Michael Longley: Poet

I first came across the poetry of Michael Longley by complete accident. A few years back, I was checking out the latest album, Hallow, from Northern Ireland’s chief troubadour, Duke Special, when I was stopped in my tracks by a spoken word piece called “The Ice-Cream Man”, where the delicate, crisp voice of an elderly man was listing the varieties of ice-cream on sale in an ice-cream parlour:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours

We then learn that

That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road

The piece continues with the man, who is obviously the writer of the just-delivered poem, reading from a letter from the ice-cream man’s mother. Her daughter had heard the poet recite “The Ice-Cream Man” on the radio and had bought her mother the book of the collection from which it is taken – Gorse Fires. The mother thanks Michael Longley for remembering her son, John. “I do bless you for your kind thoughts,” she writes. The piece of music ends with the poet saying: “Almost my most precious possession, that letter.”

After doing a bit of digging I learned that the entire album of Hallow is based on Michael Longley’s poetry. Hallow is a beautiful, delicate album, warm in tone, rich in colour and with its fingers poised ever ready to tug at the heart strings. I am moved by it every time I listen to it. I had to find out who the poet that inspired such excellent music was.

Michael Longley has been one of Northern Ireland’s leading poets for a considerable length of time. He released his first collection of poems, Ten Poems, in 1965, and this eighty-one year-old has produced a constant flow of words since then, bar a period in the nineteen eighties, of which the poet himself says: “There were ten years in my forties when I didn’t write a damn thing!”

He is most certainly not suffering from writer’s block at the moment. In a recent interview with Kay Sheehy on RTE Radio 1’s arts show, Arena, Michael revealed that he has written more poems since Christmas than he usually writes in three years. He has just brought out a new collection, The Candlelight Master, the title of which comes from a poem he wrote about a baroque master of painting of candlelight effects. Here is the entire poem:

I am the candlelight master,

Striking a match in the shadows,

A smoky wick, then radiance,

I am the candlelight master.

As can be seen from “The Candlelight Master”, Michael Longley is not ashamed of presenting the reader with a four-line poem. His is in fact renowned for the brevity of his compositions. There is no spare flesh on any of his poems, no wastage. Their beauty and simplicity have no need for filler. What I love about his poetry is how rooted in nature it is. Almost every piece references a flower or a bird or other animal. The landscape reigns supreme in his cast list. I often have to look up a plant he mentions to get a picture of it in my head: in Snow Water he mentions dog violets, spurge, helleborines among dozens of others. There is also a clear love of old Irish placenames in his poems. Places such as Dooaghtry, Roonkeel, Carrigskeewaun and Tonakeera pepper his poems, their musicality lending to the gentle, reflective tone.

But do not be deceived into thinking that Michael Longley is a shrinking violet. As a Northern Irish poet, he has not shirked away from writing of the Troubles. “The Ice-Cream Man” captures the quiet anger, desperation and outrage he feels at the murder of this innocent man. The listing of the types of ice-cream the ice-cream man sold is a clever means of presenting the loss of this man’s senseless murder. It is as if the poet is saying that there will be no more rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, or peach now that their vendor has been murdered. Something irreplaceable has been obliterated.

Long may Michael Longley continue to muse and rage.

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My Suburban Fox

Why are we always so surprised and delighted when we come across a fox in an urban (or in my case, suburban) setting? Is it because mankind’s ever-increasing encroachment on nature has rendered even a glimpse of wildness so rare that we are thrilled whenever we are allowed one? Does a fox rummaging around in our bins assuage our guilt and allow ourselves to think that Mother Nature is alright, that the fox’s presence in our driveway proves that she will always bounce back? Or is it some quality of the fox? Its intelligence, its resilience, its independence, its freedom?

Foxes are regularly spotted in our estate, which is on the edge of Limerick city. There was some excitement lately when one of our neighbours reported, through the means of our estate’s WhatsApp group, finding an injured fox cub in her garden. Her photos of the poor little cutie caused more reaction in the group than even the posting of the latest planning application, where levels of hysteria and nimbyism reached unprecedented levels and had one resident refer to proposed four-storey apartment buildings as “tower blocks”. We were kept up-to-date regarding the cub’s status by almost hourly posts and pix, and you will be glad to know that the tale had a happy ending: Foxy was wined and dined on cat food before being accepted into an animal rescue centre, where he is now doing very well.

I have two fox stories from the last few months. One relates to driving into the estate late in the evening when darkness had already fallen. It had been a long day. I, along with a colleague had been conducting an on-site trial in a dairy pilot plant, and on days like this we usually work for ten or twelve hours without pause. That day had been no different. The pilot plant had no windows, was chilly, grim and cheerless. The drive back, in the twilight through windy, mountainy roads had not been easy. But then, turning the corner into the estate, I was greeted by the sight of a fox – a fully grown male, I would guess – trotting along the footpath, bold as brass, head held proudly high as if it were the Mayor of Limerick himself (or at least an alderman). I slowed the car down to a crawl and accompanied Mr Fox on his journey from the entrance to the back of the estate. His progress was business-like: he did not stop to sniff at lamp posts like his doggy cousins do and showed no interest in scrabbling for scraps of food from bins. He just trotted, cartoon-like along the cement, with only his toes seeming to drive him. Just watching his self-contained serene celerity lifted all the day’s tiredness and worries from my body.

More recently, my path and that of a fox cub crossed, in what was for me at least (I don’t know how the cub felt) a magical moment. It was early morning, an unusually clear and sunny one for the west of Ireland, and I was out walking the dog in a patch of waste ground which abuts our estate’s green. The dog was nowhere to be seen, having scampered into the undergrowth on his eternal quest for rabbits. I was picking my way through the willows and gorse, ears cocked for the sound of his scratching and rooting. I didn’t want to let him get too far away, otherwise he would panic and begin to circle farther and farther afield, and finding him would be a lottery in the extensive and craggy tangle. I found myself in a small clearing, where I stood and listened. I heard a rustling approaching me and my heart lifted: Archie was back! The shape that emerged into the sun-soaked clearing was not that of a cockalier though. It was a fox cub, more black than red, stub-snouted, wide-eyed ears cocked. It paused, taking me in, as I stared in disbelief.

Our mutual study of one another seemed to last for minutes, even though it could only have gone on for mere seconds. The little glade seemed to grow silent. No birdsong, no clanking from the building site down the road, no traffic noises. I felt this wonderful sense of peace and oneness with everything, my body light and insubstantial. Was this what communing with nature was? I made a half-step towards it and it, in response, made a leap towards me. Then, as it gave a sniff, it must have realised that I was not of his world, because, as soon as it landed, it swiftly turned and scampered into the trees. Our magical moment was over.

That encounter has become one my favourite lockdown moments. If anything for me symbolises the reemphasis on the simple things in life that lockdown brought, my precious seconds with the fox cub are it. I have been back in that glade many times since then, but not a trace of the cub was to be seen. It’s probably not a cute cub anymore. It might even be making its own way in the world by now. I wish it the best.

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Lockdown Painting

I’ve been doing a lot of painting during the last couple of months. A number of things coincided to turn May, June and July 2020 into one giant paintathon: the lockdown; the fine weather (which, however, around St John’s Eve, gave way to our usual Irish summer monsoon); and the attic conversion which dragged on from late February until the last of the cabinets was fitted last week (pandemics, social distancing and attic conversions do not make happy bedfellows). There was the painting of windowsills and borders outside, which was on the cards to be done this summer anyway and which was made possible by the startling lack of rain, but the main stimulus behind my painting extravaganza was the aforementioned attic conversion.

Here’s some hard-earned wisdom for you, free gratis: when you convert an attic, it’s not just the new space that needs painting. There’s a heck of a lot of unseen extras. Think of the holes the builders have to both create and cover up. They have to make a new entrance for the stairs, and they have to cover up the old hatchway which allowed ladder access. Both require extensive plastering in their environs, which means painting when the plaster has dried. So, the first job on your list is the ceiling of the landing below the former attic.

Then arises a juxtapositional problem. Once you start painting the landing ceiling, you get to thinking that the ceiling downstairs in the entranceway is looking significantly duller, than its more elevated sister ceiling – it’s a bit grubby, a bit off-white, let’s face it. Job number two is, therefore, the hallway’s ceiling. Then, staying on the subject of ceilings, there’s all the little holes and cracks on the ceilings below the attic which resulted from the all the thumping, banging, boffing, booming and drilling going on above. These need re-plastering and, you guessed it, re-painting. Job number three: the guts of all the upstairs ceilings. And just to top off the ceiling painting: there are those nasty ring marks on the kitchen ceiling from when the plumbers messed up the installation of the new radiators and there was a wee bit of a tsunami between first and ground floors. Job number four: kitchen ceiling (three coats – those beige ring marks from the water damage were buggers to cover).

We moved a wall upstairs to accommodate the new stairs. New wall means new plasterboard . . . which means more painting. So, the entire middle floor, the new landing and stairwell above it, and because they are all joined, the walls of the old stairway and the entrance hallway below it needed a new coat of paint. That’s the biggest contiguous space in the house, with lots of twists and turns and nooks and crannies. But no matter: it was fun to do. In Lebowskian fashion, that paint job (clay white, mid-sheen) really tied the house together.

Next came the predictable, known known – the painting of the two new rooms which were formerly attic. But it wasn’t just the walls that needed painting. There was the matter of the skirting boards, doors (two), hatchways, and all the biteens around the doors and windows for which I could not be bothered looking up the names. And I discovered something about myself during the painting of the skirting boards etc – I hate painting woodwork. Firstly, you’ve to do it twice: primer and final coat. Secondly, it’s difficult: the paint is runny, tends to dry into solid drips if you’re not careful, and involves a lot of bending up, down and sideways. And, thirdly, it stinks. Headache central.

The last item on the painting list was the new stairs. Our old stairs I had stained two-tone exactly fifteen years ago. The new stairs got the same coffee and cream look. I’d forgotten during the intervening years how intricate wood staining was. Even before you think of staining, comes hours and hours of prep work: sanding, washing and rubbing down with white spirits. Then, there’s all the masking. I’ve used up miles of masking tape. The bin is brimming with those softball-sized clusters of pulled-away tape. I’ve found, though, that I love the crack the tape makes when you pull it off. It’s a satisfying sound. It means you’ve finished a section. When the last of the masking tape is pulled off, and I put my brushes into white spirits to clean them, I’ll breath a deep sigh of relief and take a walk though my newly painted house enjoying its freshness. And promising myself that I won’t be taking up a brush for a long time to come.

 

PS: I’ve been requested by someone close to me to bring my readers’ attention to this excellent site, where tie-dye T-shirts of the highest quality may be purchased. Each T-shirt is hand-made and a one-off.

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Short Story: Don’t Meet Me at the Airport

The plane was descending. Rory felt that slight pull on the back of his skull, that snap, crackle and pop in his inner ear. His face was white. Anyone looking at him would have assumed that he was a bad flier, but it wasn’t that. He was worried.

He better not be there to meet me, was all he could think. He better not be there.

John, who was a tease and a taunter – he called himself and incorrigible slagger – had threatened on numerous occasions, and as recently as the night before, to pick him up from the airport.

“I’ll meet you in the arrivals hall and plant a big, wet kiss on you, ” his smiling voice said over the phone. “I’ll have a sign. WELCOME BACK RORY. Heart balloons. And a rainbow flag. The works. Hell, I might come in drag. Bring some of the boys.”

Rory knew that John was mostly all talk. It was one of the things he liked about him: he talked big, made lavish, elaborate plans, wove shimmering, improbable dreams. But, when push came to shove, he usually calmed down and took the sensible path. Usually. And it was usually Rory who did the talking down, the scaling back.

“The Voice of Reason speaks again,” John was wont to jokingly proclaim.

What worried Rory was that he had had very little opportunity to impress upon John the logic of his not turning up at the airport. To talk John out of one of his notions usually required firm and prolonged nagging, as John called it. They had only spoken a couple of times a week in the last month. And they were catching-up conversations, with very little room for nagging in between their bits of news (I met so-and-so in the Plaza Mayor the other day; I took mother to Galway this morning; it’s wild hot; it’s rained solid for five days). But Rory tried to slip in some nagging anyway.

It wasn’t that Rory wasn’t looking forward to seeing John. It had been almost six weeks. He missed him. He always missed his wild hair, strong back and shoulders and deep brown eyes when he was away. The hum of energy and possibility that accompanied John wherever he went enervated and lifted Rory. Its absence in his life was like a vitamin deficiency, making him feel slow and heavy and dull. Sometimes it was small things that got him: the whiff of John’s brand of aftershave from a passer-by, a song on the radio, a shade of peach or a pair of cuff links that would have set John off.

Rory always took six weeks’ holidays in the summer; had done so since his very first summer in Madrid almost twenty years ago. To get out of the heat of July and August which oppressed and disoriented him. Finding it impossible to sleep for more than a few turbulent hours, he woke up bothered and drained every morning, craving a freshness in the air that wouldn’t be there until mid-September. The heat made his thoughts and actions sluggish, his legs leaden. The very colour of the Madrid sky during those months – a watered-down blue tinged with sulphurous yellow from the pollution – instilled a dread in him.

“Turn on the bloody air conditioning!” John used to bawl at him, but Rory couldn’t conscience running it for more half an hour, not to mention through the night. It was an obscene waste of resources, in Rory’s opinion (that was the science teacher in him), not to mention expensive. He was sure John would have had the thing on full-time in his absence, something that would be confirmed when the electricity bill came. John probably had it running while he wasn’t even in the flat, with windows open, to boot. Trivialities such as electricity bills didn’t bother John.

Or cleaning and tidying. The flat was guaranteed to be in a mess when he arrived back. Not a cup washed or a floor swept or a shelf dusted in six weeks. The only thing John did around the house was the laundry, but that was partly out of selfishness and vanity. John wouldn’t be seen dead in a stale shirt or grubby trousers.

Rory wondered how John had been feeding himself in his absence.

Probably hasn’t eaten in for one single meal, he thought.

John was a good cook, but hated cooking for just himself. He also enjoyed, as did Rory but not to the same degree, the buzz of the summer terraces, with their eclectic mix of clientele – locals, tourists, young lovers, ancient retired couples, hippies and businessmen, scholarly types with piles of books, old ladies with yappy dogs – live music, and cold drinks. There was probably a path worn from their flat to various outdoor eateries in the Barrio de las Letras or La Latina.

John gingerly laid a hand on his belly and confirmed once more that he had put on weight over the holidays. Half a stone when he checked that morning on the old rusting scales in his mother’s bathroom, the faded red hand creeping up past twelve beneath the bubble of cracking and yellowed plastic. Mother’s cooking was just too good to resist. The stews, the fries for breakfast every morning, bacon and cabbage. Roast beef, carrots and parsnips and mashed potatoes on Sundays, stuffed pork, leg of lamb, soda bread, fairy cakes, scones, rhubarb tarts – the list went on and on. He’d have to go easy for a month or two to get the weight back down. Maybe walk to school a couple of mornings a week instead of taking the metro.

With the thought of going back to work, a nervous pang squeezed his stomach and darted up his chest, and Rory became annoyed with himself.

You’ll be fine, like you are every year. You’re at this game a long time now. It’s hardly your first year.

The pre-term jitters were almost an autonomic response, something his body had grown into the habit of doing since summers started to tail into autumns and he and his mother would go shopping for books, stationary, a new uniform and shoes in Galway city. On the bus back to their village his mother’s conversation would be all about Rory’s doing well that term. If he couldn’t be top of the class, then second or third would have to do, but . . .

Twenty years, he thought. Twenty years teaching. Twenty years in Madrid.

If you’d told his teenage self that his middle-aged self would be an established, successful science teacher at one of Madrid’s leading English-speaking private schools they would not have believed you. Even the Rory who graduated from University College Galway with his science degree and higher diploma in education would have been sceptical. He had no interest in Spain, Spanish culture or even travel as a young man. A job at a rural county Galway secondary school would have done him fine. And mother would have been so proud. But it was not to be. There was no work for a recently qualified science teacher in the early 90s. The country was coming out of recession alright but there was nothing for Rory. If he’d come from a better family, one with connections – a bishop for an uncle, or even a priest who would have been on the board of management of a school – but his mother was just a poor widow, scraping out survival in a council house on the edge of a village in the middle of nowhere. He hung on in there for a year, taking scraps of work here and there, until a friend he did the diploma with wrote to him from Madrid: “There’s plenty of work here for English teachers. They’re crying out for native speakers. And you’d like it here, if you know what I mean.”

Rory had deciphered the code easily enough. The underline hinted that being gay over there was not only possible, but fun. And so it turned out to be. Instead of slinking timidly around Galway’s tiny gay scene, one eye always open for neighbours or third cousins who might see you slipping in or out of a certain bar or club, he threw himself into Madrid’s gay universe, as he liked to call it. There was a whole district, Chueca, just off Gran Vía, which gay and lesbians had colonised and made their own and where you could be yourself. No looking over the shoulder or down at your feet. No sneering or mockery or abuse from strangers. Only acceptance.

Rory found that his story was common enough among Madrid’s ex-pat Irish, the majority of whom were also involved in the English teaching industry. He estimated that more than half the male English teachers were gay and a good percentage of the women lesbians who had fled the confines of conservative, repressed Ireland for the freedoms of post-Franco Spain. These formed a little sub-culture within a sub-culture and, over the years, as members came and went, the hardcore who remained became something resembling a family. They celebrated key dates together – birthdays, New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Eurovision – helped each other out finding work, pitched in during house moves, and threw parties and soirees for the group. He wouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the solidarity between them, but it was understood that if you were in a fix, something would be done to sort you out. They also adhered to one golden rule: no talk of anyone else to people from outside the group, especially people back home.

It was a constant worry of Rory’s that word would reach back home that he was gay. Although he had moved on so much from the secretive, almost hunted sexuality of his adolescence, he still could not bring himself to be out to his mother, relations, neighbours, pre-move acquaintances and friends. There was only a handful of people living in Ireland to whom he had revealed his sexuality prior to moving to Madrid and thank God that these had kept silent over the years.

He was still careful. He was not out in Madrid except to his circle of friends. For one, his students would make his life hell. They suspected, of course, and there were always mutterings and sly winks and nudges, which was the main reason why he avoided social media completely. A teacher was almost a public figure and prone to as much on-line rumourmongering, abuse and bullying as any Hollywood star or J-popper. Secondly, the Irish ex-pat community was, although large, tight-knit. And gossipy. No matter how much you avoided the Irish bars, Gaelic football matches, official embassy dos, and events such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, you invariably found yourself mixing with the community a few times a year. All it took was for Séamus, who’d been working for Zeneca in Arturio Soria for years and who had over-indulged in the free Murphy’s Red to point out Rory to Roisín, who was over on Erasmus and a daughter of Paddy and Bridge Mulvaney from down the road from his mother, and mention that he was from county Galway, a teacher and gay and that would be it. Word would travel back in Roisín’s next WhatsApp message and spread like wildfire through the village, eventually finding its way to his mother’s ear.

“Why don’t you just flippin’ tell her? Get it off your chest! Be a man!”

If Rory had a euro for every time an exasperated John had said that. And another euro for every time he had said it to himself.

He knew the answer to the question, though. Knew it all too well: shame.

It was ridiculous, absurd, nonsensical, pathetic – you could throw as many adjectives at is as you liked – but Rory was ashamed to come out. Shame was at the root of years of smiling wanly at relations’ “when are you going to settle down?” probings, of reading books on trains and planes which were carefully concealed behind the dust covers of other books, of sketching a false life in letters and phone calls to his mother, of leading her around a straight mirror image of the city on her annual visit over in April (before the weather got too hot), of leading her up the garden path on marriage and grandchildren and the works – of lying. There was a shame in his heart about who he was, and any amount of talking, therapy, workshops or self-help books would not shift it. It had been sown when he was still in the cradle, nourished through the years of his rearing and schooling, reinforced at every step through his young manhood and it could not be excised. At this stage, Rory accepted it as part of him. He saw his personality as a pie chart with one generous black slice labelled Shame.

“Come out and get it over with. It’ll be a catharsis,” John had urged him.

Rory didn’t believe in catharsis. And who would he come out to and where and when? He was an intensely shy person, hated drawing attention to himself, hated giving away intimate details. If he ever came out it would be flying in the face of another big slice of that pie chart. And if he came out only to his mother, she would be in on the secret, responsible now for hiding it from the rest of respectable Ireland, and his shame would seep into her like a brown smudge on the ceiling caused by a leaking pipe.

No: things would stay the way they were. And he would just get on with life.

Rory looked up from the chairback he had been seemingly studying and scanned the plane’s cabin. There were many familiar faces. The woman from the embassy with her ever-growing brood of loud and giddy children. He would swear that she had been on every flight he had ever taken between Madrid and Dublin for the last fifteen years, Christmas and summer. She was always either pregnant or holding a new-born. Her colleagues at the embassy were either delighted with her perpetual string of maternity leaves (Rory had found her overbearing and superficial in the few conversations they had had) or resentful at the extra workload these implied. There were numerous couples in their thirties and forties with one or two kids, the majority of whom were SWIMs (Spanish woman, Irish man), and the man of which he recognised from previous flights (the women, for Rory tended to blend into one another). There were a couple of young TEFL teachers who were friends of friends, with whom he might have had a drink as part of a large group at a mutual acquaintance’s going away party or the like. These teachers had a short life cycle: they did a few years in Madrid, taking in the nightlife, the food, the scenery and the culture, before returning to the rain of Ireland and regular, nine-to-five work. Only a few ever settled down in Madrid, either because they had found love or a move up the food chain in the English teaching industry.

Rory looked around for a priest or a nun. When he started flying to Spain, you were guaranteed to find a man or woman of the cloth on every flight, as if some government quota system was in operation. You could even find yourself on a flight where a couple of rows were occupied by novices, and with their bull-necked and watchful superior recumbent in business class. On this flight he failed to spot a single collar or veil. What there were plenty of, though, were pilgrims setting out for the Camino. They were instantly recognisable with their brand-new hiking boots, cargo pants and rucksacks which took up far too much space in the overhead baggage racks. The majority were retirees having a final go at finding themselves or, as his mother would say, making their souls.

They don’t know what they’re in for, Rory thought. The heat at this time of year! And the dust!

The pilot made an announcement for the cabin crew to take their seats.

Almost there.

Rory tried to catch a glimpse of the mountains around Madrid through the windows of the rows opposite him (he always chose an aisle seat for easy egress). He saw snippets of parched scrubland, the odd pine or broom breaking up the yellow and dun tones.

Chaparral.

He saw the first little scheme of chalets with their white walls and sparkling blue swimming pools.

Oh, the Madrileños and their chalets!

He wondered if he and John would ever own a chalet. That would be another step in him becoming almost completely Spanish. Instead of spending weekends in the sweltering city, from early May until late October he and John would pack up their little car and join the thousands of others escaping to the mountains. The traffic jams, Rory believed, were epic. A journey which would normally take you an hour could see you crawling up the highway for three, maybe four. He imagined John at the wheel, singing raucously along to the radio tuned to a station emitting the worst kind of flamenco pop and reggaeton, making cutting remarks at the appearance of the occupants of other cars and honking the horn for the sheer pleasure of it. Rory would be one part embarrassed and one part thrilled. They could buy a fixer-upper. Do it up themselves. The rows they would have over the décor! He could picture John with a roller in his hand, slapping some delicate shade of grey onto a wall. Rory would take care of the little garden. He would grow rhubarb, parsnips, turnips, gooseberries, blackberries – all the things he missed from home.

He blinked himself out of this latest reverie. They were now flying over the edges of the city. The four skyscrapers at the top of the Castellana looked like the fingers of a hand welcoming him home, with the nearby hospital of La Paz the thumb.

Oh, please don’t be there, John, he thought.

 

He found himself at the baggage carousel surrounded, ring-a-ring-a-rosy style, by the embassy lady’s children, who were playing some sort of game of tag. He had been on his own, texting his mother to let her know he had landed safely when, all of a sudden, he felt the breeze of them darting around him, and caught dark peeks of their darting movements in the corner of his eyes.

“Sorry,” said the embassy lady, setting herself up beside him, “they’re hyper. I think it’s the pressure. It does something to them. Once they get down on the ground and their ears pop, they go nuts.” She paused, acknowledging polite Rory’s smile with one of her own. She sighed. “Anyway, that’s the end of the holidays for another year. Back to the grindstone now. Jesus, is it ever worth it? Hauling them up on to a plane for a couple of weeks in the shaggin’ rain. Going up the walls at your folks’ place with nothing to do and only six TV channels. Thinking of things for them to do. Pony rides, Tayto Park, Seaworld. The zoo. Jesus. Then dragging them back on to another plane at the end of it all, more frazzled than when you left. And broke, to boot. I’m glad to be back, I’m telling you. I need the rest.”

Rory ended up feeling sorry for the woman and found himself waiting with her until her bags appeared and lifting them from the carousel on to a pair of trolleys he had rustled up. She had six pieces of bulging luggage. After placing his own modestly sized case on top of the trolley that he took, he led the way towards the arrivals hall, with one of her eldest kids, a bony girl of perhaps eleven, struggling with the other trolley directly behind, and the embassy lady marshalling the other kids at the rear. He had to pause several times to allow the others catch up and make sure the little convoy stayed together in the busy baggage hall. By the time they had snaked through customs and passed beyond the double automatic doors into the arrivals hall, he was too frazzled to be worried about John being there. The kid had clunked him a couple of times in the heels with the trolley she was barely managing, and Rory was sore and certain he was bleeding. She hadn’t even noticed what she had done, not to mind said sorry.

He found a spot beyond the seating area where they could regroup and plan their next move – finding a taxi large enough to take the family and their luggage home. Rory didn’t know where to find such a taxi – he always took the metro home – but the embassy lady had “done this millions of times. There’s a special queue outside Terminal 1 for minivans. I’ll lead the way.”

Their party went outside, and Rory was knocked back by the heat. Even though it was almost nine o’ clock it must have been over thirty-five degrees. The woman lit up a cigarette and they followed its scent along the perimeter of the long terminal until they reached the noisy and bustling area reserved for taxi pickups.

“We just wait by the little kiosk over there until the next minivan thingy comes and we’re sorted. Shouldn’t be long.”

Rory nodded. He was sweating and his arms ached from pushing the heavy trolley. His fellow trolley-pusher looked as fresh as a daisy – and did not have aching heels.

“I’ll stay with you,” he said. “Help you with the bags.”

“Ah there’s no need. The taxi driver’ll do that. You toddle off.”

“Sure?”

“Sure. Thanks for your help. You’ve been fantastic. See you at Christmas!”

 

Rory was glad to be back in the air-conditioned terminal. He’d gone to the bathroom, where he’d checked his heels (only scuffed, no broken skin) and splashed cold water on his face. Now he was on his way to the metro station at the far end of the airport. With any luck he’d be sitting in a carriage in ten minutes and home in half an hour. He checked his shirt pocket once more for his rail card as he stepped off a moving walkway.

It was then when he heard a voice behind him say: “Hey, handsome – wait up.”

He turned around and saw John’s beaming face.

“I was so intrigued by that little scene of domesticity, I didn’t want to interrupt,” said John. “So I spied on you from afar.”

“That was my good deed of the day.”

“And there was I thinking you’d a secret family.”

Rory laughed at the ridiculousness of it. He did a quick mental calculation: it was fifteen, no twenty minutes, since the bags had come out. More than half an hour since they’d landed. There’d be no one from the flight left in the airport. It was safe. He held out his arms, inviting John into a hug and, as the two of them embraced, said “I’m glad you came.”

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Sandals and Socks

I saw my first sandals- and sock-wearing specimen of the summer season last weekend. It made me groan and smile at the same time.

It’s not a good look, the aul’ sandals and socks (S’n’S). Sandals are worn to keep your feet cool. Socks are to keep them warm. So . . . why? Isn’t it a bit like turning on the central heating and the air conditioning? Doesn’t one cancel the other out?

I severely doubt if the S’n’S brigade are worried about this great paradox of our times. Or fashion. The men (because they’re always men!) who sport S’n’S are well beyond caring about fashion. At their stage in life (late middle- to old-age) it’s all about comfort. You want your feet to breathe – hence the airy, lacuna-filled footwear – but you don’t want your little tootsies to catch a draft, which is where the insulation represented by the comfort mix (80% cotton, 20% acrylic) socks comes in. For the over 50s male, drafts are up there with prostate cancer and cholesterol on the scale of health worries.

The sandals in question are usually leather and of the “sensible” variety: none of your sporty abominations, chunky hiking gear or trendy beach sandals, thank you very much. Absolutely nothing that looks like it could be worn by a footballer swaggering off a team bus. Many sandals sported by the S’n’S brigade have been chosen by the wife*. As have the socks, which are never hipsterish, and at their most flamboyant may display “tasteful” and demur braiding. In fact, the whole of the S’n’S man’s “look” has been chosen by the wife, from the pastel sweater that comes down nicely over his pot belly, to the matching summer slacks, which boast the precise amount of linen content to allow the legs to breath while not creasing up, even in the wake of the most humid of sea breezes.

The S’n’S look is the source of much mirth in Mediterranean countries, which see hordes of Northern European men descend upon their beach resorts each summer and where the S’n’S is augmented by another s – shorts. Not only are us Northern European men boorish, overweight, red-faced and generally unattractive and slightly pathetic as we toddle around half-delirious from the sun and heat and half-cut from the cheap sangria – we also have no fashion sense. You can see the Spanish, Italians and French pointing bemusedly, and with that grating sense of Latin superiority, at poolsides and beaches packed with beer-bellied, bare-legged, sunburnt S’n’S men. You catch snippets of the lingo: ridículo, horrendo, abominable . . .

I would make the case, though, that Latin men of a certain age have no reason to feel superior to their Northern European counterparts. And my case rests on three words: loafers without socks (LWS). You see them when you go abroad – swarthy men with shiny, sleek-backed hair, pot bellies every bit as ripe and drum-tight as those of their Northern European components, Miami Vice suits, lots of jewellery and loafers without socks. Eek. The loafers are tight-fitting but airy, dotted all over as they are with tiny holes. Sometimes the holes are fancy stars or diamonds. Eek. Mediterranean Man is more adventurous with colour. His loafers can be any shade on the spectrum. Variations of burgundy, rust and olive are especially favoured. Once more: eek.

The S’n’S and LWS demonstrate the principle of convergent evolution – where nature arrives at the same design through different processes in two different ecosystems. Both modes of footwear aim to achieve the same goal of maintaining the foot cool, but not too cool (those drafts are deadly, you know!). There’s also an element of concealment at work in both cases. Only the young and beautiful have presentable feet. What could be worse than a septuagenarian in S’n’S, after all? A septuagenarian in flip-flops – corns and bunions on view for all to see.

 

*Unless the S’n’S wearer happens to be a priest. Members of the clergy are disproportionally represented among the S’n’S brigade. Wearing sandals makes them feel closer to Jesus, probably the most celebrated sandal wearer of all time.

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