The gentle to-and-fro. A sway like the cradle.
A fleeting glimpse and a gentle whizz as the opposite train dashes towards its scheduled stop.
Homeward bound to the weary passengers on board. Thought bubbles above their heads, taking stock of the day they just had in the big city. An endless row of hedges offering respite, a window of light in the distance capturing the beautiful West, enticing its people to come home.
And there he sits, two cans of Guinness, one naggin of Jameson Whiskey. His stomach filling the space underneath the table. I can see from his fingernails that he smokes. The brown tinge of tar, forever tattooed into him. Like a trademark. I make no effort of eye contact, he stares ahead, thinking his thoughts. Drowning them occasionally with his thick black stout.
“Would you like a bag of Tayto there girls?”
Our arms simultaneously shoot up in the air like the cowboys in the old western films, or the gangsters to the cops in the new blockbusters. “Ah no thanks, we’re grand, we just ate”.
The gentle sway of the cradle, the crisp sound of him cracking open another can of Guinness.
“Are ye from these parts girls? ‘Tis a queer ‘oul place, is it college ye are coming from?”.
The mix of the Tayto and Guinness swirling in his mouth. His lower row of teeth, tarnished and stained by the same tar that clings to his fingers. My friend instinctively takes her phone in her hand and returns the call she ignored from earlier today. I realise I’m on my own with this one.
Turning my attention to this man sitting alone on my right, I look into his eyes, and I see his loneliness. Part of them are as black as the stuff he is drinking, but part of them hold humour, gentleness and hope. A humorous flicker of bright blue.
This train is like a time zone. On one side, fluffy clouds, green fields, sun rays and intricate stone walls, enticing and inviting your attention, offering you a place to be left alone with your thought bubble. Thank God no one can see.
On the other side of the train, sits a person lost, not even a thought bubble to be seen. Just some Guinness, a naggin of Jameson and a few packets of crisps.
“You must be only 19, oh what I wouldn’t give to be 19 again. ‘Sher Jaysus I loved a girl so much but I was foolish and she married somebody else. Kids and all now she has, and a fine big house, fair play to her. But, her brother never liked me, I s’pose he saw the devilment in me, and ‘sher who am I to blame him?”.
He laughs so hard he coughs, the sticky brown tar permeating his lungs too.
At this point, I’ve picked apart this gentle mans appearance. His well spoken country accent, the obvious signs that he was well educated, the gentle way in which he holds his head and never breaks eye contact with you.
This well dressed mannerism; his armour holding him together.
But I can see the chinks in his chains, his hunger to talk to anybody who will listen.
All brought to the surface by a drop of the black stuff.
He lifts his can, an old knight lifting his sword, on board his steed, going nowhere, fast.
He tells me “this stuff is the Devils curse”.
As the green fields roll past, two strangers from different times engrossed in conversation, become unlikely acquaintances, while others, too afraid to see beyond the contents of his table, now listen attentively, as an old man bares his soul. Like a professor teaching his lecture, a Father on his death bed giving advice to his son, this was a moment of fleeting advice, a meeting of both sides of the carriage, from a person who had seen it all.
The old man talks about his fondest memories, his saddest memories, yet always stressing not the fall but the lesson learned. His journey of forgiveness.
“T’wasn’t my Mothers fault that I never met her. Sure Ireland was a queer ‘oul place in them days. If you were a little bit slow, they thought you were mad, if you signed the papers the baby was taken”.
He recalls the day his adoptive Father died and he describes the beautiful country manor they lived in, with land on both sides and a driveway up the middle.
“So there she was standing right in the middle of this grand driveway, and she blind drunk, with a bottle of Jameson Whiskey in one hand and a clenched fist in the other. I said Jaysus Mam what are ya doing? And she opens up her two arms and says to me ‘Martin, you’re always looking at the little things, while the big things pass you by’, and ne’er a truer word has she spoken because that day I didn’t see the land around me, or my drunk Mother, all I could see was the bottle of Whiskey. ‘Ara, sure she knew me well, God bless her”.
He reached for his coat and pulled out a wrinkled old brown letter and handed it to me. A letter stained with years of pain. Its creases permanent from years of folding and unfolding.
It was a letter to his birth Mother, wishing that they might meet after 53 years.
“If I have any advice for you Ma’am, it’s this…Never hold on to a grudge or to the past, as it’ll only make your heart heavy and you’ll only hurt yourself in the end”. He then leaned his head back against his headrest and quoted Aeschylus –
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
With an open mouth and an instant understanding of this mans words, the train signals its stop at my destination. I scold myself, and others on this journey for being so shallow, for looking only at what we saw and dismissing this man immediately as a nuisance. For not stopping to see the kind, gentle nature in his eyes, the sincerity in his voice, and just the want to be heard.
The stereotypical Irish Drunk, an ornament in our society held with tender regard, yet no one really wants to own him.
I gather my things, not wanting to end my conversation with the ‘oul fella. I stick out my hand and tell him it was a pleasure to talk to him and that I hope things go well with his Mother.
He takes my hand, with his old world charm, the warmth and softness of it too good for a cold beer can.
“‘Twas a pleasure to meet you Ma’am and I hope everything goes well for you in your life”.
Our eye contact breaks for the first time in over an hour. Sympathetic gazes meet me as I step away.
I step off the platform, the beautiful evening sun welcoming me home. What I thought would be an uneventful train ride home, a mundane chore, a series of thought bubbles streamed together until I had to get off, turned out to be so much more.
My life had changed forever, by his words, his lessons.
His burdens had been eased, his armour relaxed.
I look around me and everything is as it should be. They are oblivious to my interaction on board this time capsule, that sways like a cradle. A train ticket that bought me so much more than a journey home, but a journey in itself.
Heroes should not always be seen as heroes,
Villains should not always be seen as villains,
It is much better if they are just seen as, human.