When she had woken to the sound of heavy rain, she’d been perversely pleased. With Irish weather in mind, they’d packed heavy waterproofs along with the rest of their walking gear, and imagined evenings playing Scrabble, or reading fat novels with cups of hot whiskey to keep them warm.
But the sun had shone day after day, and the evenings had been spent on the balcony of their rental apartment in the converted barn, with glasses of white wine, and very little Scrabble and no reading. They’d watched bats swooping in front of soft sunsets and listened hopefully for nightingales.
They’d not done a lot of walking in the end either. Not proper walking. Just one day following The Ulster Way from Comber and along the shores of Strangford Lough. There had been a pleasure boat trip on the lough too, where they, and all the other passengers took pictures of the seals that lay basking in the sunlight; hard at first to distinguish from the rocks around them.
Most days they took the car and headed for places they had been told they must see. So they clambered awkwardly on Giant’s Causeway; tasted whiskey at Bushmills, but shied away from buying a bottle. An ugly town she thought. So on the drive back, they had stopped the car and gone down to a deserted beach, peering into rockpools; picking up bits of seaweed until their mouths tasted of salt and their pockets were full of shells.
One day they went to Belfast, taking a bus tour, and found a city quite unlike their imaginings. They felt disorientated by its separateness from the many news bulletins fronted by Kate Adie that they had watched over the years. They had been unprepared for its charm; the friendliness; the way whichever direction you turned, you could see hills. They had walked the grounds around Stormont and eaten their sandwiches there.
The holiday had been inspired by a television programme that had followed the coastline from Down to Antrim. They liked the idea of going somewhere unknown to them, across water, but only a short flight away.
They had thought there might not be a lot to do or see, but each day opened their eyes to further possibilities. So they found themselves talking about next time; realising their week was too short.
And now they had just two days left. But she was content to read her book while the rain poured down, enjoying the rare space of hours. He seemed happy enough at first too. He’d gone to get the paper and it had absorbed him. When he reached the back page, he’d studied the weather map carefully. Lunch was soup and bread, and afterwards, though she curled up in the big chair again and continued reading, he was restless.
He started the crossword, but put it aside after a few minutes, and went to the window, staring broodily out at the wet courtyard, the tubs of flowers jeweled with raindrops. Then he sat at the table, unfolding the map and flicking through the guide books.
If you were a fisherman, she told him, you’d love this. You’d be out there under your big green umbrella with your flask of tea, thanking God for Irish rain.
He laughed. You’re right of course, he said. Maybe I’ll have to take it up. In the meantime, can I tempt you with a game of Monopoly?
So they had pulled out the board game from the stack the landlady had kindly provided, and he had chosen the racing car. Oh, you’re in that sort of mood are you, she said. Better watch out for bankruptcy, and she picked the dog. In the end neither won outright, and when they totted up the deeds and the cash, she was just ahead.
You put it away, she said. I’ll start dinner. Let’s have pasta.
He joined her a few minutes later, and took the bottle of wine out of the fridge. We’ll need another one of these, he said, pouring two large glasses, and then laying the table and lighting candles.
As she brought the plates to the table, he looked at her intently. Tomorrow’s the last day of the holidays, he said. Let’s do something reckless or romantic. Reckless and romantic. Spontaneous. Dangerous.
Hmm, she said. Define dangerous.
OK, maybe not dangerous. Or not very. Maybe just a little bit dangerous.
Her silence was a question mark. He grinned. How dangerous would you like?
On a scale of nought to ten, about point five. Danger’s not really my thing. The Carrick-a-rede rope bridge is probably engraved on my heart, and maybe my medical records. I wouldn’t mind a go on the swings.
So scuba-diving at the head of the lough is out of the question then?
She nodded. This time, anyway. Have you anything calm on the menu?
I’ll show you when we’ve eaten.
They were up early the next day and she made them sandwiches. The sky was blue, but it was noticeably fresher than at the beginning of the week. So she made more coffee and filled the two thermos flasks from the the back of the cupboard, and put some chocolate biscuits into the bag too.
We can take it easy, he said. Stop at places we like the look of. We just need to make sure we keep heading west and north.
Like part of a wagon train, she said. Maybe the one we saw at the Ulster American Folk Park. I could wear a headscarf in place of a bonnet. Or would my sunhat do? You could be very New World in your baseball cap.
I’d prefer one of the those Jags from the convention they were holding there, he said. Especially the E-type.
They looped south and west; stopping at Ardglass to visit Jordan’s Castle; coffee and a scone at Castlwellan, taking pictures and picking up a leaflet about walking weekends in the Mournes; skimming through the tip of Armagh, heading to Lough Neagh. Van Morrison on the CD player.
Forty shades of green, she said. More like fifty. Maybe a hundred. Did you expect it to be like this? All these little farms; all these cows and sheep. I feel like I’ve gone backwards in time. How did they escape the prairie farming here? Remember seeing that field of sheep straight after we left the airport? I didn’t dream it did I?
Reaching the north west of the lough, they took a detour to Bellaghy to look at the sculpture celebrating Seamus Heaney’s poem about his father and grandfather digging potatoes and peat. It was outside the bawn, a fortified building dating back to the time of the plantations, but inside they found more poetry and a café with home made cakes. At the shop, they bought a copy of Death of a Naturalist.
The roads were clear. Soon there were signs for Portrush and Portstewart. Seaside resorts whose names they’d seen, but not visited. Their goal was further west, so they switched back through country roads, trying to find Limavady, having to turn round once when they found themselves on a track that ended in a farmyard.
At a smokehouse they asked for directions and bought salmon and sea trout.
And then, suddenly they saw it. A sweep of golden sand and a martello tower and they were there: Magilligan Point. This was the edge, where Northern Ireland ended and across the water lay the Republic.
They parked the car and got out. He produced a kite, like a magician, from the boot, laughing at her face, and strapped their picnic bag to his back.
The steps down to the sand were in need of repair, but safe enough. She felt like a child. There was no one else there. Just the dunes and the lough and the sea beyond. They whooped and ran and sang and flew the kite, but it kept dive-bombing the ground. He found a stick and wrote their names in the sand.
After their sandwiches they collected pebbles and shells and decorated their names with hearts. They tried skimming pebbles over the water. They watched the birds.
She sat down, her back against a dune. He joined her, reaching for her hand. Well, he said. We made it. We came to the point.
He had roses in his cheeks. His hair was windswept and tangled. He looked younger, happier.
Yes, she said, and leaned to kiss him. And one day, we’ll come back.