Leap Year (or a Wet Half-Week in Donegal)
I spied some kind of hawk as we landed in the dark green of Derry. I nudged my secret fiancé: Yes, secret fiancé, like in a 19th-century novel (we’re eloping, the day after April Fools, following a whirlwind romance. It’s so crazy it just might work…).
“I bet it goes like stink”, said my man, as he vroomed the hire car out the lot. “Which side of the road do the Paddy’s drive on again?”
Davy is allowed to use this ethnic slur, because of his Irish blood, from his mother’s side. That’s why we were there, on the old sod, our trip part mini-break, part pilgrimage. Davy wanted to see where his grandparents were born, drink a pint of Guinness in Sharkeys. I was more than happy to come along for the ride, curious, amongst other things, to find out what I was marrying into in such haste.
“Is this right?” said Davy, confused, as the sat-nav nosed us off-road.
We were to be staying with his Auntie Shelia on Cruit Island (pronounced “Critch”) a rugged outpost situated off the west coast of Donegal. Shelia is a recent transplant, having moved to Critch from the “too-pretty” Cotswolds – her husband Jason, an anxious Spaniel, and an irascible cat called Bill in tow. Shelia was just the first of many aunties, uncles, and cousins I would meet over the next few days: Some families are extended, and some are extended, my bethrothed’s comprising of the great clans of Boyles and O’Donnells.
But first – a walk along the beach. The sun was out, the roar of Manannán Mac Lir (Celtic sea god, ferrier of the dead) in our ears. I watched as Daisy-Dog buried the toy she was carrying in the wet sand, before going to retrieve it, after being shouted at.
I looked over at Davy: I must admit, I’d been nervous, worried how he’d fare. I knew this much of him, that at heart all he wanted to do was sit around in his underpants, drinking tea and reading Satre. But he was being a good sport. I watched him run around the beach, antagonising Daisy, in his new hat that stretched over his head like a condom, and thought – I’ve chosen well.
Siabh League or “Slieve League” boasts the highest sea-cliffs in Ireland.
Out of the car and Davy and I walked into a wall of wind. But it was worth the struggle up and the argument in the car. The cliffs were dramatic – black rock, pure surf.
We walked hand in hand. There were lots of other couples there, doing the same thing. Most of them looked younger than us. They were probably doing the slow and sensible thing, going out for five to ten years, moving in together and buying a house before getting engaged, or just having a baby or two and not bothering with the rigmarole.
Suddenly, Davy broke free and ran to an edge where he stood waving and shouting I’m just going to go now, bye, before disappearing backwards.
I stood and waited for him to reappear, looking out over the sea into a bright, white nothing.
The angst I would be made to eat an egg sandwich was replaced with the fear I would be asked if I go to Mass.
“Yeah, they’re nuts for Jesus,” Davy had said of the Donegalians, after I stopped to take a picture of Christ-on-a-billboard at the side of the road.
We were at Auntie Josephine’s: I’m not sure where Auntie Josephine slotted into the family tree, or Uncle Denny, or Siobhan, or Niall. But it didn’t matter, they were kinfolk, the rest mere detail. We were sat around the table with the traditional and obligatory spread of tea, sandwiches and cakes. To the right of me, above the sofa, was a big picture of a diffusey Jesus. Over the fireplace was The Pope, to the left of him a photo-frame containing Josephine’s 17 grandchildren.
I didn’t need to look behind me out the window to see the ancestors: I had already clocked we were slap-bang across the road from the local graveyard, the glass full of crucifix. Oh God…
We were interrupted by some neighbors, two children in bobble hats bursting into the room, clutching election leaflets.
“Are you voting for Pat the Cope?” they said.
“I certainly am!” said Shelia. Turns out The Cope had got her electricity connected.
Several cups of tea later, we piled into the car to drive up to a different Auntie Shelia’s. This Sheila was in her 90s, and lived in the house where Davy’s grandfather was born.
Outside was a pile of burnt peat. The light was dimming. We left Daisy whining in the back of the car, while we went inside.
Auntie Shelia’s reminded me of a doll’s house, and Auntie Shelia a small, smiling doll, with a silky grey bob and silvery-pink skin.
“Me and my ex-wife, we didn’t get on,” said Davy, after a polite enquiry about what he’d been getting up to up until now.
It was a simple enough explanation, and I was surprised to find it was enough, for all three of us. Shelia smiled and and patted Davy’s hand. Sheila, I knew from hearsay, came from an age when husbands and wives didn’t get on, yet get on anyway. But she passed no judgement. Times change.
At some point Uncle Hughey arrived, plonking himself down into a tiny chair, still grubby from his job which involved turf. He bit into a beef sandwich and grimaced:
“Sorry Shelia, I thought it was one of the egg ones,” he said sheepishly.
We laughed, and the remaining egg sandwiches were taken out to Daisy.
The next day we went for a walk on Critch, alone, where, like a couple of eejits, we got caught by the tide and had to scramble up a bank to escape. A boat had keeled over drunk and died, its long umbilical of rope grown shaggy with weed. I thought how beaches are nothing but haunted, with their ghost footprints and sense of ruin.
We arrived back at Shelia’s wet and windswept.
“You have to come back in the summer, and bring the kids,” said Shelia.
I had only met Davy’s kids once – a trip to “Tropical World” followed by a pub lunch. I remember the grilling we got:
“But Kate’s your girlfriend,” said Louis, who was five. Kate was a previous date. They’d taken the kids to Blackpool together. I could see the seven-year old sitting next to her brother, taking it all in whilst chewing her straw.
Davy explained that I was now his girlfriend.
“Why did you swop?” said Louis, confused.
Davy tried to explain more, but it didn’t matter, really, both children happily calling me as Kate for the rest of the meal.
There were other things, we did, on that trip, other things we saw, and heard – like Glenvagh, a place where Rivendell meets Mordor, and Poisoned Glen, where the sinister sheep were marked. Mt Erigal was always in the distance at Critch, snow-capped some days. I’ll remember Daisy-Dog at my feet in the evenings, sand on her belly sparkling in the firelight, me running my fingers through her salt-curled ears. All in all it was a good break.
“So when’s the big day? You know it’s a leap year”.
Niall had teased us when we were at Josephine’s.
Davy and I had caught each others eyes, and smiled, before cracking a few lame jokes about him avoiding me on the 29th February, when tradition decrees that chauvinism is given a well-earned day-off after 1461 days in active service.
Yes, it was a leap year: in a little over a month I was going to be a wife to a man whose address I didn’t even know, and step-mother to two children I’d only met briefly, over iguana and chips. It was about a great as unknown as I had ever experienced, but for some reason, I didn’t fell scared, because for once, I wasn’t alone: if I looked over my shoulder I would see them all standing behind me, every damn one of them, whether I liked it or not.
I wrote this back in February 2016. My husband, Davy, still dines out on this wet half-week. Everytime I accuse him of not cleaning the bathroom, of never buying the baby new clothes, of not doing anything nice he says “You’re forgetting Donegal!”
That’s marriage for you.