A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 55
By crossing the Shannon, I hadn’t just travelled from Galway into Offaly while being able to spit into Roscommon. I’d also crossed the great an ancient border from Connacht into Leinster. I was surrounded by maps and the most genial company. I was enjoying Offaly awfully when the boss arrived.
His boss is what my old friend Joe White (who had considerable Irish ancestry himself) would call a big broth baldie head of a boy. The Bluetooth tucked in behind his ear was a nod in the direction of status and an almighty confirmation of anachronism. I don’t suppose for a minute that it was even switched on. He throws an envelope onto the counter in front of John.
He sighs a tiny sigh, chuckles and questions, “Not bad news?”
“Well, good and bad, I think.” adds the other in a conspiratorial whisper. Their voices, in acknowledgement of the stranger, descend to the lower reaches of the register which gives their words a vaguely English sound but left them completely confidential. In deference to good manners they nodded and smiled in my direction and punctuated every third word with a chuckle of such great mischievousness that I find myself chuckling myself. They are obviously conducting a conversation regarding instructions that they must carry out. Someone in Dublin, or Tullamore has sent out urgent missives in the belief that he or she has the minions jumping. The minions are chuckling with equal subversive scorn and merriment and I feel among my own people.
I get introduced. “I’m the routemaster. I’m finding him a way to get to Rosslare, though I haven’t much of a clue where it is. He’s after getting a ferry. He’s gone over 600 miles and has a good way still to go.” He looks out of the window and adopts a deeply sympathetic face. “And, it’s raining.”
His boss takes his turn in poring over the map. He repeats observations such as it being a terrible long way. “Wouldn’t you rather stay around here for a while. There’s plenty to see and we can see about getting you a ride on the river once the weather clears.”
It’s a good suggestion. A third round of tea is made and we are beginning to list places we’d like to visit. “You must head to Birr,” says the boss just as the door opens and out of the rain step two middle aged women of a cheery nature and a reluctant child. He’s seven or there abouts and has the manner of someone who has spent a good deal of time listening to his mother talk to other adults over the top of his head.
“Now can you tell me just what there is to do in Shannonbridge on a wet day in August?” There is a pause of a second or two and then general laughter. It seems that the elder of the two ladies also works at the tourist information office and this is her big in-joke. It has been a long time since I worked anywhere I wanted to go to on my day off. I think this woman has been looking forward to her day off just so she can call in and stand on the other side of the counter. There are, after all, very few actual tourists coming in and out.
The two men are outwardly pleased to see her and continue their smiles and genial chuckles. They don’t however say a word all the time she is in the office. She’s bright and breezy but has a way of spending an awful lot of time, and considerable acting gestures, to say very little. The little boy wasn’t the only one experiencing a sense of relief when she completes her monologue with a friendly, “Well, I can’t stand here chatting all day.” The second woman made some sort of sound of farewell; the first noise she had made; and they all depart as they had arrived.
Talk turns to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
“Well, I remember Nottingham Forest winning that football match. I think Trevor Francis got the goal.”
“Yes, when Brian Clough was the manager. I always thought he should have had the England job.”
Football turns to coal mining.
“That thing in 84. Arter Scargill and all that. Is that all over yet?”
I could give him either answer. Men are no longer on strike but the repercussions continue to echo through time like tremors on a fault-line.
We talk about employment and unemployment. The Irish recession; “Sure, it doesn’t touch you if you’ve a job. But, things are a price to pay in the shops.”
And eventually we move back to the map and my journey. Fingers point out junctions and crossings. “You need to go down here, and then go to here, and then you’ll be on the road to Birr.”
It was implicitly understood that Birr was the town to head for. “You’ll like it in Birr. You want to put up at Dooley’s Hotel. It’s right in the centre on the main street. You’ll do well there.”
“I’m trying to avoid all the busy roads.”
“Oh, it’s not so busy. You’ll be fine to cycle that. And you’ll have gone far enough when you get there.”
“Oh sure,” agrees the other. “You don’t want to be going past Birr.”
“There’s good shops in Birr. You might be after getting a better map. One that’s got better roads on it. This one’s got altogether too much uphill.”
It was delivered with a deadpan Humphrey Lyttleton would have been proud of.
I leave feeling rejuvenated. The road is flat and it’s stopped raining. The cattle are in the pasture and the sheep may safely graze. I find a farm gate, without a half built five bedroom mansion behind it, and find it a good place for Simon to safely pee.