The sky to the west was clear blue, but the cloudiness in Con’s head was back with a vengeance. He felt passive – the holiday was confusing him. Why were they standing in a ruined building on a headland? He could see islands in the distance and beyond them a horizon that had no line. Inland, the dark mass of Mount Brandon looked brooding, mysterious – scary, even – as its peak reached into the clouds.
Fiona had driven them from Killarney to the Dingle Peninsula, the most westerly part of County Kerry. Dingle town was bustling, not that he really noticed. When they watched a boat full of excited kids chug away from the pier, Fiona reminded him of their own family excursion to see Fungi, the once famous resident of the bay. Then she took the road west to Slea Head, before turning off and stopping on a narrow lane. All was quiet, except for Atlantic waves breaking nearby and the crack of the car’s central locking as they began their stroll across a field.
They came to an abandoned building, where one wall had a stone carved, ‘Kirrary National School 1893’, a legend to cinema buffs. Only one or two roof timbers remained, the classroom exposed to the elements since its fictional inhabitants and their huge entourage departed, weary and massively overbudget, in 1970, leaving legends to grow in the area. Fiona was on the trail of Ryan’s Daughter, a sucker for the romance, the scenery. And Con used to be a great admirer of David Lean, fascinated by the ambition and the folly of that era of film-making, the outrageous budgets, the hangers-on, the waste. But that was part of his old life, filled with ambitions and professional struggles. Now that was disappearing slowly into the distance, like a character departing a Lean film.
‘This is where Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles, Charles and Rosie in the film, lived, before they were run out by the cruel mob, remember?’ she said.
Con was watching a seagull land on a gable and look around, before continuing its journey with a squeal.
‘Why do you still like that film so much?’ he asked her.
She looked quizzically at him now. He’d forgotten they’d been here before.
‘It’s just … the ambition of it, magnificent and flawed, overwrought and compelling, at the same time. You don’t remember?’
She reminded him of the plot: Rosie Ryan, a dreamer and spoilt child, whose romantic impulse leads to tragedy. Loved in different ways, by five different men: her husband, her lover, her father, the priest, a simpleton she refuses to kiss till the last scene.
‘And she has all these expensive parasols representing her folly. They could get blown away easily.’
Con was starting to recall something of the drama. He used to be able to summon his favourite Lean moments at will. But the celebrated shots of the Russian steppes, the endless birch trees or the Arabian desert were reduced now to flickers in his brain, the films’ characters’ fleeting faces.
‘Like so many of us, she clings to the promise of passion, reads cheap fiction. The village can’t offer her much but marriage to the school teacher.’
Fiona stepped carefully on broken pieces of slate.
‘Do you remember how Shaughnessy, the teacher who likes Beethoven and flower pressing, lives with Rosie’s infidelity, but at the end of the film shows real backbone as everything breaks down?’
Con thought of something. ‘Mitchum cast against type, wasn’t it?’ He giggled, but Fiona had gone exploring. He looked out to sea, at the Blasket Island known as the sleeping giant, Inis Tuaisceart. The sun appeared through clouds on the horizon, to shine a spotlight on the human-looking figure in repose on the ocean.
‘Fiona, look,’ he pointed, stumbling a little.
She came and put a protective arm round him. ‘You can see it in several scenes in the film,’ she said.
He felt like a passenger in her little odyssey. ‘What about some early Christianity now?’ she said, trying to be provocative, when they were back in the car and moving again.
‘Oh, no,’ said Con.
She drove with determination inland to Kilmalkedar, a ruined seventh century church complex. At the Romanesque church, she pointed out the alphabet stone and a carved lintel. He thought she was looking particularly reverential as she stood in the chancel.
‘What is it about ancient Christianity you like so much?’ he asked.
‘It’s the evidence of belief, and its endurance,’ Fiona said slowly, her eyes twinkling.
Con was silent as Fiona drove back through Dingle and started to climb towards the Conor Pass. Con saw scraggy-looking sheep, then a sign in German and English on the mountain road. ‘It says TURN BACK NOW,’ he shouted.
‘Con, that’s only for trucks and buses.’
She changed down gear again, the mechanism grinding noisily.
‘You know, Sarah Miles was driven over this road many times to the locations,’ she said. Con felt nervous as they kept gaining height. He found it hard to gaze over the edge; it looked like hundreds of feet of a drop.
‘Did she think about Robert Mitchum?’ he asked.
‘What made you think of that?’
‘Didn’t they get together that time?’
‘Con, she was married to the man who wrote the screenplay, Robert Bolt.’
‘Would that stop her?’
‘Actually, they did get together, but it was years later.’
Fiona stopped the car.
‘What’s wrong?’ Con said. He hadn’t noticed that she was pulling in to wait for an oncoming vehicle, the code of driving on the mountain pass. Then a rock tumbled from somewhere above them, bounced on the road, then descended to what seemed like the bottomless valley.
‘It’s scary,’ he said.
‘Con, don’t be silly,’ she said as she waved at the oncoming driver and put the car into gear again.
‘She was a fine-looking woman,’ he said.
‘You don’t say.’ There was silence, then she said, ‘Strange that you’d remember a bit of gossip, but not the plot of the film.’
He didn’t answer, his head was now preoccupied with an image of a twenty-something actress, and the love-lives and infidelities of two pampered film stars from another era. It didn’t stop there; he thought of his own past liaison, illicit nights in his lover’s arms. Wasn’t that all over, now? He glanced at Fiona, her hands firmly on the steering wheel, her eyes looking assuredly at the road ahead. This was stability, contentment even.
Fiona slowed to allow another car to pass. Con could see kids in holiday mode. The family dog had its head out the window, panting as it surveyed the scenery. The children made faces – Con stared back as they laughed – but his brain was gone on overdrive.
‘Do you remember those days?’ he said.
‘What days? I’m concentrating on the road.’
Voices – the kids in the car, his own children’s cries from distant, happy holidays – and the engine’s hum started to echo round his brain, like a film’s sound effect.
But nostalgia gave way to a chill as he remembered what the doctor told him the previous month, the day he was asked to draw a clock and made a total mess of it. How had a simple clock confused him? The doctor looked solemn, Fiona anxious. If only the mulch he sensed in his brain would somehow melt away, and his normal, busy mind return. Something told him that wasn’t going to happen.
Julian Vignoles worked in RTÉ in various roles as radio producer, TV producer and commissioning executive. He is a Co. Wicklow native and lives in Dublin.
Between 2005 and 2012, he managed the selection process and the preparation of Ireland’s Eurovision Song Contest entries, and served on the board of directors of the Contest, the Reference Group, for two terms, from 2006 to 2010.
From 2003 to 2008 he was Deputy Commissioning Editor, Entertainment, involved in the development and commissioning of some highly successful TV series: Naked Camera and Celebrity Jigs and Reels.
He is the author of three published non-fiction titles since leaving his broadcasting career: A Delicate Wildness: The Life and Loves of David Thomson Lilliput Press 2014; Inside the Eurovision Song Contest, Liffey Press 2015; Rory Gallagher- the Man Behind the Guitar Collins Press 2018 (Gill Books 2021)
Since 2012, as well as writing he has worked in tourism, co-founding a bike tour business in Dublin and now as a driver/guide with a private tour company.
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