To be sick is human, to eat fresh-cut chips is divine


The surfing sylphs and the corncrake’s call chart a journey to my childhood holidays: it’s Bundoran revisited

I DIDN’T KNOW what to do when the weather improved last week. I’d spent the summer watching television as compensation for rainy days, and sometimes I was so bored that I listened to corncrakes on YouTube – lovely little hens that used to come up from South Africa every summer to lay their eggs in Donegal, nesting in the dry meadows that I could smell through the wide-open windows of my father’s A40 as we drove to Bundoran on our holidays in 1966.

The sky was so blue last week that I drove up to Bundoran again, and I bumped into a Traveller family outside the car park at the waterfront. They were home from England and we got talking for a while. I gave them a start with jump leads from the battery of my jeep to their camper van, as women with big arms, huge chests and blonde hair watched me from a distance, and the men quizzed me about how the Pajero was going.

There were surfers on the beach wearing black rubber that made their bodies enormously attractive. I was too embarrassed to jump in because I felt I’d look like a big wally among all the young surfers, although I would have loved a swim in the white breaking foam.

There were no surfers in Bundoran when I was a child, nor indeed when my grandparents went there many decades earlier, although I imagine bathers did wear dark swimming costumes in 1912, similar enough to surfing suits.

I went walking, and halfway around the cliff I sat for a while in one of the cement shelters where I used to cry privately as a teenager, and an old man beside me turned his head and said, “I don’t believe it; is it you?”

It was me. And it was him; the bank official who gave me Brideshead Revisited when I was in my early 20s. I used to drink whiskey with him in a midlands pub where men often gathered at night to wallow in unbearable depths of remorse as they smoked cigarettes, leaned their heads on the bar counter, and ached for sexual intimacy with other men. Some of them poured scorn on the world before going home to semi-detached houses in suburbia, where gladioli flourished in brazen colours at the end of every summer, despite their wives’ best efforts to restrain all things loud with a garden clippers.

My friend was still wearing trousers the colour of egg yolk and an immaculate white shirt, but at 84 he was looking good. “I swam,” he said, “when I went to Dublin, almost every day.”

We went back to the middle of Bundoran and found a restaurant. The menu offered traditional fish and chips but when I asked were the chips fresh, the waitress looked disappointed and admitted they were frozen.

“Is there somewhere we can get fresh ones?” my friend inquired with his old vigour and defiance. “Not in Bundoran,” she replied. But he wasn’t going to be deprived. So like two schoolboys in an Enid Blyton adventure we crossed the street, and before you could say “Golly gosh” I saw a bucket of freshly cut chips behind the counter, all ready to go.

So we had a pleasant lunch and I mentioned that Brideshead Revisited was on the television again. “I heard you were sick,” he said, and he wondered had I changed in any way.

“I used to think that sickness emasculated a man,” I said, “but I was wrong.”

“You sound vulnerable,” he said. “Maybe illness has improved you.” I agreed. Because maybe I finally do realise that to be sick or old or in need of help is simply human. To be vulnerable is human. And the shame that makes men silent about that, and wear a warrior’s mask all the time and pretend to be invincible, is something less than human.

“I’ve discovered that it is shame and silence that twist men into caricatures,” I confessed. “And then they crash in middle age.”

I hugged him at the door when we were parting. And in the afternoon I went for my swim. I tossed myself into the white foam with abandon, and squealed with delight as a child might, before going back to the jeep. The Travellers were still outside the car park; big strong men with tattoos on brawny arms and faces as brown as a corncrake’s feathers, and we saluted each other warmly as I drove away.

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