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.

Disappearing Casserole Dishes

My bottle opener broke just after Christmas. Luckily our kitchen scissors have a notch for opening bottles, which got me through that late December evening. A few months later and I’m still using the scissors to open bottles, and each night I say I must get a proper opener. I enjoy a bottle or two of good beer three or four nights a week, so on average, I must say that about eight times from Thursday to Sunday.  Walking past one of my favourite shops in town last week I decided it was time to indulge myself; one of the reasons I hadn’t bought a new opener was that I hadn’t paid a visit to Small Benner’s for a while but now was a perfect time.

Small Benner’s is one of those shops every town once had, should still have, and thankfully Tralee still has today. Benner’s is over the door, and the shop is small inside, but full of all things hardware. From egg slicers to knives to meat thermometers and milk jugs you’ll find all you need inside the door. Among the many top draws to Small Benner’s are the array of goods and the staff, but for me it is the quality too. What you buy lasts: the glass measuring jug I purchased a few years ago is still going strong, the cut door keys are keeping our house safe, and the cushion pads are preventing the kitchen chairs from scraping on the marble floor. Yes, you can get those pads in all shapes and sizes in Small Benner’s Tralee.

As usual there are a few people inside. When you walk in the counter is to the right, which has a gap on either end to let staff float in and out without getting in each other’s way. To your left are shelves and hooks, literally to the ceiling stocked with all the goods any home may need. There is not any discernible layout; kitchen goods go cheek by jowl with ornaments and screwdrivers. Over on the right, behind the till and beyond towards the back are batteries, lighters, gas refills, pastry brushes, butter dishes, ceramic tea cups and much, much more. Looking around you see where you can get those items you only associate with your parent’s house. The kitchen drain sieves, the egg timers, solid looking cheese graters, wooden clothes pegs, stainless steel vegetable strainers which fan open, potato steamers, tap swirls, cup hooks and sink plugs. Notice the plural here because there is plenty of every item and many choices within the range. Not just the one brand of key fobs but a few of different sizes shapes and utility and it is the same with nearly every category of stock item. How they manage to get so much into so small an area, yet display every item clearly and not mix them up is a miracle of modern commerce. They sell fishing tackle, air guns, hunting knives and duct tape. The shop never seems crowded though it is always busy and even if you are not looking for something, you will see that one item you need.

I look around for the bottle opener I want, a wooden handled one with a solid steel mechanism. There is a three-in-one of opener, corkscrew and small serrated knife which catches my eye but I cannot see my particular choice. I ask the lady behind the counter who is as knowledgeable about the stock as any catalogue could be. She knows what I’m looking for and comes out to look on the wall by the door. Beneath the shower adapter for the bath taps and the good array of carving knives, she pulls back the mass of other goods.

“We do have one of those,” she says, “but it may be out of stock.”

She asks the young man helping another customer who thinks the last one went only the previous day, but more should be in by the next Friday. We look at the three-in-one opener I was thinking of, and I have a feeling it will be my new one.

“Look after that lady first,” I say, as I keep looking, waiting to make up my mind.

The attendant turns back to help the woman she was showing casserole dishes to, who has now made up her mind.

“I’ll take the floral white one, the large one,” she says.

“Fine,” says the lady putting it by the till.

“I’d better take five of them,” says the woman.

“Okay,” says the lady behind the counter.

“All mine are gone,” the woman continues, “my daughter brings her husband’s dinner up from my house in them every day and of course they never come back.”

That night I tell Lisa of the disappearing casserole dishes while opening my bottle of Beal Bán Golden Ale with my new opener. She laughs at the beauty of it, and we both ask, almost at the same time:

“Does the husband know?”

We can only wonder.

The First Day Back After Christmas

The first day back after Christmas. The day after ‘Little Women’s Christmas’ as it fell this year. The day it all gets back to normal as people say when trying to get over that everything they looked forward to is now in the past. A dark dreary day as it happens to be today, the sun not yet up as I leave the house and the lights in neighbours’ windows showing they are back in routine too. For Daisy the dog it’s her morning walk, a chance to stretch the legs, go for a pee and assert her dominion over Tralee town park once more. Tradition means little to animals.

The sun may not be up, but its rising in the east and the lining of the black clouds is turning a shade of grey. It’s trying to rain, but that’s not putting off the thrushes and blackbirds singing their morning welcomes. I see them in the grass, digging in the rotting leaves, pulling at whatever they can find and largely ignoring me where possible. The ones who fly off don’t go far and often track back behind me soon after I pass, obviously what was in under the leaves isn’t worth abandoning to the next early riser. Cars are gently splashing along the road outside, on their way to join the queues at the roundabout. A now regular, early morning driver is already parked by the fence at the cul-de-sac end of our road, lights on inside, engine running and the steamed windows trapping the smoke of her first cigarettes of the day. Sometimes she parks further up before the junction with the road into town, with the window down on warmer days, with the smoke curling out like the turf fires of lore. Who she is I do not know, but I guess she must drop someone off earlier before making her way to our road for a fag and a relax before going to work. Maybe she heads home again, who knows? I once thought she was trying to avoid tailbacks by arriving ahead of traffic but around here the tailbacks are in the town centre and only start around the time she heads off. In the spring and summer she’s only arriving at the time I’m coming back but in these dark mornings, she’s already in place by the time I’m heading out. You can spot her regular stopping places by the gathering of butts on the road. It’s always a sign that I’m late if she is there before me and if I were the sort to do one, I’d do a scientific study of her arrival and departure times, just to see how regular she is in the mornings. Never once have we exchanged greetings and I’d be as likely to pick her out in an identity parade as I would any unknown reader of this piece.

Out on the road into town the traffic is slowing down, ready to hit the backup at the roundabout. Going over the bridge I look to the west and see the clouds getting an even brighter shade of grey. To the south they are showing tinges of pink where separating and that low winter sun must be hiding somewhere. The river is emptying, no sign of the oil slicks of last week and the service station smell is gone too. Whoever caused the spillage, whether by accident or deliberate action should be ashamed of themselves, dirtying a small river doing its best to look after the wildlife of Tralee. Thankfully my friend the otter was out hunting the other evening as the river ebbed, barely breaking the surface as he or she slid up and down through the brackish water. The upside-down V they cause in the water as they move gently upstream spreads to the banks so you can keep an eye on their progress before diving again. Over by the canal on dark evenings I often hear the crunch as they break through fish heads or maybe it’s the shell of a crab. One full moon-lit night the canal was nearly empty, nothing but a stream was making its way to the lock gates below but an otter was still swimming it, the moon gleaming on its wet back and guiding my eyes as it hunted its prey. That night the otter walked up the bank when I was coming home. I stopped and it stopped, and it moved further through the grass before darting across my path maybe ten feet from me, the full moon still catching its wet coat and its slinky tail only glistening behind. It was gone into the reeds in only a second but the image will stay in my mind for life.

No such meeting on the pavement this morning, though the well-worn path of an otter, fox or mink is clearly visible through the grass on the marsh if you look for it, so maybe such a sighting is possible at times. Ahead of me walks a woman I normally pass on the way home and I easily pass her as, as is normal, she is walking slowly with her head in her phone. Daisy is sniffing in the grass verges, looking for scraps of food leftover from the weekend late-nighters and you can see the takeaway wrappers, papers and cups mashed into the road and rocking against the edge of the footpath. I pull Daisy along as I don’t want to spend my time waiting for her to find a half-eaten chip or chase the scent of burger. She doesn’t look happy, but then she is well-fed so I know it’s only her survival instincts kicking in as she forages in the not-so-long grass. By the time we make it to the roundabout the traffic is filling the lanes, people going to the left or heading into town, queuing for their chance to go and all four approaches are the same. Single drivers may be on the phone, talking to who knows who, catching up on the first day back or telling work they are on the way. Cars with passengers look like parents taking the kids to school or even the learner-drivers learning the hard way in morning traffic, a parent beside them encouraging and warning as they progress.

Drivers stop at the roundabout to let Daisy and I cross to the island, where we wait for a gap or a slowing car to let us get to the other side. By now the morning is brightening, the sun has made its way across the country, and the last of Ireland is emerging from the darkness of a winter’s night. Headlights are still on and spitting rain is caught in the low beams, making its way to the road before the splashing tires throw it up to the sides. Daisy and I walk on to our gap in the wall which leads us along a concrete path to the road of Castle Countess.

A 1930s estate of well-kept houses, detached and semi-detached Castle Countess has the feeling of established residents who maybe into their second or third generation. The footpath runs along the end of the gardens and Daisy and I are well-known users at this stage. On brighter mornings I’ll meet people on their way to work, school or play and exchange greetings or chat but today the footpath is empty, though the road is busy, as it’s an access point for the Green school beyond. On New Year’s Day an older lady gave me a big ‘Happy New Year’ as she put rubbish in her bin and this morning she waves as she turns back into her home. The decorations are still up in most windows, though chances are they’ll be gone by this evening. Today is probably the day in most homes when life starts again and people wonder what the big fuss was about for the last eight weeks. Yesterday evening as I passed along the street I saw over a low hedge a woman and her married daughter settling down in a well-decorated front room to watch what looked like some sort of afternoon chat show. The fire was down and the large screen was welcoming them as they took up their places on the small couch, the tray in front of them full with a plate of biscuits, teapot, cups and a jug. The brief scene was contrasted in the smaller room on the other side of the front door, where the father was in an armchair, mug in hand and almost on top of another tv, which was showing oddly enough what looked like a basketball match. His room too was full of decorations and I wonder if they do it out of tradition, or for the grandchildren I often see with their mother going in and out of the warm looking home.

We go through the kissing gates and up the worn concrete steps into the beginnings of the park. The tall light is still on through the trees by where the path diverges, though the brighter spotlight above it doesn’t pop on as it usually does on darker mornings. The path we take is almost empty; we always take the one to the right, it just seems a natural flow, and it goes anti-clockwise around the park. The boys for the Green are gathering by the entrance, smoking the last ones or vaping the final vape before spending their days at the glory of learning. The tall beech tree to my right reaches as it always does for the sky, its many branches seemingly defying the laws of physics by not entangling, and now that it is empty of leaves the majesty of the tree is even more magnificent. The old stone walls of the park still stand strong and at a height of at least eight feet in parts make you feel well protected as you walk. I love the spread of trees and the mixture of species in the park, magnolias share with oaks and chestnuts which protect the younger willows and ash. A line of poplars, obviously planted with intention is a bit incongruous in the middle of the grass; maybe there was a plan to put a path there one day. Older spruce and scots pines look like grand dames, overlooking all that is happening as the boys and girls make their way to school and remind you how old this park actually is. The well-kept paths guide you through the 35 acres and I meet the groundskeeper as I nearly always do, out tidying and clearing leaves before the walkers of the day slip and do damage. You rarely see rubbish of any kind in the park, the number of bins helps but the smiling man I now pass is on top of anything before it becomes unsightly. The town is well awake to my right, the professionals of Denny Street getting back to it and shifting the money around which keeps this town going. The Christmas lights are still up, still lighting too but no doubt they too will be boxed away over the coming few days. Strangely enough I don’t meet any of my regulars this morning, no man with a limp and his terriers, not joggers who nod as they pass and not the lady who walks with a strong stride who always smiles a ‘good morning’ when we pass.

It doesn’t take long for Daisy and me to be back on the road again. I put her on the lead before the groundskeeper, as his leaf blower scares her at times. Castle Countess is still asleep, though the late arrivals for school are just leaving the rat run. Traffic is still queueing at the roundabout, more now as the wet morning has more people on the road. Daisy and I pass over the bridge with a quick glimpse for the otter who may be nosing his way up just beyond the bend; the v-shaped ripples would indicate he’s on his way. The smoking lady is leaving, joining the back of a queue which is coming to meet the traffic now. Back home the house is rising, noise is coming from upstairs and the nine o’clock news is telling its story. I give Daisy her snack and think about what I’ll write today.

Sunday Park

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Tralee Town Park is the perfect place for an early evening stroll, Sunday morning walk or even a run if you are so inclined. I tend to do my daily walks first thing in the morning, when there are fewer people about, but on Sunday’s we’re up later and by the time I make it to the park it can be very busy. On a summer’s Sunday morning I met a man, who sort of sums up how a chance encounter can lead to great fun.

Daisy and I are walking in the park. I have her off the lead, and she’s darting in and out of the trees, chasing shadows and yapping at other small dogs. As we’re coming up to the Rose Garden I spot a man sitting on a bench and drinking a can of beer. It’s only 11:00 AM, the bells of the nearby St John’s are ringing and the sight makes me smile. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, can of beer on the go and his bike leaning against the back of the bench and now soaking up the sun, the man just looks so happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He obviously felt he deserved the beer, he’d done his exercise and now he was being rewarded. As it was a bit early to have bought the can, he must have brought it with him; he was planning this treat, possibly well in advance.

Daisy runs up to him and in around his legs. I call her back, and the man turns to see who’s behind the voice. As he sees me he gets up.

“Terrible day for a hangover,” he says.

“It’s never a great day for a hangover,” I answer.

“True,” he says, laughing.

We’re by now side by side, and I stop walking

“I’m wrecked,” he says, “I’ve been in England for the last four days, and I’m still all over the place.”

He doesn’t look too bad, considering he’s necking a can at eleven on a Sunday morning and has been on the beer for the last four days.

“Good time?” I ask.

“Great. Over visiting the brother, the cousin came with me.  We got the bus and the boat, non-stop drinking.”

Getting the bus and boat used to be the standard way of getting to England but to do it for a four-day trip now seems very time consuming, but I think the travel was probably half of their fun.

“You know how much they charged for two whiskies on the boat coming back?” he asks.

I shake my head, but I remember in my day drinking on the boat was very cheap.

“Thirty euros” is the answer.

“Thirty euros?”

I’m genuinely shocked.

“As true as I’m standing here.”

“Wow,” I say, not doubting him but at the same time not believing that two whiskies could cost so much.

“Look,” he says, rummaging in the back pocket of his shorts, pulling out a piece of paper and giving it to me.

I open the scrunched-up receipt and there it reads, €30.00 for his two whiskies, with the time and date of 4.11 AM the previous morning.

“I hope they were worth it,” I say.

He looks at me.

“I wasn’t paying that; I told him to feck off and left them on the counter. We went off down the duty-free. A slab of Tennant’s for €9.99. Perfect I said and we grabbed two.”

“Better value there,” I laugh.

My man nods slightly while giving me a knowing look, before continuing:

“But you know what?”

“No. What?”

“I paid the money, and then the girl said you can’t take them out of the shop till we get to port. We were caught.”

“What did ye do then?”

“Went to the other bar and had a pint.”

We both laughed.

“I’ve been drinking those cans since I came home,” he says, but only with a slight touch of being under pressure.

As we’re talking two men pass by, and one is the local undertaker.

“Hey,” my man says, “I don’t want to be seeing you for a while yet.”

“If you can see me you’re doing fine,” answers the undertaker, “it’s when you can’t see me is when you’re having the trouble.”

We all laugh, and I walk off.