I AM out of practice. The anxiety started from the second I agreed to pay the horrendous ticket price of a ferry crossing, with cabin, from Rosslare to Pembroke with just six days’ notice.
The nightmares kicked in about three days out. I can’t sleep. I’m distracted. I’m trying to do a million things at once and none of them very well. Remind me, what is the process of boarding a ferry with the car?
I tend to default to my husband for such details because I’m usually already half unconscious from the travel sickness pill I need to take anytime I get within a whiff of a boat. This time, I’m travelling solo, and halfway to Rosslare on a Sunday evening I realise I’ve forgotten the non-drowsy travel sickness wristbands that magically got me to Skellig Michael and back in just about one piece last year.
Aboard ship, I can’t see where to get from where I am to the check in desk. My glasses have fogged up from the mask and I’m panic breathing trying to get to my cabin as quickly as possible to a) shield from all people, just in case; and b) to lie down on the bed so I can fall asleep and ignore the fact I’m on a big floaty tin can in the middle of the sea.
A random teenager asks me if I’m OK. I’m not, and I won’t be until I reach the other side.
This is happening because I am trying to visit my parents.
I last saw them and hugged them on Sunday, January 5. They waved me off in my rental car to Cardiff Airport, saying we would see each other in April for a tour of mid-Wales steam railways I had organised for my dad’s birthday. He’s a steam train enthusiast, building an N-Gauge miniature railway for the past four years in the spare room of their house a mile from the golden beaches of the Pembrokeshire coast. That trip was cancelled, thanks to Covid.
Ireland has been my home for 15 years now, but never have my parents felt so far away.
Aside from our own physical restrictions here, my dad, who is technically still in recovery from kidney cancer successfully treated three years ago, was ‘shielding’ until just a few weeks before.
They are both in their mid-sixties and have health issues, but thankfully they have kept themselves safe and well throughout, although that hasn’t stopped me worrying about them for a second since March.
Getting to them has proved tricky. When I look at aeroplanes now, I see travelling test tubes of pressurised virus, and anyway, the Cork-Cardiff route stopped just before Covid became a ‘thing’ thanks to the demise of FlyBE. So, my two remaining options are a flight from Dublin or a ferry from Rosslare.
Neither are appealing, but via ferry I can move cell-like from car to cabin to car, excessively limiting potential contacts. The New Normal dictates fellow passengers are ‘vectors’ now, not people, as we once were.
I finally arrive and swing open the gate with the squeaky hinges. Dad doesn’t oil them because, he says, he’ll hear if anyone tries to break in. I stop short of saying a burglar would probably jump the wall instead. Everything looks exactly as it did in January, except that the garden is in full end-of-summer shabby chic mode, and, clearly acted too late before the caterpillars took hold, judging by the array of lacey cabbages. I’m reassured: in a world where everything has changed, here everything has stayed exactly the same.
We stand for a moment in the kitchen, wondering if we should hug, but the urge takes over and we do hug, tightly, swaying from side to side. I feel as though I have run a marathon in record time rather than simply crossed the Irish Sea, but the achievement of getting here is more than that: we three have beaten the odds and stayed safe, well and healthy and now, finally we are here, together, holding onto each other until someone asks our favourite question of all: “Do you fancy a cup of tea?” I do, I say, and present an enormous box of Barry’s Tea bags. “Brilliant,” my dad says. “We ran out of our last stash months ago!”
The next morning, I wake up a little horse. For a moment I panic — sore throat? Please, no. But then I remember we talked non-stop from the moment I arrived, to the moment I eventually fell asleep. I air the bed and throw open the window wide. In the distance I hear the familiar call of the local Rag and Bone Man: “Old Iron... Any Old Iron…”
On the schedule today is a tour of the garden followed by a walk on the beach (pictured above) with the dogs interspersed with many more cups of tea and chats. We retrieve what apples we can from a tree destined for the bin, wracked as it is with canker. The pear tree is heavy with early fruits – not yet ripe enough to eat plucked from the tree without a little care and attention in the kitchen. There are Black Russian tomatoes that start off green to deep purple-black before ripening to red; and a round courgette that Mum thought was a squash. I pick a few almost black berries from the Himalayan Honeysuckle growing in the front garden and give them to Mum and Dad to taste.
“They taste of chocolate, coffee and caramel — would work wonders in a muffin,” I tell mum, whose favourite thing in the whole wide world is chocolate.
Along the garden path, I narrowly miss treading on a huge slug, one of those camel-coloured ones with the psychedelic orange outline. Mum scoops up the slug with a trowel and readies to launch it over the garden wall. Dad hovers, asking if she wants him to do that. She says no, insisting she can do it — my mum, who had an entire shoulder replacement only a couple of years ago and has limited movement in the other. She misses entirely, of course, merely expediting the slugs’ journey towards the thick undergrowth where the purple Hebe and the last of the summer Lilly’s bloom!
Sea Buckthorn grows invasively all over the dunes at the local beach — rare to find it in Ireland. It is in full berry now — bunches of bright orange fruits that taste somewhere between tart citrus and cider.
We stand and pick chatting about nothing-in-particular while their dogs, Ruby and Pearl, snuffle about in the brushy undergrowth. Back in the kitchen, I bake some of the pears from the laden tree slowly with honey to make a classic pear, Roquefort and walnut salad, honey and balsamic dressing and decorated with nasturtium flowers. I roast steaks of the round courgette with a strong local Welsh cheddar and hazelnuts and serve it with those moody tomatoes from the garden too and lots and lots of herbs, potatoes and Welsh beef I’ve rolled into Kofte with yet more herbs. Apple pie for dessert with plenty of custard.
For four days, this is how we passed the time: buckets of tea, chats, dinners and walks on the beach picking berries. Before long, I know I’ll be making the journey back across the sea, but I try to ignore it. We make no plans to see each other again either – who does, anymore? I hope for a Christmas reunion, we all do.
I make my way back to port, roll onto the ferry and check in at the desk – I’m in the same cabin as I was on the way out: 9214. There’s no panic this time, I slide under the cover and fall asleep as the ferry rides the swell back across the sea.
Before Covid, I took it for granted how easy it was to book a cheap flight and within a couple of hours arrive at the gate with the squeaky hinges. I think now, because it was so easy, I never appreciated it; I didn’t make the moments count. I asked Dad which station he had modelled his railway on. He said it wasn’t meant to be an exact replica of a particular station, but more a collection of his favourite memories of railways he visited as a child: “the best years of the railway,” he opined, before resetting a carriage to carry on its whirl around the track.