by MK Alexander
All rights reserved
We go from here to there with hardly a purpose: to see what there is like, or not. And we who tour, are tourists. The very word is funny: tourist. By its sound it seems to mean the specialized follower of some outrageous cult. Yet it takes a certain courage to be a tourist. Not just any tourist, not your typical mass of flesh seated behind tinted windows of a bus hurtling from here to there in exact increments. More the sort who steps on a piece of stray sod, who goes for parts unknown— when from here to there is the whole adventure. The kind who meanders foolishly, searching for the edges of time, driven by word of mouth, or the vague descriptions in some esoteric guidebook; without itinerary, nor reservations, and without much money.
“Like being homeless,” she said, my wife.
“Well, there’s a courage in that.”
“In being homeless?”
“No, in being a leprechaun.” She smiled and nodded towards the guy sitting across from us in the train.
The R-train, or was it an F-train? It rattled through the decrepit tunnels. I turned and looked across the aisle.
“A bum by any other euphemism,” I said with friendly sarcasm.
“He’s not. Look...” she whispered since he had turned to face us.
I admit there was a dignity about him. His clothes were frayed but clean. The dull green felt cap perched on his head covered what I could easily imagine were pointed ears. He carried himself well, there was life in his eyes.
“Tackle him and ask him where his gold is,” she told me.
I looked at her with a screwed up face. I thought she was kidding.
“Are you scared?” she goaded me.
“To tackle him. It wouldn’t be easy... He’s a trickster.”
“It’d be easy enough. I’d just be embarrassed.”
She laughed. She knew avoiding mortification was my greatest strength.
“Maybe he’s not a bum. Maybe he’s what we’ll be, in less than a week.
“Homeless?” I smirked. “Leprechauns?”
The instinct for survival travels with us, always, especially for the tourist. A kind of primal fear creeps in, old fears, a fear of the black night, sleeping in the rough and going hungry. It takes a certain courage not to know where you’ll be bedding down, or when or what you’ll be eating.
A day or so before our vacation I came home and said to my wife, “You’ll never guess who I saw on the subway.”
A long string of names from her, and clues from me followed, then it struck her. “The leprechaun,” she said and laughed.
“Of all the millions of people in the city... it’s the second time I’ve seen him in a week.”
“Did you catch him?”
“No. He was getting off the train, I was getting on.”
It strikes me that we travel from here to there to lose our sense of time. The past only lingers in the places we call there. The present seems no more than a dream as we travel through it— tenuous and fleeting, not made rock-solid by the routine of daily mundanity. The edges of time soften, past and present steep into a blur. The future? Well, that’s exactly why we make the journey. This time it was Ireland.
We began up in the North:
Little of the turn-of-the-century resort remained at the first seaside town we came upon. The past lingered only as a forlorn sadness hanging on the buildings. The present, though dreamlike, held fast in its harshness. As usual, we had pulled off the road in a panic. It was late, dark, we were lost, and needed a place to stay, any place. We found a broken down hotel, a shadow of its former elegance, now filled with mothers-on-the-dole, all sitting in front of a single twenty-year-old TV set. A night later, and further down the coast, it was the three a.m. stirrings of a flop-house that woke us from our dreaming: drunks filling the rooms, puking next door.
“I told you not to mix your drink like that, Kathleen,” we heard through the walls.
The reply was muffled and unintelligible.
“Now that the money’s all spent, it’s only right that it’s back to work tomorrow,” the voice continued till we heard it no more.
The next day fast propelled us into a dark sci-fi future. In the morning, we stumbled upon a checkpoint. The camouflaged faces of Brit soldiers peered through the windshield of our rental car. Finally, a boyish smile comes when they see your blue passport. Cradling an Uzi, they say, “Well, isn’t it lovely here... have a nice holiday.”
Lovely, yes indeed. Bizarre is a better way to say how the past holds tight; that day, manifest in an archaic parade that passed along red and blue sidewalks, past double-sized masked soldiers painted on tenement walls, and fortresses of high walls and barbed wire.
Oddly though, just beyond another road block by the side of Lough Erne, we found a place where the whole stretch of time was laid bare. A ramshackle graveyard held the dead of a millennium, from the dim pagan past, to freshly plied earth. In the midst of the tombs an ancient man sat in carved stone. He gave witness to the centuries, the flux and the unchanging. The future would only find him more mute, more weathered and farther from meaning. He was a statue of course. And beyond the graveyard fence lay an enclave of moss covered megaliths, strewn in an order neither discernible by nature nor archaeologists. The huge blocks of stone stood in disarray from the rites they celebrated, rites as foreign as our own.
It was on our journey that I came to draw time on the landscape. I rendered the city as the future, and the countryside as the past. The places in between: the present, is where we travel.
On the road to Connemara, past a peat-fired electric plant and lonely stretch of bog, a village came into view. We rolled in, weary, hoping for a snack and a cold drink. The village stirred with activity. It was Sheep Day and the narrow road was lined with old trucks and wagons, all crowded with panicky lambs. Hard men bartered and traded, compared and bragged, and they all stared at us when we rolled to a stop. We were time intruders. Their lives belonged to a hundred years ago. What was quaint to us was just Sheep Day to them. It was no show for the tourists, we were utterly alien. The camera stayed in the car when my wife and I walked slowly to a big store we saw on the edge of town. It was in our imagination that all eyes followed us up the dusty path.
I pushed open the door into a gleam of fluorescent lights. My jaw surely dropped. In front of me was nowhere else but the future: A giant modern market, brand new and stocked with anything and everything for our convenience. By some trick of madness I had been transported to a Seven-Eleven somewhere in Jersey, New Jersey. I hurriedly bought a soda and stepped back outside, back a hundred years in a single stride.
It was here that I erased time from the landscape. It was an arrogant notion, anyway. And it was probably that same evening when the weird distorted time caught up with us again. It was in the village of Lehan, where three toothless old men sharpened their wit on the silly tourists from the future.
“Is the pub open yet?” I asked.
“It may well be,” one of the men said, while his colleagues snickered. “But it’s likely not to be.”
“When will it open?”
“Hard to say. Maybe eight, maybe nine. It mightn’t open at all. It depends how Mr. Ryan feels today. But why would the likes of you want to be going there? It’s not a safe place, you know. It’s a place to bring a big stick with you. Sure as rain you’ll be getting into a row, and a brawl.”
His words didn’t come easily to me, even though he spoke English. I glanced at my wife to see if she understood any better.
“What time is it now?” I asked and immediately regretted it. The words left my mouth like an expression from some foreign language phrase book.
He held a hand up and squinted past me to the sun. “We don’t have much need of clocks or time of your sort. We work till we’re done and when the sun goes down it’s night. That’s all we need to know.” His two companions cackled. I walked away mortified.
The pub was open that night after all, and we saw our toothless friends behind their respective pints of Guinness. Looking around, there didn’t seem to be any potential adversaries. The place was filled with tourists— Germans, mainly; one, a big bearded guy who looked like Atilla-the-Hun, sat restfully, nodding to the fiddles and spoons that played. Another man, the bald guy in the corner we’d seen before. I vaguely had the suspicion he was following us. I’d seen him at the B&B, and on his bicycle, twice now. He was no threat, tired out from pedaling. We found a table. I leaned to my wife and spoke above the music, “Looks like we won’t be needing a big stick after all.”
No sooner were the words from my mouth when a loud voice broke through, “I assume this chair is not occupied,” a man said, in an affected upper-crust English accent.
“Sure, help yourself,” I replied in a tone that was hopelessly American.
From there things get a bit muddled; but it wasn’t me that started things. It was that Welshman-wannabe who started the trouble, and in the end a big stick had clearly been called for.
The next day my wife talked excitedly about the night before. “How did he know we’d get into such a fight?” she asked.
“Probably happens all the time. Just good odds.”
“There’s something else to it.”
“I guess,” I mumbled, and fell into silence, immersed in the drive. We sped through Longford and set out east along a country road. She held the map and I negotiated the pavement. We crisscrossed the countryside, funneled along narrow corridors of green embankment and hedges in a desperate race against... against... well, I’m not sure what. After half a day or more of rocketing through foreign landscapes, some autonomous part of me refused to let my foot off the accelerator. I’m not at all certain if some dark, primal urge drove me on, or the secret idea that successful tours were measured in miles.
“We better think about stopping soon. It’s getting dark.”
“Did you like Longford?” I asked. “I didn’t see any B&B signs.”
“The whole town passed in a blur,” she said and we started to laugh. She knew exactly how I felt. I couldn’t stop. I’d traveled a hundred miles at least and was making good time.
“There’s a town in about six miles, then nothing for a while.”
“Okay, we’ll stop there, and hope there’s a B&B. It’s still light enough.”
Evening came closer when we pulled into a village called Drumlish. It was a ghostly place of about twenty buildings that straddled the two-laned strip of blacktop. We were almost through the whole town before we knew it. We searched all the windows for the sign that would bring us to a stop, but saw none. Drumlish seemed lifeless except for a woman sweeping the path in front of a dimly lit food store.
On the crossroads, a sign: B&B— saved! I pulled the car around to the left and parked along side a hedge. We walked to the house on the corner, typically like all the others, made of stone with a bit of white siding. I noticed a small garden in the back.
“I wonder if they’re even open,” my wife said.
“I see a for sale sign.” I took her hand as we walked up to the front door. She rang the bell and we waited.
“Doesn’t look like there’s anyone home,” I said, discouraged, and stared through the nearby windows. Something caught my eye, a reflection on the glass. At first I assumed it was me, but it was definitely inside, a black silhouette that blotted out the corner windows on the other side. “I saw someone moving.”
We waited a bit longer; no one came. I peered inside again. In the glass I couldn’t recreate my reflection, but I could see straight through to the car now. “I could swear there was someone there before.”
My wife looked inside as well. “I see someone, a little boy, there in the corner.”
I saw him too, and a taller man beside him. They weren’t much more than shadows that seemed to be gazing out at us. There was something odd though. They hardly moved, and moreover, they seemed to be completely flat, two-dimensional, as if cut from black paper— and yet, neither in front of, nor behind, the lace curtains. My eyes couldn’t make sense of it.
“I guess they’re closed,” I said abruptly and started for the car. I felt a chill up my spine. My wife probably did too but said nothing. Quietly and very quickly we left the house at the crossroads and drove back into town.
I waited in the car while she went into one of two pubs.
“No supper tonight, dearie.”
“How ’bout the place across the street?”
“No... they never do a supper, except on Sundays.”
“Is there anywhere to stay then? Any B&B’s nearby?”
“There’s the Spaniard’s place, Pasqual’s, just down the Cavan Road. He’s good for tourists, but he won’t do a supper.”
“How about the place on the edge of town, at the crossroads?” she asked.
“Nobody there, dearie. Old Mrs. Noonan packed up to Longford when her husband died. No one’s been there for years.”
“Someone was inside. We saw them,” my wife said emphatically.
“Now… that wouldn’t be anyone. There’s no one about the place. Best you stay away. Pull you right out of time, it will.”
I was outside watching the darkening sky. On the telephone wires, black crows perched restlessly. More and more gathered, then in a sudden heave of motion the sky came alive with swirling black wings and the commotion of caws. They dropped off the wires, swooping down, and then up, with angry calls. There was nothing to it, I was sure; but the cold evening air sent a shiver through me nonetheless.
“Any luck?” I asked as she got back in the car.
“Pasqual’s place, a B&B. That way.” She pointed and we set off.
It was a mile or so from town on the left and it was close to dark when we got there. It was a frightening place, like some chunk of suburbia that landed in the middle of all the rich farmland. The house was new, in Mediterranean style, complete with statuettes strategically placed on the lawn and drive.
“Sorry, it’s the end of the season. We’re not taking anyone, besides we’re full.”
“Is there any place nearby?”
“Up the road a few kilometers, some farm houses will put you up. But you’ll never see the signs in the dark. I would try Longford.”
“We just came that way.”
“Eh? Nothing there, even at the hotel?”
“We didn’t try.”
“It’s easy enough to find, about nine or ten kilometers into town, go to the right at the first junction, then bear left and make the second right...”
We left disappointed. That primal fear crept into us both. A wave of desperation came. It was a long drive to Longford. We started back, but at the crossroads, we saw the B&B again. This time there was a flickering light in the window. We glanced at each other wordlessly and I pulled off to the rear of the house.
A little man, no taller than a child, greeted us at the door holding a lantern. I’d seen his face before, I was sure… probably just before… through the window.
“Do you have a room?” my wife asked.
“I wouldn’t be turning you away. There’d be a room for you at the top of the stairs. It’s not fancy but you’re welcome to it for the night.
“I wouldn’t be charging you, but if you’d care to make a contribution to the cause, well, you’ll find the tin on the mantle there.”
I walked across the parlor to where a turf fire smoldered. I found a tin, filled with old coins, and stuffed ten pounds into it.
The little man eyed me. “That’s more than generous of you, kind sir. And where would the two of you be from?”
“All the way from America, are you? Isn’t that something.” He smiled almost as if he’d told a joke. He handed me an oil lamp and said, “Go on up, and settle yourself. I’ll fetch the kettle.”
The room was perfect, sheltered and private, with a view out the front window. We stowed our bags, and I collapsed on the bed. My wife took the light and went exploring.
“This is great,” she said, returning. “But I can’t find a bathroom.”
“It’s probably downstairs. We’ll ask him.”
She sat down on the bed too. “What about dinner?”
“We can take a walk up to the store and find something.”
“It might close soon.”
“Let’s go then.”
Downstairs, the little man ushered us into the parlor where tea had been laid out. He sat us and poured a little something special into the teapot. “Hair of the dog…” he explained to our surprised expressions. “I’ll see if I can’t find some supper for you,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen.
Not long afterwards we finished up a plate of stew and the little man poured another cup of tea for us both. My wife nudged me. “Is there a toilet downstairs?” I asked in the silence.
The odd little man grinned a bit and pointed. “Through the kitchen and out by the stable. It’s a warm enough night.”
“You have horses?” my wife asked.
“Two old nags. You might call ’em horses if you have an imagination.”
“Think I’ll go see.” She smiled, rose, and disappeared.
“I see your wife’s keen on ponies,” he said. “And a tactful lady, as well.” He smiled but I didn’t get the meaning of it.
I offered a cigarette and we sat smoking for a time. “I’ll go out and check on my wife.” I got up from the table. “Maybe we’ll take a walk into town.”
“Well, you’d best be careful. It’s a new moon tonight… and you never know what might be lurking. Take care to keep to the road, don’t go traipsing about in the fields— you’ll find yourself stepping on a bit of stray sod.”
I found my wife in the stable talking to one of the horses. “Want to walk into town? Maybe we can find cigarettes.”
“Where’s the car?” she asked.
“Over there, I think.” We walked into the back yard but couldn’t find it. “That’s funny, I swore I parked it right here.”
“I’m sure we’ll find it in the morning,” she said and laughed. I laughed too, but nervously.
“Doesn’t this guy seem familiar to you?” I asked on the way to town.
“Sure, he looks like the Leprechaun on the R-train.” She gave me a friendly push.
“Careful,” I said, and swayed unsteadily as a joke. But the extra potent tea had some bad effect on me. I stumbled through the hedge and landed in a ditch.
“Are you okay?” my wife called out. Her voice sounded strange, almost far away.
“I’m okay,” I called back and stood up again. I looked around to find myself at the edge of a large field. “Ha… he warned me not to step on a piece of stray sod,” I said and laughed, then searched for a clearing in the hedge where I could get back through. I saw Drumlish up ahead in the corner of my eye, and it was even more lifeless than before. Not a single car, no trace of the dimly lit store— just the same woman sweeping the path, this time in the dark. In the dark? What a thing to do. I turned down the road to find my wife. She was gone. I called out for her, over and over. She was nowhere to be found. Then, from behind, a team of horses and a black carriage rumbled towards me, literally from out of nowhere. There was nothing to do but dive for the hedges again. My head hit hard, probably a stone wall.
I seemed to wake finally, and stared across an aisle. I heard the word “homeless” whispered. I heard the R-train, or an F-train, rattling through decrepit tunnels. I looked across and saw a young married couple, watching me. I smiled with self-satisfaction. I know I’m not a bum, even if they don’t…. I know that I’m still just a tourist.