‘You looked tired today.’ ‘I’m fine,’ I lied


I got stressed last week. I was working on a film in the midlands and I’m not used to being in front of a camera. I spent one afternoon playing a farmer, in a small Volkswagen Beetle with a big sheep called Mollie, who urinated twice on the back seat, although the film crew assured me that passing water was a sign that the sheep was relaxed.

The two of us were so long in the car that the urine steamed up and fogged the windows and the camera couldn’t read what was happening inside as the sheep tried to bite my ear while I drove around a bog.

By six o’clock I was exhausted, so I went for a walk through Tullamore in sheets of rain. I could smell chilli sauce and curry and chips at every corner, as the takeaway restaurants and fast-food houses prepared for the folks who come at night looking for curry or tandoori or Peking duck to soak up the pints.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped into a pub and asked a bald-headed man at the counter why there are so many takeaways in Tullamore.”

“And is there?” he asked, as if I was saying something derogatory.

“Yes,” I said, “there’s loads of Asian restaurants out there and any amount of chippers.”

He was getting irritated. “And where are you from?” he wondered.

“Leitrim,” I confessed.

He laughed and said: “Orang-utans.”

“Now hold on,” I said, “just because I mentioned that there was a lot of takeaways in Tullamore doesn’t give you an excuse to insult Leitrim.”

“It wasn’t an insult,” he replied, “but I was listening to someone on the television last night talking about orang-utans in Borneo. And they’re nearly extinct. But now they’ve corralled off a certain amount of rainforest for them and no one can cut it down or take it over. It’s preserved. So the orang-utans are able to survive.”

“And what’s that got to do with Leitrim?”

“Leitrim,” he declared, “is about to be destroyed. Foreigners are going to frack the guts out of it so that all the lakes and rivers will be poisoned and the trees cut down and the last remaining natives will have to move to Berlin.

“So I’m just saying that the only way to save Leitrim is to declare Leitrim people to be an endangered species, like the orang-utans, and then them frackers can’t just walk in and ruin the place.”

I decided to go before he offered to buy me a pint.

“What are you doing in Tullamore?” he asked, as I put on my coat.

“I’m making a film about a farmer,” I said. “I go around the bogs in a Volkswagen Beetle looking for stray sheep.”

“Are you getting smart-alecky?” he asked, but I was at the door and gone out of his focus.

“Orang-utans,” he shouted after me. “That’s what Leitrim needs: orang-utans.”

Back in the hotel my face flushed like a beetroot and my forehead was as hot as a car engine. I was totally stressed. I lay on the bed trying to relax and regretting that I abandoned all those Buddhist practices I learned years ago in Mongolia.

It’s almost 15 years since I went there with a Tibetan lama who first introduced me to meditation and the practice of detachment. During our long trek through the wilderness with a young nun and a battalion of other monks in two four-wheel drives, he rarely spoke to me.

Except for one day when he caught me admiring the nun. She was in her early 20s, a creature full of limpid elegance with shaved head and round-rimmed glasses and full monastic robes. But that didn’t deter me. I lusted after her as I sat in the back of the vehicle admiring the hairs on the back of her neck. Then one evening the lama noticed and came over to me.

“There was a monk one time who thought the shampoo bottle was a sauce,” he said. “So he poured some of it into his soup, but it did not improve the soup.”

The film director phoned me later that evening. She said: “You looked very tired today; I’m just worried that you’re okay.”

“I’m fine,” I lied.

“That’s great,” she said, “ because tomorrow we need to do another scene with the sheep.”

When she hung up I turned on the laptop and googled images of orang- utans, which for some reason had a wonderfully calming effect on me.