He’s standing by the road on the Cork side of Macroom. The arm is out with the thumb pointing towards the city, but he’s not looking at traffic. It’s raining and it has the makings of a miserable morning. His black leather jacket goes just to the hips and looks as if the one button is holding it closed. What could be a thick, cream-coloured woolly jumper is sticking out from the lapels. Wet, combed-back hair, possibly by his fingers, reaches down to the collar of the jacket, sticking to it in places. Cars are moving slowly, the traffic is heavy and wet, dirty mist is adding to the delays.
The car behind me is far enough back and I indicate to pull in. The man looks surprised but walks over quickly and opens the door. His pockmarked, badly shaven face is younger than I expected and the blue eyes stand out under bushy eyebrows.
“I’m going to Cork”, he says, “are you going that way?”
He gets in. The scent of damp from being out in the mist is underlined by a heavier one of not being washed but I’ve smelt worse. His blue jeans are baggy on his skinny legs and are black at the creases, and even when sitting down the denim is nearly covering his muddy shoes.
“I’m only going as far as Ballincollig,” I say using my usual escape clause of the next town, in case things don’t go well and I need an excuse to get him out.
“That’s ok,” is the humble answer and I feel a bit of guilt at lying.
We drive on a bit when he appears to start talking to himself.
“Thank you for stopping,” he says after a couple of minutes.
“That’s ok. Were you there for long?”
More talking to himself.
“About an hour I suppose,” he looks down at his feet as he talks.
“Nobody would stop for you, even on such a dirty day and all the traffic on the road?”
“I suppose people are busy,” he looks up at me for the first time.
I realise that what I thought was my passenger talking to himself is his way of gathering his thoughts before speaking, possibly overcoming a speech impediment. We don’t make much eye contact but I feel comfortable with him.
“What are you up to in Cork?” I ask.
“Going up to the Penny Dinners, I haven’t eaten for a few days. They always do a good meal there.”
I don’t know what to say. I know of the Penny Dinners on Little Hanover Street as it gets a lot of coverage. We had the Penny Dinners in Cobh when I was at school. Our 3rd Class teacher would collect from the boys and he’d often send me around to the other classes for names, which I’d write in a little accounting notebook. It was a way of feeding those who maybe weren’t guaranteed a hot meal at home in the 1970s. The fact that people are travelling over 30 miles for a hot meal in 2019 amazes me. I discover later that he doesn’t have the money for the bus and will need to hitch home again.
“They do great work,” I say.
“They do, but they close at one so I left home early.”
Home is southwest of Macroom, about another 15 miles from where I picked him up. He lives alone in a small cottage and moved there when he was about three.
“Have you any other family?”
“No, it was just me and the father and he’s gone now.”
“Do you keep any animals?”
“No, no animals by me at all, just me at home.”
We drive on in silence.
“When did you last eat?” I ask after a while.
It’s now just gone ten on Tuesday.
We talk as I drive. He’s 55 and worked all his life, and has even calculated how much he earned and the tax paid during those years.
“Nearly 650,000 in earnings and about 400,00 of that to the taxman, I never married so I was in Bracket A,” he says, referring to his tax band.
The hitchhiker worked on the buildings, in factories and a bakery for over 16 years, leaving home at four every morning, six days a week. The bakery and the factories are gone, and the buildings are only for the young man now. He never went into ‘the pubs or gambling houses’, though he has a couple of cans of beer at home on Thursdays. His face is free of the tell-tale signs of the drinker, though the fingertips are stained yellow.
“Another few years and you’ll be able to retire,” I joke and he laughs and nods, “you’ll even have the free travel.”
“If I get there,” he says, “it’s hard to live it.”
I turn off at Ballincollig but head into the city along the Carrigrohane Road. My passenger doesn’t say anything about me not turning for Ballincollig. As we pass the County Hall, I say that I’ll take him all the way to the Penny Dinners.
“Thank you, very good of you,” he says in that polite, humble voice.
Cork is busy with students, cars, bikes and people going about their business. I stop at a red light by the Maltings and I say that he may as well hop out as the Penny Dinners is close by.
“Thank you,” he says getting out.
“Enjoy the meal,” I say, and he nods back in the door as he closes it gently.
The hands go in the pockets. The thick collar of the woolly jumper is pushed up over his neck by a shrug of his shoulders against the cold. The blue jeans are well over the shoes, worn at the cuffs from dragging along beneath his feet.
“It’s hard it to live it,” he’d said earlier.
I see what he means.