Georgia was being difficult before we landed in Dublin, which was nothing new. She changed and became assertive the second she was promoted to Deputy Head at her primary school; she even adopted a power walk. It’s true the flame of our marriage no longer burns like a log fire, but it does glow like anthracite when fanned enough. My friends who noticed told me I’m hen pecked but as Georgia said, I needn’t wonder if I’m hen pecked, she’ll tell me when I am.
We collected our hire car, a Mercedes and headed south on the N11. The car was something else, it was smoother than the plane. Georgia adjusted the air con and relaxed for the first time on the journey. She doesn’t like flying. I love touring, I get to hire cars I could never afford to buy. This one was no disappointment and in no time, we’d passed Bray when Georgia broke the silence.
“Neil – we’ve been married for over three years and you’ve never told me about your father.” The timing of her question caught me off balance, she’s never shown any interest in my family although she’s told me about hers in forensic detail. I haven’t met many of her people, but that doesn’t stop her getting annoyed if I get her relatives like cousin Cathy and her school friend Catherine mixed up.
“Not much to tell. My parents got divorced when I was 8. Glad when Dad left, it was like living with a volcano.” I adjusted the near side wing mirror. “We never knew when he would erupt next. He had OCD – everything had to be symmetrical.” I glanced over to Georgia. “You won’t believe it; Mum had to vacuum stripes in the carpet to match the lawn. He even made random inspections of our bedroom. If clothes weren’t folded and stacked in perfect squares in the drawers, he’d throw the drawer across the room and we’d feel the back of his hand. He was worse when he’d been drinking. Mark you, he could switch on his Irish charm when he wanted something.”
“Have you thought of finding him and making your peace? After all, he is your father?” I knew where this was going; Georgia was close to her parents. I shook my head.
“No… some relationships are best left in the past; anyway, I doubt if I’d recognise him, or him me. I was a skinny kid when he left. He was tall and thin, I’m neither and heaven knows what time’s done to him.”
“Have you any photos of him?”
“Mum burned them.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Probably here – he was always talking about Ireland.”
“That’s sad.” Georgia took a worn, clothbound book from the glove compartment, read for some minutes, then brought up the subject I’d been waiting for.
“When we’ve been to Droch… whatever it’s called; that’s it; no more bird twitching – I’m not wasting my holiday waiting while you to get over overexcited about some ball of feathers; we’re sightseeing – right?”
“For the umpteenth time, I’m not a twitcher, I’m a bird watcher. Besides, Drochaisling’s close to where we’re going. I don’t want to miss it – it attracts birds we don’t see in England.”
“A bird’s a bird. I want to go to Kilkenny Castle today.”
“I know, you said. We’ll go there straight from Drochaisling. Anyhow, you’ve got the itinerary, you programme the Satnav the way you want it.” Georgia punched the information into the Satnav, making as much noise as she could.
“Be glad when this pathetic feud with that Keith Hadley is over” she muttered, “you’re like children; it’s pathetic; grown men spending time and money to see who spots the most birds in a year. You’re obsessed – I never see you since you joined that club.”
“Be worse if I played golf. It’s not pathetic; we don’t spot birds, we spot species.” I overtook a caravan. “I’m right on the edge of beating ‘Know it all Keith.’ I’m sick of him – thinks he has a right to be club champion.” I changed lanes to let a lorry pull in. “I can’t wait to see his face when I take the Club Trophy off him.” Georgia didn’t reply but showed her contempt with a snort. After a deafening silence, she asked again:
“How’s this place spelt you want to go to?” I told her. She flicked through her book. I could only see it out of the corner of my eye.
“What’s that – a travel guide?” She didn’t look up.
“No, got it from the charity shop next to the Tapas Bar; ‘Irish Myths and Legends. There’s a legend about Drochaisling in it.”
“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t, everywhere in Ireland has a legend.” She didn’t respond.
“What does it say then?” She scanned through the longish text.
“Years ago, two devoted sisters fell in love with the same man… became jealous… grew to hate each other… younger one poisoned her sister with Wolf’s Bane. Wonder what that is?”
“Wild flower, isn’t it?”
“The young man was devastated… retreated into a monastery; stayed for the rest of his life… young one lost her sister and the man she loved… committed suicide… jumped off the bridge at Drochaisling. A troll who lived under the bridge saw how beautiful she was….”
“I’d have staked my life there’d be a troll in it somewhere…”
“Trolls get lonely… caught her before she crashed to her death… turned her to stone for 200 years so he could gaze on her beauty… promised to bring her back to life and wipe her bad memories away and.” Georgia seemed to lose interest, stopped and looked out of the window.
“Oh, she complained 200 years was too long… Troll said not for Trolls, but agreed… said her spirit could live on the bridge and manifest itself four times a year, once every season… then if she could cast someone else off the bridge, they could take her place… same conditions…one spirit out, one in… her white rock would stay in the river forever. It’s still there. The author says there’s always a nugget of truth in these legends.” Georgia flicked the book closed, “and if you believe that baloney, you’ll believe anything.”
“Don’t knock it, a good story’s a gift for tourism. Look what Nessie’s done for Loch Ness.”
“Anyway, what’s this place got to do with birds?”
“Dunno, but there’s been sightings of a Red-billed Greentail near the bridge – they’re rare in England.” Georgia gazed out of the window. The Satnav said to turn left and leave the N11 at the next crossroads.
“We should be there by twelve,” I said, rather wishfully. After a further 20 minutes, the Satnav instructed; ‘at the next roundabout, take the 3rd turning right.’
“What? That’s never right – it’s sending us back where we came from.” I glanced over to Georgia “You sure you programmed the thing properly?” She ignored the question.
“Perhaps there are road works or something ahead,” she said, still looking out of the side window. For the sake of peace, I turned as instructed, but as soon as we’d gone around the roundabout, the Satnav went berserk and kept repeating: ‘recalculating, recalculating!’
“For heaven’s sake turn the damn thing off! This can’t possibly be right. Let’s go the original way. We’ll find somewhere for lunch and look at the map.” Georgia put the book in the door pocket.
“There’s no point in me programming the thing if you think you know better – don’t know why I bother.” She put her sunglasses on and folded her arms. We drove on for 15 minutes and came into a village and stopped at O’Neill’s bar and went in.
The small pub looked and smelled like an overstocked jumble sale. Every available wall space was filled with nick knacks and shelves piled with ornaments: whisky jars, brass lamps, sporting memorabilia of every Gaelic sport there is, or ever has been. Behind the bar was a grandiose mahogany wall unit. In the centre was a large clock with a gothic surround, it had stopped at 3.47. Below and on either side were shelves crammed with bottles. Black bar stools were set against a brass foot rail running along the bar. Sitting at the far end was the only other customer. He wore mud splattered black trousers, braces; had his shirt sleeves rolled up and a small cap perched on top of his large, oval head. The landlady was behind the bar polishing glasses. He stopped talking when we came in and greeted us with ‘Howya’ and a nod.
“Are you serving lunch yet?” Georgia asked, looking around disapprovingly.
“Could I see the menu please?” The landlady nodded to a small chalkboard on the wall. The menu comprised one item:
large €11 – small €7
I couldn’t resist the temptation and whispered to her:
“You wanted to see the real Ireland, well here it is.” She didn’t reply but continued to stare at the chalkboard.
“What’s the Coddle served with?” She asked.
“Soda bread – just made it.”
“Don’t know about you,” I whispered again, “I can’t make my mind up – but think I might have a stab at the Coddle.” She suppressed a giggle.
“Me too.” She turned to face the landlady.
“What goes best with Coddle?” Before she could answer, the man said ‘cider.’ She nodded. “Two small Coddles and 2 halves of sweet cider, please.” Georgia was good at making up my mind for me. The landlady gave us the cider and went to the kitchen. We sat at a table near the bar. Not wanting to appear rude and feeling uncomfortable with the silence, I turned to the man.
“Could you tell me the way to Drochaisling please?” The man finished his drink and inspected the empty glass.
“Would you be after the direct route or the scenic one?” Before I could answer, Georgia replied.
“The direct one.” The man continued to inspect his empty glass.
“Well, if I were you and I had a mind to go to Drochaisling, I wouldn’t start from here.” The landlady returned with two bowls of Coddle and a basket of rustic bread.
“Would you like another? I asked him, nodding at his glass. He pushed it across the bar.
“A touch of the black stuff would be grand.” The landlady filled it, he raised it to me, said ‘Sláinte’ then drained a quarter of it before putting it down. “What would you be going to Drochaisling for, it’s not a happy place – people have disappeared there you know?”
“That’s only a fairy story,” The man inclined his head as if to indicate to Georgia his reluctance to be quite so dogmatic.
“Thirty years back,” he continued, “a young priest went there on Midsomer’s day to exorcise the bridge – never seen again. The Garda were all over the place – didn’t find a thing, even tried to drag the river but it was too fierce for them.” The landlady nodded in agreement and crossed herself. The man leant towards us and dropped his voice a little, “some say there’s a troll up there, others there’s a serial killer in these parts. Who’s to know?”
“I’ve been told there’s been sightings of a rare bird there,” I said, then for the sake of peace quickly added, “when we’ve seen it, we’re going to Kilkenny Castle.” The man drank some more, then pointing in a vague way towards the window, answered my earlier question.
“Down the road a mile or two, left at the crossroads, take the little track on the right and pass the big farmhouse.”
“Thank you…” but he hadn’t finished.
“Then ask again.” I picked up my spoon and looked at the food. The bowl of boiled potatoes and bits of bacon and sausage didn’t look appetising but tasted amazing, Georgia had finished hers already and was demolishing the warm bread. She turned to the landlady.
“Could have the same again and more bread, please?” I wished I could have recorded that conversation, Georgia eating all before her without a word of criticism was rare, in fact in any crowded restaurant, day or night, anywhere in the land, if a customer found a slug on their lettuce, it was certain to be Georgia and everyone, from landlord, Chef, Maître d, MD, bottle washer and window cleaner would be subjected to her eloquent and acetic criticism of themselves and their establishment. In moments of fantasy, I sometimes wonder if she carried a supply of molluscs with her as a catalyst for her memorable performances. The legal profession lost a formidable prosecution barrister when she went into education. Rather than face Georgia in full flight, every hardened criminal from Mafia Don to small town pickpocket would have happily thrown up their hands and admit to any charge put to them including being Jack the Ripper.
After lunch, we left the pub, studied the map and switched the Satnav back on. It was still saying ‘recalculate,’ which was strange; it worked perfectly when we left Dublin. We eventually arrived by asking the way another twice. The road came around a bend, swept left and followed Drochaisling gorge for a while. The bridge was off to the right and was now little more than a footpath. Its high, stone arch was perched on two rock ledges, one on either side of the chasm, the far side dwarfed by a further 50 feet of towering cliff face. I parked in a small layby across the road.
“Coming?” Georgia switched the radio on.
“No – and don’t take all day.” By the time I’d crossed the road and passed a sign in Gaelic and English which read: ‘Welcome to Drochaisling. Once visited, never forgotten,’ I noticed an old man standing on the bridge. In his youth, he must have been quite tall, but now, was hunched. I placed my reference book on the parapet and as I took the caps from my binocular lenses, I glanced into the gorge. I wished I hadn’t left my shades in the car; the sun was bright and but little of it was reaching the narrow gorge and I doubt if it ever did. It was like gazing into the jaws of an ossified monster; the near parallel sides fell forever. Near the top were thin, optimistic saplings clinging to ledges, below them the wicked rocks were green with moss, grey, then black with mould above the angry water which swirled around a large, solitary, white rock in the riverbed. The old man shuffled towards me.
“Hello there, young man. Would you be doing an old man a kindness and help him over the bridge? I’m not as steady as I once was?” Before I could answer, he spotted my book. “Would that be a Compton’s Birds of the British Isles you have there?”
“You know it?” I asked with some surprise.
“We have a lot of bird watchers in these parts.”
“Really? I was hoping to see a Red-billed Greentail. I’ve been told…” He interrupted me.
“Well… isn’t that a coincidence now? It was only this very Monday I heard talk of one in the gorge. If you take my arm, I’ll show you where.” I went up to him.
“Really! Where?” He lifted his arm for me to take. As I got close, I could see his pale skin and expressionless eyes change as an insincere smile crept across his face. “A good deed for a good deed?” he said in an enticing tone. That smile stirred distant memories. I desperately tried to think of something appropriate to say, but nothing came to mind so I stepped back and yelled: “Do I look stupid?” The old man stood motionless with a look of shock on his face. I turned and strode back to the car. When I got in, Georgia didn’t look up.
“See the birdie you wanted?” I banged my hands on the steering wheel in exasperation and before I could tell her a few home truths, she added “what did the old man want?”
“He wanted me to help him over the bridge, but he….” She turned and gave me a furious look.
“And you didn’t help him? You left him there? Neil, you’re pathetic at times.” She wrenched the door open, stormed out, slammed it and power walked across the road to the bridge. I wound the window down.
“Georgia,” I yelled, “come back, he’s not what you think…” She ignored me. “Georgia!” She strode on. I shrugged my shoulders. “Very well, dear… you know best,” I said as I closed the window then looked through my Compton’s Birds of the British Isles for another site to spot rare species.
Image: – Stephencdickson, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons