On Friday May 7th I emerged from an Aer Lingus plane at Cork Airport, jumped into a taxi and said ‘Take me to Cork bus station!’ The driver was less than impressed with this unglamorous destination, and wanted to know why I was going there. To get the bus to Bantry, I told him.
‘Ah, now I can take you there,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a good price, too. Let’s see, Bantry, that’s sixty miles…How about £40 for the trip?’
I turned the offer down. Not only was it going to be a lot dearer than the bus, but I didn’t want to sit for two hours in the same car as a man whose accent I found hard to penetrate. In any case I had a sentimental reason for taking the bus. I had been on it once before and wanted to go again. In 1964 was the first time, on the first holiday that my first wife and I ever took together, and I still had memories of seeing montbretia and fuchsia growing wild, of finding tiny bars in the back of every shop, and of bicycling through the green countryside, cushioned by Guinness whenever we fell off.
I had a small whisky in an adjacent bar, where old men were talking of the difficulty of holding down a job and claiming dole money at the same time, and boarded the Expressway coach to Bantry, Glengariff, and beyond. I sat next to a handsome young woman who had the message ‘Bantry Mussel Fair’ printed on her sweat shirt. It’s well known the only way to meet new people is to talk to them, so I said to her that I couldn’t help reading about the Bantry Mussel fair on her clothes and was there more she could tell me about it? There certainly was. Mussels had become serious business in Bantry Bay in the last ten days, after the collapse of the oil installations, and this very weekend there would be celebrations and shenanigans and music and dancing in Bantry, and then she retired to her book as a signal that she wanted no more conversing.
I swear that I recognised some of the places we passed through even after thirty years. Just how long ago it was I can suggest by revealing that the Beatles had just got to the top of the charts with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, which echoed round Bantry square the night of the fair. We had stayed in the main hotel in Bantry, Vickery’s, where we made friends with a man who came to the bar every night. He was a plumber and he was in love with the barmaid, whose name was Mary.
‘Ah, she’s a lovely girl,’ he said to us, when she was off serving someone else. ‘She is the greatest girl in the world.’
Unfortunately, the plumber was married to someone else, which seemed to sadden him. His wife was a teacher who could speak Irish and thus get better jobs and better pay than him, which wounded him deeply. When I was invited over to Bantry this time, one of the reasons I said yes was to try and find out if anyone at Vickery’s knew what the end of the story was with Mary and the plumber.
The bus came to earth in Bantry. The mussel fair was in full swing. Vickery’s hotel was still there. So were Alan, Eric and Peter, the three men I was staying with, who had come over on the ferry the day before. They had been shopping.
‘Lamb, garlic, mussels, langoustine, yes, I think we’ve got everything,’ said Eric, checking his list. ‘Time for a pint of stout, I think.’
It was 4.15 pm. We entered the Anchor, and what seemed for a while like total darkness, till our eyes made out a small opening in the far wall in which a lady of mercy not only sold us four pints but gave us lashings of steaming mussels, free, on the house.
‘Where are you from?’ she said.
‘England,’ we said.
‘I know that,’ she said, with the patience of a mother addressing infants, ‘but where in England?’
‘We all live in Bath,’ we said. To our amazement, she seemed to crumple slightly at this news.
‘Bath!’ she said. ‘ I don’t believe it! Why, it’s the most wonderful place… I lived there for six years… Do you know the London Road?
The London Road is the A4 which leaves Bath through some nice and not so nice areas, and has never been thought of as one of the classic parts of Bath, but when we all said how well we knew it, her eyes misted over… We stood in awe. We had never seen anyone go nostalgic over the London Road before.
That night Eric cooked the mussels and langoustines, and it was wonderful. I had a small nightcap of Jameson’s whisky to round off the day. I spent the next twenty-four hours in bed, groaning and being sick. The other three left me there and came back later with the news that Finn who ran the shop at Adrigole had told them that the combination of mussels and whiskey always give you the most terrific gut rot, and that he himself had suffered from it constantly till he worked out what was wrong. So I lost a day out of the weekend, and never did get the chance to go to Vickery’s and ask about long-lost Mary in the bar. Next time, perhaps, in about AD 2015.
The Oldie 24th May 1993