It’s Sunday morning and I’m feeling unusually positive. I exude an assuredness, like a boxer before a title fight who knows that things are going to work in his favor.
I send my girlfriend a text suggesting that she calls over at around 6:30 this evening. Yup, my girlfriend. Not a girl I’m seeing or that girl I’m dating: proper girlfriend. The plan is simple -dinner, wine and a movie.
In 2016 Sunday’s were often bleak, lonesome affairs; just me and a dreary monologue in my head. But count down from 10, turn the page, add a lady and Voila! Everything is better in the New Year!
First though: things need to get done. I tidy my room. Stray coins go back in the jar, opened books are shut and slotted back onto the bookcase, small mounds of clothes are placed in the laundry basket, the floor is swept, the shelves are wiped . When I’m done the room appears to be waiting.
Then I begin working on my next blog post. I read what I’ve written so far and it does nothing for me. Maybe I’m just groggy after last night’s beers. I try to force something but I can’t stop looking at my phone as if it has the answers. Eventually, I turn my phone off and toss it on the bed behind me. I press on for about forty-five minutes or so and then I stop.
I get up and turn my phone back on and wait for a reply to come chiming through. It doesn’t arrive.
No matter. Keep moving.
I go for a walk. I cross the bridge to Getxo and turn right. After about thirty minutes I feel last night’s cigarettes taxing my lungs and last night’s beers swilling in my stomach. I pass some car showrooms and come to an urban no-man’s land of huge dormant industrial complexes and slate grey sky. I try to avoid looking at my phone but it’s like a loose tooth I can’t help tonguing. There’s still no reply. I let out a sigh and turn back. The clouds begin to unburden themselves.
I feel the grimness trying to slip inside me. I pick up the pace in an attempt to keep ahead of the negative thoughts.
I’m tired by the time I get back to the apartment. I sit down and count the positives: I’ve tidied my room, I’ve done a bit of writing,I’ve taken a healthy walk and there is no reason to believe my girlfriend isn’t coming over. It’s still going to be a good day.
I get back up. I put my phone on the table and set about preparing a lasagna. I heat the pans and chop onions, mushrooms and garlic. I stop every now and then to check my phone. It’s nearly five o’clock and still no word. I carry on. The mince is nicely browned.
Ding, Ding. I wipe my hands, take a breath and pick up my phone. Three messages.
I’m feeling worse than yesterday.
I’m not going to come to your apartment today
I hope you had A PERFECT WEEKEND
It’s like a punch in the stomach. I remain calm and respond quickly.
No problem. Is everything alright? Anyway You’re doing the right thing by staying in and getting some rest.
It’s a nice, measured text. I’m a nice guy; That’s what all the girls tell me when they’re dumping me.
I get back to cooking, but all attention to detail is gone: I just want a plate of something. I go through the motions while my mind paces. What did she mean by A PERFECT WEEKEND? Am I just being paranoid or does her message carry an undercurrent of bitterness? Have I done something wrong? Why hasn’t she responded yet? These questions chip away at me over the coming hours.
I eat a lopsided lasagna. I wash my clothes.
Eventually, as I get ready for bed, I get a message. But it’s only Dee.
Researchers reckon that tomorrow is the most depressing day of the year.
Ha! I turn off the light and lay down on the bed, feeling defeated.
I’m outside the Molly Malone Bar when I see them, the pair of them in Charlie Chaplin costumes. They’re not pulling faces or doing funny walks – just enjoying their fags. I ask James for some tobacco, quickly assemble a cigarette and walk over to them. Six steps.
‘Tienes mechero?’ I ask, with my thumb working an imaginary device.
‘Si,’ says the taller Chaplin, opening her hand to reveal a lighter. I light up, take a drag and ask what’s with the Charlie Chaplin costume.
‘We are not dressed as Charlie Chaplin. We are Dupont y Dupond.’
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘Thompson and Thomson,’ says the smaller Chaplin.
‘Who are they?’
‘They are from Tintin.’
‘Fuck yeah! The detectives.’
They nod enthusiastically, relieved I get it.
‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles!’
They look at me.
‘Do you know him? The sailor captain fella…from Tintin?’
They nod, but I don’t think they know what I’m on about.
‘So, why are you dressed as Thompson and Thomson?’
‘And everyone thinks they are twins but they are not even brothers,’ says taller Thomson.
‘But we are sisters,’ says smaller Thompson.
‘But not twins,’ adds taller Thomson.
James comes over and we end up going through the conversation again; this time in Spanish. Then, we pair off. I’m talking to the taller Thomson. She is studying engineering in Santander. She lives in Sestao. Her sister’s name is Vane. Her name is Jessica. No it isn’t a typical Basque name but there was a trend for English names around the year she was born. As she talks I nod and nod. It’s not that I strongly agree with trendy English names; it’s more that I am in accord with how she comes across. There’s something about her – and it’s not the moustache.
She asks about me. She listens.
I become aware that James and Vane’s conversation has dried up. The cigarettes are finished and feet are shuffling, eager to move on to the next moment. For James and I that’s finding somewhere to eat. For Jessica and Vane – back inside to be enveloped by their friends and the general tomfoolery that costumes engender.
But I don’t want to let Jessica go just yet.
‘Let’s get a photo!’ I say.
Jessica and Vane agree.
I give my phone to some guy. The four of us stand together. The photo gets taken. We separate. James walks over to our friends. Vane starts to walk inside. I walk with Jessica towards the door.
‘Where are you going later?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. My cousin will decide. What about you?’
‘I don’t know. Café Antxokia maybe. Do you know it?’
‘Yes, yes. I like it.’
‘I might see you later then.’
And then we are at the door. There is nothing left for her to do but walk through it and she duly does. It’s unlikely I’ll see her later, or ever again for that matter. Bilbao, with its 1million inhabitants, is a big and small place at the same time. Some people you bump into. Others, well; different circles, same fishbowl.
It’s said before I have time to think myself into inaction.
She stops in the doorway and turns around. The two of us move to the side so we are not getting in people’s way; this creates an odd sense of privacy that emboldens me.
‘Are you single?’ I ask.
‘Maybe, sometime, like next weekend, we can meet for a beer?’
A pang of joy!
‘So I’ll take your number then.’
I produce my phone. She begins to call out her number but James, who is hungry and oblivious to the delicate matter at hand, comes over and presses me about going for some food. I fear the interruption will give Jessica a chance to review the situation and change her mind.
‘I’ll be over in a minute,’ I say to James. Whether it’s through my words, my tone or the look in my eyes I don’t know but, thankfully, my message is received and he ghosts away.
I look at Jessica. She nods and continues to call out her number. Joy and relief! I carefully type it in. I enter her name but my finger slips and I spell it Jessicq. No matter, it’s there now.
‘Okay. Great. I’ll call you now so you have my number,’ I say.
She takes out her phone, looks at it and shows me the screen. There it is, my number.
‘So. I’ll text you to arrange a drink or something.’
I put my phone in my pocket. She drops hers into her bag zips it shut. I lean in and kiss her on both cheeks. She goes into the pub. I go back to the lads. I have trouble keeping the smile off my face.
Six steps; a light, a chat, a feeling, a photo, a question, a number. The start, maybe, of something.
I’m looking for tools to fend off the two words that I have come to hate the most these past few weeks of summer camp; ‘I’m bored’ (In fact, that’s not true; ‘I’m bored’ would be a welcome use of the English language. The two words I have come to hate the most are ‘No quiero,’ Spanish for ‘I don’t want to’.) I choose six tennis balls, four bats, two softballs and four Frisbees.
Today is our first excursion to the beach and I am hopeful it will be a success.
Take your Seats
The kids arrive. The bus arrives. Excitement grows. Feet move fast. Seats on a bus can be the source of anxiety for kids. For some, it’s where you sit. Squares up the front. Cool kids at the back. And if you’re in the middle, you’re in the middle.
For others, it’s a fear of sitting on their own.
‘Can I sit next to you?’
I look down at Sofia’s worried face.
‘Of course you can.’
For the three BFFs it’s who is going to be cut loose?
‘I like the two of you the same,’ explains Enara, ‘but we can’t get three seats together.’
Enara understands the unwritten rule regarding bus seats which states; if you are a senior kid with a loud voice and a bullying streak then a backseat is a God given right.
But not everybody is schooled in the rules.
Two little lads are first to board the bus. They are all set for the beach; peak caps, shorts, bags on their backs and smiles on their faces. Their eyes widen as they see all the empty seats.
‘The back seats are free!!’
They run the length of the bus and settle in. Their classmates amble on.
‘Look. Look. It’s us! We’re back here. Come on.’
But their classmates aren’t as keen. They choose a seat near the front or middle.
Then the big boys enter. They are a little late. An absolute dick of a summer camp leader held them back because some girl was crying, or something. The five of them clamour, push and laugh all the way to the back. Three of them take seats.
The other two loom over the little lads. The little lads’ facial expressions have changed from ‘Ain’t life grand’ to ‘Oh Shit!’
Despite this they stand (or sit) their ground. By the time I arrive the big lads are shouting and baring their fists. The bus is moving. I calmly tell them to find another seat. They ignore me and continue shouting at the little lads. I get right up in their faces.
‘Did you hear me? Find another seat! How could you shout at them? They are half your age!’
They skulk off to another seat.
I am an absolute dick of a summer camp leader.
Teacher – Pupil
I take my seat next to Sofia. I’m addled after the back-seat dilemma and I’m hoping the next words out of her mouth will be;
‘Clearly this isn’t a good time for you. You gather yourself and what I wanna do can wait until later.’
Nope, instead she launches into a Spanish lesson.
She points at her hat and says ‘Gorra.’
I say ‘Gorra.’
‘No!’ she says. She shakes her head and wags a finger in my face.
‘No!’ she says and shakes her head and makes a tch, tch sound, as if I’ve been a naughty boy.
I let this pupil –teacher role reversal carry on for a bit and then I hammer her pronunciation of ‘slaughtered’, just to remind her who the grown up is.
The kids are happily occupied, for about twenty minutes. Then the bats, balls and Frisbees get tossed aside. A group approaches me. I brace myself for the dreaded words.
‘Can we do sandcastles?’
‘Yes! That’s a great idea.’
The group walks towards the shoreline. They find their spot, drop to their knees and start clawing at the sand with their hands. There is feverish work with instructions being issued back and forth. I peer over their shoulders and see a drawbridge, a moat, a high defensive wall and a dome tower taking shape.The group consists of boys and girls, a mixture they sometimes resist when I suggest it. Their aim is to build a castle that will stand up to the incoming water.
The water approaches. They watch eagerly.
A wave slides up the shore and casually destroys the castle.
Child Vs Sea
Their reaction seems muted at first. They walk back to our nest of bags and change into their swimming suits. Then, ten of them stand shoulder to shoulder and stare down the sea. On a count of ‘3,2,1 Go!’ they charge forwards shaking their fists and screaming.
A band of pebbles and broken shells, impedes their speed. They pick their way through the minefield. There is a cry of pain as one takes a tumble. I tend to the stricken soldier’s foot and notice the rest of the kids in the camp running past. But once the water wraps around their ankles they freeze. I watch on, fearing a hasty retreat, but soon they are completely engaged with the enemy. There are shrieks and howls and explosions. Their skinny bodies are knocked about by big brutes of waves. They get back up after every pummelling, or lie face down in the shallows, playing dead.
They re-emerge from the water in twos and threes, cleansed and calmed and happy with what feels like a victory.
They are too hungry to make faces. They unwrap the tinfoil and start eating. They watch the beach scenes before them. A feeling of contentedness settles over all of us.
A few years ago my friend Garry and I endeavoured to do a ten day hike around the Annapurna circuit. We chose to tackle the hills in July despite the fact that the Lonely Planet said ‘…the worst time to trek is the monsoon period from June to September.’ They also added that trekking during the monsoon posed ‘undeniable difficulties.’
Undeterred, we set off with our Nepalese guide Ganesh from the small town of Besi Sahar. There was an ominous mist that morning. Further signs that this wasn’t going to be a picnic came when we met two American backpackers coming in the opposite direction.
‘There’s a waterfall about two hours from here and it’s unsafe to pass. You guys should turn back!’ they warned. Seeing that they couldn’t talk any sense into us they scrambled away, presumably to grab hold of other backpackers, shake them violently and scream – ‘You are making a big mistake!’
A couple of days in Kathmandu had us itching for some fresh air. The capital city was a sight to behold; Narrow crowded streets, horn’s parping all day long, laneways crammed with people, vehicles and stalls. You got the impression you were one wrong step from being run-over, or the taxi you were in was about to cough and quit, or the temple was in danger of being swept away by the monsoon rains. There was a smoggy consistency to the air that made you feel like a smoker with a 50 a day habit. The people were small, neat, quick and friendly but carried on as if silence were an enemy. We needed to get out of there to avoid the catastrophe the city seemed to be heading towards. Perhaps it was a case of going from the frying pan to the fire. If early signs were anything to go by, we had placed ourselves in another perilous position – albeit a quieter one with fresher air.
The aforementioned waterfall was challenging, thrilling and a little dangerous, but not impassable. The mist had lifted too. In fact, for the remainder of the hike we were troubled only by a few showers. Like a drug smuggler who had just breezed past airport security with pockets filled with illegal substances, we had the sense we were getting away with it.
However, the fact that doing the Annapurna in July was not a danger strewn path of angry waterfalls and landslides was our little secret. There were no other tourists about. According to Ganesh from October to May the circuit is teeming with backpackers – hostels overflow to such a degree that people end up sleeping on the dining room floor. We got the feeling we had arrived in town just after the circus had left. Every night we came to a different hostel where the dormitories, with their empty bunks, told a sad story of unfulfilled potential.
Also failing to live up to their promise were the menus of these establishments. After a day’s hiking I’d salivate while poring over the long list of sumptuous meals.
‘A cheese burger and chips please!’ I’d cheerily announce to the waiter. In broken English he’d break it to me that this dish wasn’t available.
‘Well in that case I’ll have the Hawaiian pizza with extra olives and blue cheese. ..No…Not available either…Just bring me the daal bhaat.’
Daal bhaat is a Nepalese dish of soup, rice and potatoes that Ganesh ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. ‘Daal bhaat gives you 24hour power!’ he liked to say. ‘ And a dose of the shits,’ Garry and I muttered.
The scenery was dramatic and ever changing. White waterfalls split mountainous walls of green, rivers rushed and meandered and plants in the ditch exploded with colour. We passed through arid wild west-esque landscape, farmland, marijuana fields, shaded woodlands and the quiet, chilling hush of snow.
Anytime we passed a waterfall we always got up nice and close to allow the spray wash over us. It was truly invigorating.
In fact the spray from the waterfall, coupled with too much time to think, led me to come up with a product that I planned to unleash on an unsuspecting public when I returned home. ‘Waterfall Spray,’ was to be a shampoo. The ad would feature an Amazonian beauty standing by a waterfall, massaging the shampoo into her scalp. She would clearly be enjoying a sensual experience; eyes closed and emitting groans of pleasure. Then a soothing voice would say – ‘Waterfall Spray. Truly Invigorating.’ The target audience, who I pictured as a jaded female office worker, would be flicking through the channels and sipping red wine as she happened across this ad.
‘Oh My God,’ she would say. ‘That’s exactly what I need! True Invigoration is what my life has been missing. I want Waterfall Spray now!’
The next thing you know there’d be tyres screeching as she hurried towards the Supermarket. Sadly, she’d never make it. The two and a half glasses of wine impaired her judgement and she crashed into a tree receiving multiple injuries, all of which left her feeling far from invigorated. But that’s the kind of reaction I wanted this product to evoke – not drink driving, per se, or back injuries for that matter, but a frenzied desire that would make people think ‘I need Waterfall Spray now.’
Who would have thought that such idyllic surrounds would promote such scheming?
I shared my brilliant idea with Garry and learned his mind wasn’t idle either. He had his own notions. Upon returning home he would launch himself into a career as a travel show host. He’d interview travellers on location and ask them how they came to be in such a faraway place.
‘The show is gonna be about the how and why of travelling. Everyone’s on the run and I wanna know why…and how.’
The two of us talked excitedly about our future projects casting aside all practical considerations and well, reality. It didn’t seem to be relevant that my job had absolutely nothing to do with shampoo or marketing. And it was an inconsequence that Garry was not employed in TV land and was uncomfortable even with getting his photo taken.
While we were hiking, it seemed to us, something in the universe and ourselves shifted. Apparently, upon our return, it would be no bother to saunter in to a ‘Head and Shoulders’ boardroom and greet the alarmed faces with ‘It’s okay lads. I got this!’ and then proceed to win them over with my pitch before security could get their hands on me. The meeting would finish with me doing a round of high fives with the suits and skipping gleefully out the door with a cheque for €1m euros in the back pocket. Feck it, the suits would probably be behind me in a congo line. Somewhere in my pitch I had taught them how to cast aside their inhibitions and now they were dancing like no-one was watching.
‘And maybe,’ I enthused, ‘In one of your shows you might film a lady taking a shower in a waterfall, using ‘Waterfall Spray.’
‘That could work.’
‘Actually with your programme featuring exotic places, exactly the type of places I want Waterfall Spray to be associated with, it would make absolute sense for my product to sponsor your programme!’
‘Deadly. It’s all falling into place.’
We lost interest in the landscape and let our imaginations run wild. Garry practised his interview technique on me and I tried to figure out what colour and shape bottle would hold the precious elixir Waterfall Spray.
By the time we made it to Thorung La (at a height of 5416m) however, my contribution to our brainstorming sessions was nil. The altitude, cold and general exhaustion had rendered me dumb. I had been struck with flu like symptoms, not helped by the fact the only hostel close to Thorung La had cold wet blankets. My mind lost focus. Waterfall Spray faded to the background as other, more pressing issues came to the fore, like surviving. Perhaps sensing I was struggling Garry tried gamely to draw me out of my shell. He did mock interviews and stuck a hiking pole under my nose as a type of stand in microphone.
‘So how are you finding the Annapurna?’
I didn’t reply.
‘And indeed…why were you compelled to it?’
Still, no words came.
‘It’s okay. I know it takes time to gather your thoughts,’ he said patiently.
The ‘microphone’ lingered under my nose for a few more seconds and then Garry took it away and walked on ahead, no doubt scratching me off the list of people to interview for his future show and perhaps dwelling on the more worrying fact that his travelling buddy had lost both weight and his mind.
We survived. We made it off the Annapurna and flew to Pokhara. Pokhara was (and I’m sure, still is) a beautiful lakeside town nestled at the foot of the mountains. It had a wonderful laid back charm. The restaurants served pizzas and cheeseburgers and the hotels were comfy, crisp and clean. We had a new found appreciation for the simple things in life.
After a couple of days rest I made, what I deemed, a full recovery. I was putting on weight and speaking again. I announced that I was ready to explore the rest of Nepal. Garry wasn’t so sure. He asked loads of ridiculous questions and spoke to me in a fake, calm voice. Questions like what day and date it was and who was Ireland’s president. Basically, he was trying to determine the level of my insanity. I breezed through his amateurish ‘Sanity Verification Quiz’ and I could see the worry lift off him.
‘On reflection my whole travel show idea is never gonna happen,’ Garry said.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘It wasn’t exactly original and it’s not like you know anything about TV anyway.’
‘Ha, yeah,’ Garry laughed and no doubt, in his mind, ticked off a box that said Return of Reason. ‘ There were a few crazy ideas cooked up during the hike.’
‘Yup,’ I agreed.
There was a silence. Garry wanted something more to convince him I was ready for the travails of travelling.
‘One more question. Would you consider yourself to be in a positive frame of mind?’ he asked.
‘Of course. I’m in a wonderful country with a wonderful friend!’
Garry beamed and picked up his rucksack. I had passed the test. We were road ready.
‘And,’ I enthused. ‘I’m practically sitting on a winning lottery ticket with this Waterfall Spray idea.’