Westport—a bustling port town, narrow winding streets and hobbit-sized houses, a river of glorious blue water flowing straight through its center and I felt relieved to be there, so close to where Una’s family were vacationing. Una’s family were staying in a small village called Bunowen, out on the Southern part of Clew Bay, the enormous natural harbor that spread out on both sides of Westport.
I got out of the train station and found myself surrounded by a bunch of foreign sounding backpackers poring over maps of the area. I had no map and only the barest knowledge of which way the town Una was staying at was located. I walked away from the station and started looking for signs that pointed in the direction of Bunowen.
Once on the outskirts of the town I began to thumb for a lift. This was new territory, never before having been away from home on my own, and I was panicked by the idea I might not get a lift and end up having to stay at the side of the road for the night. And, what the hell was I going to do for a place to sleep that night? I hadn’t extended my master plan that far, thinking only of a romantic reunion with Una and a night spent under the stars on a sandy beach with seals swimming in the moonlight.
An hour later and I was still standing on the side of the road waiting for a ride. All I’d seen go by were three lorries full of sheep and hay. There seemed to be no ordinary traffic such as people coming and going from town on errands in their “normal” cars. The idea that the preferred mode of transportation was farm vehicles had escaped me entirely.
At last, after five more animal carrying vehicles had passed me an old Jaguar S-Type drove past, pulled over and honked its horn. I picked up my bag and ran toward the car. A tiny old man sat in the driver’s seat, a black and white Collie beside him on the ground. The back seat was missing entirely and three chickens pecked about in the springs of the missing upholstery.
“Hopintherenowyounglad, wherereyouofftothisfineeveing?” he muttered.
“Uhm, Bunowen please?”
“Bygodsoitis,” he growled, opening the door and pushing the dog in the back with the chickens. A cloud of feathers rose as the dog closed its teeth on one of the bird’s tail feathers.
“Stopyoucurofablackguard.” The dog raised one ear, cocked its head, questioningly at its master.
I scrambled into the front seat and sank into the broken passenger seat. “Thanks very much.”
“Yourefromthecitythenitakeit?” he said.
“Dublin. I’m on a week’s holidays.” I reached back to stroke the dog’s head and it growled guttural. I pulled my hand back fast as I could.
The Jaguar’s exhaust must have been full of holes, for it farted its way around the curved road and every so often emitted a terrific explosion of smoke, and the old guy would yell out, “Hurrahforshitethereshegoesbythehokey.”
At length, the dog and the chickens quieted down and the only sound was of the old fellow’s muttering under his breath and every now and again making some wisecrack about Dublin and the “cityfeckers,” as he called them. He dropped me at a crossroads just outside the town and then he turned left and disappeared up the dusty road with a banging of the car horn.
The sign pointed toward Bunowen, ½ a mile. On the grass verge beside the signpost was a small shrine with a blue-clothed statue of the Virgin Mary. All around the statue were floral offerings in filthy jamjars. I crossed myself and asked her for some assistance in finding Una and making sure she was still in love with me.
Nine o’clock and the sun was dipping in the sky, a striated reddish pink cloud promising a day of good weather on the next day. I heard Dad’s voice in my head. “Red skies at night, Shepherd’s delight. Red skies in morning, Shepherd’s warning.” I began searching the roadside for some building that looked isolated and less likely to attract attention. Somewhere I could uncurl the sleeping bag. An old abandoned church was set back from the road. At the back was a graveyard littered with huge moss-covered stones and stone crosses. A massive oak tree extended its branches horizontal to the ground and they looked like the giant fingers of a gigantic spider. This was somewhere I’d probably be able to sleep unnoticed, but I was too big a chicken to sleep beside a graveyard.
A narrow stone cottage with a caved-in thatched roof stood opposite the churchyard and I crossed the road, jumped the low wall, and took a walk around. After looking in the grimy windows, I saw a cobwebbed and broken table and chairs upended in what used to be a kitchen. I walked to the back door and tried the handle. It creaked open and I went sideways in through the narrow opening. A wisp of web covered my face and I frantically brushed the mess away from my hair.
The house had three rooms, a kitchen/living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The bedroom empty, devoid of any sign of prior habitation, I put my duffle bag and the rolled sleeping bag on the ground. The thatched roof was pretty well intact and this meant I’d be able to sleep without the fear of being drowned in a downpour. I walked the rest of the cottage and found a straw broom in the kitchen area. Back in the bedroom I brushed the dust from the floor out into the main part of the house. I unrolled the sleeping bag, sat against the wall, and read for an hour before the light faded and nighttime fell.
With the hoots of owls and the occasional sound of a passing car I fell asleep in the ruins. Dreams came in a rush and Una’s face swayed in and out of focus as I tried to catch hold of her with my hands, which had no fingers attached. Instead there were stumps where fingers used be, and the sense of irritation at not being able to grab Una’s face had me awake and sweating.
The caw of a crow woke me the next morning and the sun filtered through the filthy windowpanes. On the floor a strange pattern of light and shadow played in front of me. I picked up the sleeping bag, rolled it up tightly and bound it in the duffle bag. After pissing outside against the back wall it was time to head toward town and see if I could find Una.
Off to my left the slopes of Croagh Patrick rose from the surrounding countryside, the hazy blue peak blurred by the morning haze. Birds wheeled and dived in the sky as I walked the short distance to the town. I entered the small village after crossing over an old stone bridge beneath which the fast flowing Buunowen River went. I had heard of the river from my father, a veteran fly fisherman who had fished practically every waterway in the West of Ireland. I’d never had much luck when we went fishing together, always managing to get the line tangled, or to lose the fly because of my carelessness.
There were weekends when Dad would leave the house on a Saturday at the crack of dawn, bound for some tributary, and he’d reappear late the same night with a number of silver-scaled trout wrapped in newspaper, gutted and filleted, ready for Mum to throw on the frying pan for supper. I loved to poke out the eyes. My early years were warning signs of the vicious little bastard I would later become as a teenager. But on the nights he returned home victorious the house became full of the aroma of frying fish and his voice would rise as he sang songs of militant soldiers and raven-haired girls.
The sight of the “Reek” as Croagh Patrick was called, rising craggily in the distance, reminded me of my father’s visage. I shuddered to think what he’d have said if he’d known I was loose in the West of Ireland in search of a girl.
I heard the voice admonishing me, always teasing, cajoling.
I walked across the bridge into the narrow main street of Bunowen. Nothing much seemed to be going on there at all. There were only three or four stores and a couple of pubs, and at the far end of the main street a Catholic Church loomed large, its steeple towering above the relatively low buildings of the town. Everything appeared to be thatched in the town; the bank, the pubs, the shops.
Rural Ireland: a pub, a cross, a stray dog, a famine memorial, the demarcations of a troubled history. Travel the country without encountering a pub or a church and you’d have to be a blind man. The town was a typical Irish country one, whitewashed buildings, thatched roofs, the odd country bus chugging through, people walking here and there, on their way someplace.
I had no idea of where Una might be staying. True, there were not that many places to go in the town but there were probably dozens of rental homes in the area dotted here and there on the coastline. I’d have to do some detective work.