We sat on a bench outside the concept store in the beautiful Irish town where, beyond the colourful narrow streets, the landscape rolled gently to the shore. A patchwork of green and yellow fields was dotted with monochrome cows batting their long eyelashes and demurely trotting away from their unpopular emissions.
The area is one of fuchsia- and montbretia-filled lanes, where the hydrangeas bloom as blue as the Virgin Mary’s cloak and the roadside ditches are filled with clusters of meadowsweet doffing their pretty heads to passing SUVs.
Guarded by a solid lighthouse, it is a place where the turquoise sea hugs the coastline and the frothy tops of breaking waves linger on pale sand. Families with small children and cash to spare choose to staycation here, filling the boots of their hybrids with summer-holiday essentials. They bring flowery togs and woollen jumpers, jelly-like flip-flops and wellingtons decorated to look like ladybirds. They have yellow raincoats and creamy sunscreen, wetsuits and windbreakers, sun umbrellas and rain umbrellas, inflatable kayaks and deflatable lilos.
I first came to this town in the early 1970s with my mother, who was at the time a singer in a band. The band consisted of two bearded guitarists and two tambourine-shaking singers, one of whom was my mother, beating out the rhythm against her white bell-bottom trousers, her platinum-blonde backcomb as solid and unwavering as the band’s easy-listening repertoire.
I assume the band had a gig in the town, in a bar or parochial hall, because I remember staying in a strange guest house with pink exterior walls and an interior crammed with a taxidermist’s haul of game birds in glass cases, their varnished talons shining in the dim hallway as we climbed up the stairs to bed. While my mother slept her chemically induced prescription sleep, I remember lying awake in a four-poster bed hoping that the birds couldn’t come to life again.
Now, in another century, in a town almost unrecognisable as the place I first visited 50 years ago, my pal and I crossed the road to the concept store to have a cup of coffee.
We’d already been shopping on that lovely morning, shot through with spells of blistering sun. We’d visited stallholders in the square selling herbal teas and runny honey and scented candles and hand-made jewellery for decorating navels. We’d bought fish and bread and purchased long black runner beans from a pink-haired vegetable seller who warned me that the purply beans turned a greenish colour when cooked.
At the concept store, my friend sat outside on a bench while I went in to purchase the coffees. There were no available tables inside, where the vibe was decidedly minimalist.
Having ordered from a beautiful person behind the counter, I looked around at solidly made pieces of ecologically minded clothing hanging on a rack and perused a table of earthy pottery and interesting spoons. There were some books too in the concept store, but what caught my eye was a pleasingly bound stack of notebooks for “journaling”. Largely blank inside but decorated with drawings and bons mots, the notebooks were for recording one’s thoughts and desires and dreams. They were designed to guide the purchaser towards self-expression, like an usherette might help one to find a seat in the dark.
I asked the beautiful person behind the counter, who was waiting for me to pick up my spectacular coffees, whether the journaling books were good sellers.
Oh yes, I was told, writing down your thoughts and feelings is so good for the mind, and meditative too. The assistant spoke with smiling enthusiasm and genuine warmth and was clearly applying no pressure to purchase.
I didn’t like to demur. I resisted saying that, for me, writing down my thoughts and feelings has sometimes felt like being run over by an articulated lorry full of dead bison. Or that sometimes “journaling” (a word I’m not entirely at ease with) can feel like swimming upstream in the effluent of half a century’s worth of sadness. Instead, I graciously accepted my coffee and went outside to the sun to sip the bracing brew.
I thought of my first visit to this town 50 years earlier and the trussed-up birds in glass cages, their hearts cut out and souls departed, their pinned wings catching only dust. Who then could have conceived of a concept store in their place, of frappuccinos and free association, of lattes and loveliness, of chai teas and carefully curated chat under the hypnotising sun?