My Dad is leaning over the table frowning.
In front of him, a large ordnance survey map covers the place where we should, at this moment, be eating our tea.
We are hungry but know better than to voice this and sit tensely whilst he traces his finger along an orange line.
My mother would like to put the dishes on the table but she also knows better than to suggest moving the map.
Instead she leans over her husband’s shoulder and watches his moving finger.
‘There is is! there’s that wretched hill’ She says suddenly.
My mother never uses bad language. The worst I’ve heard her say was ‘fluther’ and that was only when she was put to the pin of her collar by her unruly bunch.
‘For fluther’s sake can you not be quiet for one minute’ She would mutter her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone as she tried to order the week’s groceries from the new H.Williams store at the bottom of the road. She had discovered this to be a far easier way of feeding her family than traipsing us all down and back up again with pram and baskets of shopping.
‘And a pound of rajabari tea’ She would finish and glaring at us, replace the receiver onto the cradle.
(My dad was fussy about the tea he drank and even when it came on the market refused to drink tea bagged tea. ‘Dust swept up from the tea warehouses’ He declared.)
She has also spotted the offending hill before my dad does because her eyes are sharper eyes than his. They have to be. She is responsible for keeping them on the above mentioned large brood of unruly children.
One christmas as she was guiding her young family in through the doors of one of Dublin’s large department stores, a man coming out the other way with an equally sizable bunch, gave me a clout and, grabbing my coat, pushed me in among his.
My mother was furious and turned on him like an angry hen,
‘I’m so sorry I thought she was one of mine’ He blubbered apologetically, a wild look in his eye ‘My wife is in hospital’ He continued ‘having our eight and I thought it would be a good idea to take the kids to see the christmas lights. I think I am going mad. I’m terrified of losing one of them. The wife would never forgive me. I find it hard to tell one from the other’.
My mother patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. She understood men well. Hadn’t her own husband landed her children in dangerous situations now and again. Rowing boats etc without a life jacket between them. The fact that he always brought them safely home was probably due more to the survival instincts of the children then his care.
She bid him good luck and trundled us down o’connell street, paying no heed to me holding my smarting cheek.
I always wondered what my life would have been like if my Moms sharp eyes hadn’t spotted me and I had disappeared into the folds of another family forever.
I might have had a proper dressing table for one. (An object I had always longed for). We had drawing tables and work tables but no frilly- girly- shiny -mahogany dressing tables. Even one without the oval mirror would have made me happy .
But back to my Dad, or better still my Mom.
‘There’s the hill right there’ she repeated.
‘Well spotted May’ my father said pushing her finger aside and drawing a large X on the spot.
We all breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. Now that we had found the hill that caused the burning of the the clutch last year, maybe my Dad would fold the map away and we could proceed with our tea.
But he wasn’t finished yet.
‘We can make a detour this way by making a run at the shorter hill. His finger was following a yellow line now. He looked worried all the same and so did we.
‘Making a run at it‘ had connotations known only to us Peppards and brought with it the familiar smell of a burning clutch.
As much as we wished that sentence didn’t exist, it continued to be mentioned over tea.
(I should state here that my dad was always in charge of the mealtime conversations)
For ‘making a run at it’ meant crossing one’s fingers and holding one’s breath and hoping no one would come hurtling down the other way on the narrow street forcing you to drive slower.
It meant hoping that we wouldn’t get stuck behind a tractor
or worse still a herd of cattle .
But like it or not ‘making a run at it’ was sometimes the only way my father could get the large caravan (it needed to be large to contain us all) up a steep hill with his vauxhall estate.
Filled to the brim with rain gear, painting gear, fishing gear, boating gear, baking gear, (just as he refused to drink tea bagged tea he equally refused to eat shop bread) children, dogs and once even a cage of black mice (mine! no way was I going to leave them at home) it had a tough time on these journeys.
And we leant forward hopefully in our seats as though our sheer will would help it pull us up the hill of some market town without burning out the clutch.
Last year when the clutch burned out we had to sleep in the caravan on the edge of town overnight as the car was left into the local garage (we were very lucky there was a garage) and wait for a new clutch to be delivered from dublin the next day (it arrived on the mail train! no courier vans back then).
We were mad because we were missing a day of running barefoot along white sands, netting shrimps in clear turquoise waters, climbing rocks and diving into freezing atlantic waters.
My Dad was mad because there was nowhere in the town he could fish.
My Mom took it all in her stride and made a delicious dinner on a small caravan stove, made up our beds and tucked us in.
We fell asleep to the noise of the odd car passing instead of the crash of waves.
But that was last summer and now it was late spring and we were preparing for our next journey west.
‘Where would we be without maps’ my Dad sighed contentedly. Happy now that the decision of our route to the west of ireland is made.
As far as he was concerned, other than to drive the car, his work was done.
It was now up to my mother to take over and start organising the packing. A feat in itself, taking up to two weeks to accomplish and needing the organization skills of a quartermaster preparing to move out a large army.
But back to maps.
One of my older sisters had the thankless job of navigating. On leaving the house, My Dad would put the map in her hands with the instruction ‘Give me the directions in plenty of time, I can’t turn this rig out on a coin you know or stop it suddenly!’
This was true and My Dad made a great show when he was taking a corner. Making a huge and exaggerated turn of the steering wheel almost crossing to the opposite side of the road whilst doing so.
‘It’s the next left’ My sister the navigator would pipe up from the back seat where we were sliding about on sleeping bags and pillows.
‘What’ My father would roar ‘ how can it be so soon’ and he would keep driving straight on while we watched the sign post for Galway or Mayo or Kerry or where ever we were heading, pointing to the left.
After a while he would pull into the side.
‘Give me the map’ he would thunder.
Silence from us in the back. We knew better than to giggle at his red face.
‘Now I’ll have to find a place to turn’.
As if it was the fault of the map reader.
Turning often involved unhitching the caravan and reversing it manually if the road wasn’t wide enough, which meant us all getting out to help. Luckily cars were few and far between back then and some of us were employed to stop any car that did happen along while the manoeuvre was taking place.
And what did we do (the none navigators) to amuse ourselves on this long route?
We played ‘Waving at the passers by’. A game where we waved manically at everyone who passed us or whom we passed, and laughed uproariously at their expressions as they tried to remember did they know us.
Which was fun until we waved at an old farmer cycling his bike. . When he lifted his hand to wave back, his bike wobbled and he fell into the ditch.
We thought this was the funniest thing ever.
Not so My Dad. He was furious and his hand came flying back giving however he could reach a wallop. Unfortunately it was the one person too busy to be part of the game.
The innocent map reader got the brunt of his hand.
One would imagine after all that childhood trauma I would have turned my back on maps and veered towards sat navs and gps instead.
But far from it and my love of maps lingers almost to the point of passion.
I have most of the ordnance survey maps of ireland.
Worn and sellotaped at the folds from years of use, nothing pleases me more over the winter months, than to spread them out on my own table and and follow the lines as my father once did and and imagining, through reading the contours, and sounding the place names what they looked like in reality.
I have one favorite map that is more mended than any of the others.
A black and white Tim Robinson map of the Burren.
Crumpled and sellotaped and spotted by the leftovers of errant flies. I pour over this map endlessly.
Not only am I not distracted by the color (now I must employ my imagination to even greater extent) but it shows every holy well and archaeological site in the area.
Last october I headed to clare in search of one particular well which has the cure of the eyes (A good map reader needs a sharp pair)
It was half way up a hill not unlike and running parallel to corkscrew hill.
A solid switch back climb, too steep for me to cycle, though I have seen racing cyclists make it to the top.
so I walked and pushed up and up. It never bothers me to walk with my bike. I am out exploring after all and sometimes things can be missed even whilst cycling.
Alongside me, the hazel and willow scrub were filled with finches, who flitted past with no fear.
Stopping at various view points, I looked back over the grey burren fields, laid out like immense stone amphitheaters.
Here and there late rock roses bloomed, their heads crouched low in the crevices of limestone. and sometimes a late flowering bloody cranesbill peeked shyly at me.
The majority of tourists were gone and I was only passed by a few cars mostly making there way down the steep road.
At last I reached the place I had marked on the map I noted a truck with some spades and shovels leaning against it, pulled in on the ditch.
Ignoring it I made my way through the scrub and started my search for a trail that would lead me to the well.
As I pushed further into the undergrowth I could hear rustling as though of animals.
I pushed into the scrub following the sounds.
A man’s cursing and then sounds of much crunching.
‘ya feckin’ boyo’ followed by a massive crunching sound.
In a clearing three men in luminous jackets with Clare county council written in red across their backs, were picking hazelnuts and cracking them between teeth.
‘The Holy well Mam?’ They appeared red faced, caught in the act! ‘We’ll show ya’
When they were gone, I knelt and splashed some of the clear water on my eyes and taking out a tiny bottle filled it to the brim.
I planned to use it daily over the winter months. Ensuring that my eyes were always up to map reading and that even without a map, they would lead me to places of such greenness and magic as this Holy Well surrounded by mossy rocks and hazel scrub in the heart of the grey stone fields of the Burren.
But there are times too when I like to leave my map behind and just explore and see where I end up.
Then when I get home I open it out and find where I was lost. A sort of backwards use of a map I suppose you could call it.
(if that makes sense).