Thursday 20 June 2019

David Robbins: Down memory lane with stay-at-home Harry's old suitcase

The suitcase was old. The springs and latches of the locks at either corner didn't work. Here and there, the leather had scuffed. The letters H O'H were stamped into the surface near the handle. H O'H. Harry O'Hare.

It was one of those neat, robust, rectangular suitcases, the kind in which Paddington Bear carries his marmalade.

But when I saw it stacked high in a storage container in the warehouse one day this week, it wasn't Paddington Bear that came it mind.

It was a much more sombre image which suggested itself. It reminded me of those cases you see in photographs of refugees in World War Two.

The kind into which a family has put their most valuable possessions as they fled before the advancing Germans.

Or the kind you might see in neat piles and rows in grainy black-and-white footage of the Nazi death camps.

Somehow, the suitcase spoke to me not of the joy of travel and carefree adventure, but of the dangers.

It wasn't festooned with the bright destination stickers of the day or with the elegant identification tags of the glamorous cruise lines.

It was sturdy and well made, but it did not want to draw attention to itself. A bit like its owner, my old uncle Harry.

It felt solid but light when I took it down. The stitching was frayed at one side. Otherwise it was surprisingly well preserved for its age. Again, a bit like my uncle.

I remembered that my uncle did not like to travel, especially in his later years. Sometimes, it was difficult to prise him from his home even for a journey as short as that from Ballsbridge to Rathgar.

Once, when he was more or less forced to attend a funeral in Kent, he asked me to stay in his house. "I don't like to leave it," he said. "Mind it for me, now."

So the suitcase, I guessed, did not trouble the baggage handlers that often. My uncle was not the kind of man to fling a bottle of champagne and a pair of opera glasses into it and announce: "That's it, Vera, we're off to Paris for the weekend!"

In fact, now that I thought of it, I recalled that he had turned down a promotion in the Civil Service because it involved regular trips to Brussels.

That was the early 1970s. The government was sending over its first cadre of administrators after we joined the EEC in 1973.

They were looking, I suppose, for men who might be able to hold their own against the French and the English, peoples who'd had a bureaucratic élite for centuries.

Well, they'd have to manage without Harry O'Hare. The suitcase stayed on top of the wardrobe for another year or two.

My uncle was of that generation of men who referred to the landmass of Europe as "the continent". A friend from the golf club had taken his holidays "on the continent" this year, he might confide.

I felt he was suspicious of goings-on "on the continent". I remember my aunt complaining that he wouldn't even submit to a continental quilt (as we used to called duvets) when they transformed Irish bed-making in the 1970s.

Convention dictated that he go abroad on a honeymoon, but when he spoke of it later, I got the impression he would rather have gone to Connemara, or Skerries.

Harry, his bride and her best friend headed for Italy, to Positano and the Amalfi Coast. I've often wondered at the presence of the best friend. I suspect it was considered more "respectable" to travel in such a group.

The only other trip he spoke of was a holiday to Switzerland overland via France.

"We decided to motor down," he would say later as if he'd considered every other mode of transport, including camel train.

When I opened the suitcase, it was as I suspected.

It was used to store documents rather than to carry swimming togs, sun cream and holiday bestsellers.

The first one I looked at was a typed memo from the Department of Labour offering Harry the post of Assistant Principal Officer in July 1974. Harry's reply is also included.

His next promotion, I supposed, was the one to Brussels, the one that would have involved the suitcase. The one he never took.

drobbins@independent.ie

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