It began in a car park in Dungloe; I was sitting in the car wondering if it was going to rain. A walk to the end of the pier might do me good, I thought, and then around the town. That would be a good 5km. But on the other hand, the clouds were gathering and I didn’t want to be caught in a shower.
Just then I noticed a camper van on the other side of the car park. A grey-haired man was loosening the straps on the bicycles at the rear and handing them to a grey-haired woman.
It wasn’t just the grey hair that moved me. It was the camper van, the spindly legs, the bicycle shorts and the wind shields. They were ready to take on Donegal.
And there was me like an enormous slug in the car.
“Right,” I says to myself, “it’s high time I got out and exercised.”
One half of me wanted to chastise them and the other half wanted a piece of the cake
But just at that moment the couple began their breakfast in full view. They climbed into the van, left the sliding door open and began munching away and drinking from white mugs, and I was fascinated as to what kind of breakfast two such healthy people might be enjoying.
“Maybe they’re on some protein diet,” I thought.” Maybe they tank up before cycling to Glenties or somewhere else, on the amazing new bicycle routes that lead out from Dungloe.”
So I walked in their direction, only to discover as I came closer that it was a cream cake. I was shocked. Here were two people as fit as fiddles, ready to get on bikes and cycle over the mountains – yet instead of eating a bowl of nuts with fruit and yoghurt they were in fact gorging on one enormous cream cake.
One half of me wanted to chastise them and the other half wanted a piece of the cake.
“Well that’s a lovely morning,” says I passing, in the hope that I could strike up a conversation.
“I think it’s going to be a good day,” says he in an English accent.
Clearly they were on holidays. The camper van had UK registration plates. They had English accents. So I didn’t feel I was being rude to pursue that line of inquiry.
I was actually hoping they might offer me a slice. Or maybe just tell me where they got it. But no more information was forthcoming
“I suppose you’re on holidays?” says I.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re heading for Fanad.”
“That’s a long way from here on a bike!” I exclaimed, rather alarmed.
She burst out laughing, but I was in full flight.
“Better go easy on the cream cake if you want to reach Fanad by nightfall!”
Then I added – “Although that cake looks delicious.”
And I stressed the last word. “De-lic-ious.”
I was actually hoping they might offer me a slice. Or maybe just tell me where they got it. But no more information was forthcoming.
“Ah yes,” she said, “it’s a lovely day.”
They were probably uneasy that I had stepped over a boundary. The initial salutation and exchange of greetings was acceptable enough. But I crossed a line when I mentioned the cake. That bordered on offensive. And they may have viewed me as a predator, approaching only to steal the food in their hands.
So off I went up town, and then past SuperValu and around the park, and all the while I was feeling like I had made a social blunder.
I realised I’d never know anything more about them. Whether their story was tragic or joyful. Whether their holiday was taken in bereavement or to mark some anniversary
When I returned to the car park they were at the end of the pier, so again I strolled in their direction. They were sitting on a bench, gazing at the ocean, like swans watching the waves. Like a pair that have clung together for a lifetime. Their faces were gentle in a way that only old people’s faces can be, and they sat with their arms folded around each other.
I was thinking of the Children of Lir, those mythic creatures of Irish folklore who endured endless battles with the elements, while all the time sheltering in each others’ arms.
They waved at me. But I realised I’d never know anything more about them. Whether their story was tragic or joyful. Whether their holiday was taken in bereavement or to mark some anniversary. Their entire lives were hidden from me now and I just waved back from a distance and left it at that.
The bikes still rested at the side of the camper van. The sliding door remained open. And on the little table inside I could see the last quarter of cake. The remnants of a shared moment that was obviously precious to both of them.