Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bad Trip

The Irish writer, William Trevor, describes a childhood journey:

"There have been terrible, ugly journeys that are remembered by me now for different aspects of distress. Races against time have been lost. Delays at airports have triumphantly ruined weekends. Night has come down too soon when walking in the Alps. Theft has brought travel to a halt, toothache made a nightmare of it. Once a ferry mistakenly took off before its passengers had arrived on the quayside. Once the wheels of an aircraft did not come down. "Kaputt!" a German garage mechanic declared of an old A.30 on an autobahn, and that was that.

But the worst journey of my life involved neither hardship, pain nor danger. It was not particularly uncomfortable. I suffered neither undue hunger nor thirst, extremes of neither heat nor cold. What possessed me was dread, and the misery of anticipating the unavoidable.

I was twelve years old on the morning of 28 April 1941, returning to boarding school by bus, from the town of Enniscorthy in the south-east corner of Ireland, to Dublin. Some time the previous January I had made this journey for the first time. I had waited with my brother outside the paper-shop where the bus drew in at the bottom of Slaney Hill. Our two trunks and our bicycles were on the pavement; other members of the family had come to wave good-bye. Too excited to say anything, we had watched the red and cream-colored bus approaching on the other side of the river, crossing the bridge, then slowing down. We had egg sandwiches and Toblerone. Our spirits were high.

On this second occasion I was alone because my brother was ill. Otherwise everything was apparently the same. People had come to wave good-bye, bicycle and trunk were hoisted on to the roof of the bus and secured beneath a tarpaulin. A washbag and anything else necessary for the night was packed into a small suitcase known at the school as a pyjama suitcase. But everything was different also, dogged by a grim unease that the thirteen weeks following the first occasion had inspired. Journey to hell, I said to myself as the conductor handed me my ticket and my change. "How're you doing?" he enquired, red-faced and cheery. Bleakly, I told him I was alright.

By the time we reached Bunclody the odor of long-boiled cabbage that hung about the school's kitchen and dining-room was beginning to mingle with the bus's exhaust fumes. By Kildavin, the noise of the play-yard echoed; by Tullow, Monsieur Bertain was striking the blackboard in a fury. In Rathvilly the sarcastic science master was in full flow.

An old man had halted the bus at Ballycarney crossroads and now sat beside me, shredding a plug of tobacco. He wore a cap and a rough grey suit, neither collar nor tie. He had entered the bus with a brown-paper parcel under his arm, greeting everyone as he made his way alon the aisle. He was travelling to Dublin to see his daughter, who'd just been taken into hospital. He whispered hoarsely, telling me this. The parcel contained a nightdress he'd borrowed from a neighbour. "She sent me a wire to bring a nightdress," he said.

When my brother and I made the first journey to school our delight had increased with every mile. There would be dormitories, we had been told; games we'd only heard about - cricket and rugby - would be played. A shopman in Enniscorthy who'd been at this school assured us that we'd love it, since he had loved it himself. We imagined the playing fields, and the day boys arriving on their bicycles every morning, the boarders companionably going for walks at the weekends. Going for walks, and visits to the Museum and the Zoo, were mentioned in the prospectus. So was the excellence of the food, attention paid to health and well-being, the home-from-home atmosphere. The motherliness of the housekeeper was not mentioned, but we'd heard about it from the shopman. He said the masters were a decent lot.

"You're off for the two days?" The old man had coaxed his pipe to smoulder to his satisfaction and was emitting billows of acrid smoke. He didn't listen when I told him I was going back to school, but continued about his daughter being admitted to hospital. A worse misfortune had occurred in the past, when she'd married a Dublin man.

"He has her short of garment money," the old man said. "That's why she sent the wire." His daughter had two broken legs. She'd been on the roof of a hen-shed when it gave way. She was lucky she hadn't been killed.

It was a sunny day. The side of my face next to the window was warm. Cows rested in the fields we passed, not even chewing their cuds. A few stood on a riverbank, drooping over it, too lazy to drink. Primroses were in bloom.

"Plenty more for anyone!" The stern voice of the motherly house-keeper echoed, as the other voices had. In the middle of each morning the entire school congregated in the kitchen passage and received a bakelite tumblerful of soup. It was a yellowish color, with globules of grease floating on the surface. Chunks of potato and turnip sank to the bottom, and an excess of barley made the mixture difficult to consume: you had to open you mouth as wide as you could and tip the tumbler into it, feeling sick while you did so.

"A right gurrier," the old man said. His daughter's husband had ordered her up on the roof to repair it. "Roasting himself at the range while she's risking her limbs on old corrugated iron. A lead-swinger from Tallagh. Useless."

We'd have giggled, my brother and I. We'd have listened to all that with pleasure if we'd heard it on our first journey to school. We'd have egged the old man on.

"Dooley's coming up!" the conductor called out. "Anyone for Dooley's?"

The early morning, when you first woke up, was the worst. You lay there listening to the noises coming from the three other beds - someone muttering in his sleep, someone softly snoring, the bedsprings creaking when there was a sudden movement. There were no curtains on the windows. The light of dawn brought silhouettes first, and then the reality of the room: the fawn-top blankets, the boarded-up fireplace. You didn't want to go back to sleep because if you did you'd have to wake up again. "Get out of that bed," the Senior Boarder ordered when the bell went. "Out at the double, pull the bedclothes back. Quick now!" He glared from the sheets, his acned features ugly on the pillow.

"Isn't that a grand day?" a woman shouted into the bus when it drew in at Dooley's, a wayside public house. She pushed a parcel in and the conductor ambled down to collect it. A grand day, he agreed. When the bus moved on, the woman stood there, waving after it, smiling in the sunlight.

The Upper Fifth Bully used to pretend he was going to brand you, He'd out a poker in the open fire in the Fourth Form and two of his butties would hold your arms and legs, a third guarding the door. When the poker was red-hot it would be held close to your cheek and you could feel the heat. "Don't blub," the one with the poker warned. "You'll get it if you blub." The sarcastic science master was a one-time amateur boxer, known in ring-side circles as the Battling Bottlebrush, something to do with the effect of the aggressive instinct on his hair. It was sleeked back now with brilliantine, as tidy as the rest of him. He lived with his mother, and was said to be as gentle as a lamb with her.

The Irish and Geometry master lived in the school itself, in an attic room festooned with rugby togs he'd pegged out to air. He was a tall, brisk, brown-suited man with a narrow brown moustache. He played rugby for wanderers and often on a Saturday afternoon we went to Lansdowne Road to watch him, hungry-looking on the wing. Otherwise he was heard more than seen, the melancholy playing of a violen drifting down the uncarpeted stairs or through his open window. The masters were said to be ill-paid.

"Two broken legs." The old man had twisted himself round to address the woman in the seat behind.

"God help her," the woman sympathised.

On the bus I closed my eyes. It might crash, and I might be taken to the hospital like the old man's daughter, instead of having to comtinue the journey, on my bicycle, out to the suburb where the school was. "Don't be a child," the Senior Boarder had a way of saying if you couldn't eat something or if you didn't want to play the boarders' game of catching a tennis-ball when it rolled off the roofs of the outhouses, wet and dirty from the gutter water.

"That's shocking altogether," the woman behind me indignantly exclaimed. "She could have been lying there dead."

If the bus crashed there might be instant blackness, and you'd be lying there dead yourself. You wouldn't know a thing about it. You'd be buried in the graveyard by the church, and everyone would be sorry that you'd been made to go on this fateful journey. Little Vincent would snuffle all night when he heard the news. "Don't be a child," the Senior Boarder would snap at him.

The bus stopped in Baltinglass and I thought I'd maybe get out. I imagined slipping away and nobody noticing, my bicycle and trunk still under the tarpaulin, carried on to Dublin. I imagined walking through the fields, warmed by the sun, not caring what happened next.

"Did you ever hear the like of it?" the old man asked me. "No more than twenty-five years of age she is."

I shook my head. I said I never had. At breakfast there were doorsteps of fried bread, one for each boarder, not crispy, as fried bread was at home, but sodden and floppy with fat. The Senior Boarder poured out tea that tasted of metal. "What's this?" the housekeeper sniffily demanded, examining your darned pullover. She'd never seen worse darning, she declared, and you remembered your mother threading wool through a needle and then carefully beginning the small repair.

The bus arrived at the first straggle of Dublin's outskirts, then pressed relentlessly on through Templeogue and Terenure and into the city proper. When it finally drew up on Aston Quay it felt for the first time like a friend, its smoky, hot interior like a refuge I'd never valued. "Are you right there, son?" The cheery conductor wagged his head at me.

On the street I strapped the pyjama suitcase on to the carrier of my bicycle. I dawdled over that; I watched the old man who'd sat beside me crossing the street, the brown-paper parcel containing his daughter's nightdress under his arm. Other passengers from the bus were moving away also. I mounted my bicycle, a Golden Eagle, and rode into the traffic of Westmoreland Street. The trunk would be delivered to the school later, with all the other trunks.

Arrival is an end, the journey over, a destination reaxhed. That is usually so, but on this occasion journey and destination were one; this time there was no sigh of gratitude from the weary traveller, no long-earned moment of relief. My Golden Eagle carried me only to a realm in which the highways and byways were sealed against escape, a part of hell in which everyone was someone else's victim.

Irrelevantly, trams clanked by. Crowds bustled on the pavements. "How delightful to see you again!" the science master sneered already, and the Senior Boarder drove his elbow into a passing stomach. Mechanically, as though I had no will, my feet worked the pedals. When a red light demanded it, I applied the brakes, obedient in all things. Already I could hear the Irish master's violin. I could taste the yellow soup.

I turned out of Harcourt Street and into Charlemont Street and later crossed the Grand Canal. My egg sandwiches and Toblerone remained uneaten. The chocolate would have melted into my pyjamas and washbag; dully, it passed through my mind that the motherly housekeeper would have an excuse to say something harsh almost as soon as she saw me. Slowly, I turned into the short avenue that led to the school. I rode past the carpentry hut and pushed the Golden Eagle into the bicycle shed. I walked through the play-yard, continuing the endless journey."

2 Comments:

Anonymous Bushra said...

hmm.. interesting and a good read..

8:09 AM  
Blogger Knicq said...

Salamz Bro,

For a minute I'd thought you'd decided to spill the beans on your weekend trip to the northern emirates...

"Bad Trip" eh?
How 'bout your candid impressions from that trip? Not the Mr. Courteous and Nice Guy kind...your CANDID impressions?

My account of your victimization will follow soon.

11:59 AM  

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