A glass of pink fizz was waiting for me on the table in the bar when I came out of WH Smiths, my treat aeroplane reading clutched in one hand. I ‘cheersed’ my chap and chinked my glass against his. Flying with an airline where every little thing seems to be not included in the ticket price, we had compromised on both luggage and seating allocation. Money spent on a bubbleicious airport treat left a much nicer taste in one’s mouth than having to pay to be seated next to one’s travelling companion of choice. After all, the flight was only an hour and my anti-social plan of losing myself in my new crime and thriller would have been the same whoever I was sat with, including my chap.
We were off to Dublin for a couple of days. A nice meal, some wandering, a pint or two of the black stuff, all finished off with… a lecture. I was not planning on being involved in the lecture part, but that was the real reason for our visit – my chap was the one presenting the lecture. I was welcome to ‘sit in’, he said, and maybe I would, just to see him in action. I could slip into the back row, arrange my face into its most intelligent looking version and pretend to understand everything that he says. Or else I could absent myself with a pot of tea and my novel when the time came.
Boarding the plane it felt slightly odd to ditch my chap and carry on along the aisle to find my seat – as if we were pretending not to know one another. I was seated next to a petite dark haired woman. There was no opportunity to smile a greeting in that ‘fellow passenger’ kind of way. She avoided eye contact, intent on each task that she was carrying out. She folded her coat carefully and placed it under the seat in front of her. She fastened her seat belt quickly and efficiently and then sat, unmoving, hands clasped between her knees. No fidgeting to get comfy, no fussing with a ‘phone, no rummaging for a sweet to suck during take off. She was so very still that it made me notice her even more, my attention drawn by the very act of her immobility. She stared straight ahead at the seat back of the chair in front. I organised myself in as unobtrusive a way as possible with book and glasses. Perhaps she is afraid of flying, I thought, as the plane began to taxi along the runway. There was a flutter of movement next to me as the woman raised her right hand and crossed herself. I gulped and almost did the same. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t!
Though absorbed in my novel I did observe my neighbour, covertly, from time to time, in case she should require some talking distraction. I once read a story where a female passenger on a plane blabbed all her darkest fears and secrets to a stranger, during terrifying moments of extreme turbulence when she thought the plane was going to crash. The plane landed safely without her even realising – she was still babbling. Whilst I wasn’t expecting quite this scenario from my lady, I was ready to engage her in mindless conversation, should her need arise. It did not. Whenever I sneaked a peak from my page her eyes were closed, in prayer rather than sleep, I felt. By the time the heroine of my book had been called to investigate a body in a barrel, we were descending into Dublin. The landing was none too smooth and took me by surprise. I grabbed hold of the seat in front of me as I was thrown forward in my chair. My neighbour had both hands similarly placed but appeared completely calm, almost as if she had anticipated the rough touchdown. No unexpected ‘oomph’ sound escaped her mouth, as it did mine; no minor shriek, unlike many others on board. Her poker face betrayed nothing. As the plane slowed and the passengers relaxed, she relinquished her hold on the seat back and crossed herself once more.
I was curious as to my lady’s next moves, whether she would perhaps throw herself into the arms of someone meeting her at arrivals. I exited the plane before her though, and was distracted from my musings by the site of my chap waiting for me on the tarmac. Safely reunited, we made our way out of the airport to the bus terminus. Thanks to his ‘planning ahead’ gene and the Internet, he knew which bus number we needed. Despite being temporarily foiled by several buses changing their numbers, seemingly as we approached them, we eventually located the correct one. The bus driver asked the address of our hotel and then informed us that it was in a dodgy part of town, warning against waving our ‘phones about in the street. I think he offered these helpful pearls of wisdom in acknowledgment of our journey planning and research. That is, we had the correct bus fare, in change only, as stipulated on the Dublin bus website. Several passengers lacking this vital know-how made him very cross indeed, and those with little understanding of the English language, let alone a broad Irish brogue, were subjected to a tirade of shouted instructions as to how to remedy this unfortunate situation.
The drive into Dublin was to take around fifty minutes, and as the journey progressed it became apparent that our driver’s disposition was on a downward spiral. Although a few new passengers riled him with their pointless questions and mere existence, mainly it was the driving part that seemed to darken his mood. As the traffic became heavier the occupants of the bus tensed, anticipating irate horn blowing and lurchy braking. Our driver’s patience was wearing thin. Other road users were obviously conspiring against him, insisting on getting in his way, causing him to yell home truths at them through the window. Just as I was becoming concerned for his blood pressure, the bus pulled over to the curb. The driver cut the engine, grabbed his coat and bag and stepped out into the street. His shift had come to an end, at last. “Long f***in day”, he growled with feeling to his replacement waiting on the pavement. He strode off into the evening; hopefully he was bound for something rather lovely, with less need of shouting.
The remainder of our bus journey was rather lacklustre by comparison, deficient in both drama and expletives. Fortunately, so was the ‘dodgy’ part of town in which we found our hotel! In actual fact the hotel itself was perfectly fine, although the enormous bed did suggest that perhaps our booking had been muddled with a guest who required it to sleep four rather than two. Three walls boxed the monstrous thing in, meaning it was accessible from only one side – very impractical for bed making. In order to fit the bottom sheet the bed would need to be mounted by said bed maker. Call me picky, but the thought of a stranger crawling about on my bed sheet before I did, did not fill me with joy. I was mollified a little by the remotely activated double-layered roller blind. As the window was opposite the ‘climbing in’ side of the bed, and therefore only reachable by standing on the bed, wall switches next to the headboard opened and closed the blinds. Not only did they negate the need for extra bed mounting activity, they were also most satisfying to press.
When one finds oneself away from home for a lovely weekend, with or without a lecture, it is a requirement to splash out on at least one splendid meal. In order to ensure its level of splendidness and avoid disappointment, a little dedicated research is key – a fact taken into account by my chap and his search engine before we left England. Consequently our table for two was booked whilst I was still deciding what to pack. It turned out to be the most excellent of choices. If ever you are in a splashing out frame of mind in Dublin, book a meal at Bang. Everything about it is very splendid indeed, from the ambience to the food and wine. The treacle soda bread that arrived before our starters was the most delicious thing ever, especially when lathered in Irish butter. I had to restrict my intake for fear of not managing any of my courses.
For ease and laziness we breakfasted at the hotel, where the overwhelming array of goodies on offer obliged me to sample a different combination each morning. Some would say the opportunity to eat as much as you like is the best aspect of such a breakfast, along with the satisfying feeling of getting one’s money’s worth. My most favourite part of this type of hotel breakfast scenario is leaving the dirty dishes on the table and then walking out without paying. Of course, it appears on your hotel bill, but at the time it feels positively naughty. Sunday breakfast hours were, thankfully, extended until a very civilized 11am. A splendid meal, with wine pairing, so thoroughly partaken of the previous evening necessitated a slow morning. The Irish whiskey enjoyed at the bar following our splendid meal necessitated an even slower breakfast with lashings of coffee and orange juice.
Thus fortified we set out for a wander around the city, as befitting our slow Sunday. Although the icy wind and sideways rain did not defeat us, it did eventually encourage us into Neary’s bar to warm up. The pub inhabits a late Victorian building, full of character and charm and entirely lacking in television screens and music. This is because conversation has ‘top billing’, to quote the info on the back of the menu. How very marvellous! Due to its proximity to the stage door of the Gaiety Theatre, all manner of actors, writers and performers have found themselves in this wonderful bar. It is, in fact, a UNESCO listed City of Literature Bar. Only fitting then that I join all the other word scribblers who have occupied a comfy seat in Neary’s with their parchment and pens, and commence scribbling.
The bar is very quiet as we sit down with our velvety pints of Guinness, just the ticking of an old clock on the wall and the gentle hum of something electrical behind the bar. A young man at the table in the corner adds to this sound layer with fast tapping fingers on a tiny laptop. It transpires that he is writing a film, a documentary about borders – the geographical kind. We discovered this through illicit earwigging. The lilac haired woman drinking tea at his next-door table had asked him what he was writing. Not a bad opening chat up line, and I supposed that if you were wanting to make the acquaintance of a writery arty type Neary’s, with it’s history of poets and scholars, was the ideal place. The two talked on and my chap and I pretended not to listen. When it was time for the woman to leave, the laptop man asked her name, his blue eyes twinkling in a friendly, Irish way.
“I’m Jonathan, hope to see you again some time”.
I smiled to myself, what a charmer. Sophie smiled too, charmed.
As the afternoon unfolded the pub grew busier. The young Q lookalike, Ben Whishaw version, behind the bar kept the drinks flowing and, as the back of the menu proclaimed, Neary’s came ‘alive with the sound of conversation’. All manner of ages and groupings came and went. Some popped in for a restorative glass of something mid shopping spree, others were set to make a night of it. Voices rose and fell, the gentle Irish accent adding a kind of music to it all. Jonathan continued to tap away at his keyboard despite, or maybe because of, the many pints of Guinness he had drunk. He looked to be settled for the rest of the day. Not being quite such seasoned professionals, we decided that the five hours spent in Neary’s over our liquid lunch was just right, and needed following up with deployment of the roller blind switches and a nap. As we waved at Jonathan and said farewell to Q, a bottle of whiskey behind the bar caught my eye, ‘Writers’ Tears’. It would have to wait for another day.
Our final Dublin day brought sunshine and no rain, excellent conditions for a walk through the city to a lecture. We made the most of our last breakfast, taking the preemptive measure of sampling as much as we could. Misleadingly, a lunchtime lecture refers to the time of day at which it is given rather than the food that accompanies it. A final play with the roller blind, a last roll across the giant bed, I could fit four in before falling off the edge, bags packed, we set off for the lecture.
It was rather lovely to walk through unfamiliar streets on a cold sunny morning, stopping from time to time to browse in a shop or to admire the architecture. It was easy to become distracted by one’s surroundings and temporarily forget about schedules and lectures, if you weren’t the one giving a lecture, that is. We arrived at our destination in perfect time, as planned by Google maps and my chap, meaning a few minutes had been worked into the schedule for coffee. I considered staying put and settling down with my novel, rather than going to the lecture, but the coffee room was more akin to a waiting area than a comfy reading spot. In due course we were greeted by the man in charge and shown to where the lecture would take place. It turned out that the room of students had already listened to two speakers and so were settled in their seats. The chairs faced forwards towards a lectern, the door we came through half way along the chairs. So much for slipping in unnoticed! I glanced towards the partially occupied back row; I would need to climb over people to sit there. In fact, as it was not a vast room and the seats were close together I would draw attention to myself whichever row I plumped for. So I didn’t. There was a lone chair against the wall, immediately to the left of the door. I slid into it, parking my tiny suitcase neatly in front of my feet. I smiled at no one in particular, avoiding the sea of curious faces that turned to look.
Due to my exposed position my crime and thriller wasn’t really an option, I had no intention of standing out more than I already had. Instead I adopted what I hoped was an intelligent expression and gazed ahead expectantly. He is rather good at lecturing, my chap. His audience made notes on their handouts and looked engaged, from what my surreptitious sideways glances could make out. I was able to understand most of what was said, largely due to the helpful slides projected onto the wall, although the ones with tables full of numbers and fancy graphs lost me. By the time the talk was over I felt quite knowledgeable, and as though I’d used up all my concentration allowance for the day. My brain was obviously out of practice.
A taxi was waiting to take us to the airport when we exited the lecture building. Our driver, whilst concerned as to how things would pan out with Brexit, was in a jovial mood and kept up a steady banter for the entire journey. By the time we reached the airport I was rather glad to exit the car and give my ears a rest.
Although, I reprimanded myself, a cheerful chatty taxi driver is surely better for one’s well-being than a cross sweary bus driver. What with an impressively long queue through security and the rigmarole of everyone getting half undressed and then dressed again and losing their belts and dropping their keys, it was very nice to have a sit, a sauvignon and a sandwich. I chewed my egg and cress contemplatively whilst we waited for our gate number to appear. I hoped there would be another trip to Dublin before too long, with or without lecture; I would sit on a tall stool in Neary’s and sip Writers’ Tears.