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 to him. He looks surprised but after a few days of me persisting, with nothing more than an ‘hello’, he begins to nod in acknowledgement. I would put him in his late twenties, though the short, cropped black hair is already receding. His skin looks healthy, though the ingrained dirt gives him a tanned look that oddly enough doesn’t suit the poor weather we’re having. His 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 even 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 an ‘hello’, followed with a ‘how are you?’ are usually answered by a polite ‘ok, thank you’, in a difficult to place accent. 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 bad night out, but daily, in the same clothes and around the same spots, can only put him among the numbers of our modern great shame: the homeless.
Towards the end of the summer, I add the riverbank walkway to my nightly route. The walk is well sheltered and once you get beyond the Aquadome the street lights brighten what can be an imposing darkness. It’s a bit more industrial, with the poured concrete walkway, the drinkers on the benches and continuous traffic close by, obvious contrasts with the peaceful surroundings of Tralee town park. Oddly enough the man disappears from the park during August and pops up at times along the riverbank, where we continue our brief exchanges. I wonder if the crowds became too much for him and he’s escaping to the riverbank for some peace.
The man disappears completely in late August. I don’t see him a for a couple of weeks until one September evening along the riverbank, 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 nightly 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. He looks a lonely sort, possibly dealing with his demons or maybe he’s one of us who just can’t fit into society. Seeing him on the same bench, always alone, in the same clothes, just looking straight ahead and always the old phone in his hand, makes you wonder how he ended up on the margins.
For the rest of the autumn and into the early winter we pass each other. As the weather turns he gets a black jacket that he keeps zipped up. One November morning I’m walking by Lidl and I see him coming out from the store ahead of me. He has a bottle of cheap beer in his hand and he’s heading for the little picnic area across the road. As soon as he’s 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 and 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 shelter in town. There are few people around the park or down riverbank, except fellow dog walkers and those keeping fit. Then one day last week 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 is the man.
“Oh hello,” he says, in surprise, followed by “it’s you.”
As usual 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’s had since the early winter. 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.
Daisy and I are heading for a walk down the canal. Between one thing or another we haven’t been on the canal for a few days. The weather was against us on Friday, when we got as far as the towpath, only to be caught in one of those biblical-like deluges that use to scare me when reading about them during Religion class, back in St Joseph’s during the mid-70's. Time constraints, along with me picking up a bug which sapped my energy, kept us on the shorter, round the park route, earlier in the week.
It’s beautiful day. The sun is shining, even bordering on warm, I’m feeling strong again, plants are budding in the early spring weather and everyone I pass seems to have a smile on their face. All that is missing is one of those warm, Disney choruses singing how wonderful the world can be. True Daisy barks at any dog who dares cross her path and more than one couple walks by without saying hello or answering my greetings. I can understand a single person, lost in their own thoughts but surely one of a couple could at least say something; married life can slide into silence but it doesn’t have to, not if you make an effort.
As I cross over the bridge at Blennerville, a couple, coming off the path leading to the canal gates, smile and both say ‘lovely day’. This cheers me but what I see coming behind them, at the top of the towpath, really gladdens my heart. Three men are walking in a perfect line across the path, men in their sixties I guess, though guessing age is not my strong point. If you were casting three Irishmen for a Hollywood movie you’d pick these ones. The man on the left, closest to the canal is the taller of the three. A strongly built man, possibly younger than the other two but not by much, a weather-beaten, handsome face and a near balding head, with decent lines of thick, sandy hair above either ear. He’s wearing a long raincoat, down to his knees almost, covering the top part of an old pair of suit trousers, which just reach the lip of his black walking shoes. His walking stick is of a length of aluminium, with a few layers of tape as a grip. The beauty of the other two is that they are both pushing bikes, older bikes, and they’re holding them by the centre of the handlebars, the point of perfect equilibrium. If this was that Hollywood movie the picture would begin to blur at this moment, the music would get sentimental and as the focus returns you’d have three young fellows in exactly the same poses walking into the frame.
When I was going to school, it was a sight you saw all over the streets of Cobh, as no doubt you saw anywhere else, but you don’t see as much anymore: two young fellows pushing their bikes and a third lad walking beside them. The two want to spend time with the walker, so instead of cycling by they stop and walk, using that time-honoured, centre-of-the-handlebars grip to steer. Here I am seeing it again except this time it’s at a much later time in life. The two bikers are dressed in short jackets, one has a grey pair of trousers meeting his green jacket, while the other is in the reverse, a short grey jacket just reaching the top of his green trousers. They are both white haired and each has a good crop on their head still. The three are deep in conversation, free flowing chat that only happens among good friends. There is a good chance they’ve known each other all their lives and the walk with the bikes is as natural to them today, as it was fifty years ago, when they were all at school together. A simple scene in so many ways but such a beautiful one too. Old friends still together, still smiling, still sharing jokes, still with similar interests in life and remarkably still pushing bikes like they did when teenagers.
The man in the middle is wearing glasses, the only one of the three, and I recognise his face. A local man, who lives just over the bridge by the school and we used to talk when I collected Freddie during his time there. He recognises me, I’m guessing from the smile, says hello and asks how I’m doing. The other two smile too. I return the greeting as I walk by and at a decent distance I turn to see them at the bridge, talking some more, until the man I know and the walker, head over the bridge, while the other man crosses the road, to take up the towpath back to town.
About twenty minutes later I meet him on my way home. He’s just taking up a spot on a bench about three-quarters of the way up the canal. The bike is leaning against the edge of the seat and he’s stretching out his legs, while pulling down the zip of the jacket a bit, to take in the air. A contented sigh is all that is missing and then I hear it as I approach.
“Hello,” he says as I walk by.
“Lovely day,” I say.
“Powerful, powerful,” he says, closing his eyes against the warm sun, while leaning his head back against the top bar of the bench.
I smile and head for home.
The simple things in life really are free.
A couple of days ago I was off to collect Ruby from school. Nothing unusual in that, we’ve been doing it in one form or other for nearly 15 years now and I love doing it. It’s just a short drive from our house, ten minutes or so, around the roundabout, along Dan Spring Road, around the second roundabout and up to her school. Every time I go around the first roundabout I say, to myself, ‘there’s the first roundabout in Ireland to have a fountain on it’ and smile at the odd facts I store in my head and what prompts me to remember them.
Each time I say such a fact I picture myself on the final of ‘Mastermind’ or in the chair at ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and the seemingly impossible to answer question is asked:
“For a million euros Mr Verling can you tell me where is the first roundabout in Ireland to have a fountain as its centrepiece?”
People all over the country will gasp at the difficulty of the question: “He’ll never get that,” they’ll say or “how’s anyone supposed to know that?”
I’ll look at the camera and say:
“At the junction of the Ballyard Road, Dan Spring Road, Princes Street and the Dingle Road in Tralee.”
The gasps will ring out and the money will be mine.
Anyway, last Thursday I was driving around the roundabout, the fountain isn’t on at the moment, when I saw a man walking along the footpath to my left, coming out from the town side, just where Princes Street meets the junction. The man looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He had a black jacket on, a receding hairline which was catching up on his grey, short-cut hair and a well-kept beard. He looked deep in thought, almost as if he was solving a complex problem in his head or maybe something was bothering him. I was trying to concentrate on the busy traffic, while keeping an eye on this man I knew from somewhere.
“Where do I know that man from?” I asked myself as an old lady racer sped out from the left lane, just far enough ahead of me not to cause me to brake. I did slow though and I had a closer look at the man.
Sure enough I knew him and it was actually the deep-in-thought look that gave it away in the end. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, as he usually does when I meet him and normally he’s either driving or in our front room, marvelling at the softness of the rug Lisa bought last summer. That was the thing too, he was walking, not driving. This man loves to drive and there isn’t much he doesn’t know about the workings of an engine. He’s also a man who is always thinking, always working something out in his head and if he has a question for you it’s usually a good one. A parent of one of Ruby’s best friends, he’s a regular in our home and always has a smile on his face. His soft northern accent draws you in but his full attention to anything you say is a lovely attribute too.
It was seeing him out of the car that threw me. Seeing him walking along the road, out of context, had me confused. He was deep in thought, now he may only have been wondering what’s for dinner, but the expression was there and that flipped the switch of recognition in my head. I couldn’t stop and say hello or even beep, as it would have disturbed the peaceful flow of traffic on the roundabout, but I did wave, not that he would have seen me at that distance.
I said it to Ruby a bit later, when we were coming back home via the roundabout, that I’d seen him walking there earlier but didn’t recognise him as he was out of the car.
“What was he doing there? Walking? He’s always driving,” she laughed.
“I know,” I answered, “strange world, isn’t it?”
Now every time I’ll go around the roundabout I’ll think of our friend, as well as the millions I’ll win some day.
“Like the craft beers?” I ask.
“Yeah, love this one,” he says, “made with unfiltered water spring water. You never know what’s in the water these days.”
“True,” I answer, “I like this one.” Picking a bottle of Journeyman IPA off the shelf, not knowing if it’s filtered water or not, but that it is a good drink for a winter’s evening.
“Never tried that one,” he answers, looking at the bottles on the shelf, while rubbing his grey hair back over his ears, sliding a hand along either side of the head. The denim jacket looks in good condition but must be one from the eighties, as I haven’t seen one like it in a long time. No Status Quo or Black Sabbath badges on the pockets but this man looks old enough to have appreciated all the great bands in their heyday.
I’m always wary of recommending anything to anyone, in case they don’t like it and blame me. The best I can do is say how much I like something and leave it at that. Also if someone doesn’t like something I do like, it often makes me wonder about my own tastes. What am I missing? Have I got everything wrong my whole life? What am I doing wrong that the good looking, suave, sophisticated, urbane other person is doing right? So leads to a world of doubt that makes therapists rich. Best to just leave each to his own and get on with your own life, I suppose.
I leave my aging rocker at the shelf and go off to get wine for Lisa. At the checkout he’s standing in front of me, paying for the three bottles of Journeyman IPA the assistant is putting in the bag. Solely on me saying I like the beer, me who’s he’s just met, he’s buying three bottles and I notice none of the one he was taking before I spoke up. On paying he turns the other way, not seeing me standing behind him and heads off out the door. I just hope he likes it and I don’t hear a “Hey you!” someday soon when walking the streets of Tralee and have to duck the three empty bottles chucked at me in anger.
Six weeks later and I’m walking down the aisle of the local Super-Valu. Around the corner by the mustards and tomato sauce, comes a man in a classic blue denim jacket, shoulder length, wavy grey hair and white runners finishing off the blue Wranglers. There is nowhere to go, the aisle is empty, the last person scurries around the corner toward the tills. All we are short of is the music from the Good, Bad and the Ugly stand-off scene, though we do get a ‘Shane Murphy to the self-service area please’ over the instore Tannoy. I’m not even looking at anything and a sudden turn to check the noodles in the Chinese section may show my guilt.
As he walks towards me I look him straight in the eye. He stops and points and me; instant recognition may or may not be a good thing. He looks at me for a second or two longer before he places me fully, giving me that slightly quizzical turn of the head to make sure he has the right person. I raise my eyebrows; my usual response to people who think they may know me. He smiles. I relax and let the Beta blockers take over.
“The craft beer man,” he says.
“That’s me,” I laugh. Along with my beard, black coffee and natty dressing, thanks to Lisa, the liking of craft beer just ticks another box in the hipster textbook. In my defence I’ve been brewing my own beer and drinking black coffee since the early eighties, though if it wasn’t for Lisa I’d probably still be dressing like the early eighties too.
We get into a discussion about beer and life in general. Not too surprisingly he plays guitar, though just a home with friends in the afternoons. We get into how big brands and the big retailers are defining our tastes and limiting our choices when out shopping. The worst are the big breweries and now both of us have lost our love for Guinness, which hasn’t been the same, in our opinion, for years.
“Fluoridation of water is the biggest culprit, ruins everything, killing us from the inside out,” I’m told and I nod, as it’s not a favourite of mine either.
Before I know it a quarter of an hour has gone by. I’m late, it’s almost 3.45pm and I need to collect Ruby in five minutes. We say our goodbyes. Just as we shake hands he pulls me slightly towards him, looks me in the eye and, while still holding me in a tight grip, says:
“Thank you for that beer,” there is a genuine appreciation in his voice, “the best yet, I’m just on my way to buy some more.”
I smile, relieved as he hadn’t mentioned the Journeyman and I was worried that he may not have liked it.
“No problem, good luck.”
We go our separate ways and there is a smile on my face as wide as Cork Harbour.
He’s made my day, though he may never know it.
The man walking towards me looked a bit different from most of the others I see on the canal. Usually it is couples, groups out running, or men walking a dog or a couple of dogs. It’s still a bit different to see a man under fifty walking alone. Maybe they think it’s not for them, they haven’t reached that stage yet or maybe they haven’t got the time. If I ever do see a man out alone either he is running, dressed head to toe in Lycra, or else he’s a troubled looking sort, out occupying his time, clearing his head, dealing with his demons.
This fellow was well-dressed in a padded, blue jacket, warm black scarf wrapped around his neck and a clean pair of jeans that ran into a comfortable looking pair of shoes. These were the giveaway. He wasn’t wearing runners or walking shoes, more the type you’d wear around town and the canal is that bit too far from town for you to wander onto it when out buying milk. No, this man looked the type who might be out for a pint, or as I thought when I saw him, out avoiding going for a pint. He was looking over my shoulder, beyond the immediate start of the walk, either judging how far he was going to go or, as it was getting dark, if he would even go at all. Sometimes these are the fellows best avoided, they could be the ones with the awkward questions or the ones difficult to walk away from when you start a conversation.
He continued to look over my shoulder as I walked towards him, looking around me even, trying to get a view along the bend of the canal. In his right hand he had a pair of black gloves, matching the scarf and he was slapping them off his left hand as he looked. I put Daisy on her lead again, readying her for the walk on the road. As I approached him he spoke, while still looking beyond me.
“Did you see an older man with a couple of terriers down there?” he asked.
I stopped beside him and looked back down the canal walk too.
“No, not that I can remember,” I answered, thinking that I hadn’t seen anyone with terriers but mentally double checking on who I had passed in case I was missing someone, “no definitely didn’t see a man with terriers and I walked down as far as the lock gates.”
“Oh, maybe I missed him so,” he said slightly disappointed, but yet with the air of a man who has learned to take life’s disappointments in his stride, when maybe he hadn’t in earlier years. I took a few steps to show I was moving on, continuing my walk home.
“Sure I’ll walk back along with you,” he said.
Was he making an excuse just to start a conversation so he could then walk with me? Was he someone who doesn’t know his social boundaries? I tend to attract all sorts and I love talking to anyone, hearing their story, but when they volunteer to walk with me it becomes something different, possibly a situation when I may need to come up with an excuse to get away from some poor troubled soul, which in turn will make me feel bad. Most times all is okay and a few minutes of chat is all that is wanted by both sides, but a stranger who wants to walk with you isn’t always welcome, as it can lead those awkward moments.
“Who were you looking for?” I asked, as often making the person come up with a name can often tell if they are genuine.
“Oh a neighbour of mine who walks his terriers here most days, Francie Murphy, from Stacks Villas. I like walking with him.”
“I know Francie,” I say, relieved that my man knew one of the regulars, “he’s definitely not down there as I would have stopped to say hello.”
Francie is a big man, probably in his sixties who walks his two terriers along the canal everyday and often has a few other men with him. He usually has a heavy raincoat on, with a high-viz jacket over it, for when he’s on the road. His long walking pole suits the look, as do the heavy-duty boots and he has one of those kind faces that you know has seen a few things in life.
“Oh, Francie’s a gentleman, I could listen to him all day, known him all my life.”
I reckon Francie must be at least 20 years older than my new companion and he may be a bit of an anchor in life for him. Like an alcoholic who seeks out a sponsor when in need, a troubled soul can also get great solace from a familiar face, from someone who can be just a friend to spend time with when needed.
“Where are you off to?” I asked, now that he had turned away from the canal walk I wondered what he was planning on doing.
“Just doing some shopping for the dinner,” he answered, “get a few things in town.”
“Did you have a nice Christmas?” I kept the conversation going.
“Yes, I watched a lot of documentaries of the television, ones about Jesus and Noah’s Ark and the search for places in the Holy Land and other stories from the bible.”
“Sounds good,” I say.
“Ah they were excellent really, I’d watch them all again.”
Now I didn’t want to get taken down the road of Jesus stories, so I didn’t follow him on any of the topics raised. Maybe he was a man who found a lot of comfort in religion, with great reasons too, as many others do, but I didn’t want a religious conversation to start.
“They’re great company, aren’t they?” he said, nodding towards Daisy.
“Oh, the best,” I said, “she goes everywhere with me, keeps me going out, even in the bad weather.”
“I had one for 14 years, she died a few months back, I loved taking him out with Francie and his dogs.”
“Will you get another one?”
“I will, I will,” he sounded sad, as if thinking of his lost friend, “what do you feed her, she’s got a great coat.”
“The dried food, a bowl a day keeps her going.”
“They love yoghurt, love it.”
“Yeah, just a spoon a day but it’s very good for them, my old one would go mad for it, you should try her on it.”
“I will,” I laughed.
We came to the junction where the road into town branched off to the left and where my own home was off to the right.
“I’m going this way,” I said, pointing to the right.
“Ah sure I’ll walk a bit more with you,” he said without stopping, “I can still cut back along to the road to town up by the roundabout.”
So we walked the ten minutes to the roundabout. I was beginning to feel uncertain that he would head off into town. There was a sadness, a loneliness, about him, which can sometimes turn into wanting to make you into a new friend. I didn’t live too far away and wondered if I would be taking him home for tea. We talked about dogs and life in general and how Christmas is a special time for kids and that’s what it is all about. At the roundabout I stopped at the crossover, to wait for traffic to pass.
“This is me here,” I said, apprehensive that he may choose to keep walking with me. To his left was the road into town, if he followed me there was nothing except houses, where he didn’t have an excuse to come.
“Oh okay,” he sounded a bit sad, as if he wanted the chat to continue, “I’ll go off and get the butter I suppose.”
He put out his hand
“See you again,” I said, exchanging a firm handshake.
“Nice meeting you.”
I crossed the road, looking over my shoulder when I got to the other side, to see him walking up the empty street under the amber lights, hands in his jacket pockets, alone and maybe would be for the night. The long evenings of the winter can be the worst when people are on their own, with nothing to look forward to except the company of the TV and going to bed. I hoped he would be okay and that he wasn’t heading for a bar somewhere.
I headed for home, thankful more than ever for the family waiting there and the warmth of their company on a dark cold evening.
Early yesterday morning there is a knock at the door, where my friend Dan hands over a bag of the biggest pork chops ever seen, along with a thank you. Dan bought two pigs in the early summer and kept them in a pen at his parent’s place. Fed on standard feed, along with the apples from the orchard, scraps from the kitchen and acorns from the oak trees in the large fenced off area, the two boars were a fair size before going to the abattoir. The ‘thank you’ is for me feeding the pigs at times when he was away, a job I loved doing and I grew fond of the two fellows now in a bag in my hand. It was a running joke when Dan and family were on holidays that the vegetarian was feeding the pigs, which were being fattened for Christmas.
Later in the morning I stop off at the farmer’s market to buy some bread. The cupcake craze of a couple of years ago, put me off going to markets, but the Bácus stall here has some professionally baked bread, which tastes like bread should do and is a nice treat for a weekend lunchtime. As it happens the baker is sold out completely; a good complaint and testament to the quality of his product. He tells me he was up at 5am baking and he never has enough to keep everyone happy. Baking, along with butchering is one of those trades under threat from the rise of the supermarket chains but both have fought back in recent years, with a product far superior to that bought off the shelf. Though I don’t have any bread, I do have Dan’s chops as a testament to what can be produced using a bit of love and care, along with some time thrown in for good measure.
Going to the market gives me a chance to talk with Chris Moloney, a friend who is also keeping an old tradition alive and seems to being doing a good job of it too. Chris may well be the last, or one of the last, door to door milkmen in Ireland, delivering milk in the old glass bottle. Twice a week he drops off the litre bottles on doorsteps around Tralee, collecting the empties as he goes. If I’m awake about 6am on a Tuesday or Friday morning I hear him at work around our development and the fresh milk is by the pots outside the front door when I come down to start breakfast. He bottles the milk at his own small dairy, collects the money monthly and even washes the bottles ready for the liquid bought locally and pasteurised at his plant. The full fat and skimmed are non-homogenised, so you get the cream floating to the top if you leave the bottle stand in the fridge. On Saturdays, he runs a stall at the market, selling the milk, signing up new customers and supplying existing ones who are not yet on his route.
If Chris isn’t the only one doing the door to door deliveries in a glass bottle, he certainly is the only one from Queens New York. I never tire of his accent and you can almost see the street scenes of the city of his birth as he talks. He is passionate about his product and it shows in the quality and the popularity of it. I once spent a couple of mornings with him on the route, as part of a documentary I was working on and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At about 3am he collected me and for the next three hours we drove around Tralee, in the cold of a February morning, dropping and collecting while Chris spoke about his life. Funnily enough one of his first jobs as a kid was a paper round in Queens, again getting up early to do his work. At the time, he never guessed that he’d be doing early morning rises to deliver milk, in an Irish town he probably had never heard of, when he’d be the age of people receiving the papers he was delivering.
As we spoke about everything from Dan’s pork chops to life in general, I spotted a guy approaching from our left with one of Chris’s bottles in his hand but full of a deep purple liquid, instead of the usual virgin white milk. Chris greeted him and thanked him for the rabbits. Apparently, the balding man, probably a bit younger than me, has a licence to shoot rabbits and does so for local farmers. After a recent shoot, he’d dropped off a couple to Chris, skinned and gutted, ready for the pot. Chris said his kids loved the ‘stu’ he made and they didn’t mind that they were eating Floppy and Thumper. In fact, his boy expressed an interest in shooting and hunting, which are skills necessary for proper management of the countryside. Not many people do it anymore but too many rabbits will destroy plants, resulting in fewer birds and more bugs. It is important that people learn the times when to hunt, how to do it cleanly and what to hunt at the right time of year. Stock management would probably be the degree course if there was one to follow. These are skills you pick up on the hoof, learn from someone who has done it all and who knows the importance of handing on their knowledge.
“What’s in the bottle?” Chris eventually asked.
“Take a sniff of it,” the man says, screwing open the gold cap with the ‘Ballymac Dairy’ sticker on it.
The smell of alcohol nearly knocked me back.
“Mulled wine?” I asked.
“Homemade red wine,” the man smiled a gentle smile, delighted with his product, “a present for you Chris.”
Chris took the bottle, obviously touched by the sentiment.
“Well it would be a shame not to taste it,” he said, getting three plastic cups out from his stall.
The purple liquid looked delicious in the mid-morning sun, just a couple of fingers in each clear cup did us fine. There we stood, sipping our drink, talking of wine, milk, rabbits and I even spoke of my homemade cider which I’m keeping for Christmas. It went down easily and though all three of us expressed an ignorance of what good wine should taste like, we all agreed it was delicious. For me that is all any drink, food or treat should taste like, along with leaving you with a desire for more.
Noon on a Saturday was a bit too early to be looking for more wine and I said my goodbyes when the snifter was gone. Back home Lisa had two loaves of homemade brown bread ready for lunch, which was just perfect after the wine. Dan’s chops are on the menu for tonight, the vegetarian won’t get any pleasure from eating them but I will from cooking the right recipe which the kids will enjoy.
A woman appears at the sliding door of a nicely designed 1990’s style dormer house. The patio outside is dotted with potted plants and the colours of autumn are in the leaves of the trees around the home. She is in her dressing gown and looks at her husband, no doubt wondering why he is bringing a bearded stranger to her door at this time of the day.
“Do you recognise this man?” he asks, smiling at her.
“No,” she says, though she gives me a lovely welcoming smile regardless, while at the same time scanning my face for any signs of who I may be.
After a minute or so her husband says:
“This is John Verling.”
A spark of recognition from a name she may well have last heard nearly forty years ago has her opening her eyes a bit wider before she scrunches them up again to examine me once more.
“Michael Verling’s son,” I say.
“From Aer Lingus?” she asks.
“That’s me,” I say, “it might be a long time since you last saw me and I was probably no more than this size.” I place my hand on top of an imaginary boy’s head.
I’m looking at her too to see if I can recognise her from the past. I used to visit my father’s office on Patrick Street in Cork and I always got a big welcome from the female staff, no doubt having something to do with losing my mother at such a young age. In truth we probably don’t recognise each other, how could we really, but there is the connection and it is immediate.
Mary brings me inside while her husband goes back to his digging of the potatoes and we spend the rest of the morning talking. We exchange memories and how each of us ended up in Tralee. We talk of the old days in Cork and the years she spent in the office. Funnily enough Mary remembers my father speaking of how good at tennis we kids were at the time. The talk flows over cups of tea and we chat about other mutual Cobh people we know and by the time her husband comes back down a friendship has formed. By now it is gone noon, I left home at 10.30, and it is time to go. I’m invited back up to pick apples whenever I like and to call in for tea too. I leave saying goodbye and shaking my head at the way a morning can develop.
Later that day Fred and I come back up and collect two big bags of apples. Freddie likes the fresh ones straight off the trees and stuffs his pockets with them, as well as eating a couple of big ones. I wash and dry the apples back home, while Freddie is still scrunching through his haul. Now that I have enough apples for cider making I will need to get them pressed and tomorrow is Wednesday, pressing morning at the allotments.
With a room smelling like a brewery and apples about go to waste, it is time to act. Somewhere around town, I think it was on the library noticeboard, I read that the Moyderwell Allotments on Dean's Lane run an apple pressing service every Wednesday morning; that library noticeboard is a great source of useful information, much more so than any online service I read. The sign says to bring apples and sterilized, watertight containers. The containers I have but I will need more apples.
Behind the garden where I first got some apples I noticed another orchard of at least five or six trees. The trees looked laden down with red, juicy apples and I head up there on a sunny morning after Fred goes to school. Daisy comes with me and I stuff a bag for life in my pocket. The orchard is behind a well cut, beech hedge which is in full autumn colours and it looks almost painted in the morning sun. It really is a magnificent time of year when the rain and mists hold off until the trees have lost their leaves. I find a gap in the hedge and head into a plot of high grass and brambles.
The trees are dotted around the top of the land and below them is a cleared spot, which looks as if it has drills for growing vegetables, so maybe this is not as abandoned as I first thought. I look at the trees and grab the low hanging fruit along with some good ones off the ground; when pressing apples the quality of the flesh is not important, as it is the juice you are after. Just as I take a bite from a lovely hard red one I notice a bit of movement among the vegetable drills below. There is a man, possibly in his seventies bent over a drill, with a fork in one hand keeping him steady as his other hand digs in the earth. How long has he been there I wonder? Should I sneak off before he notices me or should I approach him and ask his permission? I decide my days of slogging apples are behind me and I walk out from behind the tree and down the little plot towards the digging man.
“Do you mind if I pick some apples?” I ask.
He looks up, doesn’t seem surprised and I’m not sure if he knew I was there or if he has just spotted me.
“Not at all, help yourself,” he answers.
By now I’m not too far away from him so I keep walking down as far as the top of his drill.
“I’m sorry I just walked in here, I thought it was an abandoned orchard,” I continue.
“No, not abandoned at all,” he says laughing, “this is all mine.”
“It is, isn’t it? Are you the man who called to my wife yesterday asking for permission?”
“No, I live down the road and just spotted the apples when out walking.”
By now I’m standing beside him and I can see he’s digging potatoes.
“Where do you live?” he asks.
“Just down in Springwell Gardens. I presume you live in the house through there?” I point to the back of a house just visible through now obvious gap in his hedge.
We continue to talk like this for a few minutes. He tells me how long he’s lived here and how he kept the orchard and vegetable plot going when they bought the land to build the family home.
“I better not keep you any longer,” I say becoming conscious of the fact I’m not an invited guest.
Do you want some potatoes?” he asks
“Love some,” I say and the friendly man picks a few fine spuds and drops them in my bag.
Now it really is time for me to go; I’ve been caught stealing this man’s apples and he’s making me feel doubly bad by giving me some of his freshly dug potatoes too.
“Thank you,” I say and as I turn he says uses that phrase which couldn’t be more appropriate when handling potatoes:
“Are you from Cork?” he asks.
“I am, are you?” I say laughing and he nods, smiling too, probably recognising where we could go with the line of conversation.
“Yes, where are you from?”
“Cobh,” I answer, “and you?”
We look each other in the eye now, looking maybe for some recognition in each other’s faces.
“What’s your name?” has asks in a gentle lilt.
“John Verling,” I answer.
He stops still at this and looks directly at me: “Verling?”
“Did you by chance have a relation who worked in Aer Lingus?”
“My father did,” I say smiling, feeling that the conversation was going somewhere.
“My wife was his secretary.”
We both laugh at the surprise, as this would have been at least forty years ago now. He sticks the fork in the freshly dug earth.
“Come on down she’d love to meet you.”
“I’d love to meet her,” I say and follow him through the gap.
It is autumn and everywhere I walk I see fruit. Apples are filling the trees, elderberries are being snaffled by the magpies and the last of the blackberries are going to waste on the brambles. On Saturday morning we met a couple with a homemade grab, out trying to find some sloes which are in short supply this year. The red of the hawthorn berries may still add colour along our country roads but that beautiful deep purple of the ripe sloes isn’t seen much anymore. What was once a plentiful fruit is now difficult to find, due to the disappearance of our hedgerows, which is a great pity.
One morning last week I went out collecting apples. There is an old house just up Ballyard Hill on the right which appears empty and I’ve never seen a sign of life at any time of the year. In the back garden is a solitary apple tree, surrounded by high grass and ground elder. The tree always has a good stock of apples; old fashioned red and green ones with a lovely tart bite. It is difficult to get to the tree and as you walk through the long grass you trod on firm apples that move slightly as you step on them.
This year someone else beat a path through, which made my way in that much easier. I had with me a pink umbrella which my daughter picked up somewhere when on a rainy night out during the festival. It made grabbing the branches easier and my bag was full in a few minutes. Back in the car I decided to go for some of the red ones I had spotted a few days ago, farther up the road. This tree is in an orchard beside a small white house, which is well kept but again I never see a sign of anyone when walking by.
I park a bit down as I don’t want to drive in, just in case I give an older person a fright. I knock at the door. No answer. I knock again, no answer. I walk over to the hedge surrounding the orchard and contemplate helping myself. There are a few trees, a mixture of the big, rosy, red eaters and strong looking cookers. I hear a few steps from behind the house that make me stop and I look around to see a man approaching who looks as if he is about the hit me. He is walking fast and not asking questions.
“Just looking at your lovely apples and wonder if I could pick some for the kids.” I say without hesitating, letting him know I’m not a threat, dropping in the reference to the kids as a bona fide.
“Oh, no problem,” he says stopping and smiling a bit, “don’t know if there are many good ones left though.”
He turns towards the top of the hedge and I follow.
“Ah just a few will do,” I say.
He opens the wooden gate and leads me into a muddy patch of ground. I pick up the first apple I see.
“Don’t take them off the ground,” he orders, “they’re only bruised, leave them for the pigs. Take them off the trees.”
“Thank you,” I say and start picking the red ones my kids might like. I hear him talking to someone on the other side of the hedge but I never see who it may be.
After a few minutes he comes back in, still looking at me oddly but now only from thinking I’m a bit strange and not a threat.
“Did you get enough? There are some other eaters here,” he points to a tree inside the gate, “at least I think they’re eaters, might be cookers.”
I take one off the branch and bite into nothing you could buy in a shop.
“That’s an eater and it’s gorgeous,” I say.
“You’re right,” he says, taking one for himself.
I head off, thanking him for the apples and he closes the gate saying that I’m welcome, though without an invitation to come again. Thinking about it afterwards I suppose it is a bit odd to pull up outside someone’s house and ask to take fruit from their garden. In my defence I had assumed they were going to waste. They obviously aren’t and those pigs won’t be needing much apple sauce come their harvesting time I reckon.
“I’ll see what the kids think,” I say.
“Sure isn’t that what it’s all about,” he says philosophically.
He’s right too but back home the kids have little interest and I’m the only one eating them. Now the tray of apples is in the spare room. Lisa says it smells like a brewery in there but I don’t want to throw them away yet.
I have another idea which might be worth exploring.
At a few minutes before seven o’clock I leave home; the sun is gone, or at least the light from it has disappeared over the horizon and the twilight is making way for the gathering night. The street lights are glowing their familiar warm amber and passing cars are driving on low beam. My two dogs are on their leads but Daisy, the upstart, new arrival is barking and claiming her walking rights over the older Muttley. In her mind only she is allowed walk with me and so it shall ever be. As we cross the road before the Basin I can see the canal walk ahead though the lights there are not yet on.
When we arrive where the road finishes, at a small car park for the apartments on my right, the LEDs of the lighting flicker into action. Their glow is directed downwards, not wasting any of the light but also not obscuring the pathway or the waterway, in any unnecessary show of brightness. There are many people out walking, couples as well as the single dog walkers like myself, but yet it seems so very quiet, as if I am here on my own.
The word serene comes into my head and I look it up when I get back: calm, peaceful or untroubled reads the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary and it almost captures the beauty of the canal. A large group of runners, on their way home by the look of their determined faces, jog past, some chatting to a partner, others keeping the eyes focused on a finish line probably up by the Aquadome. The long line of multi-coloured kits snakes back along the path but it soon passes and it’s back to walkers only by the time I’m past the second bench. Cars pass on the Tralee to Blennerville road but their sound is strangely comforting, a reminder that life is going on and people are on their way home to dinner after a day at work; their day too is ending. Every person out tonight has a dog of some description and even Daisy tires eventually at barking at each one.
We carry on at a good pace, nodding and saying hello to everyone, most answering, others choosing to stay silent. At the slight bend in the canal a heron flies out from behind the Poplar trees by the small lake. It skirts along the field on the right before turning and flying no more than a few feet above my head. He or she is followed by another similar sized heron, who chases it over the canal and the road beyond, before disappearing into the darkness of the inlet on the other side. I can hear them squawking at each other, either fighting or courting, but I’ve never heard such noise from this usually fairly quiet bird.
Someone once said that the heron is made up from the parts leftover when the rest of the bird species was being made; the unwanted parts that is. It has a chest like a bulldog, very long, wide wings, gangly beanpole legs, a dagger like beak at the end of a too long looking neck that has to bend into an s shape for flight. Yet it is the most elegant of birds, whether in flight or sitting patiently when fishing, so seeing two fighting and making noise is most unseemly of them. Though they have disappeared into the marsh I can still hear them giving out. Their screaming disappears as I continue but just as I make it to Blennerville Bridge they appear again, chasing and harrying each other, while just missing a mid-air collision on more than one occasion. They fly alongside me for a minute or two before heading off to the windmill, disappearing once more into the darkness.
Any natural light has faded completely now but I keep going, heading for the lock gates at the end of the path after the bridge. The council has yet to allocate the money to finish this part of the walk, so the lighting is gone, as is the freshly tarmacked path, replaced by rough aggregate. The plan is to do the job under next year’s budget. The dogs are keen to keep going and the red harbour lights of Fenit act as a guide in the distance. You lose all sense of perspective in the complete dark but at least as once as your eyes adjust, you can see where you are going. It is getting cold but I’m not the only one doing this part, with walkers looming out of the darkness from time to time.
Just as we get to the lock gates the two herons appear again, flicking in an out of my vision but staying along the course of the water as they fly. I wonder what has got them so excited? We turn at the gates and make our way back along the still, silent water’s edge. The canal is tidal and it must be just about full or about to turn, as the water is not moving, there isn’t even a ripple on the surface.
“Beautiful night,” a man says as he passes.
“Yes,” I answer, “we’re lucky.”
“That we are,” comes the reply from the darkness.
Back on the lit side of the walk we pass a few more people and I step up the pace a bit to get home for the football. The dogs bound along and there are fewer out walking by now. It is still as beautiful as when I set out and I don’t mind missing the start of the match. As I make it back past the bend by the lake, a heron comes gliding along, barely above the surface of the still water. A single one this time, either the lovers broke up or territory has been claimed. The bird comes in to land with a gracefulness that belies its shape and touches down on the stone bank across from me. It almost disappears into the background but I can just see its intelligent head staring into the water.
The bird’s night is just beginning while mine is nearly over.
I wish him luck and head for home.