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Stan Howes

The crucial thing don’t you think is to record memories while they are still fresh in your mind, tinged with the sunshine or showers that gave them life? When I drove away from the Causeway Hotel sited near the famous Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim in Northern Ireland I felt my weekend there had been significant in a personal kind of way.

Granted, I had not done anything really special, had not met any striking characters and yet those hours mingling with the crowds of tourists by the basalt columns or solitary in my hotel room gazing at the view from my window, had left me unnaturally thoughtful.

Driving to the north coast on the Friday I had hit a few squalls, but in the main it had been dry with surprising amounts of sunshine for mid September. When I got to Torr Head I had to stop the car on the narrow switchback road to drink in the view. The wind in the channel was blowing the waves into foaming heads, a little mist wreathing the Scottish shore. I dug out my camera to take a photo, but I knew as I was taking it, it would never do justice to what I saw. Then on to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge for a hair-raising crossing!

‘Is it normally this windy?’ I asked the pretty receptionist in her little office when I arrived at my hotel about half-two in the afternoon. People had to grip the entrance door with both hands to open and close it; such was the force of the wind.

‘We are very exposed here,’ she said handing me my room key.

After doing some sightseeing during the day I would take an early dinner and head back to my room about seven to watch TV, read for a while or sit on the one chair provided with my socked feet on the bed gazing out at the little narrow-gauge railway and its station or at Bushfoot Strand mesmerised by the white crests of waves as they washed in or ran snakelike along the bottom of the cliffs nearby.

At about nine in the evening I would ritualistically go down to the bar for a few drinks. The bar, to be honest, was dead; not many people seemed to go there – maybe I was unlucky during my stay – and those that did were self-contained couples or small groups. For a traveller alone mixing was not on the cards it seemed. I had hoped for music at least. I had hoped in vain! So it was back to my room after another drink or two and recourse to my personal radio. Tucked up in bed listening with earphones on had the added advantage of silencing the wind battering my windows while I tried not to think of the dark, fierce sea beyond.

While sitting in the dining room of the hotel on the Sunday evening picking over my salmon starter, the numbers of people swollen by day-trippers, a mother and daughter took the next table. The daughter was a handsome woman of about forty, smartly dressed and with noticeably sad eyes. She said something that caught my attention.

‘Even when you’re in a crowded room you can still be very lonely. You can’t get away from it no matter how hard you try.’

‘How long has it been since he died?’ asked the mother.
‘Seven years.’
‘As long as that?’
‘It seems like a sentence. I count the days.’
‘You mustn’t dear. You’ll make it worse. After your father died, I thought it would never be the same again so I know what it’s like. You have to go on though. You have to go on.’
‘I know, but I can’t help it. At times it feels too much to bear and I question what it is all for.’
‘Only God knows that.’
‘I just wonder sometimes why things happen as they do and why we can’t always be happy.’
‘Maybe we ask too much of life dear. Remembering the happy times can bring some relief.’
‘It only brings agony to me. Last week I was taking a Sunday school class when suddenly I thought how we used to spend our Sunday afternoons walking about the Causeway together. We would go out in all weathers not caring what came our way…. We used to stand on the black rocks by the water’s edge daring the waves to soak us and sometimes they did. I can still feel the surf hitting my face …. What perfect afternoons they were. Well, thinking about it in class I had to rush from the room knowing I was going to cry. I don’t know what the children thought of me.’
‘Maybe you should take up a new interest; something to get you out of the house more; meet more people…
‘It wouldn’t be any good. Without him I think my life is…’
‘Is what dear?’
‘A wasted life.’
‘Oh don’t talk that way! No life is ever a wasted one. It was foolish of me to bring you here; it has too many memories for you. I really think you should speak to one of the church elders...’
At that moment, the conversation was drowned out by the arrival of a boisterous party of Dutch tourists.

I couldn’t help being drawn into the drama that had unfolded just a few feet away. I imagined the strict religious life in which the daughter moved. A world in which solace was taken from the austere language of the bible. I felt if I had been able to speak to her, I might have assuaged her grief with words of comfort of my own or made her laugh with a silly joke and brightened those sad eyes. However, I knew too that our paths were not to meet and even if they had, she might have dismissed me as a fool or someone who could not possibly understand the depths of her sorrow. And perhaps she would have been right. As she was a captive of her grief, so I was a captive of decorum and said nothing.

Sitting in the chair back in my room staring out of the window I thought long about the lady with the sad eyes and watched the train make its last journey into the station, heralded by its sombre whistle. I watched the lights go out one by one in the station building and the railway workers drive away. Then I pulled the curtains.
On my last morning in the dining room, I gazed through the rain-soaked window at the black cliffs and the breakers tumbling silently below them. The weekend had turned distinctly autumnal. A moment or two later a rainbow appeared rising in a perfect arc from the base of the cliffs. I made some vague wish as people do not expecting it to be fulfilled.

‘Thank you for a very pleasant stay,’ I said to the smiling girl at reception as I lifted my holdall and stepped outside into a rising gale and made head down for the car. The rain continued as I drove south over the wide, empty tracts of the Antrim Plateau. Then as I hit the coast road the sky cleared wonderfully and the sun shone. It was beautiful.

Stan Howes

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