On the third and final night I struck gold: the sun blazed as it sank through ragged clouds towards the bruised zinc of the Atlantic. As it touched the horizon I let out a quiet “ssss”. She was not there, so I shared the old folk joke with her memory.
I sat on the hotel room balcony, with a single malt in one hand and a cigar in the other, and marvelled at the epic beauty. I’d been doing a lot of that these last couple of weeks. I would watch trees in the breeze and try to catch the rhythm of their swaying. I would sit in busy places and drink in the sheer human energy around me. I would walk up remote hills in the rain and savour the soaking. I was in my last few days now, and there would be none of that where I was going.
The cigar was part of my farewell. I’d never smoked before and I never would again. (I’d failed to discover what the fuss was about, but the smoke was fun to watch.)
Likewise the whisky. A friend had given me a list of the finest single malts and I was working through them, one a day. That’s not a bottle a day, just a glass or two. My friend would inherit a heap of near-full bottles when I was gone. (Yes, he has a name, but I’m trying to blur out all the people I will never see again. Please indulge me.)
I had two more days of putting my affairs in order, as they say, before starting my final journey. Actually I had finished: tax return submitted and agreed, houses in London and Ireland sold, debts paid, remaining assets distributed. All I had left was a weekend with my kids and a lot more walking around in the fresh air. And, if I was lucky, more glorious sunsets.
“Right, that’s grand. See you tomorrow.” And with that the camera crew tramped out. Now I started to relax for real. I crushed out the cigar – the producer’s idea – but kept the whisky.
It had been a heavy day. We’d done leaving the hotel tomorrow morning. I’d re-enacted handing the keys of my Irish house to the estate agent. We’d reconstructed a lot of sitting in busy places (and hardly any walking in the wild – the crew didn’t have the shoes for it). Cameras would be in my face for most of the rest of my life now, but in two months there would at least be no more galumphing camera crews.
I grabbed my fiddle and headed over to the pub: one last session, sitting anonymously in a circle of whistles, squeezy things, bouzoukis, bodhrans and fiddles, playing Irish tunes too fast but without inhibition. And without cameras.
The following morning I checked out and climbed into the taxi to Kerry airport for the morning flight, one of only two a day back to the UK. I snuggled down in the seat, recalling the smile on Ó Domhnaill’s face last night when I presented him with my fiddle. He was the finest player among us and had loved his great-granddaddy’s fiddle like a daughter… until that day he reversed his Land Rover over it in drink. After that his toothy smile was seen no more. He could only afford a cheap Chinese violin in its replacement, a pink one – to his embarrassment – because that was the one on discount. His smile returned last night.
I got the driver to go the long way, round the coast to Dingle then on down the R561. “For the view,” I explained. I assume she already had me down as an English eejit, for she just peered out at the rain and shrugged.
The road followed a stream as it skipped down towards the sea, which eventually came in sight ahead: a grey smudge between dark clouds and a grass verge. The view opened as we rounded a rocky slope and I watched more carefully through the windscreen wipers’ busyness. After about five minutes I saw it on the right: a long sandy beach stretching away south into the March gloom for maybe three kilometres. It separates Castlemaine harbour from the sea: Inch Beach. I asked the driver to pull over.
I got out, kicked my shoes off and walked along the golden sands a while. I rolled up my trousers and paddled in the Atlantic, storing away the sensations of waves licking my legs then breaking on sand… and of fresh water falling from the sky too. I didn’t know whether I’d ever feel them again, but I did know this was the last of Ireland.
Eventually my toes started to turn blue, so I shambled back to the cab, shoes in hand, soft rain soaking my clothes. The driver stamped out her cigarette and I climbed into the back where there was room to make myself look presentable for the camera.
At the airport I paid off the cab and looked round for the crew. Ah, the goat riding an eight-legged rhino, huddled from the rain beside the entrance to the terminal… that’d be them. As I approached it resolved into a hairy boom mic towering over the black-clad cluster of camera, sound, director and runner. Given that they’d shot me leaving the hotel “today” in yesterday’s sunshine and it was now pouring with rain, I wondered how they were going to make that work. Then decided I didn’t care. I’d never see them again.
“Morning!” I said.
“You’re wet!” - Chloe (camera).
“Is that the same shirt?” - Michael (producer-director).
“The taxi!” - Abby (runner).
Declan (sound) remained silent.
“Delighted to see you too. Yes, it’s the same shirt. Yes, I’m wet. What about the taxi?”
“You arriving at the airport is one of the shots,” Michael explained with exaggerated patience, as if I hadn’t just seen him reading it off Abby’s clipboard.
“Sounds brilliant,” I replied. “Perhaps you could have mentioned it before. What do we do now?”
But Abby was already leaning into the first of the few waiting cabs, explaining that she wanted him to give up his place in the queue to drive me to the airport entrance, then back to the drop-off point. Money changed hands and she waved me over.
And so it went on. After arriving in a taxi we did reading The Kerryman – the local newspaper that the airport shop had sold out of; fortunately Declan had an old one in his bag – and going into security. I cleared security in about half a minute, then waited as instructed. I watched Michael debate with the airport manager and the head of security the issues raised by, and nuances of, a letter with a great crusty crest at its head. They must have all read it at least three times – after the head of hawkeye services had dashed off to fetch his glasses – before it was concluded that the crew could indeed come airside and continue their shoot. So we swapped places and did coming out of security – but not shot head-on, in order to preserve the potency of the airport’s security arrangements – and waiting by the gate while still fascinated by The Kerryman. Then going through the gate and walking towards the plane. They might even have done climbing the steps, shutting the door, taxiing out, taking off and disappearing into low cloud for all I know, or care.
The plane was awful wee: two seats each side of a fairly short aisle. And not busy. Which was great: I could do with some me-time. Of course there were the obligatory enquiries: “are ye famous?” “what’s the fillum?” “is it an advertisement, so?”. All from Irish passengers of course – we English would never be so forward. (Jeez, did I just say that? I’m Irish, for all feck. I guess I’ve lived in England so long…) Once we were all strapped in I stuck in a pair of earbuds and looked firmly out of the window.
The respite drooped my eyelids, but I forced them apart again as we burst through the dark cloud into vivid sunshine and on up. The black folds of clag marched away to the east.
After a while – probably just beyond Waterford – the clouds paled and thinned, then shredded to disclose a crazy paving of ludicrous greens, stitched through with erratic roads – plus one straight line, the railway – and punctured by occasional farmsteads. It only lasted a moment, and I returned my gaze to the cloudscape.
At the next cloudbreak I had left the country of my birth, for I was over the sea. Such a prodigal bounty of water, unmatched throughout the known universe beyond this pale blue dot, our Earth. There was some shipping down there, but I found I only had eyes for the endlessly varying chops and serrations of the surface, the numberless blues and greens and greys, the shadows of clouds. For some reason my eyelids were wet.
The Welsh coast was a fine strand of sunny yellow at the tip of the Gower peninsula, then thick clouds that I watched all the way across England until our descent took us down into their damp interior.
At Stansted – oops, that’s London Stansted International Airport – I was in no rush to leave the plane and face another camera crew. As I emerged landside there was a camera pointing vaguely in my direction while two black-clad figures kept looking down at a piece of paper and up at faces. I considered giving them a wave but didn’t want to spoil the shot, so I let them struggle on and instead looked around to take in the once-radical architecture.
Today’s plan was to catch a train to London then another to my son’s place somewhere in the home counties – my Mayfair house was sold to a wealthy Russian some weeks ago – where my daughter would meet us after work. I’d then spend the evening and the next day with them and their partners and my grandchildren. I’d been a tough negotiator and the crew wouldn’t follow me beyond the destination station, nor shoot any family members. So they’d be out of my face in a couple of hours.
They finally spotted me, and I duly obliged by walking to pass them close. I headed for the station.
A hand on my shoulder, a “Dad!” in my ear, and there was my son.
“I thought you were at work!”
“I took the day off,” he replied. “Just for you!”
We hugged, more warmly than I think either of us expected.
Over his shoulder I saw the camera crew approaching, the red light declaring that they were shooting. I thought of remonstrating, then had an altogether better idea.
“You came by car?”
So I explained my plan.
We agreed on ten minutes and he set off for the car park. I stopped at a coffee place near the station entrance while the crew did reading the Financial Times over an americano. They came over for a brief chat – mainly to confirm they were following the right man – then I told them I was off to the loo and didn’t expect them to follow me. They agreed to keep an eye on my coffee for me.
A few minutes later I had skirted round Check-in zone A and out to my son’s waiting car. In a movie the crew would emerge from the terminal, shaking their fists, at precisely the first too-late moment. That didn’t happen.
“Why all the cloak-and-dagger?” he asked as he drove us away. So I told him.
The next two days were off-limits for the cameras, and they are for you too.