Heartland

I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.

A. M. Homes, recalling the experience of writing her memoir of adoption The Mistress’s Daughter

 

Write hard and clear about what hurts.

Ernest Hemingway

It was ten years ago, more or less, on a beach in New Zealand, that I first realised I was falling apart. My identity, which had already gone through several fairly challenging evolutions, was pulled away from under me and I went into freefall, completely unable to catch myself. I reached out for handholds wherever I could; from a phone box on the seafront I tried calling my parents’ home, a 12 hour time zone away. There was no answer. In despair I called a friend. No answer again. There was nothing… nobody to turn to but myself. I walked over the grey shale of the beach, gulping down childish sobs, unsure of the source of this seemingly bottomless well of grief. After I while I more or less composed myself and headed back up toward the promenade.

At that moment a voice called out to me from beneath a nearby palm tree. “Hey! How are you?”

It was a German girl from the hostel I’d been staying in. She was short, happy and nut-brown, with a pageboy haircut and an attractive snub nose. She was dressed for exercise – had been out jogging, and then had halted to stretch by the tree.

I wandered over to her, hands in my pockets, shoulders slumped in misery. “I’m OK,” I said. “Actually not so good. Bad news from home.”

She looked at me searchingly and then wordlessly reached out and held me for a long time in a hug. I broke down again. Eventually I subsided, and she turned and took my arm and together we walked back like that to the hostel. She never asked me what it was about – simply reacted by instinct. It was – still is – one of the kindest gestures I think I’ve ever encountered. I never knew her name.    

I’d come to Napier purely at random. It was described as an Art Deco town, and I imagined something like Aalesund. It was pretty enough, with curling ‘30s architecture like swirls of ice cream, a palm-fringed promenade and a rather bleak and stony beach. But one evening in the hostel, idly checking my emails, I received one from a researcher in Ireland who I had contacted to try and find out more details about what had become of my birth parents. Even now I am not entirely sure why I did this; I had all the best, most rational explanations you could find, enough to satisfy the most sceptical of psychologists – to let them know I was alive and well, ostensibly – but ultimately I think it was an attempt to find the source of my inner disquiet, the crashing depressions, the sense of an absence, a hole in my life of unspoken trauma. I had everything – a loving family, an established career as a travel editor, a home in England. And yet some impetus took me off on a one way ticket as far away as I could go, and I ended up in New Zealand.


Your birth parents were called James and Mary. He was the son of a wealthy farmer in Tuam, Co. Galway, she was from a poor family in a nearby village. When her father died of cancer she was sent out to find work, and was employed as a maidservant at the farm. They were very young, teenagers, and they fell in love. When she became pregnant he went to his father and announced that he wanted to marry her. His father forbade it, and told him he could forget about ever inheriting the farm. They ran away together and took the boat to England. In Ireland abortion was illegal, and unmarried women who got pregnant were put into institutions run by the church where they were treated with appalling cruelty. After they gave birth they had their babies taken away for forcible adoption.

James and Mary arrived in London in 1973 and took a room in Kilburn. You were born in Enfield General Hospital, and spent a few minutes together with them before being taken away by the nurse and put up for adoption. They told the nurse to give you his first name and her surname.    

They found work locally – he at a nearby factory, she as a cleaner in the hospital. They moved to Tottenham and in 1975 they married. They moved back to Ireland and he took over the farm (the assumption is his father passed away). They looked after his younger brother who was described as “educationally subnormal”. They were together for 11 years and then they separated. She went back to her village.

I hope this information has been of use to you. If there is anything else I can do, please let me know.         


The trouble with Pandora’s Box is that when you don’t merely open the thing but actually blow it apart, those closest to you get hurt by the fallout. “We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love,” said Lawrence Durrell. I didn’t really understand how much at the time, or that ten years later I would still be trying to deal with it; or more accurately, blowing it apart over and over again. It was as if the constructed self of my personality was binding me too tightly – I simply couldn’t handle being me any more, whoever I was. I knew my life was valued, sacred, even – not something to be discarded lightly. And I came to realise something which years later I saw put into words:

The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for non-existence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. 

Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now

It took Tolle some months to process what had happened to him during that dark night of the soul. He came to the conclusion that his intense suffering had caused his consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and fearful self, which was a construct of his mind. The false self collapsed, and he achieved a state of consciousness, or sense of identity, which was somehow purer, uncontaminated by the endless noise and destructiveness of his mind.

When I first read those lines, it left me deeply shaken, because I realised that I too had undergone just such an experience – not once, but several times. I am going through it again now, in a way. Perhaps we never truly stop doing so. Some seem to live their lives in a state of blissful optimism, free of such agonising. Others perhaps resolve such issues earlier – or think that they have, and then find that they get sent back to repeat it long after they’d thought it nailed because somewhere along the line there was a crucial point missed, a lesson imperfectly learned. It’s disconcerting, and hard at times to see such challenges as gifts – moments of enlightenment which offer opportunity for growth. But it’s not a level playing field; we each have our own individual issues, different backgrounds. Never compare yourself to anyone else.  Everyone’s got a story. This is mine. 


The bus was entering the outskirts of a grey and rainy industrial estate. Car showrooms lined the highway, sodden flags hanging limp outside. I saw one dealership frontage marked Tuam Opel. I turned to the girl next to me and said: “Is this Tuam?”

She unplugged her earphones. “Huh?”

“Tuam. Is this Tuam?”

She smiled slightly. “Choom. Yeah, it is.” I had been saying it Twam all these years.

We entered the town centre, past rows of small shops – a florists, a pub that looked closed. A woman in her 50s was battling gusts of wind in a transparent plastic raincoat as she made her way along the pavement. There was the inevitable fortress-like church. Funeral parlour. Petrol station. So utterly banal. It looked bleak. I’m glad I’m not from here, I thought. We turned a sharp 90 degree bend and entered what looked like a housing estate, and I noticed something extraordinary. In the row of suburban semis, just like any that you might see in a London suburb, every other house was boarded up. Sometimes every third. They had plywood nailed over the windows and often graffiti across the walls. It was a dying street – evidence of the housing bubble of a decade before that had nearly brought down the whole Irish economy when it burst.

The bus stopped at the end of the road, where a couple were waiting to board. They must have been in their early 60s. He was puckish and spry, a loose strand of lank hair curling down in a forelock, wearing a beige windcheater and jeans, and he ushered his wife aboard, taking her bag. She looked tired – auburn hair going grey, a heart-shaped face now lined – an ordinary, rather dowdy Irish couple. Perhaps she had once been pretty. They settled into their seats ahead of me and I found myself studying his rather large ears. The thought occurred to me with an almost extraordinary detachment: is that James and Mary? It might well be. I felt… nothing at all. Utter dissociation.

I had often wondered – increasingly so as I aged – who I looked like. I had never seen pictures of them. We grow into our faces, as adults, the signs writ large on us of character, disposition, the mark of disappointments and griefs. But there’s also usually some shared genetic basis that can be discerned. Growing up, people had often commented on how I looked like my adoptive father, and he’d sort of give me a wink and joke about how it was the ears. But it was his way of saying, it’s deeper than that. I have, in many ways, aspects of his character that I have internalised, shared values, a kind of unspoken moral code. He’s my father. But I also had a wildness, a volatility, my fiery nature quite unlike his own. Where did that come from, I’d wonder? I had read the social worker’s reports from the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment of James and Mary. Certain lines from it stood out. “He’s quick-witted and fiery, a born rebel. Very bright, though not educated – expelled from school for refusing to learn Irish. A real live wire. If the child turns out to be anything like his father he’s going to be quite a character!” 

Well now. Quite a character indeed. Did he, I also wondered – uncharitably perhaps – have a drink problem? It is a characteristic of the Irish, as many would admit. I had battled with drink before – won, lost, won again, lost again – and yet had no reason in my upbringing for it to take such a hold. My parents drank in moderation, sensibly, my father telling me that he’d been drunk perhaps twice in his life, as a student, and had felt so ghastly that he’d never wanted to feel like that again.

But drink for me was like chucking petrol on a fire – the key into the locked down emotional cage. I’d feel liberated, lighter, happier, free. But it couldn’t last. There’d be a huge flare-up, and I’d get wilder and wilder, only to quickly crash, having burned all my resources away, leaving me bereft and utterly despondent. It unleashed a monster in me, a sinister Irish alter ego (how apt the term), which was, frankly, terrifying to see, let alone to possess. I had read reports that indicated the high prevalence of alcoholism in adopted people anyway, compared to the general population – the highest still being when it transpired that one or both of the birth parents had a drink problem. The genetic link coupled with the consequent trauma of adoption – the Primal Wound, as Nancy Verrier titled her book. She went on to say:

Adoptees’ trauma occurred right after birth, so there is no ‘before trauma’ self. [They] suffered a loss that [they] can’t consciously remember and which no one else is acknowledging, but which has a tremendous impact” on their sense of self, emotional response, and worldview.

Nancy Verrier – The Primal Wound

She also noted that, even in adulthood, adoptees may unconsciously perceive the world as “unsafe and unfamiliar,” remaining in a near-perpetual state of heightened anxiety and “constant vigilance,” – something common to sufferers of PTSD. Rejection and abandonment issues, unsurprisingly, predominate. Drinking or substance abuse was a very common way of finding escape from it – the obsessive, tormenting, negative thoughts. One adopted woman in the US who got sober found that nearly half of her support group were themselves adopted; prior to that she’d only ever met a handful of people. “I don’t do relationships,” she went on to say. “I don’t know how, because I feel so completely destroyed when they end.”

Or was adoption just an excuse, a handy calamity to possess to justify bad behaviour? I knew how manipulative alcoholics could be – they could… we could… come up with any excuse to drink again, like playing mental chess against yourself where black always wins. In the endless cycle of self-doubt it was a reasonable question to ask. In my case I felt it went some way toward explaining the inexplicable – to have been sober for 16 years, so much work done, progress made, a whole new personality carved out, and yet to still have crashed off the wagon. It felt as if there had to be some deeper reason – that I had not been fully healed and happy when sober, because always there was this thing that crept up on me. At first I pinpointed it roughly to March and the onset of spring, which seemed perverse; surely autumn was the time for bouts of astonishing gloom and uncertainty? Then I read an account by a remarkable adopted woman who described her deep sadness at not knowing why she looked the way she did. There it was, in two simple lines: “Yet every year, every single goddamn year, as my birthday approaches, the thoughts find their way in, and I am filled with a plethora of emotion and wonder.”

I was born in April.   


Ireland, it has to be said, does not have a happy history. There are places that have suffered, in history, where the air of trauma is almost palpable: Cambodia, South Africa, Rwanda. I felt the same of Ireland. The Famine, the years of occupation and conflict, the mass emigrations… all have taken their toll on the Irish psyche. Theories have been posited about the national character – that they… we… are a mercurial people due to the inclement weather, which can run through four seasons in a day. Quick to laugh, quick to anger, quick to tears of remorse and then back again to laughter. And perhaps there’s something in it. Perhaps too, the strictures of Catholicism, overlaid upon a deep and often brutal pagan mythology, led to this endless cycle of outburst, guilt and remorse. The Celts had sacrificed people in bogs. In more recent times many of the disappeared of the Troubles lie there still.

I can see her drowned

body in the bog,

the weighing stone,

the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first

she was a barked sapling

that is dug up

oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,

her blindfold a soiled bandage,

her noose a ring

to store

the memories of love.

Little adulteress,

before they punished you 

Seamus Heaney – Punishment

http://creativewritingguild.com/sl/analysis/punishment-seamus-heaney-full-text/

There was something else I knew about Tuam that was on my mind as I looked out at its blustery streets. An article that I had read earlier that year, in Goa, with the egrets croaking in the palm trees outside, and the heat like an oven’s glare off the stone floor. The piece had pitched me into a cycle of mood swings lasting several days – an episode, the shrinks might call it – which was devastating yet revealing. It was in The Guardian. “Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland.” 800 skeletons of children and infants, found in a septic tank at the home, run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Catholic religious order of nuns, who received unmarried pregnant women to give birth. The women were separated from their children, who remained elsewhere in the home, raised by nuns, until they could be adopted. Those who survived.

Eight hundred. In the sewer. In one home. As Catherine Corless, the Tuam historian who discovered the records indicating the mass grave pointed out, this was no different to other homes across Ireland. They all had the same mentality: that these women and children should be punished. The scale of this national trauma is only just beginning to be understood.

Whatever I know about James and Mary, I know they had no choice but to flee to England. They did have another choice available to them, though. Those boats were full of pregnant Irish women seeking abortions in England. Still are, in fact: abortion is still illegal in Ireland. But they made the choice to put me up for adoption. Whatever I know about them, they did the best they could in appalling circumstances, wanting what was best for me, and made, perhaps inevitably from my point of view, the right decision.

I am, incidentally, totally and utterly committed to a woman’s right to an abortion. 100% Pro-Choice.

       

Arrivals

The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.

 Paul Theroux – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star


Back to a simpler, more languid existence in Goa. Time-pass, as they say here, instead of time-poor. Thunderous downpours in the steamy heat, cascades of water off giant tropical leaves, the violent green of the paddy fields. Everything is damp and redolent of mildew. The locals hang plastic sheeting on their balconies to keep out the rain and giant whorls of mould spiral up the sides of the buildings. Clothes never fully dry after washing. Puddles form in the footwell of the car – a small blue box with tiny wheels, which is rusting visibly by the day. It judders over red laterite puddles in the potholed lanes, swaying crazily. Everything here is antique, like being transported abruptly into an earlier age. All the technology is failing in this climate; my phone has developed a series of vertical lines across the screen which render it unusable. The solution is to leave it in a bag of rice for three days to dry out. The electricity goes off repeatedly. Jungle life in the monsoon. It takes time to adjust. Go slow.

It wasn’t even a month ago, in another world… a sleepless night in London, on a friend’s couch. Around midnight I awoke to the first sirens, and cursed the city’s perpetual din, its endless assault on the senses. Soon after came the chop of a helicopter’s rotors, interminably hovering, breaking away, returning. What were they looking for? I remembered this from when I used to live in London – endless police helicopters overhead. Grumpily I turned and pulled the pillow over my head, snatched fragments of sleep, tried to resist the temptation to look at my watch and the dwindling hours before I’d have to get up and make my way to the airport.

In the light of a summer dawn that poured slowly through the quiet streets I rose and pulled back the kitchen curtains to be confronted with a sickening sight – one that makes your heart immediately thump, an awful, iconic scene of our age. A column of smoke, hundreds of feet high, burnished by the rising sun, and around it like insects three helicopters buzzed, helpless at a distance. As we do now, I reached for my phone to see what had happened. Another attack? A tragedy, certainly. BBC: “Huge blaze engulfs West London tower block. Many trapped, 6 believed killed.” Now, weeks later, the authorities say we may never know how many. It was the latest in a long string of calamities that befell Britain that summer, as incomprehensible as if malignant stars had somehow aligned overhead. And each time thoughts turn to those we love, through blow after blow, until a sort of wan resignation sets in: I have watched these events from so many places; probably you are not there; you will be alright; I cannot comprehend the alternative.

The Hammersmith and City line was shut, countless roads closed. Citymapper directed me to Shepherd’s Bush Tube and the Central Line to Marble Arch. From there the coach would take me to Luton Airport. How well I know these streets, eerily empty at this hour. There is a cafe where I once sat – I forget who with or why. The coach nosed north, the wide West End streets becoming narrower, more chaotic and colourful. We passed through Kensington and then Kilburn. I took in the small shops, the new arrivals, the passers-by, people waiting at bus stops, as if I were still half-heartedly looking for someone. Once a staunchly Irish area, now it was far more multicultural – a microcosm of London itself, and how it had changed over my lifetime. This was the suburb that a young couple had come to in 1973, fleeing Ireland, the strictures of church and family, small-town scandal and moral judgement, as her pregnancy became increasingly visible. James and Mary. My birth parents.

The departure hall at Luton was packed with holidaymakers clad in shorts and T-shirts. The board was a list of familiar names – there was the Vueling flight to Roma that we had taken two years earlier. All of Europe was laid out: Sofia, Barcelona, Riga, Ibiza, Venezia. But it was easy to recognise the boarding gate for the Ryanair to Knock. These passengers weren’t dressed for a holiday; they were going home. Many carried jackets and thick sweaters, though it was 28 degrees. I recognised features familiar from my Welsh relatives – short of stature, with pale skin, light-coloured eyes, many with reddish hair and freckles – except their accents were rounder, more rapid. I found myself amongst the Irish.

Having spent much of my life as an ethnic minority, the odd one out in a crowd, even amongst my own melting-pot nationality of the mongrel British, for the first time I truly felt that I fitted in – in terms of outward appearance, at least – and then immediately wondered why I felt the need to. A sense of belonging? After a lifetime of travel that seemed an odd condition to suddenly require. I’d always been an exile, was indeed virtually brought up to be one, in schools that were essentially training for a life of colonial rule that no longer existed, ‘home’ being a far country that we visited periodically every few years – a place of odd associations, in childhood: of the smell of frying bacon, of the picture on the HP sauce bottle, of ‘the Office’ in King Charles Street, or the old biscuit tin that was decorated with a scene of Westminster Bridge circa. 1950 – empty of traffic but for a couple of postwar cars, a boy in a flat cap on a bike, a Routemaster bus, and a policeman in blue tunic and tall Bobby’s hat; this ‘home’ from where the chimes of Big Ben emanated as a prelude to the BBC World Service news and the jaunty notes of Lillibullero (an old Irish tune, ironically), a blur of short-wave static emphasising our very distance from it. It was perhaps our lot to live in exile. I had seen the city through so many incarnations of myself, so many people come and gone. London held so many memories, and yet consistently failed to live up to its own hype.

I was used to being lost; I enjoyed the sensation and had enough by way of inner resources to not feel threatened by it. But I knew that I was subject to a cyclical pattern of mood or behaviour which I was not always able to discern until the impact was observed on others; that old fear of madness again, where you lose the ground beneath your feet, are no longer quite sure who you are, and first become aware of it through the nervous glances of friends. Is he alright? 

And I knew too that I was, in a sense, playing with fire on this trip – that there was a whole Pandora’s Box of emotion, personal history and identity loosely hung together that might well fly apart. I had no idea where I was going – only that I must go. So, as always, I put on my traveller’s disguise, British passport issue. Just bumbling through… What, you want me to stand over here? Look that way? Fill in this form? Ok, sure. Tourism. A fortnight’s holiday. Yes. I am alright.

From 30,000 feet the patchwork fields of the English Midlands were laid out neatly in the sunshine; a fertile, abundant landscape, sculpted and coerced over the centuries into extraordinary productivity. On the horizon the sails of a wind farm turned lazily. In the seat next to me an Irish aunty demurely read some mildly scandalous airport novel with close attention.

After a while she closed the book, turned to me and asked: “Going home?”

I gave a wry smile. “Just a holiday for a couple of weeks, round Galway and Mayo.”

“Oh lovely. That’s the best part, I always think. I’m from Mayo myself, but live in Melbourne these days with my daughter.”

We talked about Australia for a while. “So many of the lads from our town have gone there now,” she said. “Ten years ago it was different, people were actually coming home to Ireland. But now they are leaving again, looking for work.”

“There’s a long history of it. A nation of exiles.”

“There is,” she sighed. “I’m glad I’m an old lady now. I wouldn’t want to be young these days, with all the debt and no jobs.”

“It’s the same in England,” I said. “Everyone running faster and faster just to keep their head above water. Busy busy, no security, no future. But if you’re lucky you can carve out a niche for yourself and find a life you’re happy in.”

“What is this Brexit thing all about?” she asked me. “Have they all gone mad over there?”

It was a question I was to be asked repeatedly in the coming days, and I had no answers, despite a few theories.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is a good idea. We’ll see what happens.”

“Isn’t that the truth of it.” She picked up her book once more.

I awoke to a very different scene outside the window. A lumpy green landscape dotted with slate-grey lakes came into view through wisps of ragged cloud. An enormous river meandered through it, and I saw small boats moored at a marina. There were tiny cottages alongside, all painted white. The fields were smaller than England, more haphazardly laid out, hummocky and rugged, demarcated with stone walls clearly visible from the air. We had begun our descent into Knock – an airport described as “boggy and foggy” – where, the pilot informed us, it was 14 degrees and raining.

It looked more like Iceland than Ireland. We walked across blustery tarmac to the tiny terminal. There was a stationary carousel for the luggage, but nobody seemed to have any. Immigration was a solitary guard in a booth who glanced at the sea of Irish faces passing him by and waved through all the proffered maroon EU passports. The arrivals hall was rural; a girl in muddy gumboots with a jumping labrador greeted her returning parents; fathers gave awkward hugs to hulking, bashful sons temporarily come home. Two backpackers with hiking poles and woolly hats marched up and down the concourse looking for an ATM. Three priests went by, young men in a Mediterranean swagger of black. Next to the currency exchange booth was an office marked “Pilgrimage Assistance”. Indeed, the airport’s entire reason for existing was due to the proximity of the shrine at Knock, known for its miracles. A local priest, Monsignor James Horan, had made it his lifetime’s work to have the airport constructed in order to ferry in pilgrims, and a statue of him just outside the exit showed a man with both arms raised aloft in victory towards a leaden sky that spat thin flecks of drizzle.

The weather thickened in the night, and the rain came down hard, drumming off the slate roof, spattering the windows, drilling vertical curtains of wet into the already sodden fields. I lay in an unfamiliar bed, listening to it fall, marshalling my thoughts, reassembling myself into consciousness. I was bound for Galway that day on the Bus Eireann from Derry, which would arrive at the village by 11.

I browsed the news on my phone as I had breakfast, the true scale of the tower block fire becoming apparent. Quite apart from the untold personal tragedies that occurred that night, I knew this would convulse an already reeling nation, becoming politicised. I was reminded of Ian Jack’s brilliant piece for Granta in 1989, Unsteady People, from when he was travelling in Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most corrupt states, as it still is today. A ferry accident at Manihari Ghat had left four hundred dead, and soon after he returned home to the UK the Hillsborough disaster happened – the aftermath and repercussions of which are still being felt some thirty years later with an endless apportioning of blame. At the time, the victims of Hillsborough – the Liverpool supporters especially – were attacked by the press for being hooligans… “drunks, beasts, uneducated, ignorant, violent”. As Jack says, the accusations would have been familiar to any citizen of Bihar, used to taking the blame for being who they are. “I am afraid we are not a steady people,” an old man had said to Jack on his visit – and indeed, as anyone who has lived in India for a while can testify, the unsteadiness can be deeply disconcerting: the total indifference to risk, the devil-may-care driving, the mercurial nature of the crowd and how quickly it can turn into a mob.

But then something shifted in the UK coverage, which highlighted just how far apart the two countries were in their approach to disaster. A ‘national tragedy’ was declared in Britain. Mourning began. Liverpudlian politicians demanded a royal visit to acknowledge the scale of the calamity. One commentator pronounced that the victims had “died for football”.

Nobody in Bihar would have suggested that the dead of Manihari Ghat had made such a noble sacrifice. Nobody would have said: ‘They died to expunge corruption, caste and poverty.’ Whatever their other faults, Biharis are not a self-deluding people.

Ian Jack – “Unsteady People”, Granta 28, 1st September 1989

I was mulling this over as I stood by the roadside in the drizzle, at the small Bus Eireann stop marked with its logo of a galloping red setter. Cars whizzed by, each a small, isolated bubble, windows up, headlights on, wipers going. There were no roadside shacks, no chai stalls, no buses pulling in with people hanging out the doorways. Life was passing by, but at a remove and a steady 100kmh. Eventually I made out the insect-antenna wing mirrors of a large coach and optimistically stuck out my thumb. 64 Gaillimh said the display. It pulled up, settled itself with a hydraulic sigh, and I boarded into a warm fug. Four Africans chatted animatedly at the front. At the rear there was a seat free next to a teenage girl who rather grudgingly moved her bag to accommodate me before plugging her headphones back in and staring glumly out the window. She checked her phone every 30 seconds for the entire journey.

Ahead of me were no less than three tweed caps, and my neighbour across the aisle was a muscular man with a crew cut, numerous tattoos and one arm in a cast. He had a harsh Northern Irish accent, and I tried not to make judgements about how he might have acquired such an injury; each week it seemed there was another kneecapping or punishment beating in the North, just as I remembered from the 80s. “They” hadn’t gone away, as various keyboard warriors on the internet were quick to point out. When I later told this story to a friend from Northern Ireland, about how I was a little ashamed of my judgmentalism but that we – in Britain at least – had been so conditioned by the coverage of the Troubles that it was hard to shake off the historical suspicion, she laughed and said: “I’d have thought exactly the same.”

We were passing through Knock, which looked rather like Assisi in a greyer latitude had it been done out in breeze-block. Dozens of small shops sold religious artefacts, and one had two life-sized statues of the Virgin Mary flanking its doorway. A church done in brutalist concrete was surmounted by a gigantic needle of a spire. A few days earlier there had apparently been a miracle: I had watched five-and-a-half minutes of shaky footage online which looked to me rather like clouds parting to reveal the setting sun, but which had been accompanied by various ecstatic cries from onlookers celebrating the Virgin making her presence known. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if it reminded me more of a Velazquez, or… was that a bit of trunk?… perhaps of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu pantheon. Cultural contexts.