From Cork hills you can see farther than you’d think
Of the small, damp group gathered on the scraggy hill that afternoon, I was the only one still living in Ireland
‘We would lie around in the grubby evening sun, looking across to the Twin Towers, those gleaming sentry gates to Manhattan.’ Above, the Tribute in Light memorial in remembrance September 11th. Photograph: Thinkstock
I got on the Luas at Connolly Station, a rare treat for a timid suburbanite. It has been so long since I took the tram that I had to ask a loitering member of the Civil Defence if she could tell me which side of the platform I should be on. “Either,” she said, a little witheringly, before frisking me and putting me in the recovery position.
I was going to Heuston Station to catch the train to Corcaigh. The train was sprinkled with jaunty men, somewhat beyond the first flush of youth, in possession of plastic shopping bags and an infectious enthusiasm, who, by the time we passed through Ballybrophy, had become decidedly coltish, whooping like a posse. I have no idea what delights were in their bags or up their nicely ironed shirtsleeves, but, as soon as my knees get stiffer and my hairline recedes, I’m asking if I can join their club.
I like Cork. I lived there for a year or so in the 1980s, when everybody else I knew was emigrating to Berlin and Boston. I like the curve in the river by Sunday’s Well, the drifting swans, the way the streets hatch open off Pana.
I walked up from the station, met my old friend, a holidaying emigrant (who, despite a couple of Antipodean decades, never lost his accent), in the Long Valley, a lovely old city-centre bar with wooden panels and marbled counter tops, famous for cold, black pints and pillowy, white sandwiches. It was 30 years or more since we had first met there. I looked at him now and saw the same gentle face, only clearer, no longer occluded by a bar full of 1980s tobacco smoke.
New York horizon
We had shared a broken apartment in Brooklyn, he and I, one summer soon after that first meeting. We would sit on the flat tar roof of the battered brownstone after work with sweet, watery beers. I was waitressing; he, having baulked at the big career his education expected of him, was behind the counter in a junk-jewellery store, selling diamante for a dime.
We would lie around in the grubby evening sun, looking across to the Twin Towers, those gleaming sentry gates to Manhattan and all her ching-ching wealth and big-hair confidence. We speculated about our shaky, uncertain futures, never thinking to wonder about that of the towers; never considering that edifices could crumble while we survived, found work, procreated.
The day after our Long Valley reunion, we walked up a scraggy hill in my friend’s former townland, shale skidding under our boots, puddles opening under the deft assault of a sudden monsoon. The sun had been splitting the stones in west Cork all summer, apparently. I had brought the rain to drown those tropical nights under the fuchsia.
We made our wet pilgrimage to the high point of the hill, herding a handful of children in hoods and sandals, a contradictory uniform for an Irish summer. We reached the summit, surveyed the rural sprawl. The place had been the burial spot for some rebel king back in the day when heroes used mountains as stepping stones. We sat on the base of an ugly pebble-dash cross that bloomed over the view, reclaiming the vista from pagan ghosts.
From our vantage point we could see Kerry and Kinsale, a wide rift of blue-grey sea between them. Below us, Friesians grazed under a cloud of rain, in luminous des-res greenery. The landscape was so entirely bucolic it looked airbrushed, imagined, invented maybe, but for the cold-tongued rain.
Of the small, damp group gathered around the cross that afternoon, I was the only one still living in Ireland. Within days the others would disperse back home to London and to Perth, their hard-earned summer over, recorded on portable devices to be replayed to their sweet children.
A glance backwards
On the drive into town we talked about the distant past. In their car seats, the children listened to tales of long, cold walks to school across fields of bracken, of forebears trailing behind cartloads of hand-picked flax into market, where a sale meant boots for the winter and no sale meant you did without. Outside, the sun came out and mist lifted from the fields.
The emigrant offspring will carry these stories, these fresh memories, these pictures of ageing faces, on to fat aircraft and sooty, red buses and into hot Antipodean playgrounds. And back here, those of us left behind, stunned by the sudden stillness, will fold up the bedding, sweep the sand from the empty porch and wait for the Skype call.