Tag Archives: writing

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.

“No?”

“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.”

“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?

A Homeless Son

The first time I spot him he is crouched under a tree in the park, looking at his phone, an old Nokia, as if waiting for it to ring. A couple of days later he’s walking towards me, and I make a point of saying hello. He looks surprised but after a few days of me persisting, with nothing more than ‘hello’, he begins to nod in acknowledgement. I would put him in his late twenties, though the short, cropped black hair is already receding. The dirty jeans drag along under his heels, the permanent creases even blacker than the rest. A dark jumper comes down over the top of his waist, covering his hips. Smaller in height than me, though not too skinny, his eyes have the look of someone lost, someone used to being loved and the words ‘some mother’s son’ always come to me when I see him. Even in the height of a busy summer I see him somewhere in the park, and a ‘hello’, followed with a ‘how are you?’ is usually answered by a polite ‘ok, thank you’, in a difficult-to-place accent. His skin looks healthy without any tell-tale damage. I never see him drunk, or bothering anyone or even in the company of others, no matter the time of day. If you only see someone once, looking as he does, you might say he was on his way home after a night out, but daily, in the same clothes and around the same spots, can only put him among the numbers of our great modern shame: the homeless.

Towards the end of the summer, I add the riverbank to my route. The walk is well sheltered and is a bit more industrial, with the poured concrete walkway and continuous traffic close by, obvious contrasts with the peaceful surroundings of Tralee Town Park. The man disappears from the park during early August but pops up at times along the riverbank, where we continue our brief exchanges. I wonder if the tourists are too much for him in the park and he’s escaped to the riverbank for some peace?

The man disappears completely in late August. I don’t see him for weeks, until one October evening along the riverbank where he’s sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. There is an immediate look of recognition between us, and he smiles in response to my hello. I see him a few evenings in a row at the same spot, and on a few early-morning walks he’s there too. As the bench is close to some thick bushes, I wonder if that is where he sleeps at night. Seeing him always alone, in the same clothes, just looking straight ahead and always the old phone in his hand, makes me wonder how he ended up on the margins.

For the rest of the autumn and into the early winter, we pass each other regularly. As the weather turns he gets a black jacket that he keeps zipped up. One November morning I’m walking towards the little park by Lidl, when I see him coming out from the store’s carpark ahead of me with a bottle of cheap beer in his hand. As soon as he’s off the road and into the privacy of the park, he pops the bottle into his mouth, flicks the hand holding it and spits out the cap, which he picks up and puts in the bin. Then the bottle is back in the mouth and half drained in one gulp. All of this is done in seconds, while he keeps walking. He doesn’t look at me but walks over the bridge at speed, back to the riverbank, where I pass him a bit later, sitting on his bench. 

He disappears again as the weather turns nasty for the winter. I presume, or hope that he is in the homeless shelter in town. Then one day I’m looking at shampoo in a supermarket when I get a slight tap on my shoulder and an ‘excuse me’.

I turn, and it’s him.

“Oh hello,” he says in surprise, followed by “it’s you.”

I say hello and ask how he is; as usual he says ‘ok, thank you.’

In his hand is a bottle of cheap beer and he holds it up to show me.

“Can I borrow 20 cents?” he asks.

“Of course,” I answer and dig in my pocket for change. I have a load of coins and I give him the twenty cents.

“Do you need more?” I ask.

“No, just this for this,” he says, holding the coin and the bottle up to show what he means before adding a ‘thank you’ and heading off for the tills.

As I queue I see him slide into the dark evening. No repeat of the opening of the bottle with his teeth but he does put it inside the black jacket. He looks healthy, and I hope he’s got somewhere to go, somewhere warm where no one will bother him and where his gentle soul will find peace for the night.

It’s all anyone deserves.

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.