Everything’s a journey these days.
As each disappointed celebrity leaves Strictly they talk about the journey they’ve been on. Weeping X Factor hopefuls are bid farewell with “Let’s take a look at your journey.” Actors describe their character’s journey and their directors “want to take the audience on a journey with them”.
But not all journeys are metaphorical. Some journeys are simply the travelling from A to B. Except that even those journeys can sometimes take on a deeper significance than miles traversed, fields and trees flying past a train window, seas crossed, farewells said.
On a bare concrete floor in the garage sits an old, wooden, hinged box. Not much bigger than a child’s lunch box. It’s been buried under years of accumulated clutter, forgotten but not forgotten. I know it’s there, but I worry what opening it would do.
As a child I spent summer days, while my parents were at work, with a woman from the Dingle Peninsula, a stark and beautiful part of Ireland that’s part of the Gaeltacht, the area where Irish is spoken as the first language. She’d come to England when she was 18-years-old and wound up in Leeds. The culture change could hardly be more marked. Would I have coped? I don’t know.
Days with her were spent in storytelling. Her own childhood, the great Kerry Gaelic Football teams, the rocks off the coast of her home and how the biggest island looked like a sleeping bishop. She had a painting of the island above the mantlepiece, a feeble replacement for the actual view she’d sacrificed when she made her home in England. I would sit, listen and eat up every word, along with the vitamin tablets she insisted on giving me to compensate for growing up in a city instead of breathing the fresh ozone off the wild Atlantic every day, like she had.
Years flew by and I saw less and less of her as I discovered the joys of being a teenager and was too busy to dwell in the gentle kindness of a woman who had left behind her home and who’d treated me with as much care as if I’d been her own child.
Then, in my 20s, I started to see and chat to her again. She was an old woman by then but apart from her physical appearance it felt as though she hadn’t changed. She’d still make me laugh when she ran outside with a bucket and small shovel if she heard a horse’s hoofbeats on the road – “for the roses!” she’d shout as she’d pursue horse and rider until the horse gave up it’s “treasure”.
The passing seasons saw her older and frail and she realised that she’d never go back to the place where she had lived the happy, carefree life that all children deserve. I’d started visiting her again, to sit and chat and pass some time with her. If all I could give her was an hour of my time then that is what I would give her.
One day I told her that I would be going to Kerry to visit my own relatives and that I would be visiting the peninsula. She told me to wait and bustled out of the room, returning five minutes later and handing me a sealed envelope with instructions not to open it until I reached Dingle.
I made the journey, not knowing that she was ill, let alone exactly how ill. I was too wrapped up in my own problems. My life at the time was at its lowest ebb, things seemingly falling apart around me. I hardly gave the envelope another thought, shoving it in the bag that I carried along with the weight of the world pressing down on my shoulders.
It was October and the weather was on message. The day I went to the peninsula was a grey Sunday that made me think of JP Donleavy: “Day set aside for emptiness and defeat…only churches doing business, sacred with music, red candles and crucified Christs.”
I had the envelope in my jeans and fished it out when I reached Dingle. I opened it.
And there it was. Her handwriting. Not an old woman’s scrawl but a bold, strong hand.
“If you follow these instructions and the little map I’ve drawn then it should take you to the exact spot.”
Something caught in my throat. I knew what would follow.
I looked at the map under the writing. It was probably the worst map I’d ever seen but I could follow it. Like she’d known I would.
I re-read her instructions of exactly where to leave the road, just a little past Ventry travelling from Dingle. And there to walk in a certain direction for a specific distance until you’d find the stones.
Those little stones. I stood on them and thought of her life in between the walls they once formed. The laughter of her youth and the tears of her leaving, all the emotions of her youth, spent here like pennies at a fair. Bound for England and the chance of a better life.
The weather had grown greyer and rain set in. It was a day that made you long for summer, not the summer gone but all the summers lost and gone. And made you think on the generations who stirred the earth with their bones and were nothing but memories.
“When you reach the stones, look out at the sea and take a deep breath of air for me. As long as you’re there then a little piece of me will be too. I know I’ll never see it again but you can see it for me. Dig a little bag of dirt and bring it home for me.”
When I returned to England I was too late. And in that old, wooden, hinged box is a handful of dirt and I know if I open it I’ll think of when I arrived on Dingle peninsula, walked out on the end of Slea Head and further on to Dunbeg, beat, wet and penniless and sat there and wept into the sea.
And I’ll think of an 18-year-old Irish girl who made a journey, a real journey, to England and that last unpromised pact I was too late to fulfil. And I think on all those who journey in hope of a better life and on the things they never really leave behind.