I don’t remember ever losing my wits before, but I can remember clearly losing a pair of shoes.
It was 1980 and I was cycling the wild Atlantic way.
My footwear for the journey was a pair of Chinese slippers.
Made from silk , embroidered with little flowers and held in place by a simple strap across the arch of my foot, I thought they looked very fetching, peeking out from under my petticoat.
As with my choice of clothing, some people might see such shoes as impractical for a four month journey down the west coast of Ireland on an old black raleigh bike with trailer attached, but I found them functional.
As soon as I felt the first drop of rain I could slip them off easily and put them into the shelter of my basket and then cycle on barefoot until the rain stopped.
But half way through my journey (I had now reached lisdoonvarna) my shoes and I parted ways.
Here is what happened:
The Lisdoonvarna folk festival is in full swing.
I am sitting on my colorful cotton shawl in the late afternoon sun listening to Micho Russell playing solo on the tin whistle.
Beside him on stage, a woman in a gauzy dress is dancing.
Micho is playing one of my favourite tunes ‘Going to the well for water’, but although the womans ethereal leaps and bounds are both magical and enticing (the evening sun is showing her lithe outline through the flimsy material), they are not keeping in time with his playing.
It is as though she is dancing to some music that only she can hear.
Adding to this a group of very tall men (I won’t mention from where) are clapping wildly and way too fast (as such people from that country are apt to do when they hear Irish music) which, together with the dancing, is irritating me.
But apparently only me because when I glance around the rest of the audience appears spellbound.
At last Micho finishes and leaves the stage.
A break is announced and and I get up to go and find something to eat, along with a few hundred others (Micho’s audience have woken from the spell and are hungry.)
Now for some reason the organisers have decided to make a corridor of sheep fencing into the field and as we all try to get out at the same time a crush ensues.
Then there are the people, who having made it unscathed to the entrance, are stopping for a chat causing further blockage.
As the crowd surges along my feet are lifted off the ground and I am carried by the sheer size of the men surrounding me, (The same men who had been clapping so you can imagine the speed they are trying to move at) .
One of my chinese slippers falls from my foot and is immediately trampled into the mud by the people coming behind me.
A young man, seeing my dilemma, bends down, attempting to retrieve it but nearly gets his head trodden on in the process.
‘Leave it! save yourself!’ I call back over my shoulder in a rather dramatic fashion.
My hero doesn’t hear me (Those who have the luxury of their size, think the whole thing is fun and are singing to Michos last tune very loudly). So all he can do is shrug apologetically as I half hobble, am half carried onward once more.
Being whooshed along beside me is a worried looking woman holding a squiggling toddler. Catching hold of her sleeve, I nod to the fence and with each shove we force our way sideways towards it.
Then, hanging on to the child with one hand, I give her a quick leg over before lifting the child clear.
She catches him in her arms just as I am swept on again.
It takes a few more shoves before I get my chance.
Gathering up my skirts at the next lull, I manage to swing my leg over the fence.
unfortunately I have now been brought parallel to a fast running stream which I don’t notice till too late and landing awkwardly in it, my second shoe comes off.
Helplessly, I watch as it swirls away in the water.
The story so far:
I have left the brothers house after an evening of story telling and poitin drinking and getting on my bicycle to cycle home, have fallen into the ditch.
None the worse for my fall, but very aware that I haven’t taken Pats advice and put my coat on inside out and thus avoid being ‘led astray’*, I make my way back to the road only to find there was no road.
I can hear the gentle ssssh behind me as each wave breaks on the shore.
The wind has risen, a soft warm wind , and it whistles through the spokes of my front wheel.
I stop my search for the road to look skywards.
The clouds part for an instant and I catch a glimpse of the stars and oh, there is the moon, almost full!
Then I am back in darkness as the clouds close over again.
keeping my back to the sound of the sea, I edge along carefully, watching out for any stray briars that wait to snag my long skirt.
As I do so, I realize that it is not the the wind through the spokes that is whistling but the actual sound of a tin whistle.
And now other instruments are joining in. The sweet slide of a fiddle bow, the soft twang of a mandolin.
A seisún in someones house maybe?
I am filled with relief .
The knowledge that there is a house ahead, which must surely have a road leading to it, hurries me along with renewed vigor until a row of hazel bushes block my path.
As I inch my way along them in search of an opening the moon continues to skit in and out between the clouds allowing me short spurts of visibility.
I come to a slim gap formed by two hawthorn trees.
The music, louder now, is coming from the other side of this hedge.
I squeeze through just as the clouds clear completely allowing the moon to shine brightly.
And before me I see the strangest sight.
In a smooth field which slopes gently up and is topped by an outcrop of rock, out of which is growing a single hawthorn tree, sit three musicians.
Bent to their instruments and playing with full attention. their long dark hair is falling forward, so I can’t see their faces.
But it is not they who appear odd.
It is the fact that a tall slim figure, whose hair is held up in place with a fine sprig of fuchsia flowers, is dancing in front of them.
Furthermore I recognise her.
It is Charlotte (Whom I have written about in A barrel for my bed (A dreamhouse story.))
And she is not alone.
Dancing with her is a handsome elderly man, and while Charlotte with her long bony legs encased in over sized wellingtons leaps like a young one, twisting and turning in time to the music, causing the fuchsia to jangle merrily, he sways more elegantly this way and that.
And odder still again is, that standing in a circle around the couple, clapping their hands and tapping their feet in time to the music are, Tom (how has he got here before me), Mattie (Charlottes neighbour) and a man whom I have seen ‘putt putting’ through the village on a battered old motor scooter.
There are also a few others whom I don’t recognise.
They are all gazing at Charlotte in adoration, lust even, and she with a chest so flat, it doesn’t even make a ripple underneath her hessian frock as she wriggles and twists enticingly.
I watch as, without missing a beat, Charlotte lets go of the hand of her present partner and beckons to Tom
He goes forward willingly, capering and leaping with such agility that I cannot imagine this is the same man I meet, bent double, collecting sticks along the shore.
The abandoned partner stands with the others looking enviously on but after a few moments it is Tom who is abandoned while Charlotte now chooses the motorcycle man.
And now another figure appears at the top of the hill. He is vaguely familiar and I try to remember where I have seen him before.
Dark hair falls across his pale forehead. He is dressed in green corduroy trousers and a crimson velvet waist coat.
He saunters nonchalantly down the slope, hands in pockets.
Whistling in tune with the musicians, whom he appears to know, for he nods a greeting in their direction and the fiddler seeing him, raises his bow in a salute, he reaches the dancers and pauses to watch.
Charlotte is now on her fifth partner and is showing no signs of tiring.
Continuing to beckon and abandon, she is working her way steadily through her admirers.
Those waiting to dance with her have a look of anticipation, while those she has finished with continue to dance but in a more sheepish fashion.
It as though without their female partner they don’t quite know what to be doing with themselves, yet can’t stop their feet moving.
Suddenly she turns and dances off down the hill, her fuchsia sprig jangling merrily and they follow her in a dishevelled line.
The man watches them until they disappear from view.
He turns and catching my eye, smiles and holds out his hand to me.
As though seized by some madness, I am unable to stop myself and throwing down my bike, I kick off my shoes.
then picking up the hem of my purple skirt, I half dance, half skip across the soft dewy grass towards him.
He bows slightly as I land in front of him.
Without a word he puts one hand on the small of my back and with the other, takes hold of my free hand,
I let go the hem of my dress and, putting my hand on his shoulder, we bounce once or twice on the spot as though to catch the rhythm of the music.
And we are off!
Swirling down the grassy hill in a sort of waltz.
My partner, though not as tall as I first imagined, is surprisingly strong and as we twirl my bare feet skim the damp grass, barely touching it.
But not for long.
The musicians are slightly manic in their style and constantly chop and change the rhythm and speed of the tunes as though they are testing out the ability of our feet.
So now we are capering back up the hill in a fast polka.
Again the rhythm changes and then again and faster too, until eventually we are dancing in a wild unrestrained manner.
I feel my hair whipping around my face as my plait loosens and becomes undone.
I am now completely out of breath, but there is no way my feet will stop.
Laughing with the sheer exuberance of the wild music, we dance faster and faster.
And all the time my partner looks as neat as when I first spotted him on the hill.
Finally he turns me once more and I am twirling helplessly on the spot, my purple frock, spinning out and away like a top.
At last I fall dizzily to the ground, pulling him with me.
‘Come away with me to the west and beyond’ He whispers in my ear.
‘If he kisses me I will’ I think, forgetting in that moment that I have a husband at home.
I close my eyes and turn my face invitingly to his.
Toms old sheep dog is licking my face.
It is early morning and I am lying in the ditch covered in dew.
My bike is lying next to me, its front wheel spinning , making a murmuring noise close to my ear.
I let go of the handle bar, I have been clinging to and push the old dog off me .
He sits back on its haunches wagging its tail.
I sit up dazedly, gathering up my hair which has come loose from its plait, and tie it into a swift knot on top of my head.
Noting with relief the road in front of me. I stand up and pull my bicycle upright, but its not until I actually step out onto the rough gravel that I realize my shoes are missing.
* Beware of the ‘little folk’ when you wander home at night.
They will have spotted you on your way earlier and will be watching out for you as you return home a bit the worst for wear.
They like nothing better than to ‘mischief make’ .
One of their favourite tricks is to lead the unsuspecting human to where they are holding a party (usually in a field where there is a hawthorn tree growing from a faerie fort) and watch as the innocent human literally dances the legs off himself, so spellbound are they by their music.
However you can confuse them by changing your appearance e.g wearing your coat inside out or back to front on your way home.
Interestingly these ‘ little folk’ are not the same as tiny faeries. Rather they are life sized, though smaller and slighter than the average human and are thought to be the remnants of the once powerful Tuatha Dé Danann, who lived in Ireland long ago and were driven underground when they lost a mighty battle to the Milesians . They have retained their supernatural powers and woe betide any human who crosses them.(for example by cutting down a hawthorn tree).