14 May Accidentally Killybegs
I’d missed my bus to Ardara and wound up in a place called Killybegs instead. I’d have to make do.
I walked up the main street of the little fishing town and saw a sign for budget accommodation. Inside there was no reception, just a flight of stairs that led to a landing and a few beige painted doors. I looked at the sign out front again. There was a phone number. From a phone booth nearby I dialled it and a woman with a heavy accent answered. I told her I was after a room for the night. She said that’d be fine, and nineteen euros, and I said that’d be fine and she said I’ll see you there in a minute. I hung up the phone, walked back to the door of the place and she was there. I gave her money and she gave me a key.
This travelling malarky was easy.
My room was simple—a single bed and a dresser amongst four wooden walls, the planks of which were painted a snot coloured yellow. They didn’t look too soundproof and I wondered if the entire building, or the insides of it at least, weren’t in the final throes of commercial use. The developer squeezing the last few euros from its tired walls before the sledgehammers of gentrification converted it into a Costa. It wasn’t the Hilton, but it suited my purposes and I walked back down the stairs feeling reasonably satisfied I’d put a roof over my head for another night.
Coming in the door as I exited was a tall, thin man of about 30. He had blue eyes, edging towards grey, and a receding hairline that did nothing for the shape of his cranium. An innocent, warm smile though and he seemed genuinely happy to see me, though of course we’d never met.
“New neighbour?” He asked.
“I guess. Room four.”
“Wonderful,” he said, and I realised now that he was English. “Staying long?”
The story of why and how was there, but I didn’t want to have a conversation. “Just for the night.”
“Backpacking?” He asked. Full of questions.
The Englishman broke into a smile.
His smile faded a touch, then remerged.
“Weed, I mean.”
“Oh, right, ha, umm, sometimes.”
I rarely did. I’d had a couple of bad experiences with it years earlier, when the foreground broke free of its anchor and spun angrily towards me like the contents of a painter’s brush bucket disappearing down a plughole. Since then I only tried the occasional toke when the planets were in alignment.
“Want to have a smoke later?”
I didn’t, but also I did. He was a friendly chap and I was only ever going to be here this once. I felt I should say yes to more things.
“I’m in room one,” he said. “Come by later. Or I can knock on your door? I’m Anthony, by the way.”
He offered his hand and I shook it.
Anthony was no different from most people I introduced myself to. They heard the name and their mind went to the Beatles song. I could see it in their faces. What differentiated people was what they did next. Generally I could put them in to three categories. There were those that just burst out with Hey Jude, like the song! Or words to that affect. As if the fact there was a famous song with my name in it would be a revelation. Some of the people in this category formed a sub group. They were the ones who thought it appropriate to sing a few lines to me. These were my least favourite people. The second category contained those who wanted to say something about the song, but stopped themselves. I could see it in their eyes, trying to get out. I guessed they knew I’d heard it all before. The third category belonged to those who said something along the lines of cool name, or better yet, betrayed no surprise at all, as if they associated with people with Beatles song names all the time. Girls called Prudence and Eleanor, guys called Maxwell and Bungalow Bill. Anyway, Anthony belonged to the second group, his eyes widening then gleaming as he tried to keep the melody inside. We parted company with a vague plan to meet up later somehow.
After dining in a cafe cum restaurant I found a pub with windows. These were important as I liked to get a feel for a place before I committed to it, be able to plan my approach to the bar. Without windows I might walk in to find it full of men in biker jackets, or hipsters. They’d look at me and I’d look at them. Then I’d want to leave, but couldn’t. Once people had seen me enter the idea of spinning on my heels and escaping was worse than having to quickly neck a half pint and pretend that was all I came for.
This one looked good though, with just a few people in attendance and a girl working the till. I entered and situated myself at one end of the bar. The barmaid was in her mid-twenties with light blonde hair just below her shoulders and a healthy figure beneath that. Her jeans were held up with a studded belt, the kind you see around goth’s necks. She was no pseudo vampire though. I’d seen a few of these belts around; she was fashionable.
I ordered a beer and placed my journal on the bar. There was three or four other people in the pub, milling loosely around some tables by the front windows. One of them had a guitar in a case that was open. I noticed there was a small stage in the corner. Some music later, perhaps. The barmaid placed the beer on a mat in front of me and I handed her a five euro note. She was pretty. I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk to her. She had firm breasts that poked confidently into the fabric of her black t-shirt, arriving everywhere in the world a fraction of a second before the rest of her did. Girls with breasts like that didn’t talk to guys like me. I couldn’t get any part of me on to the bus to Ardara on time.
She handed me my change, flashed the briefest of smiles and went back to some obscure task at the other end of the bar. That was that then. I got down to the serious task of updating my journal with the day’s events.
A few minutes later the door burst open and four loud human beings walked in. Americans. They talked—all at the same time—right the way up to the bar, where the two men then teased one another about the prospect of getting a Guinness.
“It’s a food you know, Bob. You can include it in your meal allowance.”
“I told you, Carl, I’m game if you’re game.”
“I don’t trust a drink that isn’t ready when it’s put in front of you.”
“I don’t trust a drink I can’t see through.”
I imagined them re-enacting this scene all over the country for the benefit of awestruck locals. They ordered two Heinekens and asked their wives what they were after. The wives, however, were busy discussing bar snacks.
“What are you supposed to nibble on?”
“They’ve got peanuts. We have peanuts in America. It’s not so different.”
“I prefer pretzels.”
“So do I, but what can you do?”
One of them ordered a soda water and lime, while the other asked for a ‘small beer, not Guinness, with lots of lemonade in it.’ They also asked for a packet of salted peanuts. While waiting one of them noticed me scribbling away at the end of the bar.
“Is that a poet, do you think?”
I was copying down their conversation, as much as I could, word for word.
“Too tall for a poet.”
“Poets can’t be tall?”
“Not Irish poets. The Irish are short. Look at the waitress here.”
The barmaid and her breasts were trying to concentrate on making the drinks.
“Do you think they know each other? We could ask her if he’s a poet.”
The barmaid put their drinks on the bar and announced the price into the vicinity of the four in the hope one of them would offer to pay. Bob, I think it was, pulled out his wallet. Soda & Lime waited with him while the other two found a table deeper into the pub. In the hope she was still looking at me I tried to take on the appearance of a poet. That is, I ran my hand through my hair and threw a pensive look at the ceiling.
But she stayed silent and Bob signed off on the bill, dropped a five euro note on the bar and said in a loud voice: Thank-you very much.
Then they were gone and the prospect of the poet question with them.
It was regrettable. If she’d asked, the barmaid would then have had to acknowledge my existence in a realm outside that of a customer. She could say I don’t know, shall we ask? Or she could lie and say yes, he is. And then it would be our little joke. Or she could have said I’ve never seen him before, I think he’s passing through. That would have been fine too. I could live with being mysterious like that, anything that made me something other than a mere customer. But they finished their drinks and left and whether I was a poet or they found somewhere that sold pretzels, neither party will ever know.
Yankee doodle dandy
The barmaid’s hair is sandy
She has nice tits
A shirt that fits
That woman ordered shandy
Patrons gradually drifted in and the man with the guitar began to test his equipment on the stage. I kept scribbling away but was soon running out of things to write about. I really wanted to find an excuse to talk to the barmaid. I felt pathetic being so wrapped up in getting a girl to show an interest in me, but it was what it was. I’d escaped Australia and the judgement of the women there. I just wanted the women on this new planet to see me differently.
The barmaid drifted down to my end of the bar. She was wiping every available surface with a damp rag and adjusting bottles so the labels faced outwards. Occasionally she paused and rested both hands on the lower bar in front of her, the rag bunched up in a fist. She’d put most of her weight on one leg, while the other she’d bend at the knee so to rest the tip of her shoe on the floor. From there she looked over at the stage and the musician fiddling about with his gear and she’d smile and maybe call out to him, some friendly in-joke that got a similar reaction from him. From my vantage point she was in perfect profile when she did this and I could draw a line from the top of her head through to the bottom of her foot without escaping the slim confines of her figure. Then she’d return to wiping and adjusting and I would return to trying to think of something to write about.
After she’d wiped up my end of the bar twice and was coming for a third time, I decided I had to try and start a conversation. But what do you say to someone you know nothing about, bar the way they look? She came within a couple of metres, which felt like a safe, conversational range, then I took a deep breath and fired.
“Struggling for things to do?”
She turned her head with a jerk, like I’d pulled some fishing line attached to her nose. And she smiled.
“I am!” She said. “It’ll get busier later but now it’s a bit dull.”
I nodded. I had nowhere to go. Did I ask her how busy it got? That seemed boring. And how would she answer, with a figure? Plus, it was a customer question requiring an establishment answer. I may as well have been those Americans asking what snacks were available.
Then my eye caught her belt again. If I asked about the belt, about the fashion, then it would be personal. She’d know I’d noticed and she’d answer with information about her, not as a barmaid, but as a person. It would be like she was on my side of the bar. I cleared my throat, as my heart had jumped into it. I was leaping across the abyss.
Just then the door swung open and two men in their early thirties walked in, looking comfortable and confident. They called out to the barmaid, who hollered back, no words, just an exchange of vowel sounds. They approached the other end of the bar, where she was already pouring their drinks, and sat on the stools there, a conversation of mutual friends and happenings under way as if it had never stopped. I returned to my journal and noted down the scene as best I could in the circumstances.
The guitarist started playing at some point in the evening and the crowd in the pub, around thirty or so, sang along or talked amongst themselves. I was still at the bar though by this time I was feeling jovial and was in conversation with the landlady, a plump, stern faced but friendly woman who looked about 80, but was probably twenty years younger.
“St Anthony,” she told me, having established I was a travelling Australian. “He can help you.”
I wondered, momentarily, if she was referring to Anthony the Englishman from my budget accommodation. Maybe he lived in room one permanently and emerged every so often, high as a kite, to perform acts of kindness on patrons of this old woman’s pub. Perhaps that was how he got his meals.
“St Anthony,” she explained, anticipating my curiosity, “can help ye find lost goods.”
I didn’t see at all.
“Whatever it is ye’ve lost and ye’re now looking for, with a donation St Anthony will help ye find it.”
I was beginning to see. The woman tapped a plastic bucket half full of coins and the odd note that sat on the corner of the bar.
“St Anthony will help ye find it.”
I didn’t like being pushed into donations, but she was friendly and, well, it couldn’t hurt. I took a two Euro coin from my wallet and wondered how much the Saint would require to find my dignity. Then I dug a little deeper and retrieved a one Euro coin also. I dropped them into the bucket as the old woman watched.
“God bless ye,” she said. “St Anthony will look over ye now.”
“Once,” she then explained, as the guitarist broke into a Waterboys song. “Once a man from Dublin was in here and he donated to St Anthony. A few days later he was back in Dublin and a bus rolled over the car in front of him, crushing the poor father and child inside, may God rest their souls.”
She nodded sombrely. “St Anthony will look after ye.”
I dropped another two Euros into the bucket and turned my attention to the music.
The evening became the night and my beers, somehow, became Jamesons and lemonade. The musician finished his set and came to the bar, ordering a beer from the landlady and offering a five cent donation to St Anthony as payment.
“God bless ye,” she said quietly.
“And who’s this writerly chap we have here then?” He asked, observing my journal and pen.
“He’s Australian,” she answered on my behalf, “be nice now.”
“Why wouldn’t I be nice?”
He shook his head at the old woman and offered his hand to me.
“Danny,” he said, “whereabouts in Oz are ye from?”
“Ahhh never been there.”
“Not many have.”
“My ancestors were sent to Botany Bay, ye know?”
“No not really, ye too good looking to lie to.”
The landlady put his beer on the bar in front of him, gave me a warm smile and walked into a room behind the bar which I assumed to be an office of some kind.
“You look like ye play the guitar.”
“I…can, but not like…”
“Ahh well you can get up and play us a song then. What’s that band, that Australian band with the song about going to hell, the road to hell or some such thing? Play that. Put the wind up old St Anthony here.”
“Highway to Hell? AC/DC?!”
‘That’s the one.”
“I can’t…I don’t know…”
I knew four songs on the guitar and two of them were my own sorry compositions. And besides, I was struggling to keep a grip on my pen, the neck of a guitar and the contorted chords therein were definitely beyond me.
“Ah not to worry. I’ll play a song for ye. An Australian song. Make ye feel at home here.”
“That’d be cool.”
Danny took a sip of his beer and looked down the bar.
“Have ye met young Tania here?”
Before I had a chance to answer he’d called her over.
“Nice figure, don’t ye know?” He whispered at me.
“Tania, have ye been keeping this Australian fella entertained? He’s a weary traveller, ye know?”
“Entertaining’s ye job, Danny boy.”
She didn’t look at me when she said this.
“And besides, old Killeen has his ear.”
“Ah Killeen can Pogue Mahone.”
Tania whacked him with a rag. “When are ye going to play me song?”
“When are ye going to marry me?”
“Danny! If Mary heard ye say that.”
“Ah Mary wouldn’t mind. Protestant lass.”
I raised the scotch and lemonade to my lips to watch the conversation go back and forth. But then Danny turned to me.
“What do ye think of our Tania here? They make them like this in Sydney?”
Tania jumped in before I could answer.
“Stop it, Danny.”
The three of us stood in a congregation at the corner of the bar, St Anthony’s bucket of coins watching on. Danny grinned at me and gave a subtle nod. He’d opened the door; I just had to step through.
“I like her belt,” I said hopefully.
Danny looked at her belt, then at me.
“Aye,” he said. His voice had lost its excitement. “It’s a nice belt.”
“Go play me song,” Tania insisted, slapping him once more with the rag.
Killeen then emerged from the office and looked our way. Seeing this, Tania pushed off the bar and wandered down to her. They had a short chat and then she lifted the drawbridge at the other end of the bar and started collecting glasses from the tables. Killeen returned to her seat opposite me, and Danny to his guitar.
“This town has changed,” Killeen said, without elaborating.
Danny played The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, dedicating it to the ‘Australian writerly fella at the end of the bar there who likes a good belt.’ A few patrons turned around; most couldn’t care less.
The night went on and on. At some stage Anthony, the English one, not the Saint, came in. He spied me at the end of the bar and we drank together. Killeen stayed with us—she had amazing stamina—and regaled us with stories of serving Marilyn Monroe in a pub in New York and of her first husband, God rest his soul, who once arm wrestled Frank Sinatra for the payment, or otherwise, of his bill.
Tania became a blur in triplicate floating around the place, working or socialising, I couldn’t tell the difference. Either way, while Killeen was nearby she was unwilling or unable to pick up on our belt conversation.
Killeen locked the doors and we drank until 3am with Danny and a few others, talking about Catholics and Protestants and who had the best songs and all manner of stuff I had no idea about. Every now and then they’d ask me for an Australian perspective and I’d try my best.
“Do they have separate cemeteries for Protestants in Oz?”
“I don’t think so.” I really had no idea.
“Imagine that! All that land and ye end up next to a feckin’ Protestant for eternity.”
“I think most people are cremated, anyway.”
“Aye, it’s a Pagan country.”
“Now there’s some folk with some songs…”
Mostly I just sat back and enjoyed the scene.
At some stage Tania left. I was aware of it but hadn’t been able to talk to her again anyway, so gave it up to the wind. Another story to tell. Finally Killeen kicked everyone out and Anthony and I stumbled back towards our budget accommodation. Somewhere along the way he pulled a joint from his shirt pocket and after a few false starts managed to get a match lit to ignite it. We lay on a concrete boat ramp, the high tide a metre below us, its tiny black waves hinting at all manner of secrets, and drew in palls of alternative reality.
For a couple of minutes the gentle slap of the water, the delicate brush of the breeze and two calling birds of the night were the only sounds we could hear. Nothing else mattered and this was the centre of everything. Anthony took a deep hit and passed the joint to me.
“Where are you off to next?” He asked.
“Ar-dar-ra.” I replied, unsure if they were stars in the sky or nuggets of un-obtained wisdom.
Anthony blew out a white cloud wedding dress on the virgin body of a desperate princess, running barefooted through treacle, onwards to the motherly arms of Venus. He took a lung full of clean air.
“They pronounce it Ard-ra.”
I saw the letters spelt out across the night sky A-R-D-A-R-A and knew it was ridiculous. And then one of those night birds called and its accent was English, and its mate called back and its accent was Australian and they called back and forth and back and forth until they sounded at the same time and they said Ard-ra in an Irish tongue. All the stars in the sky then glowed with knowledge and it made sense. Everything did.
“I understand Ireland now.”
Anthony laughed and I laughed and we couldn’t stop laughing there under all that wisdom, above all that secretive ocean, with runaway princess brides evaporating into the great expanse. We were spinning angels on the winds of fate, falling through the vast emptiness of space, onwards and onwards towards a destiny both great and meaningless.
Brand has written numerous articles for local press in the UK and Australia and writes a regular column for the Village Voice newsletter in Chilmark, Wiltshire. He is currently working on a novel—For the Love of a Castle Ruin—a fictionalised account of his travels around Ireland in 2005. He is also a musician, though, his friends tell him, definitely not a singer.