Chapter 71: Flowers for Australia
Ireland: Tralee to Tarbert
Tralee was behind me and behind that was Dingle, Dingle that had given me a headache, where I’d met a man with a long face like Abraham Lincoln’s. He was called Dan and he was anything but austere. He was working on a boat that had sailed from Dublin and was surveying the seabed. His job was to make sure no whales got caught up. The whole crew was in the pub and he motioned to the captain, a bald man in a polo neck. Dan shouted something and everyone laughed. Then he put two cigarettes in his mouth and pretended to be a walrus and we did another shot of whiskey.
Now I was in a lay-by, awaiting my first ride in Ireland. I wondered where I’d get to that evening, whether anyone would pick me up. You never know in a foreign country. My hunch was that it wouldn’t be too tricky.
It was only ten minutes before a car stopped, wedging itself in the lay-by behind the camper van. The driver was wearing school uniform, charcoal trousers and a grey wool jumper. It had a big crest on the chest and the blue collar of his shirt poked out like fangs. He introduced himself as Jack and I swung my legs in, cramming them between the pile of clothes and the MacDonald’s bag. A hurl lay up against the seat like an old-fashioned gear stick.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” he said as we swerved back into the traffic, “you could have been there hours otherwise.”
He was on his way home from school, or more accurately, on the way to his girlfriend’s. He was 19, lived in Tralee and was doing an extra year at school. Term had just started but he was already looking forward to leaving. He wanted to be a barber and thought there were two routes to getting there. Either he could become an apprentice in a shop or do a qualification. He liked the idea of a qualification as it would give him freedom to go anywhere. And Jack didn’t fancy hanging around. His heart was set on Australia.
He wasn’t quite sure why Australia, but he was definitely sure. Quite a few of the barbers from Tralee were about to go out there. Not together or anything, just by chance. Australia or Holland seemed to be where everyone was going. “I think if I could be in Australia, just being there would make me happy,” he said part wonderingly, part seriously. He said he didn’t think he’d come back. “If all goes well with my girlfriend she’ll be coming with me.”
He was eying up the course he could do when he finished school. “You’ve got to do things that make you happy,” he contemplated. What’s more, Ireland’s getting so expensive now. Diesel and houses. He shook his head and tutted. He didn’t think he’d be able to get a house until his late 20s or 30s.
We were driving dead north. The countryside was flat beside us. Listowel had been on my sign but Jack was going all the way to Tarbert. There was a ferry there across the river Shannon that I was hoping to catch. It would take me to County Clare.
I asked Jack about his family. He was the eldest of seven. Four brothers, three sisters. He had a half brother too who was in his 20s in Listowel. I asked what he did and Jack hesitated. “Nothing really…he’s a dealer. We don’t really hang out.”
We came into Listowel. It was a pretty town, low colourful houses and bright shop fronts. Jack pulled out a fiver from his pocket and handed it to me. “Do you mind grabbing me an Elf Bar?” He asked sternly. “Any particular kind?” I countered. - “Surprise me.”
I jumped out and trotted across the square. The vape shop was small and smelt of candy. The walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with tiny colourful boxes. I asked the lady to unlock the cabinet so I could fetch a kiwi passionfruit and guava flavoured one. I have a vendetta against disposable vapes. I think they’re the worst thing that’s been invented in my lifetime. Plastic… a lithium battery… unbelievably addictive and absolutely delicious. Kids everywhere are hooked, nicotine addicts. I didn’t mind getting Jack one though, he was doing me a favour. It’s the companies’ fault and the government’s lack of regulation. Anyway, he agreed they were terrible things.
I cut back across the square to Jack’s waiting Toyota. He thanked me but it turned out he wanted Elf Bar juice. Apparently it has nothing to do with Elf Bars it’s just what people call it these days. I felt old. Jack was grateful anyway.
Jack also wanted to get some flowers for his girlfriend. They’d had a bit of an argument and he wanted to make it up to her. We swung through the narrow streets until we reached the florists. I leapt out to have a look but the door was shut. “Out for 15 minutes,” a handwritten sign read. There was a number so I took it back and Jack gave it a ring. No one picked up. “We’ll try the garden centre,” he said.
It was only at the end of the road. We both got out this time and Jack slunk ahead. He was tall and thin at full height. He had one hand in his pocket. “Hmm,” he murmured squatting down beside a bouquet of fire-red somethings, “These are fake.” The man behind the desk said they didn’t have flowers. We should try Amazing Blooms across town.
We got back in the car and Jack let out a smile as I remarked what an odyssey this was turning into. Amazing Blooms was near the vape shop. We could have saved a lot of time if only we’d known. From where we parked you could see the low hills rise and fall across the river. I followed him into the florist.
Pink flowers spotted the white room, evenly spaced in vases and tightly made wreaths. A lady with red hair and a green apron appeared at the counter. “Do you mind waiting ten minutes?” She asked. Jack looked at me and I nodded enthusiastically. Of course. She disappeared beneath a large wreath that said DAD. Jack and I looked around the shop and another woman walked in. She had bright blonde hair and pursed lips. When she left Jack told me she was a Traveller. “I don’t mean that offensively or nothing.” I asked how he could tell. “I just can.”
Ten minutes later the bouquet was ready. “Do you think she’ll be happy with them?” He asked me, a glint of pride in his eye. “She’ll be dead pleased,” I replied and the lady said you’d have to be mad not to like flowers.
We drove north. I clutched the bouquet in my lap and the soft pink petals tickled my chin as we bounced, speeding towards Tarbert.
I never saw the flowers given. Jack dropped me on the road to the ferry before we got to his girlfriend’s. “Don’t forget me when you’re rich and famous,” he called, and with a hoot of the horn he was gone.
I thought of the two of them, their lives wide in front of them and a bunch of flowers between. I wondered if Jack would make it to Australia. Maybe they’d go together.
I guess I’ll never know.
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