Love in old age is more about gratefulness than grasping

Michael Harding: On the plane I wonder how many below are crossing the sea in dinghies, no one certain of finding love in old age

‘Love in old age is a koan; like a journey in the dark, or snow that has not yet fallen.’

I miss the General. Either he is dead, gone to Brazil, or just so annoyed with me for writing about him that he refuses to make contact.

“You and I exist in different time zones,” he declared once. “Rural Ireland is in the same time zone as Medieval Europe. I, on the other hand exist in the time zone of radical modernity.”

I defended myself by asserting that I often stay in Carrick-on-Shannon, which is not quite a crucible of modernity, but it’s certainly great fun on a Saturday night, as women clop in high heels from one bar to the next, wearing pink sashes, white furry ears, and other exotic paraphernalia associated with hens on the town.

A sophisticated array of stalls selling everything from fresh fish to organic honey

And modernity is nowhere more obvious than at the farmers’ mart in Carrick-on-Shannon, a sophisticated array of stalls selling everything from fresh fish to organic honey, where I met my friend the professor of literature last week.


His basket brimmed with olives, cheese and the green stalks of fresh carrots draping over the lip of his basket.

It was Thursday morning.

“I’m off to Malaga at the weekend?” he said.

“Why Malaga?” I wondered.

“Golf,” he retorted. “Flights go from Knock.”

When I got home, I opened the Ryanair site out of curiosity, and indeed there were flights on offer for less than I would spend at the drinks trolley on the Dublin train.

Professors of literature are notorious for hopping from one continent to another, giving lectures on Beckett or Joyce, or some other modernist, as if the world hadn’t long ago moved on. But it’s alarming to imagined them orbiting the earth in search of a good golf club.

In fact, sometimes I feel there are too many people in the sky at any one time, all compulsively burning the planets reserves of carbon just because they need to improve their putting.

But what really makes me uneasy in planes is the amount of people who complain about the size of their seats, while down below the seas are full of creatures in flight from war, squashed into inflatable dinghies with no seats at all. I suppose it’s all a matter of different time zones, as the General might say.

And yet I was tempted to buy a ticket to somewhere: because the days are shortening in the hills above Lough Allen, where rush hour is the sound of a single lorry at the quarry gates, heading home for the night. And as I looked out at the rain that has been falling since the middle of July, I longed and longed for anywhere else.

But I’m nervous of planes. This time two years ago, I booked a ticket to Warsaw and became so stressed 12 hours before the flight that I couldn’t drive down the road, never mind get on a plane.

For me, flying is an emotional risk; it feels like reaching across a room, to embrace a stranger. Crossing the continent at 30,000ft is like walking across the dance floor in Glenfarne all those years ago when I was 21. It took courage then. And it still does.

They trudge through the golden leaves and stand to gaze at some small bird

Not that Europe is a dancehall or that Poland could be remotely compared to a young girl.

But I’d risk a lot, just to walk into Saski Park in late October, with the rustle of yellow leaves underfoot. Sometimes I have sat beneath the branches of one particularly old tree that survived the war, and felt grateful to her. Old trees invite me into a zone where time moves slower and my anxieties fall away.

Couples often walk in Saski Park. They hold each others hands. They trudge through the golden leaves and stand to gaze at some small bird.

I suppose love in old age is a simple matter; it’s more about gratefulness than grasping.

Love in old age is a koan; like a journey in the dark, or snow that has not yet fallen.

I booked the flight. Committed myself to a week in Warsaw. And so here I go again, across the skies of Europe, in a priority seat, wondering will all the leaves be dead by the time I get to Saski Park, and into what zone of modernity did the General vanish.

But I have other questions too. Like how many passengers are flying across the planet tonight? And how many refugees are drowning down below, in all the seas of the world, clinging to their inflatable dinghies in a time zone where nobody can be certain of finding love in old age, or even a safe beach in the dark.