and beat down upon us with an uncustomary potency, and Gary and I, now potential targets, drove aimlessly around bandit country in a mobile sauna. This journey could have been going better.
I looked at my watch again. It was 2.25.1 figured they would be starting to panic at RTE round about now. I was supposed to be the first interview on the show at around 3.05. Provided we found the B78, we were still confident that wouldn’t be a problem. I consulted the map.
‘I’m pretty certain the B78 is a right turn, off this road we’re on now,’ I said, with all the confidence of a condemned man.
‘And how far to the turning?’
‘About six miles.’
‘Right, time to put the foot down.’
This new and frightening resolve left me nauseous with fear and had the effect of losing us valuable time, because as we overtook an Ulster Bus at around 95 mph, I thought I just caught a fleeting glimpse of the B78 on our right.
‘We ate that bus for breakfast,’ boasted Gary. It wasn’t just the heater which was belting out hot air.
‘Yes, well done. It’s just that I think we may have passed the B78 as we were overtaking.’
‘Shit’ Are you sure?’
‘I’m pretty certain I saw a sign.’
Gary slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a halt. We needed to turn around, but the bus which we had just overtaken, had now stopped to take on passengers, and cars were overtaking it at speed. Even the maniacal Gary knew it was suicidal to attempt any turning manoeuvre until the bus had moved off and we had a clear view of the road.
There seems to be some correlation between the amount of time it takes other people to do things and the extent to which you are in a hurry. This phenomenon (which is a variation on Sod’s law—let us call it Arse’s law) was clearly in evidence at the bus stop behind us. Each passenger seemed not only to have no change whatsoever, but must have been a relative of the driver, who felt the need to bring him up to date with all the family news over the past six months. I haven’t seen a queue move so slowly since…well, the last time I was in a hurry. Gary and I fretted, cursed, and at least one of us smashed a fist down on to the controls of the car’s heating system, shouting, ‘Feckin’ well leave it out with the feckin’ heat, will ya?’
You had to hand it to the farmer. It was almost as if he had been laying in wait thinking to himself, ‘Why, there’s no point in getting my cattle to cross the B78 at the moment, far better to wait a couple of hours until somebody comes along who is in a desperate hurry.’ His timing was impeccable or disastrous, depending on whether you wanted to do a TV interview or not.
And so we sat there, having scored a momentary victory in circumventing the bus, watching lackadaisical cows amble across a road, the malicious farmer looking on with a self-satisfied grin. With a stick, he gestured to his cows as if to say, ‘You take your time today fellas, because these two look like they’re most eager to get somewhere.’ Time was ticking away. It was twenty to three.
‘Antoinette will kill me,’ said Gary, as the last cow dawdled past.
‘There’s plenty of time. No need to panic,’ I said, panicking.
There had been, of course, no need to panic. It had been our panic which had allowed Arse’s law to manifest itself, and it was only when we resigned ourselves to the fact that we probably weren’t going to make it, that things began to proceed with some measure of normality. As it hap-peaed, we arrived in plenty of time. Well, from our perspective, five minutes before the show went on air was plenty of time. Antoinette didn’t see it quite that way.
‘Jeez, where in. Christ have you been? We were just working out how to fill seven minutes of air time.’
She looked me up and down.
‘Hello there. You must be Tony, the nutter with the fridge. I’ll have to get to know you on air because we’re on in five.’
Why the producer had chosen this location for a roadside interview was a mystery. Quite apart from it being in another country to the one I was hitching in, it was probably the noisiest stretch of road for miles around. No doubt the producer had his reasons, and no doubt they were crap.
The viewers of Live At Three must have been puzzled as to why its make-up department had thought I would look best in bright red. The flurry and fluster of the journey with its constant blast of roasting air had made me resemble a ripe tomato. I was certainly not looking my best and was unlikely to become the focus of the amorous attentions of the octogenarian ladies who chose this show for their afternoon’s entertainment Another missed opportunity. I chatted well enough though, my conversations with Gerry Ryan having left me adept in the patter required to explain all that I was about, and the interview went very smoothly. I stood by the roadside with my fridge, and Antoinette fired questions at me whilst I hitched. It couldn’t have gone much better. Okay, the occasional juggernaut hurtled past drowning out everything that was being said, but this didn’t seem to bother the producer who was more than happy. Gary stood by, smiling a proud smile which said, ‘Against all odds, I got that guy here.’
At the end of the interview Antoinette presented me with three indelible marker pens, with which I was to get those who had given me lifts to sign my fridge. What a good idea. Then, as I had been asked to do, I announced that I was going to look for a better spot to hitch, and pulled my fridge up the road and away from the cameras, allowing Antoinette to do her final piece to camera. When we went off air, I stopped and looked up at a road sign which was now above me. It had a picture of a man in a balaclava, and below it were written the words:
SNIPER AT WORK
Thank you RTE. They had brought me to one of the most dangerous locations in all of Ireland and had encouraged me to swan around with a fridge. All of this had probably been noted by one of the Republican paramilitary’s intelligence units, who, as we showbiz types said our emotional goodbyes, were back at headquarters struggling with one of their more difficult reports.
‘We discovered what the film crew were there for.’
‘Yes? What exactly?’
‘They were talking to a guy who stands by the road with a fridge, and then pulls it along a bit on a trolley.’
‘When did you last have a holiday?’
This is brilliant, thanks very much,’ I said to Antoinette as she drove us towards Sligo.
‘Don’t thank me, thank Kara, my series producer. She thought it would be a good idea if people could get hold of you, so she rang a mate at Eircell and they came through with the goods. The phone is yours, provided you mention them on the radio a couple of times and do a pho-tocall with the fridge and the phone when you get to Dublin.’
This was quite something, a mobile phone. I was going up in the world.
‘Have they given it to me for the duration of my trip?’
‘Because they were rather taken with the idea of a man hitching round with a fridge.’
I let it sink in. Then, ‘I love this country.’
Antoinette was the new James. She had taken over from Gary as my personal chauffeur. The considerable improvement in the standard of driving was offset by the retrograde quality of the car. The Republic of Ireland’s government doesn’t require its vehicle owners to obtain the equivalent of MOT certificates, and Antoinette’s car was testimony to the lack of wisdom of that policy. To call it a deathtrap would be to pay it a compliment. A trap is usually a device from which you can’t get out, but the doors and windows on this car threatened to throw themselves open at any given moment, liberating the anxious passenger from the bare springs of the passenger seat.
‘Sorry about the car,’ Antoinette had said, ‘it’s a bit of a disaster area. The only thing which really works properly on it is the heater.’
Well, that was a relief.
Antoinette was charming, intelligent and a mother. She didn’t look old enough to have a fourteen-year-old son, but she assured me that was the case. The destination of Sligo suited her because she had friends close by who she could stay with after she had dropped me off. It was agreed that it was a likely enough place for me to have reached in a day’s hitching from Bunbeg, and my delivery to such a point had been the deal I had struck in exchange for my appearance. The mobile phone was something of a bonus.
The drive to Sligo through Monaghan, Fermanagh and County Leitrim was a pretty one, and even though I was becoming accustomed to that, the latter stages still prompted a drawing of breath, with Glencar Lake on one side and the imposing Dartry mountains rising above us on the other. We were in Yeats country, so called because Sligo was where W. B. and his famous family once resided. They were quite a talented lot, the Yeatses; his brother Jack and father John were both considered to be fine artists. W. B. Yeats himself always professed to have a deep affection for the countryside of his childhood and wrote, ‘In a sense, Sligo has always been my home.’ In what sense? In the sense that he chose to live almost anywhere else? Honestly, the stuff poets get away with, just because they’ve got a good turn of phrase. All right, he chose to be buried there, but it has always struck me as more of a compliment to a place to spend time there when you’re alive, rather than dead. like Yeats, I too would choose to see out my days on the French Riviera, but where we differ is that I don’t give a toss where you bury me.
Antoinette was worried about where I was going to stay.
‘Have you booked anywhere?’
‘Have you got a brochure with details of accommodation?’
‘Nope. The right place will come along.’
‘Tony, you’re too laid back for your own good.’
‘I’m not that laid back, I just have faith.’
‘That’s the only bit I’m not sure of.’
When we got to Sligo, (the largest town in the northwest, with a population of 17,000) we parked in the main street and had a mosey around. I couldn’t see anywhere I fancied staying and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to spend a Friday night in a town centre. Antoinette led me into a delicatessen hoping to buy a type of seaweed called ‘dilisc’, but unfortunately they had sold out. Never mind, the old man in the shop had a pleasing way about him which I instantly liked, and there was a huge egg on the counter which caught my attention.
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘It’s a duck egg.’
‘How much is it?’
‘What do you want a duck egg for?’
‘I don’t know, I just like the look of it. How much is it?’
‘Don’t be so silly, you don’t want a duck egg.’
‘I do, I want to buy this duck egg off you.’
‘No, now come on, what would you want with a duck egg?’
Whatever happened to the aggressive hard sell? I couldn’t buy this bloody duck egg off him until I could prove that I really needed it. And I couldn’t, so the duck egg remained in the delicatessen until a more suitable home was found for it.
The one hotel I enquired in was full, but I didn’t like the look of it much anyway. However, we needed refreshing after the drive so Antoinette and I had a quick drink in its dingy bar where I noticed a sign which read:
STRICTLY NO SINGING
Dave, the drunk from last night, must have been here recently. I had never seen a sign like this before, and it struck me as rather harsh. I mean, you may as well go the whole hog and have a sign up saying:
STRICTLY NO HAVING A GOOD TIME
The need for the sign reflected an admirable Irish character trait, and that is—when the Irish get drunk, they sing. I had already witnessed this in Hudi-Beags, and although it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, it was tolerable enough. Signing is preferable to fighting, which is probably why the audio cassette of Ali versus Foreman has been comprehensively outsold by Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits. It would certainly be a step in the right direction if pub drunks in England forced you into a corner and sang Elton John’s ‘Saturday Nighfs All Right For Fighting’ instead of treating the lyrics as a set of instructions. Singing, however poor in quality, is always preferable to having the shit kicked out of you. (With the possible exception of Chris de Burgh.)
It hadn’t escaped Antoinette’s notice that here in Sligo I had failed to fall on my feet.
‘So, this ‘faith’ of yours hasn’t exactly come up trumps with accommodation.’
‘Not yet, no.’
‘Perhaps it would help if you knew what it was you had faith in?’
‘Oh, one doesn’t want to worry oneself with unnecessary details.’
Antoinette was still a sceptic, but there was time to convert her.
‘You know, I think I do know what I have faith in. I have faith in the fridge.’
I sounded like a man who was becoming delirious. Maybe I was. Perhaps the excesses and surreal events of the last few days had taken their toll.
‘You too can have faith in the fridge,’ I said, each word edging me closer to committal. I wasn’t an impressive proselytiser and you needed to be when you were asking someone to have faith in a fridge. During the car journey I had expounded the credo that wherever you go, good things will happen to you, provided that you truly believe they will. As we sat in this third-rate establishment where not even a natural expression of human joy like singing was permitted, it appeared the validity of my philosophy was in question. Then it came to me.
‘Well ask the man in the delicatessen.’
‘Come on, finish your drink, let’s go and ask the man in the delicatessen.’
I was testing this poor girl’s levels of tolerance to the very limit, but her protestations weren’t vociferous enough to prevent a return to the delicatessen and a question for the elderly proprietor.
‘If you could stay anywhere in the Sligo area, where would you stay?’
He wasn’t remotely taken aback. I had thought he would be expecting me to have another crack at purchasing the duck egg.
‘Expensive or not expensive?’
‘Have you got a car?’
I rather boldly assumed that Antoinette wasn’t going to tire of my indulgent behaviour and dump me and my fridge on the streets of Sligo.
‘Well, Strandhill is very nice.’
‘Is that where you would go and stay, given the choice?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Yes, I think it is. You could try the Ocean View Hotel, or there are a couple of bed and breakfasts down on the front’
And very nice they were too, overlooking a broad expanse of sandy beach complete with panorama of evening sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean. I resolved that this was the place for me, the presence of a nice looking pub within spitting distance having no bearing on my decision. Both B&Bs had vacancies, but I plumped for the one which had bathrooms en suite, deciding that it was worth the two extra pounds, if only to spare other guests the sight of a half-naked drunk struggling to the toilet in the middle of the night.
When Anne Marie, the lady of the house, had accepted me as a guest on her premises, she had been affable enough, but when I began to wheel my fridge up the front path, and she discovered the true nature of my identity, her demeanour altered and I was confronted with an insanely grinning woman.
‘My God, it’s youl They’ve been telling people to look out for you on North West Radio. Well done, you made it to Sligo then.’
‘Come in and have a cup of tea.’
I smiled at Antoinette who looked back at me resignedly.
‘Okay, I have faith in the fridge,’ she said, rather magnanimously.
The three of us took tea together in the living room and I offered my well versed replies to the string of questions which Anne Marie fired off at me. Why are you doing it? When did you start? Is it hard to get a lift? When she went to fetch more biscuits, Antoinette, who was now a devotee of the faith, demonstrated her new-found fervour.
‘So, are you going to take the fridge out tonight?’
‘It’s Friday night, you can hardly leave it on its own.’
‘Are you suggesting that I take it out to the pub?’
‘Yes I am. And if you do, I’ve just got to see it.’
‘Haven’t you got to get to your friends?’
‘They can wait. It’s not every day you see what happens when a man walks into a pub pulling a fridge behind him.’
I wasn’t in a position to say the same.
And so Antoinette’s friends had to wait, because their absent guest was taken up with the important business of laughing at a man pulling his date towards the Strand pub. In some parts of the world, a stranger pulling a fridge on a trolley into a bar on a Friday night might be a recipe for a good kicking, but here I felt it more likely that if set upon would be held down, and sung to.
Antoinette opened the door and I proudly marched into the pub, the heads of those at the bar turning towards me in unison, as if following the flight of a tennis ball at Wimbledon. A man with a beard who was enjoying a quiet drink with his girlfriend, looked down at the fridge. His face lit up and his eyes sparkled like those of a child at Christmas.
‘Well, if it isn’t the man with the fridge?’
He offered his hand, and I duly shook it and said, ‘Hello, my name’s Tony. This is Antoinette.’
He nodded and turned to his lady friend. ‘Mary, have you heard about this fella? He’s bringing a fridge round Ireland.’
‘Jeez, what an eejit What’s he drinking?’
It really was that easy. My new ‘friends’, Willy and Mary took us under their collective wing and introduced us to everyone they knew in the pub. With frightening predictability, I was involved in another ‘session’, with drinks, conversation, and hospitality flowing like flood water. Amongst the enthusiastic gathering who were now around me, I noticed a big man with blond hair tied in a ponytail, eyeing me with interest He waited for the initial hubbub to subside and then approached me, full jug of lager held proudly aloft before him.
‘I’ve heard about what you’re up to and I just wanted to congratulate you.’
‘Oh thanks.’ I thought for a moment ‘What for?’
‘Look around you. Everyone is having a damn good laugh about you and your fridge. You may not know it but you’re spreading joy.’
I was in the company of Peter, whose loose-fitting; clothes of a predominately reddish pink hue led me to believe he was something of a buddhist. We talked, laughed, bought each other pints, and it soon became clear that we were coming at life from exactly the same direction. I knew as little about his faith as I did about my own, but he clearly understood what the fridge journey was all about, and gave it credit where I had never thought credit was due. It was nice to hear how you were transcending the material’ from someone who had a full pint of lager and a fag on the go.
Antoinette came and joined us. She was either having the time of her life or she was trying to postpone contact with her friends’ as long as possible.
‘I’m having the time of my life,’ she said, clearing that one up right away. ‘I’ve just met Bingo. He’s the manager of this place, and you’d never believe it but I interviewed him for a TV show in 1988 after they had the storms up here. You’ll meet him in a minute, he’s insisting that we have meals on the house, so he’ll be over with a menu.’
Bingo. A great name, and one that in my present circumstances it seemed appropriate to shout My numbers were most definitely coming up.
Antoinette fell under Peter’s spell.
‘He’s wise, isn’t he?’ I whispered to her, and as I did so he demonstrated his wisdom with a visit to the lavatories to create more space for lager.
‘He’s certainly got a calmness about him,’ said Antoinette, ‘and there are some questions about his philosophy which I want to ask.’
‘But what about your friends—’
It was too late, she had fallen victim to a stealthy advance from Michael, and was now beginning the smiling and nodding that a conversation with him involved. Michael was almost the Strand pub’s drunk in residence, fulfilling all the criteria required, but for the fact that he was mobile. Though shaky on his feet, he was still able to move freely about the pub and ensnare innocent drinkers, offering a long-winded, barely intelligible and uninformed opinion on absolutely any subject Antoinette’s eyes glazed over and, with laudable disloyalty, I sidled off, smirking.
Leaving it long enough to make it look like I wasn’t copying Peter’s idea, I set off for the toilets. It was a good forty minutes before I made it back, interest in my fridge adventure apparently having gripped the pub’s clientele, and I felt obliged to offer each well-wisher a certain amount of time. It would have been churlish to have done otherwise, and I found I was now benefiting from what I had learned from Prince Charles, which I attempted to implement, only with less hand clasping. When I got back to Antoinette, Michael had been sidelined somehow, and Peter was in full flow.
‘You see, life is little more than a dream, the world isn’t a physical reality, but a three-dimensional illusion. Our left side knows this, but our right side takes the materialist view. Our left side knows that life is a chosen adventure in consciousness. We are conscious beings who have freety chosen to be physical. Consciousness didn’t emerge from matter; matter emerged from consciousness.’
At this point the efficacy of his enlightened peroration was undermined by someone offering him a pint of lager. He gave the thumbs up and mourned the word Carlsberg. Probably. He continued, ‘You see everything is interconnected—all energy, all consciousness. There are no ‘separate’ objects or ‘separate’ beings. Time, space and separate-ness are illusions. So, nothing actually exists.’
As he said this, a pint of lager was passed to him, which for something which didn’t exist, he looked far too pleased to see.
‘My fridge exists,’ I said defiantly.
‘Ah well, I’ll not argue with that.’
We all looked at it sitting happily by the door. It had grown tolerant of its master’s excesses. Tonight its patience was going to be tested to the full.
‘Are you sure you won’t let us pay for those, Bingo?’
‘Absolutely not I hope you enjoyed your meals.’
‘Oh yes, they were lovely.’
Bingo was a handsome man, probably in his early thirties, who seemed responsible and patient. Maybe he looked that way because he was working in an environment where almost everybody else was half cut. He put two liqueur glasses on the bar which were filled with a black drink with a tiny white head on top.
‘They look like little pints of Guinness,’ I said.
‘Close. We call it a baby Guinness,’ replied Bingo. ‘It’s a mix of Tia Maria and Baileys. Try it.’
I took a sip. ‘Mmmmm. Lovely!’
‘Tony had better have mine,’ said Antoinette, pushing hers towards me, ‘I can’t drink any more if I’m going to drive, and I had really better be going, my friends were expecting me hours ago.’
‘I was beginning to doubt if your friends existed,’ I said.
‘According to Peter, they don’t Still, I’d better go just in case. Ill see you tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, Peter is going to do some reflexology on me. So I’ll call past your B&B and see how you’re doing at around eleven. Don’t drink too much.’
I already had, and as Antoinette fought her way out of the now crowded pub, another pint arrived from somewhere, and I now had three drinks in front of me.And Michael. .
‘Do you know what my cure for a hangover is?’ he said, the sight of my immediate drink obligations obviously prompting the subject.
‘Well, I’ll tell you.’
Yup. I had expected as much. What was it going to be? A pint of water before you go to sleep? Two aspirin as soon as you get home? Of course not. I was way off beam.
‘One Drambuie just as you’re on your way out to the door.’
‘A Drambuie just before you go home.’
I shook my head in disbelief. To prevent the ill effects caused by excessive alcohol, this man was earnestly promoting the taking of one more alcoholic drink.
‘That’s an interesting one.’
‘It never fails.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
The pub closed at around 1 am, but there seemed to be no effort on the part of the management to remove me. I had survived some kind of arbitrary selection process and was one of the drinkers privileged to be part of a ‘lock in’. The net had been thrown quite wide, seeming to incorporate around half the pub’s previous occupants, but those of us who remained, Eke golfers who had ‘made the cut’, felt the need to celebrate. Other survivors included Michael, naturally enough, and Peter, who had moved on from his earlier metaphysical conjecturing, and was discussing surfing with Bingo.
‘I’ve never tried surfing, can you do it here in Strandhill?’ I asked.
‘The beach here in Strandhill is excellent for it,’ said Peter. ‘Bingo here is a champion surfer; if you ask him nicely, hell take you out surfing tomorrow.’
Bingo didn’t need to be asked nicely.
‘Ah sure, Tony, we’ll get you a wet suit and we’ll have you up on a board within an hour.’
‘Ill guarantee it.’
Michael had been observing all with some interest. Now was the moment for his contribution.
‘Of course, you’ll have to take the fridge.’
We all looked at him as if we hadn’t just heard what we had just heard. But oh yes we had, because there was more.
‘Tony, you can’t go surfing and not let your fridge have a go. If you surf, the fridge has to surf—it would be unfair otherwise.’
There was a pause whilst this sank in. Then Peter looked at Bingo.
‘Could you get a fridge on a board?’
He thought for a moment.
‘Yes, I think it’s possible.’
Suddenly everyone became animated on the subject of the plausibility of taking a fridge surfing. Methods for strapping it to the board, and techniques for getting it far enough out past the breakers were discussed with a totally unwarranted gravitas. I started to feel a little odd. My head began to swirl with a combination of all that I was hearing now, and all that Peter had said earlier on the subject of reality. The result was that I now had a less tangible hold on whether I actually existed. The ‘ continuation of discussions about the viability of getting a fridge on to a surfboard in the Atlantic Ocean brought me firmly to the conclusion that I most certainly didn’t.
The arrival of another baby Guinness acted as proof. I should have left it because I had already consumed far too much alcohol, but unthinkingly I drank it My lack of thought proved beyond all doubt that I didn’t exist ‘I think therefore I am.’
‘I do not think, therefore I am not.’
I certainly didn’t think I was going to fall over. For anyone who existed it would have been most embarrassing. I was thankful that I didn’t fall into that category. Only into an unsightly heap on the pub carpet.
Morning brought the disappointment of discovering that I did exist I existed big time, with a throbbing head to prove it It was my own fault if I had remembered to take a Drambuie just before I had left the pub, then I wouldn’t have been in this sorry state. I lay in bed trying to remember how I had got there, but failed. Suddenly I thought ‘God, the fridge!’ but then saw it in the corner of my room looking back at me, almost admonishingly. I know that scientists will tell you that a fridge is incapable of feeling or expressing emotion, but what do they know? This fridge disapproved, and it wanted me to know it. It had no right to be reproachful, I should have been congratulated for getting it home at all, given that by the end of the night I was struggling to move myself about the place, never mind a domestic appliance on a trolley.