A Blast

There’s a gap in the storms, phase 2 of the multi-hazard weather event set to batter the country in the evening. We run off guiltily at dawn, ducking and diving. Escapees. Marque 1 takes a snap of us at check-in. It’s important to mark these things, he silently tells me. The first time marque 4 and marque 5 have been in an airport. The first time we’ve all been together in an airport. The start of the firsts on this journey. It’s too much for this mother to handle already and so I stand back and morph into one of them. A child. Unaccountable. He ushers us up to the Aer Lingus desk and deals masterfully with the paperwork, calling on each of us to produce what is required when it’s required. A calm, smooth operation. We’re given our boarding cards and told we’ll need to check in for the Emirates flight in London also. No bother to him.

A collective appetite kicks in now that the stress of getting here is over. We go straight to the food area and choose from a breakfast menu. They go ahead of me as I dither over the tricky choice between mushroom and egg – we’re doing a 3 item thing as it’s not cheap. When I get to the counter to pay, I’m greeted by a jolly young woman. She’s laughing.

‘I’m not going to charge you for everything’, she says. I’ve no idea what she’s on about.

‘They’re all so nice and friendly and polite, lovely lads, I’ll just put a few things through’.

Wow. Where did this bubbly angel come from?

‘Where are you off to?’ she asks as she knocks things off the bill.

‘Dubai’, I say and watch her eyes widen, her smile broaden as she repeats the word and seems more thrilled than anyone.

‘It’s the first time for some of them to fly, our first holiday abroad’, I say and watch as she tries to say something but seems a little misty-eyed, a little choked. My kind of girl.

‘My husband works out there – we’re off out to him’, I offer to steady her and it works. She beams at me, handing me the bill which she’s halved.

‘Ah god, you’ll have a brilliant time’, she says, her warmth radiating, and I can’t help but think that this has happened for a reason, that she’s been sent to see us on our way.

Marque 5 had previously declared that he would never be able to fly. That sitting in a tin can, far above the world, made no sense to him. I blamed his father for having David Bowie playing on repeat in the car all the way to Clifden when the boys were younger. Still, a little bit of me liked the fact that he didn’t seem to think he was missing out on anything. Unlike his older brothers who were full sure they were. I remember one Easter break when Marque 2 positioned himself on top of a rock at the far end of Dog’s bay in Connemara, stripped down to a t-shirt even though it was freezing and asked me to take a photo of him from a certain angle which would somehow conjure up a foreign land. Portugal or Italy, like the other lads in his school year were posting. He was sick of being the only one who had never left this island. I bit my tongue about the entitled, spoiled, boastful people he was referring to and failed in the task of taking the perfect sun soaked holiday snap.

I decide not to check in with marque 5 about how he’s feeling about flying now. Instead I tell him how much I love flying, how his great grandfather was a pilot so it’s in our blood, how I can’t wait to fly with him.

The brothers swap seats so that marque 4 and marque 5 have the windows. I’m pinching myself, here with all my sons about to take off. It’s dream like – everything aligning for us, the negative PCRs, the storms abating so we can dip on out, the dog safe with his mother having his own little holiday. This dream like state prevails, for take off, for the beautiful flight, for watching marque 4 video every bit of it – the descent into London on a clear day, picking all the bits that he’s heard about out.

Marque 1 snaps us in Heathrow for my mother – for her father, the Captain who flew mostly in and out of here. He was catapulted to fame when he performed an emergency landing here that no-one thought possible. It was April 1968 and an engine had burst into flames on the BOAC flight 712, en route to Australia. A massive disaster and loss of life was averted when he somehow managed to land perfectly. The flight was watched in horror by thousands, including Prince Phillip who could see it from Windsor Castle. Bits of wing and engine were falling off as he flew and the plane had flames trailing behind it. Dubbed ‘the miracle of Heathrow’ at the time, the Queen wanted my grandfather to be recognised for it, with a knighthood in the offing for his skill and saving of lives. He didn’t want this. He said he was just doing his job and there was a small loss of life – when four people couldn’t make it off the plane on the runway as the winds blew the fire under the fuselage. A crew member went back in for them. She lost her life. While it had looked as if there would be a total loss of life, and he had averted this, he would not accept recognition for it. I always hear him, with his gorgeous New Zealand accent and I feel him right beside me when I fly. I have no fear of it. We’re having fun. I check marque 5’s eyes above his mask from time to time. They twinkle. He’s perfectly happy too.

Fast forward through a delicious Emirates flight, double decker, excellent crew, gorgeous food, the lot, and a midnight landing in Dubai. I’m last in the line at arrivals and I watch as he greets his children and then me with a cheeky side grin, ‘hello Mrs Kelly’, a little greeting to irk and then he thrusts a rose at me to cancel it.

We have a blast. I delight in trailing, watching them. The strong sun stinging their legs as they walk along the marina in the summer clothes that we didn’t have to return, in the sunglasses that seemed like a silly purchase, making perfect sense now.

I swim with them in the Persian Gulf as if it was always going to be thus, that we would swim in waters other than the Atlantic and the Irish Sea together. I swim in a pool with them, surrounded by skyscrapers. I watch as they navigate different transport systems, trams and metros, taking them to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, to Expo 2020.

I watch them grow before me, confident samplers of what the world has to offer. I watch them trying different foods, the best Indian food ever. They watch me salivate over coffee – the strong stuff, a true signal to me that I’m abroad. I imagine them now, post-college, flinging themselves to different corners. Something about being in the Middle-East facilities this imagining, and it’s not fear but joy that pulses through me. It’s all out there. All to play for. We can take a step back.

We embrace the magic of 22022022. A birthday like no other. We have a camel ride in the desert, go quad- biking, dune bashing and sand-boarding. I immerse myself fully. This is it. The very top of our game. It’s all come together beautifully just at the right time and I couldn’t be happier.

Over the line

Standing in the swimwear section of TK Maxx, clicking through hangers with skimpy strings destined for other bodies, I feel like a fraud on a number of levels. I’ve never stood here before. It’s a freezing morning in early February. We’re not going to get there anyway. A woman cuts in beside me and clicks with an easy efficiency. I mimic her. Grab something and sling it into the basket. I’ll not do myself the disservice of trying it on. Winter flesh under a fluorescent light in front of an enormous mirror. What I don’t know won’t hurt me. I’ll be returning it soon anyway.

‘Can we get some bright colours Mum’, marque 5, a committed wearer of all black, asks, his hands on a pair of neon green swim shorts, then plucking a luminous yellow t-shirt from the rack.

‘Bright colours would feel like a real holiday’, he says and I run with it. I’ve brought them along to choose a few ‘summer’ bits and they take me at my word, Hawaiian style shirts are waved at me, cut price designer sunglasses are tried on. Who’s going to tell them that we’re not actually going to make it?

Six negative PCRs are called for to get us out of here and over to their Dad in Dubai. With mad Covid circulation and everything fully reopened, with the boys in school and college and daily accounts of friends and contacts coming a-cropper I wonder how fair any of this is. To dangle this carrot when the odds are firmly stacked against us.

They begin to reduce, to cancel, to pull out of things, and they squabble mightily when Marque 2 doesn’t think he can cancel a weekend away in Belfast, planned some weeks ago as a compensation when Covid made it clear they could no longer make it over to see their pal in Amsterdam. It would affect the others adversely if he were to pull out. But one of the group has been a close contact in recent days.

‘Putting the family at risk, the first ever holiday abroad in jeopardy’, is the line being touted as I hide quietly in the corner. Where do they get such thoughts from?

‘Mum hasn’t been abroad on a holiday in 22 years, are you seriously going to risk that for her, when it’s her birthday and everything?’ Now that does sound bad, even to me. What was I thinking? I do some calculations. 22.5 actually I try not to say out loud. When guilt tripping doesn’t seem to be working, they move on to bribery. They’ll refund his ticket and accommodation and pay him not to go. Hell, they’ll refund his pals too. It’s all getting a little out of hand. A parent needs to step in. But the parent is wiped out, standing on eggshells in no-man’s land, no clue which way to turn.

Three, two, one…

‘Stop. Nobody’s paying anybody anything. Let’s see if your pal continues to test negative on the antigens. If you decide to go, then you should all take tests beforehand and each day, yeah?’ A clear authoritative voice summoned out of the depths of the parenting tool-bag. Phew.

‘Yes, and I’ll isolate in my room when I get back’.

There. Sorted. I want him to go and I don’t want him to go. They’ve missed out on so much, lived with such fear and anxiety these last couple of years, he deserves to have fun with his pals. If he cancels and lets them down, he’ll carry that guilt and disappointment. I know. I’ve been there. But if he comes a-cropper too, and thwarts the holiday he’ll never forgive himself.

‘And if anyone in the family gets it, it’s not their fault. We’ll cancel and go some other time’, I say, continuing in the authoritative vein, throwing in a bit of stoicism for good measure. Should’ve tried this years ago.

Buoyed up by my new powers over the next few days, I actively encourage them to skip school and college and I cancel a long planned dinner night out with a pal to demonstrate my absolute commitment too.

Marque 1 is project managing this event. He bulk books the PCRs for a pretty penny and tells us what we need to bring along – passports for example. There’s a little bit of fear dancing in the eyes of all as we queue, wondering in this lottery which one it will be, who the sword will fall on. But once we’ve been prodded, poked and swirled, we feel a weight has been lifted. There’s nothing more we can do. Our fate is sealed. We don’t know the answer yet, but we celebrate anyway, stopping off at the garage for some sugar treats on the way home. One last cancellation to break to someone though.

‘I’m sorry but you can’t go to the rugby match tomorrow’. This is a tough one. I won’t look at him. A dream for marque 5 to travel on a bus with his team to play against a school in Kilkenny. A first match away. The fun of the bus. The love of the sport. The camaraderie. We’re all in agreement though. A big Covid risk, an injury risk. When it’s over the line, almost.

Marque 1 sleeps not a jot. The results are coming to him. He checks through the night. Screenshots and circulates on the group chat when they arrive early morning.

‘Wait, we’re going? We’re actually going?’

We look at one another with fresh eyes, no longer suspicious, doubting. Heroes, we think now. We all did our bit.

The storms are coming. Ah, right. It’s not Covid but the weather that will stop us. Windows rattle in old frames throughout the night. Extreme weather warnings are issued. Storms with peculiarly menacing names. Blizzards. Hazards. We stick our fingers in our ears and continue on, acting as if we’ll actually make it now. We go en masse to Howth to leave the dog with the lady we got him from. She greets us warmly and calls two other gorgeous Papillons of hers to play with him. One of them happens to be his mother. She barks at him, not in an entirely loving way, putting him in his place, giving out to him for abandoning her. I get it. He’s five now. She’s getting on. She needs her sons around her. It’s the first real time we’re abandoning him too. There’s a collective low thrumming nausea. We decide to recover down at the harbour with a massive feed from Leo Burdock’s. A bitter wind whips at our faces, stinging our salt and vinegar lips. Seagulls screech above us.

Almost there.