Nearly six years ago I ended up winning the Molly Keane short story competition. In retrospect, there are lots of things about this story that make me squirm, especially the very opening line’s too obvious nod to Blade Runner, subsequent allusions to Moby Dick and other sources which are amazingly clunky to my taste now, and the reference to MGMT. More profoundly perhaps, I am now rather leery of the technique of listing or itemising things or places or people as a short cut to convey plenitude, an approach I lean on heavily here
However the whole has a kind of propulsive force which seemed to impress the judges and which I still like. They also found it somewhat more dystopian than I intended. I think the underlying idea of the story came to me in around 2003 when working in Kildare and spending, as I have for most of the years since, a lot of time on the motorway network. I have a recollection of listening to an audiobook of Tom Sawyer and mentally comparing riverboat life to the odd camaraderie of the road. And yes, back then I drove a Anyhow, with a tip of the hat to Waterford County Council (one of the ironies of this is I now live much closer to Lismore and County Waterford overall than I did then) , here it is :
I have seen things that you people would never believe. I have driven into the sunset on the coast road between Gortahork and Gweedore, driving along the height of Bloody Foreland with nothing but some stone walls and the Atlantic Ocean between my car door and Newfoundland. I have got gloriously lost along the roads north of New Ross, emerging somewhere near Borris having driven through a vision of green innocence, with Van Morrison on the CD player singing about walking and talking in gardens all misty wet with rain. I have gloried in the sleek smooth drive that is the M50 at four in the morning, communing with the sodium-lit bulk of Dublin’s industrial outskirts all around.
I am of Ireland. I have slept in my car in commuter towns; Newbridge, Arklow, Rathcormac. I have slept in the carparks of Belfast, Derry, Galway, Kilkenny, Waterford, Athlone, Newry, Armagh, Drogheda and Dundalk.I have recognised no division between North and South; wherever I can park my car, that’s my home.
Call me Alan. I am a captain, and the roads are my Mississippi River, my Seven Seas. I have listened to the greatest minds of their generation debate on my in car world band radio; from London, from New York, even from the RTE studios. I have contemplated mortality to the sound of Beethoven’s late quartets, while driving the stony gray roads of Monaghan. I have felt buoyant and weightless while singing to the electropop of MGMT while crossing the border on the M1. I have felt rooted, part of a timeless Celtic twilight, listening to sean nós on the road to Clifden.
I am Alan, and I am a driver. I work as a Sales and Marketing Manager with a mobile broadband company, and my role is to travel the country ensuring our nationwide sales teams are fully up to speed with the latest promotions and products. I have worked in this job for eight years. Before that, I lived in an apartment in Maynooth, and commuted on the train to Dublin. I’m from Athy, and after three strange years in UCD – from the first day until graduation I felt like something marvellous was about to be revealed, and college would become the wonderful, revelatory, spectacular experience I had always wanted it to be. It never happened, and though I was not unhappy, I was not entirely unhappy. Those days, a job was waiting on graduation, and I was helping to plan marketing strategy a few weeks after leaving college. Soon I bought an apartment – in those days – well, you know the rest.
I loved commuting. I love being part of the great engine that disgorged masses of people into Dublin city every morning, and I loved knowing that across Ireland, across Europe, across the world the same thing was happening. I felt connected in the train, and bus – for having got into Heuston Station, I had two buses to get to the warehouse housing the company office – to everyone else, to the unsmiling faces, to the cups of coffee grimly grasped in each arm. I fantasised about the women on the train and on the bus, and cherished memories of brief conversations.
When I was promoted, I had to get a car, and resurrect driving skills I hadn’t used since being taught by my father in a hotel car park near Athy. At first, I thought I would miss public transport, miss being part of the great machine. Now, while I would be part of the machinery of commuting, I would be an atomised one. Or so I feared.
Three months into my driving life I had my epiphany. I could sell my apartment, for what I knew ever then was a ludicrous amount of money compared to its real cost. I cannot claim any prescience about this – just that I always felt property was a rather dull, unproductive investment, and I was better off with as much liquidity as possible. I wanted a liquid life, and I realise in my battered Toyota Starlet, with a surprisingly strong heater and a passenger seat that reclined to nearly horizontal, I could achieve the ultimate liquidity.
So I became a driver in a floating world. My parents’ address was used for driving licences, payroll purposes, bank statements, and such. They had never really approved of my getting an apartment, and all told, as I slept there about one weekend a month, began to see me more often than any time since leaving school. This delighted them, and they didn’t ask too many questions about the apartment. My salary went straight into my bank account, and without mortgage or rent, and with the bulk of my petrol paid for, as well as most lunches during the week and expenses for accommodation for more distant trips (I would still sleep in the hotel car park) my liquidity steadily increased. As the rest of my generation lumbered themselves with more and more debt, I was going in the opposite direction.
I could easily have bought a more glamorous car, by the way – any car would have been more glamorous – but I didn’t want to. I was fiercely proud of the Starlet. I loved the way she could accelerate so well, how she was so light and maneoverable and yet sturdy. I got her serviced every ten thousand miles, and as I treated her well, so she treated me well.
The Toyota Starlet is not a car that excites. And yet, she proved more than adequate for romantic assignations. My lack of a permanent residence actually saved me from complications. I was not in a place where I wanted a lasting relationship. I went out for two years with Judith, the director of an accountancy firm – a woman who was, in fact, younger than me. She was a very good accountant. She was usually in London during the week, despite being supposedly based in Dublin. We met at weekends, and I would stay in her apartment sometimes, but more often drop her home. She liked the Starlet, she liked my lack of pretension, my lack of any desire to impress her. I treated her well, and generously, and listened to her tales of workplace woe. My parents liked her. She didn’t believe me when I said I lived in the car, and in the end thought I was lying to her about it. That ended it. I felt annoyed at the time, but then rationalised the whole thing, and then felt better so quickly I realised how little I had wanted a serious relationship.
A year or so later, there was Alison, the surgeon-in-training. We had met at Mondello. I often paid to take the Starlet around the track there, to the amusement of the staff. One day, while drinking a coffee in the reception after a few laps, I noticed a tall red-haired girl looking at me. Her car was certainly far more glamorous than mine. This was, I would later discover, one of her very few weekends off, and she was indulging herself by driving this beautiful sports car very fast.
Alison worked in Dublin, then in Cork, then in Limerick, then Dublin again. I would say she lived in those cities too, but she didn’t really. She worked. If I wasn’t nearby, which was most of the time, I would talk to her on the phone at ten or eleven or night, and she would tell me about her day. I didn’t always follow her tales of workplace woe, but it sounded pretty bad. She would start work at quarter to seven each morning. It was a little different at the weekends, but not much. If I was nearby, I would pick her up from work at night. More often than not – much more often than not – she would fall asleep in the Starlet, and I would drive the city streets, until the morning, or rather the hour before dawn, came, and it was time for her to work again. She never questioned what happened.
I think I did love Alison, the sleeping girl in the passenger seat, while I drove the M50 or the Outer Ring. I remember being told once that we all look younger sleeping. Alison certainly did. When awake she looked drained, exhausted, under strain. Sleeping, bathed in sodium light, she would look alive again. I did love Alison, and would have settled with her in some place– but then she had to go to America for her career, and she decided to end it with me.
Both Judith and Alison had been, I had thought at the time, serious relationships. I was certainly much more upset about Alison than Judith, but in both I quickly recovered. Both had been long relationships – two years, three years – and yet felt like they had lasted about a month. This was not a case of time flying when you’re having fun – both of them had generally been too tired when we did meet face to face for all that much fund to happen – but of how little we actually saw each other. I realised that I had fulfilled a need for them, for a time, as they had for me, but I was fundamentally alone, and meant to be alone. This realisation came rather dramatically.
The weekend after the breakup with Alison I woke on the Saturday morning in Killarney. I drove to Mizen head, and then turned around and raced up by Limerick and Galway and Sligo through County Donegal to Malin, where I arrived at ten p.m. I turned round and crossed over the Northern Coast, taking the coast road past Carrick-a-Rede and the Causeway to the Rathlin Ferry. There, in the car park, at two a.m., I tried to sleep. But I couldn’t, and at three I set off again, down past Belfast and then onto the great motorway, sweeping past Portadown and Newry and Dundalk and Drogheda and then going through the Port Tunnel, into the heart of Dublin. Dawn was, for once, glorious, as I drove through the industrial landscape of Dublin Port, made to look fresh and full of promise by the morning light. Picking my way across the city, I kept driving along the N11, the first dual carriageway, all the way down Wicklow and Wexford, hitting mass traffic in Ferns and Enniscorthy, and then on to Kilmore Quay. It was a beautiful Sunday, and tourist parties were scattered around, waiting for a boat to the islands. I drove to the end of the pier, got out, climbed the harbour walls, and looked out to the Saltees, so far, so sharp, so beautiful. I cried.
I had not cried for years. A fisherman approached me, as if to say something, but thought better of it. I got back in the car, drove a little up the road, and booked into a hotel. The room would not be ready for a couple of hours, so I sat in the bar with a coffee and a notepad. I began to write on this furiously. I had decided to write out a marriage vow to the road. I was not in love with the Starlet, or Alison, but with the road. I thought about how the ancients made rivers into gods, and in the case of the Nile, they made the annual flood itself into a god. We should make the road a god, I thought, and when I realised this I realised that it was blasphemous to marry the road. I would serve it.
I cancelled the hotel booking, got back in the car, and drove. Driving helped. It brought me perspective. I came to terms with everything. I realised that the important thing to do was to keep moving, always moving.