One for the road

“I’ll drive you to the airport if you like,” said Colin. “You don’t want to be lugging your holdall and rucksack on buses and trains.”
“You don’t need to Col,” replied Sean, “I can manage fine and you’ve got work to do.”
“I haven’t got much on today, it’s no problem. Come on, don’t be daft, I insist.”

Sean didn’t argue, and so Colin drove his old friend to Rhoose. They hardly talked at all during the journey. Both knew in their heart of hearts that they would never see each other again.

Traffic was light, meaning the car was parked in the airport’s short-stay carpark within 40 minutes. There was still a good hour and a half before the flight to Dublin departed. Colin fed the meter and went into the Terminal building with Sean. Not many people were around. They got coffees and sat at one of the tables on the ground floor. Neither was comfortable with goodbyes. Conversation was stilted and perfunctory. For the umpteenth time they went over Sean’s daring change of direction and vague plans. He had given up his small rented flat in London and booked his flight to Ireland from Wales so that he could spend a few days in Cardiff with his best pal. In Dublin he would stay in a budget hotel while finalising his visa and work permit details with the American Embassy, take a fleeting trip by train to Castlebar in County Mayo to bid farewell to his step-brothers at the family farm, return to Dublin and then take the transatlantic flight to Boston and the unknown, hoping his years working in London pubs will help him get a job in one of Boston’s many Irish bars.

After a while, Sean stood up. “I’d better check in now. Get myself a window seat.”

“Righto, I’ll come with you to the departure gate”

They went upstairs. Sean sorted out the necessary paperwork and got his boarding pass at the Ryanair desk while Colin looked after his luggage.

“OK Col, that’s it. The flight’s started boarding. I’ll go through to the departure lounge now.” Sean held out his hand. Colin gripped it and initiated a brief and awkward hug.

“Write to me when you’re settled, let me know where you are and how you’re doing,” urged Colin, suddenly feeling tears well up. He suppressed them as fast as they threatened to emerge.

“Of course I will,” reassured Sean. “Now you look after yourself. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Drink a parting glass for me when you get home! I’ll be back one day.” He knew that wasn’t true. He knew he’d never return.

“You never know, I might cross the pond and visit you in Boston one day,” Colin said. He too knew that wasn’t true. He didn’t believe in living in the past.

Sean winked, unfurled his charming grin one last time and went through the gate. “Good Luck Sean! All the very best! Don’t forget us Celts!” called Colin as Sean walked into the distance. At the end of the passageway Sean turned round, saw Colin still standing at the gate, gave a thumbs up and then disappeared.

Colin felt unexpected pangs of loss and desolation. If there was such a thing as love, he had always loved Sean. Back in the carpark, he wanted to experience more of this strangely sweet sorrow before he let go of his wild Irish rover. He drove round to the Flying Club Bar on the south side of the airport, bought a pint and went up to the viewing balcony. It was a sunny, clear, spring afternoon and he had a good view of Sean’s plane being loaded up at the Terminal. There were still 30 minutes to go before take-off. Nobody was around. Colin smoked his pre-rolled spliff and finished his pint looking out across the airport.

Sean had got a window seat. He was both excited and scared as the minutes ticked away and the plane slowly filled up. Excited at the freedom that beckoned, the freedom of starting from scratch with a clean slate in a new continent where he knew nobody and nobody knew him; but scared at being as alone and vulnerable as he had been when he left Mayo for London as a 16-year-old 30 years previously. Through the window he searched for a glimpse of Colin’s red car heading out of the carpark and back to Cardiff, but saw nothing recognisable. It was time to fasten his seat-belt. The plane’s engines growled.

As the plane taxied into position, Colin scanned the row of tiny windows for a last sighting of Sean. But, unbeknown to him, Sean was on the other side of the aircraft, looking out at the distant hills of Glamorgan. Colin watched as the aircraft rose westward, climbing above the Severn and then banking northwards to gradually disappear into the pale blue haze of mid Wales.

As he was leaving Colin noticed a juke-box in the bar. Longing for something suitably sentimental and Irish to wallow in, he was delighted to find the perfect song. He bought another pint and put it on:

Sean’s flight touched down in Dublin an hour later. He was on home soil once more. Be strong, he told himself, don’t give in, follow your dream. There was much to do.

***

Sean’s life in the USA didn’t go as planned. Boston was unaffordable and after months of struggle he eventually had to live in a trailer park outside Baltimore, working in a warehouse for $12 an hour. He sent Colin a cheery postcard with his address and a few months later sent him a Christmas card with all his news. But nothing came from Colin. Ah, thought Sean, he’s moved on. There really is no going back.

It was the following summer before Sean found out the truth. A letter came from Colin’s sister. He had died over a year previously in a head-on collision with a lorry on Port Road close to Cardiff airport. The autopsy showed he was driving while under the influence of drink and drugs.

Within a week Sean had wound up his affairs in Baltimore. Carrying only a few essential belongings in a small rucksack, he began hitchhiking his way westward on highways and byways. He didn’t know or care where he was going; he only knew that he had to keep moving until he could move no more.