Category Archives: Long Reads

A read of five minutes or more

Christmas in Cobh

Christmas cards filling the post-box on the back of the oak, hall door and spilling out onto the brown carpet below on busy days. Fruit cake ready for decorating on top of the piano, letters for Santa sent and ham, spiced beef and turkey on order from Geasley’ butchers.  Signs in our house that Christmas was on its way in the 1970s. The buying of the tree from O’Mahoney’s was another one, though it wouldn’t go up till the week before Christmas, filling the front room with the scent of pine, and those age-old decorations were our colours of Christmas.

My father bringing the Christmas RTE Guide home from Cork, was a sure sign that Christmas was on its way. Two weeks of Christmas TV all laid out in a colourful magazine and how they managed to fit so much into a publication for listing a couple of TV channels and radio stations was an editorial feat. There wasn’t any looking at it before dinner, though later in the front room you could count the number of pages there were to Christmas and even see ‘Christmas Eve’ spelt out in big letters. We didn’t have an Advent Calendar in our house, we had the RTE Guide. I never went beyond Christmas Day; I didn’t want to look at a future where Christmas Day was in the past.

Before the RTE Guide would make its way down from Cork in my father’s briefcase the Holly Bough would have come to Rushbrooke Terrace. Dad would get it about a week earlier, and I’d scour it for stories and photos of Cobh. Christmas cards would be arriving by then, stuffing the post box each day while the rush was on: Aunt Joan in Wales, Sister Eileen in Mill Hill, London, Uncle Dick in Dublin and Uncle Billy in Athlone, godparents, cousins and family friends all thinking of us. The cards would go on the mantlepiece, in the Christmas tree and on string fixed across alcoves and over the fireplace. If there were an overflow, they’d go in the kitchen or the room we called the tenement.

As soon as it got dark on Christmas Eve I’d light the tall, red candle in the window on the stairs. It was the privilege of the youngest. Before going to bed, I’d put out the sandwich, slice of cake and a bottle of stout for Santa. The excitement was high, but you had to sleep, else Santa wouldn’t come. We’d be up early Christmas morning to see what was in our stockings, no more than old pillowslips, at the end of the bed. Santa was always good, we usually didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but the great man did seem to know what we’d like. I’d get a big present and a few smaller ones, along with the Dandy and the Shoot annuals; Dandy went up to Victor when I was about nine or ten.

Later when going downstairs, you’d see the plate covered with crumbs and the empty bottle of Guinness with the stained glass beside it. Dad would come down, and we’d get ready for the walk to 8:30am Mass in Norwood Church. There would be few cars on the road those Christmas mornings and the many families walking to Mass would string out on the road to chat. In Norwood we’d sing our carols, say our prayers and our tummies would rumble. Outside afterwards we’d greet friends, telling what we got before rushing home for breakfast. You’d be starving after being up since seven, and there was no eating before Mass. There’d be no eating after the cooked breakfast neither, as you had to keep the appetite for the dinner at 3pm.

After breakfast we’d open the presents under the tree, the ones from each other and close relatives. More fun, more delight and more playing and even reading. The excitement would level out, and, after a visit from Aunty Una and family, Ella and Jane would take over the kitchen, creating the once-a-year feast we all loved so much. The oven would be roasting meat, knives would be chopping veg and pots would be boiling potatoes and ham. The extractor would be on fulltime in the window, and my young nose would pick up more scents of Christmas.

Dad and I would set the table, first moving it in from the tenement, where it lived in the bay window for the other 364 days of the year. It was an extendable, square, pine table on four stout legs, slowly being eaten away by woodworm, as was most of the furniture in that rarely used room. We would take the top off, and the stress levels would begin to rise as we’d edge the heavy base, on its side, out the door and into the sitting room. All you could hear for a while would be ‘careful, careful, mind the door, mind the paint, mind the furniture’. Dad feared that the top wouldn’t fit again properly and he’d spend the time before dinner adjusting it or grimacing at any trembles. Once the table was in place, we’d dress it from the old oak sideboard.  Out would come the full set of fine bone china, the embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins Uncle Dick brought back from his time in Cyprus, the gravy and sauce boats, the two-sided vegetable bowls and the good wine glasses.  

With the table laid, the food ready and the TV off, the spread would come in from the kitchen. Turkey, ham, spiced beef, roast potatoes, mashed spuds, potato croquettes, stuffing, gravy, bread sauce, carrots, brussels sprouts, sliced beans and cranberry sauce. All served in the fine china, including gravy boat and lidded bowls, and placed along the embroidered tablecloth. The fire was going from mid-morning, the room would be roasting, and we’d sit down to the best dinner of the year. We had lemonade and Dad a glass of wine, with Ella and Jane graduating to Babycham as they came of age. After dinner, the plates and food were cleared and desserts put on the side-table where usually the papers lay during the rest of the year: the Christmas pudding, the trifle and the strawberry mousse, each with their specific serving dish, along with the whipped cream. More eating. Dad always had a portion of all three in his bowl, while we stuck to the one. The crackers would have been pulled by then, with the bad jokes told, and we would take a few photographs of the family with paper hats sliding off our heads

I wonder where those photos are now? Maybe Jane has some in the old albums? My memories I keep stored in the part of my brain labelled ‘Christmas in Cobh.’ Thankfully Ella gave the sideboard, tablecloth and fine bone china a home when Dad sold the house, so some of the tradition lives on in Cobh. I still love that innocent happiness of Christmas as a child, which I now try to recreate for Ruby and Freddie every year. Hopefully Lisa and I succeed in adding to their memory banks. The scents are the same, the fun and tastes of Christmas time too but it still goes too fast, much too fast.

Mr Leahy Is Still Dancing

The man from the bed by the window follows me down to the TV room. While I watch the football he sits on a chair by the wall away to my right. A tall man, probably around my age and dressed in chequered pyjamas, he’s not wearing a dressing gown but is in slippers and socks. Behind the strong-looking glasses, his eyes move in separate orbits. We make small talk about the match, though he can’t possibly see the screen from his seat and his biggest contribution is that English football has gone to the dogs since all the foreign money arrived.

After a bit he asks what by now are the usual questions: ‘What was I in for? How long was I going to be in? What do the doctors say?’ After giving him a full rundown, he tells me about being in for eight weeks, after a stroke at 5 o’clock one morning nearly killed him. Another clot in his leg has him using a walking stick, the hospital-issue aluminium type with a padded handle. Pneumonia contracted in the hospital had gone undetected until one day he passed out while doing physio for the wonky leg. Now he’s back to normal and hoping that a meeting of the brass on Friday will get him home. He’s definitely cross-eyed, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the stroke or the clot? The man sees me as an ally of sorts and finally, when finished with the questions, he warns:

“Take no notice of that fellow beside you. He’s fucking mad. He roared at one of the nurses last week. Blamed her for him falling over. Said she had pulled the floor out from under him when he was walking,” his eyes seem to be jumping all over his face as he speaks, just like, well a madman, or one of those exaggerated lunatics you see in silent movies. Then he gets up but stops behind my back, so I have to turn to see his face, the eyes still looking like they have a life of their own behind the glasses. He’s looking at the screen, but I’m wondering why he is standing behind me to do so.

“The rest of them are ok, but he’s mad, fucking mad, take no notice,” he says and walks out the door. No goodbye or see you later, just the advice. I wait for a while before going to bed, to let the other five fall asleep and when back on the ward, I close the curtains and read until my eyes won’t stay open.

The next morning begins as they always do in hospital, with a nurse waking me around six o’clock. Nurse Honey, her actual name, takes my blood pressure, makes sure my monitor is in place and reading properly, before handing me a tub of pills, which I swallow with a glass of water. After the meds Nurse Honey produces a syringe and apologises:

 “Sorry Mr Verling,’ she says, unsheathing the long needle, “this has to go into your stomach.”

“That’s fine,” I smile back, “I had two yesterday. I’m used to it.”

I never thought I’d be used to getting injections of blood thinners directly into my stomach. Spending time in hospital due to ill-health is something else I presumed was well down the line. Not so, and two months before my 50th birthday I’m lying out in a six-bed ward, fascinated and scared all at the same time. My heart isn’t working properly, so cardiograph and blood readings tell the doctors, though I feel fine. After Nurse Honey goes I fall back to sleep, making the most of the quiet on the ward.

Two hours later I’m reading my book and the ‘fucking madman’ is sitting in his chair. Mr Leahy, I heard Nurse Honey call him, is looking at me with a gentle pleading, like a man desperate for help though embarrassed to ask. Nurse Honey had put him in his chair between our beds and went to get a blanket. Mr Leahy is an elderly man who probably feels as helpless as a child once more, and doesn’t like it but hasn’t a choice. The curtain is half-drawn between us, but he pushes it back or at least tries too before I pull it fully to the wall.

“You in long?” I ask.

The others in the ward fall silent.

“One year,” he says with the index finger on his right hand pointing up and a slight flick of the wrist for emphasis.

“A year?” I ask, genuinely shocked. I thought the cross-eyed man’s eight weeks was long enough.

He nods.

“I was fine at first, but my legs have got bad since I came in. I can barely walk now.”

“A year in this ward?” I ask again.

“Here, there and everywhere”, he points around him, at imaginary places.

The others are all looking at us now. Were they familiar with this, another rookie being sucked in until the madman blew?

“Nobody wants to hold onto me. They keep sending me back here.”

He must be difficult all right I think, the warning of the ‘madman’ still playing in my head. Nobody wanted him could be true; he was probably too much trouble, too likely to fly off the handle when you least expected him. Now he’s dumped here, back where they might be able to control him, dumped on the public ward where different staff would have to deal with him because they were obliged to, an obligation of care. A year without visitors or anyone to talk to and so bad on his feet that he can’t get out of bed without help. I look at him in blue pyjamas like my father would wear and a heavy dressing gown, waiting for someone to get him ready for the day. Mr Leahy may once have been someone’s husband, a childhood sweetheart or a good friend. Why he’s here alone and for so long I don’t know, but life does have so many twists and turns.

“My feet are frozen,” he says and points to his exposed lower legs, “from there down I can’t feel a thing except the cold.”

Outside the sun is shining, the warm sun of early summer and our ward, facing south is getting the best of it, but when I look at Mr Leahy’s legs, they look lifeless. Both legs, from before the ankles and down to his toes, are shapeless, like skinned branches of a tree left to bleach in the sun. The toenails are clipped, but the skin looks dead, more like a large human crubeen than anything else.

“They look bad alright,” I say.

He puts his feet on a pillow from the bed and puts another pillow on top.

“I have to try keep them warm,” he says, settling back into the chair, resting his arms on the narrow wooden handles, before reaching behind to take the emergency-button console down from the holder on the wall and putting it between the pillows too, “this heater will do the job. They will soon begin to heat up now and get the circulation going.”

I don’t know what to say. The others are looking over still, and one of them laughs. It isn’t for me to correct him and from the look of his feet, I reckon a four-bar heater wouldn’t make a difference. Neatly and carefully, he closes up any gaps between to two pillows, bending over and flattening them together.

“That’s better,” he says while fixing the second pillow on top.

Sitting up again he pushes his fine hair back off his face, flattening the lengths over his scalp and behind his ears. Though fine and grey, it’s thick too, like the hair of a young man. I can see how he had once been young, which you can’t with everyone. Pushing his hair back is a lifetime habit, I guess, and the hairstyle is one he has groomed since he became a proud young man, and the pride is still in there. The handsome face beneath deserves to be shown, but the fine, almost wrinkle-free skin is that colour of a man who has been indoors for a long time. Mr Leahy’s high cheekbones are obvious and beneath his eyes is almost free of any bags. This is a man who likes to look tidy, aware of keeping up appearances. For Mr Leahy it must have been a change to come in here, being under the control of others is something new.

With his feet covered Mr Leahy rarely looks at me, instead staring forward as he talks and looks at some spot on the far wall. Maybe his eyesight isn’t great, I think, though I can’t see glasses anywhere. Maybe he’s used to people listening to him, and even though he doesn’t raise his voice, I can hear him clearly, as obviously can the ones across the other side of the ward. Another nurse comes with a blanket and places it over the pillows, leaving, I notice, the ‘heater’ in place. The nurse tucks the blanket under Mr Leahy’s cushions and pads it in around the gap between them.

“There, that will do you better,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Mr Leahy, like a helpless schoolboy who has been done a favour from a visiting aunt or uncle.

The nurse leaves without a word, not looking at anyone and I smile at him as he turns to check the ward from the open doorway, but he doesn’t return the gesture, just speeds off to his next task.

“How’s that now?” I ask.

“Fine,” he answers, in what I now recognise as a Cork lilt.

Mr Leahy sits no more than a couple of feet away from me, but looking out as if in a room on his own. I wonder if this been his way always or is it something he’s doing from a year inside, gradually becoming institutionalised by the daily boredom. Mr Leahy has a noble face, with the strong features set off by that mane of grey hair, and the steady stare is not intimidating but that of a man who has a lot going on in his head. Was being ignored, being alone, contributing to his condition? Is his treatment one of minimum care with the hope he’ll stay quiet and not be trouble, leaving staff to care for those who needed more immediate attention? I could have stared at him all day and I don’t think he would have noticed, unlike us who are aware of the world and don’t like the attention. I wonder what his story is, why he’s in here, what had he done with his life?

The cough of the man across the way starts like the outboard motor of a small boat trying to splutter into action. The sound is the only one now in the ward, everyone else is settled, the morning preparations are over and we are ready to face the day.

“Do you like music?” Mr Leahy asks after the coughing stops.

“I do,” I answer.

“My father, Lord have mercy on him, always wanted two things for me,” he continues, “he wanted me to have a trade and to love music.”

“Was he a musician?” I ask.

“No, but he was a beautiful dancer. You should have seen him dancing across the floor with the cousins. Everyone watching him dance,” Mr Leahy’s voice fades as if he’s watching his father dance while talking to me.

“Can you dance?”

“Yes, but not anymore,” Mr Leahy says looking at his feet, “I still remember all the jig steps though: ‘Hop one, hop down, hop one two three four.”

Mr Leahy’s feet move to his jig timings. I look at his face watching his feet move. Is he remembering a love he once danced with in a time now gone, or is it his father gliding across the floor teaching him the steps?

There is sadness in Mr Leahy but he’s not a madman, just a gentle soul alone at the end of his life.

By Your Dog Shall You Be Known

While standing outside Eason’s I see a man I know walking through the crowd. Dressed in his barrister’s suit and head down in deep conversation with an elegant looking lady, I almost don’t recognise Richard. We say a brief hello as he hurries past, while the lady with him glances at me with a look of recognition. I try to place her too, but as she’s in close discussion with Richard, I only get a side view of her face.

I’m waiting for my daughter Ruby, who’s buying a few lastminute college things around town before returning for what will, in all probability, be a few weeks away. Ruby came home for the days just gone, but we both know that with the pandemic spreading it’s for the best that she returns to Limerick until the worst of it passes.  Neither of us is saying anything, but the feeling is there. I also know that it might be my last bit of time with Ruby for the next few weeks and to make the most of our morning.  

Waiting for Ruby gives me time to stand still and watch Tralee go about its business, and I think this is my first time since the March lockdown that I have time to do it. After Richard passes a few more familiar faces go into Eason’s or carry on to Pennys. People nod or say hello, and often I won’t recognise someone as they are wearing a mask. I’m wary of coming too close to anyone and keep moving, sentry-like, up and down outside the shop. A few minutes go by of watching and moving until Richard reappears on his own, with the usual smile on his face. I smile back, happy to see him.

“How’s Daisy?” he asks.

Daisy is our family dog. A lovable ball of fur who wriggles and smiles when she sees you and though only small in stature, holds a huge place in all our hearts. I take Daisy for a walk around the town park every morning. We usually leave around eight o’clock, doing two laps of the 35-acres, meeting other dogs and their owners along the way. Who we meet and where depends on our time of leaving home. How Richard knows of Daisy and why he’s asking me about her catches me by surprise.

“She’s fine,” I answer, always happy to talk about our little ragamuffin.

“That was my Mum with me, and she asked ‘who’s that man?’ when we said hello,” Richard explains to my probably quizzical looking face,  “she meets you every morning in the park with Daisy, when she’s walking Alfie,”

“Ah, that’s why I knew her from somewhere,” I laugh, knowing now who the lady Richard was talking to earlier – Alfie’s owner.

Each day I enter the park through the kissing gates by Castle Countess. Often as I walk up the well- worn, poured-concrete steps to the path, I meet Alfie and his owner. If not right at the top of the steps, it is somewhere close by. Alfie’s problem is an infatuation with Daisy; not content with seeing her he’ll stop and not move until Daisy comes along. Daisy shows little interest in Alfie, another small dog, but it’s nothing personal, Daisy just loves humans over dogs. Even if they are ahead of us in the park, Alfie will sit down and not budge. Often Richard’s Mum will be pulling at him or cajoling him just to move but to little or no avail. The other dog with them takes no interest in Daisy except maybe to bark before going for a sniff in the leaves. For Alfie though it’s love, and most mornings I’ll have to try rush past, apologising for delaying the team out for their walk. Without Alfie by her side, I didn’t recognise Richard’s Mum in town, though we have had many laughs at the hopelessness of Alfie’s love. Lately though Alfie has fallen out of love and our chatting time has reduced as a result.

It’s the same around the park. We meet Bailey and her master every day, and each time Daisy and Bailey will have a barking match and block each other’s path until one blinks, and gives way. I’ve no idea of who Bailey’s owner is or where he lives, though we have great chats most days. There’s also Teddy who is now in love with Daisy too, a small black fellow who, like Alfie, won’t budge until he sniffs at Daisy, much to his owner’s annoyance. I’ve often spoken with another walker about our dogs, the upset he went through when one died and about caring for his sick father when in A&E one night. I don’t know his name and almost didn’t recognise him this morning when I met him carrying a plastic bag but without his dog. I was later than usual, and the man had already walked the dog and was on his way home after doing the shopping. Another woman I meet always apologises for her Yorkie snuffling around Daisy, but as I always tell her, there’s no need. One woman who doesn’t know me but whose son is a friend of Lisa’s through work, will stop to discuss politics and whatever is in the news, while her new arrival Scarlett the beagle, gets to know Daisy. Their tetchy relationship is improving, but Scarlett definitely takes after her movie heroine namesake at times, not that Daisy is the best example of how to behave in public. Owners and dogs meet at different stages of our walks but are known only to each other by our four-legged companions.

When Daisy and I come home each morning, Lisa will always ask who we met, and I’ll list off all these people whose names I do not know, starting with ‘Oh Alfie and his owner’, (now ‘Alfie and Richard’s mother,’) or ‘Bailey and Bailey’s Dad,’ or ‘the Polish lady and her funny little dog,’ and add a few lines from each conversation.  

Now I realise I’m probably one of these people in the others’ homes. I’m ‘the man with the beard with Daisy’ who is a story in another kitchen when a morning walk is over. No doubt it is the same all over the world, and there’s something warming about how the simple ways of our dogs define how we are recognised. The nod, the chat, and comments on the weather make for a pleasant beginning to a day, and start lovely friendships.

What the dogs make of it all is anyone’s guess.

The Captain and the Mules

A phone rings as I back the car into a spot near the Listowel Arms. I don’t recognise the ringtone; it’s an old one and the sound is very tinny. I look out the open window and down at my phone. Nobody nearby and mine isn’t lit up. Then I see the small Nokia, easily over ten years old, vibrating on the seat beside me, the screen shining brightly, showing a number.

 “Feck it,” I say, “he’s left his phone.”

What am I going to do now? How am I going to explain the story to the caller, whoever it is, on the phone? I park the car and answer the call.

“I left my phone in your car,” the voice says.

“You did,” I say, relieved that it’s his voice on the line, “where are you?”

“On the road, by the garage where you dropped me.”

“Stay there I’ll be right down.”

“Thank you.”

I leave the carpark and turn down the hill. Sure enough he’s standing slightly out on the road, almost exactly where I dropped him a minute ago and with his hand out like it was when I picked him up only a few minutes back again.

I stop in traffic and slide the window down, handing the phone over as he leans into the car.

“Thank you,” he says, “thank you for everything.”

“No problem,” I answer, conscious of the traffic gathering behind me, “thank you for the company.”

I drive off, leaving a car out in front of me first. Further down the road I turn around at a quiet spot and head back up the street. He’s gone, at least I can’t see him and he would be difficult to miss, just as I don’t miss seeing him not that long ago back out the road.

I’m in a hurry coming from Tralee. About halfway to Listowel I see a man ahead, and sure enough his thumb is out. He’s standing at a good place to stop, and as I have a thing about not passing hitchhikers, I pull in beside him. While I’m clearing the passenger seat he opens the door, and I get a better look at him. A well-fed man in his late 40s, blue jeans and a black t-shirt, solid working boots, thinning black hair and a rough goatee. He’s wind-blown, there is a fair wind out and the way he drops into the seat it’s as if a gust has swept him in. What catches my eye, and makes me smile, is that he’s carrying a birdcage and a bridle.

“Thank you for stopping,” he says.

“Glad to,” I reply, “were you there for long?”

“Over half an hour,” he answers while clipping in the seatbelt, “I wouldn’t mind, but the wind nearly had me over and it’s beginning to rain.”

 We head off into traffic.

“You’d think someone would stop for you.”

“Nobody wants to stop for people thumbing anymore. Everyone is in a hurry somewhere, I suppose,” he’s looking ahead as he speaks, “I’m going to outside Listowel.”

“That’s fine,” I say, “I’m on my way to Listowel myself.”

My passenger settles himself, lets out a bit of a relieved sigh and fixes the birdcage on the floor.

“What have you got there?” I ask.

“It’s an old birdcage and a bridle. I picked them up at the car boot sale in Tralee. I go every week and I always find something.”

“I go a bit myself too,” I nod, smiling at his purchases, “what are you going to do with the birdcage?”

“I’ll do it up, clean it and paint it. It’s a fine one,” he says, holding it up a bit, and I see the quality in the design. Tall, wide and made of solid looking metal and with a handle to carry it about or hang it from a stand.

“Do you keep birds?” I ask.

“I do and I breed them for selling too. If I don’t use this cage, I can always sell it.”

I drive on while we talk, regretting now that we are so near to Listowel but the traffic is heavy, which slows us down a bit; we might get to spend a bit of time together yet.

“What sort of birds to you keep?”

“All sorts. Parrots, budgies, goldfinches, canaries. I cross canaries and goldfinches to sell.”

“Goldfinches and canaries?”

“Yes, they’re called mules.”

“Mules?” I’m wondering if I’m hearing him correctly

“That’s what they call them.”

“I suppose they must be a fine yellow and great singers?” I can picture the colours, and I know the song of the goldfinch.

“Oh, beautiful looking birds and the finest singers you’ll hear,” I can hear the love in his voice, almost as if he’s looking at one, “they love singing in the morning.”

“What do you do with the ones you breed?” I wonder.

“I sell them,” he says matter of factually, “I go around the houses and the old peoples’ homes. People come to me too for them.”

I don’t ask what he gets for the mules.

“Do you keep any other animals?” I ask instead.

“Oh loads of them, the birds, ponies, goats, hens, ducks, dogs, rabbits and ferrets.”

“Ferrets? You don’t hear of many people keeping them anymore.”

“They’re great for hunting.”

“The man I’m going to meet used to keep them when we were at school, funnily enough,” I say, trying to show off my little knowledge.

“I got my first ferret when I was three years old, no two years old, and I’ve had them all my life since,” he sits up straight now, happy to be talking about ferrets.

“Two years old?” I smile as I reply.

“Yes, I was out in the bog playing, and I saw this little brown ball in a puddle of water. I picked it up and carried it into the home,” he cups his hands as he speaks, “my father said to put it by the fire in the kitchen, and I laid it on the old blanket beside the hearth.”

“What was it?” I ask.

“When he dried out he became this ball of fur and my father said that’s a baby ferret.”

My passenger is smiling at the thought of it now, probably over 40 years later, but, and as he goes on to tell me that was the beginning of a long friendship.

“I called him The Captain,” he says, “I made him a bed in a cage beside the fire and he lived there all his life. Every morning I’d come down and take the blanket off the cage and The Captain would be there waiting for me.”

He goes on to tell me how The Captain would be happy to see him for six days of the week, Monday to Saturday but Sunday mornings he’d be really excited, jumping around the cage even before the blanket came off. The Captain knew it was Sunday and Sunday was the day they went hunting.

“He knew it, he knew it every week,” my passenger says, the happiness coming into his voice as he gets into telling of The Captain.

“We’d be out the door from six in the morning till it got dark in the evening,” now he turns his head to me, “up the fields, over the hills, walking for miles, hunting rabbits, me and The Captain. We’d be everywhere. I’d come home in the evening with a few rabbits and my father never had to worry about me at all.”

His father would know if he was home or not, by looking at the cage. Friends would call around and the father would lift the blanket and say: ‘no, The Captains gone, they must be off hunting.’  If The Captain were there, the father would say: ‘Tom must be up the yard’ and he’d send the callers off to the sheds. Eventually I know my friend’s name, but there isn’t any mention of a mother in any part of our conversation.  As we pass through the Six Crosses, Tom begins a tale of true love and devotion…

One summers day when he was about 11 or 12, Tom was out in a small field with The Captain. They’d been out since early morning and it was not long after they’d stopped for lunch. Without warning a bull attacked Tom from behind, throwing him to the ground and stamping on his chest and legs when he tries to flee. Luckily something distracted the attacking bull and Tom managed to crawl into a fenced area full of calves. As he got his breath back Tom realised The Captain was gone, still in the field somewhere. There was nothing for it but to crawl back out to find The Captain; though Tom was badly injured and couldn’t walk, there was no way he was leaving without his friend. The bull was off in a far corner, so Tom crawled along the edge of the ditch until he saw The Captain moving in the grass. Over he went on his belly, grabbed The Captain and put him in under his shirt, down by his armpit, before reversing and slipping out through the ditch, onto a boreen. Tom was in pain and a long way from anywhere. He couldn’t put his legs under him and he took nearly an hour to crawl to the nearest house. The man there had a phone but not a car. He called a neighbour who drove over and took Tom home, where his father laid him out on the kitchen table. Tom was wearing an old pair of black jeans, and they were so tight his father had to cut them off him. The tight jeans were doing a vital medical job though, once his father cut them off ‘gallons of blood’ gushed out. Tom’s legs were badly torn by the bull’s hooves and his father set about patching them up.

“Three weeks I was in bed getting better,” he told me, but there wasn’t any mention of a doctor, “sure that was way back then, you stayed in bed until you could get up. Once I was better I was out again hunting with The Captain.”

As we drive along, I can see a happy look on his face as he speaks of his days with The Captain. Endless days out on the hills and fields around Listowel hunting rabbits and spending time with his friend. Days now long gone but never forgotten, memories as strong as if it were only yesterday.

Going over the bridge into Listowel he asks me to drop him by the garage at the bottom of the hill, the one on the right.

“Did you have The Captain for long?” I ask as he gathers the bridle and the birdcage, and I make the signal to pull over.

“I had The Captain until I was just gone 16,” he says, looking at where I’m pulling in, “I came down one morning, and when I pulled off the blanket he was stone cold dead inside in the cage. I still keep ferrets, but I never had one like The Captain again.”

With that he gets himself and his buys out the door, leaving his phone on the seat without either of us noticing.

This is the Egg Man

A tall man, dressed in a grey raincoat, black cap, blue jeans and black shoes comes down the stairs. While he is not very big, the man is tall and well built and in the narrow stairs he looks a lot bigger and does need to duck as he comes down the last few steps, just where the low ceiling meets the stairwell. In his hands are the empty soup bowl, plate and the mug that once held his tea. The man is smiling as his belly is full and the attractive lady behind the counter asks if all was ok with his snack? Later I discover that the snack to keep him going was a bowl of soup and many slices of freshly- baked rye bread, loaded with cheese and hummus; enough to fill any man’s belly. The man hands over his crockery to the woman behind the well-stocked counter. He thanks her and while probably not a shy man he looks like the quiet, modest type, definitely not the type to seek the limelight and in my experience all the better for that too.

“John,” the lady behind the counter addresses me, “this is Michael, the egg man, the man who’s eggs we love at home.”

I nod a hello.

“Michael,” she says next, addressing the egg man, “this is my husband John.”

We shake hands and I’ve a feeling I met Michael before but glad to be meeting him again too. In the shaking of hands Michael moves over beside me and as he does another customer comes into the shop. As she speaks with my wife Michael and I fall into chat.

The egg bowl is full with ones of all shades of brown, speckled and clear ones and all of a good size. I remark on how many eggs he brought in this morning, a cold day in February and a time traditionally when hens don’t lay as much as they would in warmer times. It’s the layer’s mash he tells me, nothing else gives the hens enough protein to produce a good nest of eggs each day.

“I tried the oat mix but it was no good,” he says, “you’ll get a few but they’ll be only small ones. The bread is useless altogether, though some people say it’s all they feed them. I don’t believe that at all ‘cos it’s pure useless.”

We go on to discuss what’s in the chicken feed and that layer’s mash has the best of all the ingredients and I can see the proof is in the laying. I ask him if the duck eggs are his too, as I notice three, half-dozen boxes on the other windowsill.

“No, not at all, though the woman who supplies them comes in on the bus with me,” he says.

The picture of the two coming in on the public service bus from Castlegregory with their stash of fresh eggs is a lovely one. I wonder what their conversation is about and how long they have known each other.

“I used to keep ducks but I got out of them, and sure not everyone eats the duck eggs these days,” he says.

I tell him how I used to love the duck eggs with their big yoke but lost my taste for them years ago. Michael nods as he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He has a lovely soft voice, clear but yet you feel like drawing nearer to him so as not to miss a word. It’s a skill that you couldn’t have if you knew you had it. As soon as you realised what a beauty you had in your voice you would either become self-conscious about it and speak less, or you would try to weaponize it and quickly cause the voice to lose all of its charms.

Michael and I talk about how life in Castlegregory and he tells me of how quiet it is at this time of year. I can only imagine, as it is a town very reliant on tourism and must be empty once the holidaying families leave in late August. Michael must have seen all the changes over the years and after decades of farming he is taking it easier I presume. While in hospital recently I met a man around the same age as Michael, retired too, after years of working on building sites. The man also ran a small farm and a roadside filling station of two pumps, one diesel, one petrol. His business had long gone as price alone was stopping him being competitive. What the man still kept was his small holding and he raised store cattle for selling on to other farmers as two-year olds. Nothing too strenuous, like Michael’s hens, but I wonder how many small farmers are there like the two around Ireland, keeping their hands in but also keeping them in connection with the rest of the country? They aren’t happy to stagnate or let the brain petrify, but keep going and will be as sharp as a tack for all of their lives. These are the people who keep rural Ireland alive and their younger successors on the way up will hopefully do the same.

I ask Michael about Sean Cummins, who I knew from my days in Dingle and I know lives over Castlegregory way.

“Ah Sean’s a lovely man,” says Michael, “he’s a neighbour of mine and I see him a lot on the road. A great man for fixing the tellies in his day.”

Which is how I knew Sean as he was the TV and aerial repairman for the whole peninsula in his time, and was in big demand.

“Sean would call to you at anytime of the day and night and he’d never let you down and sure it was probably what killed his marriage, being out all the time and never home for the dinner,” Michael says, looking at me, “and sure he’d stop for a pint too, you could in those days.”

“Well nothing worse for his wife that he’d be coming home late and smelling of drink too,” I say.

Michael nods wisely.

“Funny enough I never knew his wife was gone from Sean,” he says.


“Sean never came to me one time, and when I met him on the road the next day I said to him: ‘I told your wife the TV was giving trouble’.”

“ ‘Sure I haven’t spoken to that woman in twenty years!’ Sean said to me,” Michael is laughing as he tells me, as I am too, “twenty years, can you imagine?”

Just shows that no matter how small rural Ireland may be, it is still possible to not know what is happening next door, though I imagine Michael wouldn’t be the nosey type.

“He called round that night and had it back working in no time, a genius with the tellies was Sean,” Michael says.

He’s not the only genius from Castlegregory I’m guessing.

The One-Eared Rabbit

“Your dog can’t walk,” the woman shouts, after whistling at me to stop. Sure enough Daisy is lying in the grass bank, head down in her paws and pulling at something. A minute earlier she was playing with the woman’s dog, and I had walked on, expecting Daisy to follow, as she usually does. I walk back to Daisy, who won’t let me look at her paws, snapping and growling at me when I try. I have a fair idea of what’s happening; she’s caught those long nails on the side of her paw on the ground while twisting and turning with the little black dog. I put the collar on her and continue walking, she gets up and follows, though she stops now and again to lick her wounds.

We make it home from the park, and Daisy goes straight to her bed to recover. I give her a snack, and she seems fine, still licking the sore paws but able to walk around and greet the others in the house. All evening she’s protective of the nails, hiding her paws from me and growling if I try look. Animals are often best left alone to look after small injuries, though I expect Daisy will have me at the vets at some stage. In the morning we go for our walk around the park. Daisy is running fine, but I can tell the paws are still bothering her as she stops every now and again to give them a lick. Back home I call the vet and make an appointment for that evening. Daisy is well capable of taking it easy, and I leave her sleep for the day, though she does follow me when I go out in the garden. Each time it’s the same when I look at her paws, a growl and a snap at me, so I know she’s still having problems. During the day the secretary at the vet’s clinic calls to reschedule Daisy’s appointment, and at just gone 5pm Freddie, Daisy and I head off to the surgery.

At the clinic a man is sitting with a German Shepherd pup, who gets excited when she sees Daisy in my arms. Daisy growls a small bit, but she knows the smells of this place and isn’t very confident in her surroundings. I recognise the man with the pup from somewhere and we smile in brief acknowledgment. He’s holding onto the strong dog with a stiff leash and though it is excited the German Shepherd isn’t a threat to Daisy. The nurse comes out from the surgery behind the desk and smiles at me.

“He’ll be about ten minutes,” she says referring to the vet, “we’re a small bit behind.”

“That’s fine,” I say, “we’ll wait.”

Freddie is looking around and Daisy is now glued to me, knowing that all is not as it should be. The door to the surgery opens and a lady comes out with two pet carriers, about the size for a small dog or cat. She looks like a lady in her mid-fifties, hair in a bit of a mess from being too busy to do anything about it and her round face has a serious look, yet ready to break into a smile at any moment, I reckon. She’s wearing a cream short-sleeved top and a long dress, down below her knees. A woman who cares for others and doesn’t take any nonsense, one who may, or may not talk, if she’s not bothered. She lays the two carriers on the floor and looks at Daisy, while behind her the vet sticks his head out and calls in the man with the German Shepherd.

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” she says, her face opening up in that smile I guessed was there somewhere, “what is she? A Cairn Yorkie cross?”

I smile.

“We don’t know,” I say, “we got her as a bit of a rescue when she was nine months old but there’s definitely some Yorkie and Cairn in there. Daisy is her name.”

“Oh you’re beautiful,” she says, coming over to pet Daisy, who, of course, loves nothing better than being told she is beautiful, while being petted.

“You’re saying all the right things now,” I offer.

“I often say the best dogs are the mixes, they’re far better than a pedigree,” my new friend is saying while petting Daisy’s long hair, “you have gorgeous hair, haven’t you?”

“It’s the hair that makes me think that she is a bit of a Cairn and the face is definitely a Yorkie,” I say smiling at Daisy’s new admirer.

“Well I do a lot of judging at dog shows around the county and Daisy is definitely the best-looking dog I’ve seen in a long time,” she says, “a long time indeed. She’d win prizes”

I smile at this, as I tell Lisa regularly that we should enter Daisy in competitions, as the €1000 prize money would be nice to win. Of course, there isn’t such prize money but the joke continues.

“It’s great that the hair is long too,” she continues “I see too many with that short hair and it looks stupid, they wouldn’t win a thing if it was up to me.”

She heads off to sit on one of the three, now free, chairs. I follow her as I’m enjoying the conversation. Daisy is still in my arms and the lady continues to pet her as we talk.

“What have you got in the carriers?” I ask, “cats?

“No, rabbits.”


“Yes, I bring them in to be treated for parasites,” she says, “Do you know what’s the biggest killer of rabbits?”

I’m guessing myxomatosis or some new equivalent, but I shake my head.

“Parasites, parasites,” I’m told, “they get into their kidneys and livers and destroy them, that’s why I bring my ones in to be treated. They pick them up anywhere so you can’t take any chances.”

“How long have you had them?” I ask.

“Oh the one at the back I’ve had for about six years, a friend of mine found him in her garden and I took it in.”

“How long do they live?”

“At least ten years, more if you care for them. I’ve had the fellow in the front about two years now, so he has plenty left in him.”

“Where did he come from?”

“A rescue,” she’s looking at the two carriers all the time while she speaks and the rabbits are shuffling around, getting Daisy’s attention.

“Ah, the poor fellow,” I say.

“He’s only one ear you know,” she continues, “his mother bit the other one off in a fight when he was small. I call him Vincent, of course.”

I laugh at the idea of tough love but quickly stop when she looks at me.

“Great name,” I say to retrieve the situation.

“What else could I call him?” she laughs a bit too, “he’s a lovely fellow but very timid.”

She goes on to tell me how she found Vincent for sale at the mart in Listowel. Vincent was in a poor state and looked closed to dying. The man who was selling him is famous in the area for being cruel to animals. My new friend went to take the rabbit from him and when the man stepped in to try stop her, she turned on him.

“I ran him out of the building, shouting all kinds of abuse at him. Everyone was laughing and you never saw anyone run so fast in your life.”

So now Vincent has a good home. Getting treated for parasites regularly and is expecting to live a long life.

“I love the two of them and all my animals. The husband thinks I’m a bit cracked but sure what’s the harm.”

She was painting a lovely picture and yes, where is the harm in caring?

The Hitchhiker

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?”

“I am.”

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.

“Sunday morning.”

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.