Chapter 72: The Thumbs of Tom Haugh
Ireland: Crossing the Shannon
I was run to the port by Oscar and his son. It was only a couple of miles. The road ran along the river towards two towers that pieced the thin blue sky. It was a power station and Oscar told me he was delivering something there. We could see its dirty glass panels and corrugated iron. It looked like something from soviet Siberia.
The only other thing on the peninsula was the ferry port. I got out and walked along the short queue of cars, sat by a mural of a mermaid communing with an octopus and looked over the Shannon. Above it, cirrus clouds breathed high in the sky. They say the Shannon was formed when a princess visited the Salmon of Knowledge, a fish called Fintan. She stepped into its sacred pool but the water rushed up and swept her out to sea. No one knows why, but the river that’s run ever since bears her name.
The ferry across it didn’t take long. It was a small boat with a tiny shop. It was just a window. A bored teenager hid behind the confectionery, head craned over her phone. I thought I might ask a few people for a ride but I didn't in the end. I don’t like approaching people for lifts, unless I’m really desperate, I prefer to let them make their own decision as they pass. It’s less awkward that way. Anyway, I had all afternoon and there was a main road running just above the port. It would be easy to catch a short ride to Kilrush.
I skipped off the ferry first. I didn’t even hold up my sign to the cars as they followed me. I don’t really know why, I just didn’t. Either way, I regretted it when I got to the main road. There wasn’t a car in sight.
I stood by the Welcome to County Clare sign and looked around. The road was deserted. Low detached houses dotted along it and elephant grass swayed by a derelict school.
There was a black stone plaque on the wall opposite, engraved with an outstretched thumb. I looked at it puzzled. “In memory of Tom Haugh, 1939-2007”. I wondered who Tom Haugh was and what the thumb was for. It stood out so clearly against the limestone wall and the dark scraggy box hedge. It must be to do with hitchhiking I thought. Maybe he was a keen hitchhiker or maybe a casualty of the cause… My mind ran away with the idea. Perhaps he was standing here and got hit by a car, although given how few there were around I thought that unlikely, or perhaps he was murdered on the road. In Oklahoma there’s a memorial to a murdered hitchhiker that reads simply, “A Martyr to the Road.” Maybe Tom Haugh was one of those. After 20 minutes without a car passing, I began to wonder if I might go the same way.
A single car approached. It drove slowly over the hill and trickled into the village. I held my sign up and gave my best smile, stretching my thumb as clear as Tom Haugh’s. The car slowed down, then it turned into the driveway opposite. I let down my thumb. A grumpy-looking couple got out and shot grumpy looks. They shuffled indoors and drew the curtains.
I looked around at the sloping green hills and the grey slug of the Shannon. The sky had gone from blue to white and I wondered if it would rain. It was nearly an hour since I’d arrived. The queue of cars at the ferry terminal had grown and I could see the boat returning. A flicker of hope.
I raced down to the quay and waited by the exit. Kilrush on my sign was 5 only miles away, surely someone would take me. The cars began to roll past, I looked each one in the eye. Each one slid past. Surely, surely, I smiled even more. My thumb never tensed so hard. The last was a huge purple lorry with nothing on the back. It clunked and hissed and the driver looked down. He held his hands up. I tried to wave and get his attention, just so I could talk to someone, anything. Nothing. He clunked and hissed past. He turned onto the road and was gone.
I returned to the County Clare sign and wondered what I’d do. Half an hour later a bow-legged man and a golden Labrador came past. We said hello. He’d seen me earlier so we exchanged ideas for getting a lift. “Aye there’s not much traffic,” Mike agreed and sucked his teeth hard. He thought for a moment, looking across the river. “I tell you what,” he jerked an index in the air, “I’ll run you to Kilrush. Yes no problem! I’ll run you in there man.”
“Wow, really? Are you sure?” I asked.
“Aye of course, it’s not far. I’ll have to go back and get me car. It’s about ten minute's walk up the road, and then I’ll come and get you. Aye of course, no problem my man. No problem!”
I thanked him again, overjoyed to have a lift. It’s often the shortest journeys that give the most pleasure.
Five minutes later two young men approached. One had his hands in his pockets and his hood over his head. He wore a purple and blue top and his hair was bleached blonde. I’d seen him earlier, his name was Thomas. He waved and they crossed over.
Thomas and Declan lived in the village. Declan squinted at me, Thomas did most of the talking. He said there was nothing to do. They were trying to walk 10k that day since Thomas had the day off work. He was a DJ in Ennis apparently. “Do you want to see my girlfriend?” He asked and got out a picture of her. “I don’t know how I landed her like,” he said, “I’ve been trying to for ten year.”
They first met on a beach and he’d fancied her ever since. She was a model and they’d been in Kerry together earlier that day. Thomas said he would have left Ireland if it wasn’t for her. “She’s the only reason I’ve stayed. There’s fuck all else to do.” He wouldn’t have been the only one to leave Kilimer. In 1840 the population was over 3000, now it's not even 500.
“I’d give ya a lift if I had a car,” Thomas said. I thanked him for the sentiment but said Mike had kindly offered me one. “Oh Mike! He’s sound he is. If he said he’d give you a lift he will man, he’s proper sound like. I just saw him now and showed him my girlfriend actually! Yeah, he was impressed.”
Mike cruised to a stop in his car. “Hello there boys!” He called as he got out to open the boot.
We drove out of the village and past another power station. Its towers mimicked the two on the other side. Mike had come to the village to work there. “A long time ago now mind, hoo ho he!” He had a lyrical laugh and he spoke with a soft high pitch. “So you’ve enjoyed your trip here?” I replied that I had enjoyed it very much. “Hoo that’s good. That’s good you’ve enjoyed it.” He nodded and sucked his teeth, “That’s good you’ve enjoyed your trip!”
“Now what’ll you do in Kilrush?” Mike asked concerned. His eyebrows rising to his halo of grey curls, “There’s a bus that’ll take you quite far and for a reasonable fare now!” He was very excited by the idea.
We were in Kilrush soon after. Mike dropped me on the edge of town. “Good luck to you my man!” He said, embracing my hand with a clasp. He leaned on the roof of the car and told me which way to go. Suddenly I remembered something.
“Oh, who was Tom Haugh?” I asked, “on the plaque in the village.”
“Tom Haugh,” Mike replied, “Yes, Tom… he was killed in a car crash, hoo a long while ago now. The man driving the car lived in that house so he put the memorial up.”
“What was the thumb for?”
“Hoo, he was always going like that you see,” Mike grinned, sucked his teeth and stuck out two great big thumbs, “He was always sticking his thumbs up!”
“A lesson for us all,” I said.
“Aye,” Mike replied, “It is.”
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