My father has fallen asleep by Athenry, the first stop out of the Galway station. His head is back against the seat, false teeth like a horse, his familiar smell of diesel and damp leather. I sit opposite, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Tea is far too country, and this, like the book I’ve taken from my shoulder bag, is to set myself apart, to hope that people don’t guess that were together—father and daughter. I’m going off to college in Dublin—a teacher-training college run by the Sisters of Mercy, recently gone co-ed but where first-year students live in the residence hall with a curfew of midnight on weeknights, 2 a.m. on weekends.
For this trip, he’s dressed in one of his newer uniforms—navy-blue jacket and pants, silver buttons, blue shirt, peaked cap with its badge, and navy-blue tie with the letters CIE embroidered in yellow.
For over 40 years, my father drove a freight truck for CIE (Coras Iompar Eireann), the national Irish transport company. In our village and parish, fathers were mostly farmers. They farmed their fathers’ and grandfathers’ small farms with the unrushed pace of roadside talk from tractor to tractor or over the handlebars of their big, men’s bicycles. It was unusual to work elsewhere, and though we saw no household evidence of the extra money or luxuries, my father’s truck-driving job would forever make our family and our lives different. The roar of his battered car as it left the yard each morning, two, three hours before our neighbors even thought of stirring, was enough in itself to set us apart as something not quite nameable. Industrious? Greedy? Above ourselves?
His life was that job. He worked the longest hours of any man I’ve ever seen in any country, and to this day, he’ll begin stories with, “In my job now…” The stories are detailed accounts of treacherous truck journeys through sudden snow, or a shopkeeper in a town who slighted him, or a waitress in a café who always brought him extra potatoes on his plate.
His was a life of clocking in and clocking out, of setting the round, green alarm clock by the kitchen wall clock, and of tearing the 26 miles from our country village to the truck depot in the city in his cheap, rusting cars. “I wouldn’t please them I’d be late,” he would say, with that Irish mixture of reverence and grudging hostility for authority—for the “thems” of the world.
One job perk was discounted train travel—a number of free train trips each year, half off the rest of the time, even half off the boat to England and throughout the British Rail system. The English trips, of course, were never used, and the Dublin ones only for days like this or a summer trip with my mother when I interviewed for this college or when my older brother graduated from his own Dublin college.
The morning train keeps belting across the bogs and the countryside toward the middle of the country, stopping at country stations for women in head scarves, pale men who look as if they’re bound for a Dublin hospital, young workers with suitcases after the weekend down home. By now, the peak of his uniform cap is wedged tightly between the seat and the train window, his snores getting louder, and from my book, I steal looks around the carriage, almost hoping for the looks of annoyance or derision that would confirm my teen-age conviction that everyone, everywhere, was somehow smarter than we were, jollier, more able to take the train to Dublin with purpose and wakefulness.
Once he drops me off at the college on the south side of Dublin, he’ll take the train back down west again, back in time to work a full day, just with a later start. He has asked for this special favor, a shorter lorry drive today, no doubt telling “them,” in a tone proud, defensive and apologetic, about the daughter going off to college. When this train pulls back into the Galway station, he’ll drive another lorry to another town 50, 60, 100 miles away, return to the depot later than usual, and then drive home to the village where he will tell my mother that everything went grand. Not a hitch going up or down. Great day’s work afterward. Daughter delivered to college.
It’s the third of October, an unusually bright day, and I’ve been 17 for three days now. In the hot carriage, my wool-blend skirt itches and makes me sweat and shift in my seat, but I’m careful not to waken him, for anything would be better than the slow, protracted talk between a father and his second-youngest daughter.
In a rare bout of spending, my mother sent me last week to buy shoes and a skirt, saying that first impressions last, not to be going up there to the college in those gibbles of jeans; it’s all very fine to wear them once I’m there a while, but you can never undo first appearances.
For the five years of secondary school, I have worn my bookish, studious image valiantly because, though I never admitted it, I believed I had nothing else to wear, no ticket to the giggling, sexually tinged talk of girls in a convent school. Better to bow out, to snootily set myself apart rather than beg, try for inclusion.
In the summer between school and college, and in the summers before that, I’ve read all of Walter Macken, A.J. Cronin, James Herriott, Taylor Caldwell, library books, books borrowed from my best friend, and on the train now, I’m reading a huge, paperback edition of Agatha Christie’s biography.
In that summer I also trained myself to think in French, so that when I pedaled my bike the 3 miles to our nearest town, I would narrate my journey in French—the pendulous, melancholy green of the roadside, the houses we knew so well, the hill where I had to get off and walk the bicycle, the cow-dung-spattered tractors that rattled past.
In that last year of school uniforms and study for final exams, I envisioned myself at the big university in Galway, where my older sister and brother went, living in wild, student flats and returning home with the secrets and sex of their lives pulsing behind their now cool, jaded faces. Once there, I would still be studious, perhaps, but finally social, titillating, joining the English and French societies for wine-and-cheese parties, staying out all night, drinking, and being kissed by boys with long hair and sensitive faces. But now, those plans have changed, and I am headed to a teacher-training college.
When the train starts to pull in through the western suburbs of Dublin, he sits up, awake finally, eyes glazed. “Oh, I had a great sleep,” he says, as he always says when he wakes up on the couch at home, as if sleep is a sumptuous treat. I’m still pretending to read the life of Agatha Christie.
He watches the straggle of gardens, terraced houses, discolored red brick, the lines of washing that hang limp and sodden in the morning chill.
When the train creeps into Houston station, he sits up fully, alert and proud. A railway station is where he clocks in and clocks out, where he’s a real man, and even here, across the country in Dublin, he knows it; he knows the oil and the diesel and the dull orange of the freight containers that sit waiting for lorries and men like him, in uniforms like his, to drive them off through the morning to towns that he has been to.
On the footpath outside the station, I get my first smell of Dublin, a brewery smell like old coffee, acrid and warm enough so that years later, when as a tourist I take the airport bus into the bustling Celtic Tiger Dublin, it will be this smell I look for.
The double-decker bus comes, and the Dublin conductor is already impatient with this queue of country people with their suitcases and questions: “Will this bus bring me to O’Connell Bridge?” “Do you know where the Eye and Ear Hospital is?” “Does this bus go past Fitzwilliam Square?”
We have reached the top step, my father ahead and me behind on the next step below. He cocks his head, the peak of his uniform cap, at the young Dubliner as if to say, “Look, I’m one of you.” The conductor stares at him, waiting for questions or money.
“I’m with the Galway Road Freight,” he says conspiratorially, stubbornly oblivious to the queue of men and women behind us.
“Whaa—?” the conductor says rattily.
“I’m with the Galway Road Freight,” my father persists, and this time he jabs a finger over his shoulder toward me and tells this young city conductor about “the daughter here going to college.” Impatiently, the conductor waves us on and looks to the next passenger for fares.
Victorious, my father chooses the second seat from the back. With my well-stuffed, green rucksack on my lap, I jam myself into the seat, but he stands, boots planted apart on the floor, grabbing the back rail of our bus seat and leaning in over me to look out the window, as if sitting is only for paying passengers—plain-clothes civilians who don’t know any better.
The bus rattles up Victoria Quay by the River Liffey. The sun is shining; the city is still corning awake—buses, bread vans, lorries on the quays, small groups of men and women in anoraks and coats huddled at bus stops, lunch bags and handbags under their oxters, billows of cigarette smoke in the morning air. When we pass St. James’ Gate, my father, as I know he will, points out the Guinness brewery and tells me how many’s the morning, even before it was light out, he drove a lorry-load of barrels out through that very gate.
The bus roars on, stops in traffic, only to start again, and my father keeps watching the street, the bus, the back of the bus driver’s head. After one sudden stop and start, he grins smugly, eyes the driver’s back, and says loudly, “I can’t bear that fella’s method of driving.”
Since leaving the train, I have been waiting like a whipped cat for his every word, his too-happy oblivion, his assumption that we are just like anybody else, that there’s nothing wrong with two country people on a bus finagling for free fares.
In the summer when my mother brought me up here for the college interviews, we took a taxi from the station that whisked us through back streets and shortcuts to the college and back again for the evening train. But my father has no doubts about finding his way in the city, no fear of buses and directions. After this, I know we take another bus out to the south side and that it will all take longer than the taxi. But how long? Two hours? One? An hour and a half at the most—before we re there, before he’s gone, before I’m alone, wearing old, hand-me-down Levi’s and facing a new life in the city. In my wool-blend skirt, I cringe and wait and count time.
The autumn sun blasts through the bus window. I stare out at the shops, the pubs with the red and black trim, names above the door like something from the O’Casey plays I’ve seen on television. Across the river the Four Courts, more pubs, news agent, sweet shop, and on the corner, a huge florist.
When our bus stops, our conductor points us to Eden Quay on the other side of O’Connell Bridge to wait for an old, black-and-cream double-decker, the 6A, which will take us not just out to Blackrock but all the way up Carysfort Avenue, where there’s even a stop right outside the college. Can’t miss it. The conductor bawls his directions above the idling bus. My father, who is already growing deaf, nods along at first but then shamelessly asks him to repeat it all. I am standing on the footpath, waiting with my rucksack, numb.
“Oh, aye,” my father eventually bawls back at him, coming down the bus steps.
Before we head off across the bridge, he turns to give driver and conductor one last salute, something between a wave and thumbs up. “Okey-doke,” he screams back through the bus door in a final farewell.
The No. 6A is a driver-only bus, meaning no conductor, and when the driver glances at my father’s cap, he instantly reaches past us for the fare from the next passenger. In this bus my father sits down. Passengers get on and off, and we both grow silent, watching the passing houses and trees—Trinity College; Merrion Square with its Georgian houses; the Ringsend chimneys against the sky; Ballsbridge, where the horse show is; Sandymount, then Booterstown and finally a flash of the sea and a park before the bus swings down through the village of Blackrock.
When it turns up Carysfort Avenue, we are the only passengers left. We pass a house where James Joyce once lived, more houses with curtained windows, the lounge bar where my mother and I ate lunch after my interview and I changed out of my high heels and suit.
I cried bitterly the day I got the acceptance letter for this teacher-training college. But by the time I sent back the confirmation, I had consoled myself, wiped away the tears and set about something between resignation and self-persuasion.
The journey before this journey—the application forms the previous spring, the summertime interviews, the letter of acceptance that made my mother whoop in uncustomary joy—is, in a way, a story of youthful defeat. It is also proof that even 16-year-olds know their own, deep hearts. On this day and on the days before this, I know I do not want to go to this college, do not want to be a primary school teacher.
Now I know the battle to get me here was not a battle at all. It was a mother’s victory long set, one that started on that day the previous spring when she—casually, so I wouldn’t rear up or balk—persuaded me to fill out the applications at least and deliver them back to the career-guidance nun, no commitment, just to humor a mother. On that morning, she followed me out the door to the school bus to sprinkle my school bag, where the completed forms were, with holy water. Half laughing, I brushed it off, but laughing even more and with uncustomary coyness, she sprinkled again.
One concession becomes another and then another, until the intolerable becomes acceptable, so that when we cave in, we have told ourselves that we are only caving in to that last request, not the whole shebang. On that day on the bus I have been persuaded, too timid, too dreamy to dig my heels in, and best or worst of all, I have persuaded myself.
On this October day, I do not know that I will prove myself right, and that in the years that follow, teaching Irish children in a small, Midlands village will be a long winter of sadness. I do not know that by my early 20s, I will be counting time, my life, in terms of months, weeks, weekends, entire school terms, years—until it has all become a frightened desperation of a young heart. Knowing things—at least enough to stop them clicking fiercely onward—takes either courage or wisdom or both. At 17, I have neither.
The bus sags to a stop outside the college, and when my father inquires for the next bus back to the city, the driver tells him that he turns at the top of the avenue, only about five minutes, and if my father wants to wait, he’ll collect him on the way back down.
He “okey-dokes” this one, too.
We stand together outside the gates of the college, my father with the straps of my green rucksack slung over his arm like a handbag.
“Sure, there’s point in me going up there with you,” he says, nodding toward the beautiful, red-brick campus in the trees.
“No,” I say.
“God bless you so.” He goes to hand over the rucksack. For a minute, it sits on the footpath between us. When he hugs me, I get the diesel and leather smell again.
I watch him hurrying down the footpath to wait for his bus outside the high walls of the college. He doesn’t look back.
I hoist the rucksack on my back and walk up the long driveway, moving in and out of patches of shade under the copper beech trees.
On the day of the college interview, my mother and I walked together up this avenue, and she told me how she had once been here 17 years before, when she had come to visit my aunt, her youngest sister, who was here to train as a novitiate nun. She was pregnant with me then, and now here we were on this summer’s day, me teetering along in high heels and a borrowed interview suit, she edgy and tired from trains, taxis and a rare trip to the city.
In another story, another family, this would be reason enough for a motherly resolve to enroll me here—a tidy resolution of the past, fulfillment of some pre-birth promise—roll up the film credits, lights up, and say what a lovely story. But it is our story and our family, so the plot is far thicker, denser than this, perhaps too thick to fathom or tell.
In the big, carpeted lobby with its glass display cases and the heavy brown doors and corridors that lead off to classrooms and lecture halls, there are lines of girls about my age or older, all in jeans and normal clothes, I notice, and yes, there are boys, though just a few. Each student is flanked by a mother in her best suit and a father who tends to check books and suitcases.
I can register myself, hand over the check they have written last night for a half-year’s tuition; the other half they’ll pay after Christmas. But first I choose the queue where they are handing out keys for our rooms in the residence hall. Hot in my hand is the piece of paper I got in the post after my acceptance. I have been assigned Room 40, and standing there, my skirt and winter shoes hotter and itchier than ever now, I recite the words in readiness for the girl at the glass window—name, room number, birth date if needed, until it’s my turn and the girl hands me the first ever door key I’ve ever owned in my life.
Over in the old residence hall behind the college, where everything smells of furniture polish and waxed floors, I climb the stairs to find Room 40, turn the key in the door, throw down my rucksack on the single bed with the crimson, satin bedspread. I shed the wool skirt and get into my faded, patched Levi’s and a new red sweatshirt. In the mirror above the hand basin, I comb my hair, splash water on my face, and look at myself. I think I look all right now, not as country, groovy, and nobody will notice me when I go back over there to stand in other queues.
Outside the residence hall, a shiny black Mercedes is pulled right up to the front door. A man with a round, pink face in gray slacks and navy-blue blazer takes matching luggage from the boot. His daughter has short, dark hair and the same round, expectant face. She stands by, giving him directions with the suitcases.
Walking down the path through the trees to the college, I hear their singsong Cork accents on the warm, autumn air. She calls him Daddy.
In 20 years, this story has had different endings. Once, when I lived on a street between two colleges in upstate New York, I made myself stand and watch on a late summer day while minivans and station wagons delivered that year’s new freshmen to town. Like a sadist peeping Tom, I stood on the hot footpath to gawk at mothers in their shorts, blouses, loafers and handbags. I studied each face, each family— fathers in golf shirts and chinos carrying stereo systems, computer monitors, easy-assemble bookshelves across the shiny green lawns; freshmen in Dead-head T-shirts, Birkenstocks and premature goatees, who seemed to dance and skip above the ground with edgy, laughing anticipation. And I made myself think of that other day, of a father stumping across a Dublin avenue for his bus like a uniformed Winnie the Pooh. Afterward, I walked home along an American avenue, musing about past and present, about differences of time, place and social class. Before turning the key in my American house, I found and trapped some words, a line to wrap up a story.
Once, for a St. Patrick’s Day reading at a library, I finished this tale with a quote from Hugh Leonard, the Irish playwright and columnist, who wrote about his own father: “Love, turned upside down is love for all of that.” The audience sighed and said Lovely, wow, leave it to the Irish. And I drove merrily home in a cocoon of self- congratulation.
Another ending was a long, ruminating treatise about grown-up families, blue-collar children who have been educated to a place forever beyond their parents where they can name-drop wine labels, independent films, holiday resorts.
But there is no real ending yet—nothing to conclude or fathom the story of a man, a life and a lorry or a youthful day on a train, a bus and a campus.
How to end things that are still playing on, reeling and cranking through the mind and the heart?