Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Short story: A small world

Jenny Judge encounters some characters on a recent flight to Texas, where she is studying for a PhD

Jennifer Judge is currently studying for a PhD in Music in Texas. Photograph: Líla-Marie Hamilton

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 12:15


Jenny Judge

A live concertina and harp duo launches merrily into diddly-eye in Shannon airport, to cast a magical spell of Celtic charm over the departing tourists. Sallow middle-aged men in IRELAND t-shirts glance over their shoulders, impassive. They turn back to the bar, where they’re sinking a last pint of Guinness before departure. It is 9am.

There is a little cardiganed woman with a slightly flattened grey perm sitting next to me, reading a prayer book. It has a gold embossed chalice on the front. She’s holding the book in two hands, thumbs at the seams. Her lips are moving as she reads. A perfect image of Catholic Ireland.

A bit too perfect. I suspect she might be a Bord Fáilte plant.

The diddly-eyers have handed over to a fiddle, flute and piano. The pianist is oom-pahing energetically as the soloists skitter unsteadily through a set of reels. Bar lengths are being squeezed like accordions, beats skipped. Some fairly idiosyncratic harmonisations are emerging in the melée. He bashes out a panicked sequence of descending major triads, in an unrepentant cascade of parallel fifths. He probably thinks nobody noticed.


“Would passenger, eh, Mindy, Sha-ra-pi-ro” – slight pause, ruffled papers, was that right PJ? Jaysus, what kind of a name is that at all? – “please return to passenger screening.”

Why is it that American tourists are so instantly recognisable? Especially considering their ethnic diversity. Their sallow skin, maybe. Something about their posture. The moustaches and neck chains. The headwear; Irish people don’t tend to wear hats. There are baseball hats, and even wide-brimmed wax hats on display here. The sensible shoes. The high-waisted jeans. The baggy shorts, the LL Bean rucksacks.

I suppose it’s not so surprising after all.

“Passenger Sharapiro to passenger screening, please.” No hesitation this time. In a booth somewhere, PJ shakes his head in silent admiration. Sure we’re after getting fierce cosmopolitan altogether here in Shannon.

I feel an odd desire to try to make sure the tourists enjoyed their holiday. Tug my forelock. Give them all a hug. Did you have a nice time, did you? And were they nice to you now? And did you get any souvenirs? Here, have one of my shoes.

A nun is waiting to board, four-square, indomitable. She has a sensible hold-all and a battered black handbag. Socks pulled up halfway up her nylon-sheathed calves. A cylindrical skirt. She stares resolutely into the distance, half-moon glasses hanging lopsidedly from a lanyard around her neck. The obligatory pair of standard-issue nun Eccos.

They must come as part of the uniform, like in the army. They probably make them clean them with toothbrushes, line up for inspection in the morning. The chief nun runs a gloved finger over the proffered runners, holds it up to the light. A pregnant pause. You call that clean? Ten decades of the rosary and five Hail Marys. On your knuckles.

Impossible to tell if she’s Irish or American. Hard to tell with nuns anyway. An inscrutable bunch.

I always think it will be a safe flight when there’s a nun on board. I plan to affix myself to her like a limpet if things get rough. I’ll wrap my arms around her waist, eschewing the flotation device, burbling half-remembered prayers. Pray, sister, willya, for Jaysus’ sake, I will entreat her, through gritted teeth.

Boarded. Tiny plane, drop-down movies in the aisle. I’m sitting next to the nun. She knows my grandmother’s cousin. They’re in the same order in Texas.

“Sure isn’t it a small world, sister. A small world.” We shake our heads, marvelling at the smallness of the world. “Oh, ’tis. Isn’t it just. A small world.”

She’s brusque. An Irish accent just about discernible under the acquired twang. Sentences are delivered in rapid fire. She’d have done well on Blackboard Jungle.

She realises she’s in the wrong seat. “I should be in in 16A.” And she’s gone, like a smell of gas, bolting down the aisle without a backward glance. No, she doesn’t need my help with her bags.

“Bye now, Sister.” No response.

I acquaint myself with the location of my flotation device.

On the in-flight movie, American characters are saying American things, like “bottom of the fourth”, “with all doo respect” and “so help me God”. A baseball player gesticulates at his codpiece. Jackie hits a home run. A string orchestra erupts in soaring jubilation. Jackie nods at his coach, once, in close-up. His coach, on the distant sidelines, nods minimally in response. But really, I don’t think they can actually see each other’s faces. Jackie is very far away from the coach. I suppose it must have been coincidence that they both nodded at the same time, or something.

The occasional expletive is ridden over roughshod by a voiceover bleating a more acceptable alternative.

“You miserable son of a BIGOT.”

“I kicked that sucker right in the GRASS.”

My companion on the left, a businessman from Limerick who lives in Dublin (“I’m still from Limerick though, I won’t be supporting Dublin in the hurling or anything, Jesus no, not a chance”), is pale under his tan. He was at his brother’s wedding at the weekend. He spent last night in the pub, having a barbecue and a sing-song. “Not feeling the best now, getting on the plane,” he says, throwing his eyes up to heaven. “Sure it has to be done,” I say. “Yerra yeah.”

“Was it a good sing-song?” “Ah it was, yeah. All my sisters play. Sure they’re fierce talented altogether. Used to play myself, he says, piano and button-accordion. The cornet for a while, as well. That’s a yoke a bit like a trumpet.”

I say I play a bit too, bit of piano. Doing a PhD in music now. “Is that so,” he says. “Fair play. I did music for the Leaving Cert myself.” “Is that right,” I say. “Fair play.”

He wakes from his snooze with a start. Surreptitiously checks for drool. I pretend not to notice.

He blinks at me a few times.

“Are you off on holidays, is it?”

“No,” I say. “I’m off for a year, actually. I’ll be studying in Houston.”

“A year? Jaysus. That’s tough going.” He shakes his head. “But sure, at least you’ll be back home after that.”

“Well, not exactly,” I explain. “After the year in Texas, I’ve to go back to England to finish the PhD. I’ve been living there for a few years now,” I add.

“Is that right,” he says. Shakes his head. “Ah sure ‘tis tough, now, with all the young people having to leave. Desperate.”

“Oh desperate altogether,” I concur.

“Desperate,” he repeats. “Yerra ‘tis an awful shame.”

We both nod our heads slowly, shake them, nod them again.

“But you’ll come back, won’t you? Some day?” He winks, avuncular. “Sure ‘tis people like you we need to sort the place out, like. Take over from us ould lads, ha?”

I smile. “Oh, I’ll be back all right. Probably not for a long time, but yeah. I’ll be back.”

“Good stuff,” he says. He grins at me. “Good stuff.”

This article first appeared on Jennifer’s blog