After an hour or so, the unaccompanied singing began. For this, each singer would close their eyes and present their party piece to a reverent audience who would offer their comments on the lyrics at the end of each song. Songs were sung in turn, much in the same way that drinkers in an English pub might exchange jokes. Some patiently waited, anxious to display their talents, and others had to have a song coaxed out of them. Significantly, the ones who had to be encouraged gave the best performances, but there was no competitive element and each singer, good or bad, was given commensurate respect I racked my brains for a song I could sing should I be asked, but happily the honour wasn’t bestowed upon me. I made a mental note to come up with something for these occasions, because I liked this approach to singing—closing your eyes and belting it out from the heart. It seemed like a style tailor-made for the drunk, but Tony proved that intoxication wasn’t essential, as his contribution, which was the product of four soft drinks, was one of the more heartfelt and soulful renditions of the evening.
Tony was still singing in the car as he drove us home. The song included the line ‘I picked up a hitch-hiker who was handsome and tall’, and for a moment I thought it was going to be about me, but I listened intently and there was no mention of a fridge anywhere. So I wasn’t a folk legend just yet.
The next morning I just had to mention it. I had been surprised that Tony hadn’t, and I couldn’t leave without raising the subject.
‘Have you given any more thought to taking the fridge scuba diving?’
‘I have, and I’ve realised that we won’t be able to lift the thing once it’s filled up with water. We need air bags, and I don’t have any.’
Damn, neither did I.
‘Never mind, no one would believe that we’d done it anyway,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry. We can put the fridge on one of Willy Daly’s ponies and take it trekking if you like.’
Honestly, for an inanimate object, it received more offers than I did.
‘I think that might frighten the pony. Maybe we’ll just leave it to hitch today.’
When Nora dropped me outside an ugly development of holiday bungalows on the road from Lahinch to Kilrush, I had absolutely no idea where I was going. Up until that moment I always had at least a destination in mind, even if the reason for it had been as flimsy as someone having mentioned a pleasant pub in the area. But this time I had nothing, I was simply going to wait and see.
No one could have foreseen the night that was ahead.
Cars were scarce and the sky was as unpredictable as my mood. I had slept well, but for some reason I felt irritable. It began to rain, gently at first, but then quite steadily to the point where I needed to get the windcheater from my rucksack. Naturally, it wasn’t sitting welcomingly at the top of the rucksack, but nestling somewhere in the depths of the bag. I began delving. Three delves later I was starting to become angry. Try as I might, I couldn’t locate that waterproof. The rain was now coming down harder and I was beginning to get quite wet. There was nothing for it but to shout at the rucksack. This I did. It made me feel better but offered no protection against the rain. I delved again, this time with a violence not normally associated with such a task. God increased the rain output. I wanted to kick the rucksack and shake my fist at the sky but realised that to do so would mean I was turning into Basil Fawlty.
I was in a no-win situation. Clearly the only way to find what I sought was to empty all the garments in my rucksack one by one on to the roadside, but then the rain would give them a good soaking and they would fester in the confines of the bag for the remainder of the day. However, to remain where I was with no protection, was an invitation to head colds, influenza and pneumonia to ‘Come on in!’ Had I been thirty years younger I would have known exactly what to do. Burst into tears. Cry my little heart out But I was older now, and social programming meant that was no longer an option. With age comes wisdom, circumspectien, maturity and resourcefulness. I had an idea. I knew exactly what to do. I took three steps back from the rucksack, ran at it and gave it an almighty kick. Then I looked up to the heavens and waved my fist angrily.
‘Look rain, just piss off!’ I cried.
It worked. The rain eased off. Fifty yards away, a young woman crossed over on to the other side of the road. No doubt she still remembered her mother’s warnings not to get too close to people who shout at the sky.
I didn’t need the windcheater any more, this was just fine drizzle. But fine drizzle is deceptive. Twenty-five minutes of it can get you extremely wet, but drivers don’t consider it to be serious enough to make them sympathetic to a hitch-hiker’s cause. I sat down on my fridge in resignation. I had forgotten that it was wet and that well-wishers had signed it. Now I would have the inverse of ‘Best Wishes’ written all over my arse. To most it would look like gobbledegook, but it would read correctly to those drivers viewing me in their rear mirror after having driven past, and it would appear that I wasn’t in the least bitter at their failure to stop.
‘Darling, that was unbelievable. That guy was hitching with a fridge, and he had ‘Best Wishes’ written on his bottom.’
It was another excited lorry driver, Tom, who saved the day.
‘Where are you headed?’ he asked.
‘I don’t really know.’
‘Well, isn’t that true of all of us?’
Tom delivered building supplies and pearls of wisdom.
‘I could drop you at Killimer where you can get the ferry across the River Shannon to Kerry,’ he advised me.
The ferry to Kerry. It had a nice ring about it. I got out my map.
‘Yes, and then I could head down to Tralee.’
‘Exactly,’ said Tom, ‘find yourself a rose in Tralee.’
‘Yup, sounds good to me.’
It was late in the day but I finally had a rough game plan. Tom dropped me at the ferry terminal where he posed for pictures with me, the fridge, and some girls from the café who had seen the fridge and come rushing out to greet it I was becoming slightly miffed that this fridge was getting more attention than I was. There was aa hour’s wait for the ferry, which was enough time for the café girls to prove once again that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Once on board I realised that I was the only passenger on foot and since the weather was still inclement, most of the drivers remained inside their vehicles. It occurred to me that all the cars would drive off before I had time to set myself up on the road, so my oufy real way of securing a lift the other side was to wander round asking. This was a particularly undignified practice since it involved tapping on people’s windows and begging. I didn’t feel comfortable with it but it had to be done, because it would be another hour before the ferry dumped its next load, aad even then it woulb be difficult to find a spot where drivers would stop as they drove off the ferry.
Either I was being particularly unlucky or I wasn’t very good at it, but with the southern bank of the Shannon estuary drawing ever closer I was still without an offer. Perhaps the fact that I was separated from my fridge, which was out of sight over by the side of the ferry, was having an adverse effect on my confidence. A coach driver turned me down because he wasn’t insured to take me, a Range Rover full of American golfers simply didn’t have room, and everyone else I asked said they were heading in a different direction.
Finally, I approached a tatty car which I had been leaving until the cause was desperate. The two dishevelled looking men within it looked up at me as I tapped on their window.
‘Excuse me, but you’re not going anywhere near Tralee are you?’
‘We’re going to Listowel,’ replied the driver, without warmth.
‘That’s on the way, isn’t it?’ My earlier glance at the map was proving invaluable.
‘I suppose so.’
‘You couldn’t give me a lift there could you? It’s just that no one seems to be going that way and I’m a bit stuck.’
The two fellows, who I took to be builders such was the distribution of sand, cement and dust throughout their hair and clothes, looked at each other and the older one, the passenger, nodded.
‘Yes, all right. We’ll take you to Listowel.’
They had been rather reluctant, but at least I wasn’t stranded.
I introduced myself, and as I walked down the boat to get my stuff, I realised that these guys, Pat and Michael, knew nothing about the fridge. Everyone who had stopped for me up to now had at least seen that I had a cumbersome piece of luggage with me. I wondered what the response would be. I didn’t have to wait long.
‘Now what in God’s name is that?’ asked Pat.
‘Ifs a fridge.’
‘I thought so.’
They both viewed it in disbelief.
‘Is there enough room in the car for it?’ I checked politely, knowing that there was.
‘Oh yeah. Well stick it in the back,’ said Michael, scratching his head. ‘Excuse my French, but what the fuck are you doing with a fridge?’
I explained, and Pat and Michael shared a look which appeared to mean Veil, at least there’s two of us’.
Pat, who was the driver and the younger of the two, began to relax and chat freely with me after about twenty minutes. Michael, however, sat frozen in the front seat convinced that they had foolishly allowed a dangerous psychopath within easy stabbing range. He shuffled uneasily when I spoke, and flinched every time I made a sudden movement. I got the impression that he hadn’t believed a word I’d said, and was convinced that the fridge contained the vital organs of my victims.
As they dropped me in Listowel, Pat got out and signed the fridge whilst Michael remained glued to the passenger seat, checking my movements in the rear mirror, in case I made a last minute attempt to overpower Pat, grab the keys and drive him to my hideout and begin the torture process.
‘Well, good luck,’ said Pat, shaking my hand.
And from the front of the car I just made out a mumble from Michael, ‘Yeah, good luck to ya.’
This was one very relieved man.
A quick pint was in order, to celebrate the successful negotiation of a tricky part of my journey. Pat had recommended a bar called John B Keane’s, belonging to the author of The Field, which had been made into a film starring John Hurt and Richard Harris. As I walked down the bustling main street towards it, I passed a sign with an arrow pointing to a CASUAL TRADING AREA. What was this? A place specifically for the buying and selling of casual clothes? Would I turn the corner and see stall upon stall packed with slacks, corduroys and Hushpuppies? Or was it a place where the approach to trading was casual? Stallholders lolling about in reclining chairs, reading books and only occasionally giving attention to customers between chapters. John B Keane’s was quite busy for five o’clock in the afternoon. My first impression as I looked around was there were so many contenders for Resident Drunk here that I must have walked into a Resident Drunks’ convention. Spirits were high, and the introduction of a stranger with a rucksack and a fridge caused an increase in volume, excitement and laughter.
Val, a thin fellow in his fifties with glasses, moustache and with a peaked blue cap on, was the most vociferous. He announced that he was a plain-clothes policeman and required some questions to be answered.
‘What’s in the fridge?’
‘A couple of pairs of shoes.’
It was true. That morning I had struggled to get my shoes stuffed into the top of the rucksack, so what better place to put them?
‘No one keeps shoes in a fridge,’ said Val, logically enough.
‘Let me see. I’m a policeman.’ Then he announced to the room, ‘I have to see what is in that fridge, there may be a bomb.’
His authority was strongly questioned by those who knew him, and he was lambasted with remarks like ‘Leave the poor fella alone’ and ‘If Val’s a policeman, then my arse is president’.
‘No, it’s all right,’ I declared, ‘I have nothing to hide. I respect that the police are simply doing their job.’
Big laughs. Val got down on to his hands and knees and prepared to open the fridge door.
‘There’s no way anyone would keep shoes in a feckin’ fridge!’
As he opened the door an expectant crowd gathered round. To Val’s dismay, a pair of brown shoes fell out on to the carpet. Huge cheers. Val turned to me, ‘Where are you from?’
‘Where in London?’
‘Ah Wimbledon. So you’re the Wimbledon Wanderer. What’s your name?’
‘Hawks. Hawks. like the hawk in the sky. Hawkeye. You’re a good man. Anyone who keeps shoes in a fridge is a good man.’ He turned to the barmaid, ‘Elsie, get this man a pint’
I wifl never again in my life earn a pint in such a way.
The fridge sat centre-stage on the carpet in the middle of the saloon bar’s floor, and drinkers filed past paying homage to it like it was some kind of holy relic. Two old women called Finola and Maureen were fascinated by the whole business of the bet, and fired off question after question. Laughs greeted each reply, and the questions became more outlandish.
‘Do you sleep in it as well?’
‘Of course I do. It’s like the Tardis in there. Open up that door and you go into a two-bedroom flat. Two bathrooms, one en suite from the main bedroom.’
Maureen, who was waving a large whiskey around in front of her like a lantern, started to tell me something about this being writers’ week in Listowel and that she was on the committee, and then she started to ramble on about her son in New Zealand, but a combination of her accent, slurring, and Val intermittently shouting at her to shut up, made her difficult to follow.
‘Shut up Maureen! Leave Hawkeye alone,’ Val would cry.
I had only been in the pub half an hour and already I had a nickname. At last I had discovered one area where the Irish move quickly.
‘Where are you staying, Hawkeye?’
‘I don’t know, Val. I haven’t even decided if I’m going to stay here in Listowel.’
‘Well, if you do, you can stay at my place. It’s a big house on the hill—very quiet and peaceful. You will be in the bed of tranquillity.’
I appreciated his attempt at lyricism, but he made the proposed place of slumber sound too much like a final resting place for me to jump at the offer.
‘That’s very kind of you. If it’s all right, I’ll see how things pan out.’
‘Pan away. Pan away. Hawkeye. Hawkeye, the Wimbledon Wanderer.’
A very old man at the bar who sounded like a male equivalent of my first landlady in Donegal Town, only with an even slower delivery, announced that he was eighty-four. Sometimes that is enough for an old person conversationally, but he had more to add. He looked down at the fridge and said, ‘That fridge has the spirit of the nomadic urge in it.’
There was clearly no generation gap involved in embracing the concept of a travelling fridge.
Maureen insisted I sat down next to her whilst she wrote out the address of her son in New Zealand. She handed me a piece of paper on which I could just make out the number 7, but not one word was legible. I promised to look him up if I was ever in New Zealand, although I anticipated that 7 Gty$a RelT Broi⁄9unter, GoptS-yyi, might be a difficult address to locate.
On the other side of me two ill-groomed ne’er-do-wells were sat with their feet up, enjoying the show that everyone else had been putting on for them.
One of them, the one with a moustache and marginally less grime all over his clothes, leant towards me and asked, ‘Are you a bachelor?’
This was not a question I had expected.
‘Yes I am,’ I replied, a little suspiciously.
‘Course he is,’ said the other, ‘you don’t think a wife would let him take off round Ireland with a feckin’ fridge in tow would you?’
An aspect of married life that I had never considered.
‘Why do you want to know?’ I asked, defensively.
‘Well, there’s a bachelor festival in Ballyduff tonight, and we were just talking and saying how it might be a laugh if you entered. You could enter the fridge too, unless the feckin’ thing is married.’
I had no idea really. I assumed that when you buy a fridge brand new, it’s single. That’s the danger of buying a re-conditioned number. You’ve no idea how many acrimonious divorces it may have been through.
‘Maybe it’s married to him,’ said the one with the moustache. ‘They’re travelling together aren’t they? Maybe they’re on their honeymoon.’
The pub clientele were in fits of laughter. It was time to set the record straight.
‘The fridge and I aren’t married. We are just good friends and there is nothing going on between us.’
As a witness to this, I wouldn’t be calling Ann-Marie, the landlady who had seen me drag it from my bedroom dressed in a wetsuit.
These two jokers were Brian and Joe, who laid hardwood floors for a living, and appeared to get most of the glue involved in the process over themselves rather than the floors. Both were married and so weren’t eligible to enter the bachelor festival themselves, but they knew the owner of Low’s Bar where the event was taking place and were sure they could get me in as a late entrant The general consensus in the pub was that I should go with them and try my luck, and even though I had no idea what a bachelor festival was, or what might be required of me, it sounded more appealing than a night at Val’s.
Driving off with two slightly dodgy-looking characters who I had known for fifteen minutes was the biggest risk I had taken so far. Were I never to be seen again, then justifiable questions would be asked about the wisdom and judgement I had shown in those last hours.
The fridge was deposited in the back of the van and I climbed into the cabin and put my seatbelt on, knowing that it might mean the difference between survival and a bed of tranquillity. We sped off towards Ballyduff.
My mobile phone rang. Extraordinarily, it was my agent calling from London.
‘Hi Tony, it’s Mandy. Whereabouts are you?’
Honestly of all the unnecessary questions! Isn’t it obvious? I’m speeding down the road in a Transit van on my way to the Ballyduff bachelor festival with two hardwood flooring guys, where do you think?
‘Oh hi Mandy, it’s a little difficult to explain exactly where I am. I’m in transit.’
‘But you’re in safe hands?’
‘Radio Four have phoned and asked if you can do I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue next Thursday. Will you be back in time?’
‘I don’t think so, and even if I am, I doubt my brain will be in any condition for the delivery of ready wit and repartee.’
‘What shall I tell them then?’
‘I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.’
Brian and Joe called out ‘Hi Mandy! How ya doing?’ and the phone’s signal disappeared as we bumped our way round another bend some where in the heart of County Kerry. Poor Mandy, she must despair of me at times.
Career successfully on hold, it was time to get on with the more important business in hand.
‘So, what exactly will I have to do at this bachelor festival?’
‘Oh, a bit of an interview, maybe a party piece.’
‘And what happens if I win?’
There I was deluding myself again.
‘You win a week at the Ballybunion bachelor festival.’
And I suppose if you won that, they packed you off to another one somewhere else. No wonder they marry young in Ireland—purely to avoid this endless circuit of bachelor festivals.
I’m not sure whether Ballyduff is a town which figures greatly on any tourist map, and there was unlikely to be a wide range of choice in the field of accommodation. In fact, a field might be the best it had to offer. I had no worries though because Brian’s wife and kids were up visiting relatives in Northern Ireland, and he said it wouldn’t be a problem to stay at his place.
It was quite a plush residence built on one storey, which suggested to me that smearing glue over his clothes all day provided him with a very reasonable income.
Perhaps it had been the conversation with Willy Daly about the history of the matchmaking festival which ted me to believe that mis also might be a time-honoured event, steeped in convention and revered by single women from miles around who came to peruse the eligible with a view to pouncing. (Unlike Lisdoonvarna, I reckoned that it probably didn’t have a reputation to attract Americans yet, so saw no reason to black out any teeth.)
When we arrived at Low’s Bar at around nine, it was too early, and the only evidence that there was going to be a bachelor festival in the pub was a small sign saying ‘BACHELORFESTIVAL TONIGHT’. The pub itself wasn’t the old, traditional hostelry I was expecting, but a large newly refurbished establishment with TV screens everywhere, a dancefloor with a DJ, and staff in matching uniform. This pub belonged in the town centre of Swindon, not in a tiny rural outpost in the west of Ireland. It had another thing in common with a pub in the town centre of Swindon—it was virtually empty. We were told things wouldn’t get going till around midnight, and withdrew to the small pub over the road where the music wasn’t blaring and we could converse without doing lasting damage to our vocal chords.
Several pints and an unstimulating game of darts later, we returned to find Low’s Bar heaving with young people. The DJ was announcing the imminent commencement of the bachelor festival. Festival? I looked around me and saw nothing to justify the use of the word festival. The atmosphere was exactly that of a nightclub where audience interest in the stage was fuelled by a desire to watch a few drunken friends and acquaintances humiliate themselves. The men outnumbered the women, which suggested that the women folk of Ballyduff were either already sorted or knew of better ways to go about getting so. The imbalance in the sexes certainly wasn’t the result of a huge entry for the bachelor festival.
There were six of us.
The DJ kicked off proceedings with a booming announcement through the PA in an Irish version of the mid-Atlantic accent all disc jockeys use. The first two young men he invited on stage were fat and drunk. They mumbled incomprehensibly into the microphone and sang like pining dogs. The audience shouted encouragement at them which sounded like general abuse.
In one sense I was heartened—the competition so far wasn’t up to much, but on the down side, the audience weren’t the most sophisticated I had ever witnessed. I still had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I was called up there. I turned to Joe who was stood alongside me like a supportive personal manager. ‘What shall I do?’
‘Oh, just tell a couple of jokes.’
This, given my profession, ought to have been an area in which I could excel. I felt pretty confident that none of the other bachelors had the experience of a Royal Gala under their belt (unless the King of Tory held one), and I knew that this should give me the edge over them, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t recall any section of my act which I felt would satiate the baying rabble who made up the audience.
A guy called John was before me. He was a considerable improvement on the previous two entrants. He wasn’t drunk and he sang rather well. For the first time I began to feel some nerves. Finally it was my turn, and the DJ began his intro.
‘And now we have a late entry, he’s a young man who is travelling round the country with a fridge. You may have heard him on The Gerry Ryan Show, ladies and gentlemen—Tony Hawks!’
Cheers and whistles as I made my way to the stage. I still had absolutely no idea what I was going to do or say. The microphone was handed to me by an unusually slim assistant who fixed me with a demented smile.
‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen,’ I began, cleverly drawing on all my experience, ‘I am delighted to be here, lama bachelor, not surprisingly I suppose, as a man who has chosen to travel around the country with a fridge, but I have always harboured a deep desire to marry a woman from Ballyduff.’
So far so good. This remark was cheered by the females in the audience, one girl somewhere out in the darkness urgently shouting ‘COME ON!!’ almost as if I’d done enough already, and that we could both disappear off now to finalise the wedding details with the priest. A general hubbub continued for what seemed a very long time but was only a matter of seconds, with diverse views on the merits of my marrying a local girl being offered at volume by most in attendance. I stood there, temporarily mesmerised by the yells of a frenzied and expectant crowd. I almost had an out of body experience in which I hovered above myself, had a bit of a look, and said, ‘How the hell did you get yourself into that?’ A particularly piercing female voice brought me round to reality. Implausible reality.
‘HAS THE FRIDGE GOT A FREEZERCOMPARTMENT!?’ she demanded at the top of her voice.
A sudden hush descended. It was almost as if she had touched on a point on which everyone needed clarification.
‘I’m not taking questions yet,’ I replied.
I got a laugh. Thirty seconds in, I was going quite well.
Tilings deteriorated from here. By a minute I was sweating and at a minute thirty I was in some trouble. Somehow I managed to come up with a section of my material which might save the day, and performed it with as much confidence as I could muster. It didn’t save the day. What it did, was win me a few more seconds struggling in front of a crowd who were now vaguely supportive but who were never going to fully appreciate the only things I was capable of doing for them.
‘I’m not sure what I should do now,’ I admitted to them honestly.
‘Do Tony Blair—things can only get better!’ shouted a male voice unhelpfully.
‘Do the Stutter Rap!’ called another, revealing a tragic past.
Joe, who was stood behind me, whispered keenly, ‘Do some more of the jokes. More of the funny stuff.’
I would have done if I could have remembered any of it The excesses of the past few weeks had temporarily erased it from my memory. Then I had an idea.
‘I know what I’ll do, I’ll sing a song,’ I announced, to sceptical cheers. ‘I’ve learnt what you have to do over here—you close your eyes and sing from the heart. This isn’t an Irish song, because I don’t know any—but it’s a song I wrote myself a few years back. So here goes.’
Already this had created as much hush as the enquiry about the freezer compartment had done. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and sang from the heart.
If I had a dollar for each lonely night
That I had spent longing for you
I wouldn’t be drifting or travelling light
For there have been more than a few
Cos I’ve been a drifter, and whilst I’ve been drifting
The real world has broken me in two
And if I had a dollar for each lonely night,
I’d be rich, blue and lonely
Instead of just lonely and blue.
Singing has a special place in the hearts of the Irish. The respectful quiet I was afforded for this performance and the rapturous applause it received proved that. I had won them over.
‘Goodnight!’ I announced with a rock and roll wave.
Surely that had assured my place in Ballybunion. As I proudly walked from the stage with the cheers still ringing in my ears, I noticed that the DJ wasn’t there to introduce the next bachelor. I was intercepted by the unusually slim assistant, whose demented smile had now become a demented grimace. He waved me back on.
‘You’ll have to do some more, Callum’s in the toilet,’ he said.
‘You’ve got to keep going till Callum the DJ gets back from the toilet. He heard that you were a bit of a comedian and he thought you were going to do about twenty minutes up there, so he thought there’d be time to go to the bog.’
‘Can’t I introduce the next bachelor?’
‘No, cos Callum’s got the running order with him.’
What did he need the bloody running order with him for? Wasn’t there any toilet paper? The assistant pushed me back out to the microphone. What followed undid all the good work that the song had done because I couldn’t think of anything further to offer. The chorus of unhelpful suggestions began again, and all the time I could hear Joe persistently whispering behind me—‘Do some more of the jokey stuff.’
Callum was taking his time. For the first time in my career, my success on stage was entirely dependent on a disc jockey’s bowel movements. I floundered. If you had wanted to demonstrate to someone the meaning of the word floundering’ you simply could have led them there and pointed at me. There, see that bloke there—now that’s ‘floundering’.’ The day needed saving and Brian provided the requisite initiative. Recognising that I wasn’t in the midst of one of show business’s most outstanding performances he had nipped outside to the van to fetch something he felt might help. Just as the audience contributions had reached a level where an outsider walking in would have believed there was a riot about to happen, Brian marched up the middle of the dance floor pulling my fridge behind him.