December 24, 1969 …
“We can book you on the train and the ferry,” said the man behind the counter at Euston Station,”but before we can issue a ferry ticket you’ll need a sailing ticket. You get that by writing to Heysham and applying for one.”
“What?” I barked in my grumpiest voice. “I’m leaving in 2 days, I don’t have time to write letters and wait around for replies! I want to sail on the ferry, not hover above it or swim behind it, so why the heck do I need a sailing ticket as well as a ticket to sail?”
He gave a disinterested shrug and began to walk away.
“Look sir,” I said, softening my voice in an attempt to appeal to his better nature, “I only arrived in London 3 weeks ago and it’s my first Christmas away from home. My little sister was married in Ireland a few months ago and we really want to spend Christmas together. The flights are all fully booked so this is the only way I can get there. Please, isn’t there something you can do?”
“Well…” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “I guess you don’t really need one for Christmas eve anyway. We only issue them to make sure the ferry doesn’t get overbooked, but there’s no chance of that on Christmas eve! It’ll be practically empty!”
I wanted to hug him right there and then, but I’d already learnt that you don’t hug strangers, or even talk to them, in London. This wasn’t Australia and it just wasn’t done. I flashed a big smile at him and thanked him profusely.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said as he handed me the ticket, “make sure you ask the purser for a cabin when you board. You’ll probably get it for free, being as it’s Christmas eve and they’ll all be empty.”
Yes! I was finally going to visit my ancestral home and spend my first overseas Christmas with my darling cousin who — while she wasn’t, strictly speaking, my little sister — had lived with us as a child. We considered ourselves sisters.
The train arrived at Heysham at 11pm and I hurried on board to find the purser’s office and, as instructed, ask for a cabin.
The purser just laughed! “You’ll be lucky to find a seat, lady, let alone a cabin!”
He was right! The ferry was packed to the brim and then some.
Humbled, I made my way to the lounge to find it full of drunk Irishman, all singing, arguing, drinking and vomiting! Some were engaging in all four at the same time. People were draped over every chair in a variety of grotesque arrangements. I carefully picked my way between, over and around numerous bodies sprawled on the floor, asleep or passed out, I knew not.
As we pulled away from Heysham, the sea became choppy and the ferry began to rock violently. Bottles rolled aimlessly across the floor in every direction, as did a few of the inebriated passengers.
With all the smoke in the room and the stench of smelly feet, vomit and whiskey, I was close to passing out. I staggered into the ladies’ loo, sat on a toilet seat in a cubicle and dozed for half an hour. I awoke with such a backache that I decided the floor would be preferable, but most of that surface was already taken.
I changed out of my mini-skirt, jacket and knee-high boots and donned jeans, woolly jumper and sneakers, then went out on deck for a stretch and some fresh air. It was there I discovered my bed — a hard wooden, slatted bench-seat. I wrapped my boots in my skirt to use as a pillow, draped my rabbit-fur coat over my upper body, tucked my jacket firmly around my feet and slept soundly … for two glorious hours.
A few passengers staggered around the deck, no doubt looking for leprechauns and perhaps even finding a few.
The wind coming off the Irish Sea felt like solid ice! We passed The Isle of Man at some ungodly hour, but I missed it. I was too busy going through the painfully slow process of freezing to death!
I awoke at around 4.30am. My back ached. My shoulders ached. Tiny icicles had formed on my eyelashes! My lips were numb and my ears frozen. I didn’t dare stand up because I could no longer feel my legs or feet, and it took half an hour to convince my fingers to bend!
The ferry docked in Belfast at 6.30 on a cold and gloomy Christmas morning. I could vaguely make out a shadowy silhouette of two lone figures on the pier, cuddling up to each other under one overcoat. It was Kay and her husband Barry, bless them. They’d left home at 5.30 on Christmas morning and driven 25 miles from the small town of Banbridge.
It was my first meeting with my new brother-in-law and I looked forward to getting to know him during the next few days. The pale sun was just beginning to peep shyly over the horizon as he drove us through Belfast and he pointed out places of interest on the way, but in the dim light all I could see were barricades, barbed wire and rifle-toting soldiers. It wasn’t the sweet Ireland I’d always imagined — thatched cottages, green fields and rosy-cheeked maidens.
It took almost an hour to reach Banbridge, and Barry’s Aunt Peggy came out to greet us at the front gate.
“Welcome, welcome m’dear,” she said with a delightful Irish lilt, wrapping her arms around me as though I was a long lost friend. “And a Merry Christmas te ya. Now, lass,” she said as she led me inside, “I’ve a nice pot of tea ready and waiting and I’m thinking that with a name like Coghlan, yer’d haffta like ya tea, yes?
YES! I loved her immediately.
When I related the story of my trip over the most welcome cuppa I’d ever enjoyed, Peggy insisted I get myself to bed immediately and have a good sleep before lunch was served or “you’ll likely fall face-first into my peas and carrots!”
I was so relieved. I could barely keep my eyes open but hadn’t wanted to seem inhospitable. I didn’t emerge until midday after a blissful four hours.
We had Christmas lunch at the dining table in front of the TV, watching the horse-racing. On Christmas Day! I knew without doubt then that I was really in Ireland! Barry’s uncle Dick had bets on a horse in each race, so between mouthfuls of roast turkey or plum pudding he rode each one home, waving his fork in the air like a whip and yelling at them to “giddyup ya old good-fer-nuttin pony or I’ll have ya fer glue!”
Later that day, Barry drove us to the Silent Valley Reservoir in County Down. The winter sun shone valiantly in a pale blue sky and I found the Ireland I’d longed to see.
We all had dinner by the open fire on Christmas night and chatted the hours away. Dick remarked that there was no doubt I had Irish blood coursing through my veins, insisting I must have kissed the blarney stone in a past life. None of us got to bed until well after midnight.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about my first Christmas day far from home and how wonderful it had been. Until a few days ago, I’d expected to spend it all alone in my dreary little London flat. Instead, I’d been temporarily adopted by a delightful family and couldn’t have wished for a happier Christmas away from home.
I still had two more days to soak up the joys of Northern Ireland, but I couldn’t have begun to imagine the adventure tomorrow would bring …