Monday 9 December 2019

Homesickness, arthritis and flu won't cook my goose

Going places: 'I looked up to a skein of geese crossing the sky'
Going places: 'I looked up to a skein of geese crossing the sky'

Fergal Keane

The year began with a whimper and a lot of coughing and spluttering, red eyes and a raw throat. Friends were succumbing all around me.

Otherwise sensible people have given themselves over to CSS (competitive symptom syndrome): the urge to convince a fellow sufferer that they could not possibly feel as bad as you.

Among male friends this is especially pronounced. Nobody is ever as sick as a sick middle-aged man.

In A Journal of The Plague Year, set in 1665 when the bubonic plague struck London, Daniel Defoe wrote of how "some disorder had surely crept into the course of the elements, destroying their benignant influence". There is little in the way of the benignant about yours truly, or the elements, this morning. It is my birthday and I am as sick as the proverbial dog. It is grey and cold outside. My fifty-sixth year has crept up on me like coastal fog.

There are choices to be made as I lie in my sickbed. Do I succumb to the ancient hypochondria of my race, a trait that has stood us in great stead through centuries of oppression - or embrace the "mustn't grumble" spirit of my English hosts?

I'll settle for the former. Its comforts are certain.

More importantly, do I contemplate the years that have gone by - a self-interrogation guaranteed to produce mixed results - or do I look boldly ahead?

The prophets of mindfulness would surely tell me to "live in the moment". But the "moment" feels like being in Inter Cert year at the Christian Brothers school in a small town in the Midlands circa 1975, with 80pc unemployment and only the annual visit of Horslips to suggest the possibility of a better world. It is a vista of bleakness to be trod in leaking shoes.

I suppose there is the Trump inauguration to look forward to. In some ways I hope I am still sick.

It is such an unlikely spectacle that, if still 'flu bound, I wonder whether I might convince myself it is all a feverish hallucination.

I am feeling my age. On the road these days I struggle to haul our equipment on and off planes without wincing. If a young producer (and they are all younger now) asks why I am in pain, I tell them it is an old rugby injury. This is a big fat lie. I was terrible at rugby and spent most of my "career" cooling my heels on the sidelines dreaming of escape to distant lands.

But the nobility of a long-ago injury is preferable to admitting that arthritis has started creeping up on me.

Then there is the insomnia. If I am lucky, I make it to about four in the morning. Then I am awake and there is no going back. I suppose there is the consolation that I beat F Scott Fitzgerald's dictum by an hour. "In a real dark night of the soul," he wrote, "it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day." Nothing in particular causes me to wake. It is just a change in the processes of the brain. My mother assures me you need less sleep as you get older. She is in her 80s and as fit as the Fiddler of Dooney.

Now when I wake I go to open the window and breath the night air. No matter how cold, I love this moment when the real world rescues me from the gloomier meditations of the deep night, all those failed accommodations with the roads I have travelled.

The most pronounced symptom of growing age is homesickness. Through this past Christmas and New Year I missed Ireland greatly. I longed to be in Ardmore, Listowel and Cork, and promised that this time next year I would be among those I started out with and to whom I will always be bound.

This is more than an emigrant's sentimental attachment to a particular piece of ground, more to do with turning back to what shaped me. I missed the good cheer of Paul Hassett's kitchen in Crosshaven and the sailing boats on the water below and the stillness of Drake's Pool on the drive back to Cork; I missed the banter with John King and Nicky Keating in Ardmore, where I might have partaken in the Christmas Day swim, or not, and I miss my Kerry cousins and Uncle Din.

The connection to north Kerry has become essential to me. After my parents separated in the early 1970s, I spent less time with my father's people. That has changed as I've grown older. But I feel I'm catching up on lost time in that part of the country. They are the most welcoming people with a joyous crackedness about them.

You could say that it is a bit early to worry about the big sleep when you are in your mid-50s. But there is more of life behind me than ahead. I can't argue with the statistics.

I wish to travel abroad less and know the places of my heart more.

The other day, before the 'flu descended, I went outside for a short walk. It was the evening of New Year's Day with a clear sky. I live near a park that is a nesting ground for migrating fowl. I became aware of a swishing sound overhead and looked up to see a skein of geese crossing the sky, a perfect arrow pointing in the direction they needed to be going. I envied them, then thanked them for a moment of pure grace in a hard season.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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