Early Summer, 1967, age 15
“C’mon, it’ll be great! Just talk to Dad. I’m sure he’ll be OK. It’ll be a gas!” John was really hyped up.
It was the summer holidays and John had come up with another wild scheme: we should hitchhike to Ireland. Once we got to Dungarvan, we could borrow Mummy’s van and drive around the country—no need for a driver’s license in Ireland. There was only one snag: with no phone, we’d have to persuade Mummy once we got there.
John was excited, filling my head with images of friends and freedom, escapades and adventure. To make it even more tempting, we could take Osman with us.
Osman Omar was John’s friend. They worked as waiters at the Star of India, a Pakistani restaurant. I liked Osman: he was gentle and ungainly with a round brown face and dark dreamy eyes. His smile radiated a kind of wide-eyed innocence. Like Jamillah, the Omar family was Algerian Muslims who lived in the poorer part of Cardiff, down near the docks. The idea of taking a brown North African Muslim to white Catholic Dungarvan was something John relished; it would add a dash of spice to the holiday.
Initially alarmed by the plan, it didn’t take much to persuade me. Exhausted and disheartened from the O Levels, bugged by the urge to get up and go, I desperately needed something to look forward to, something to jolt me out of my rut. God knows what I was letting myself in for—but then again, Ireland was special.
As long as I could remember I’d heard about Dungarvan and our farm near Tarrs Bridge where I was born. My sisters told sparkling stories of when our family had been prosperous and happy. We owned land, a herd of dairy cows and an apple orchard. The Evanses were respected members of the community with servants and a car, one of the few in the whole district. Like Dilly and John, I was born in Ireland.
When I was eight, we’d gone over to Dungarvan for the summer holidays. Mummy had purchased a pub and lodging house, the Harbor Rest, and there we stayed. I’d made friend with Desmond, an Irish boy my age, and we’d played together on the quayside. It was not a wonderful holiday: Mummy was drinking and there were lots of rows. But even so, I really wanted to go back to Ireland.
Dad was most approachable when he was puttering in the garden. I found him bent over inspecting his New Zealand spinach and edged into the topic. “Dad, John wants to go over to Ireland for the summer. Can I go with him?”
“I don’t see why not,” he replied without looking up.
Now for the tricky bit—I needed money. “We could hitchhike so it wouldn’t cost much. And food is cheaper over there. But I’d have to pay for the ferry.” It felt awkward hovering over him.
He cleared his throat and stood up. “How much do you need?”
Whenever it came to talk about money, Dad sounded burdened. I knew there just wasn’t enough to go around. Feeling guilty, I asked for as little as possible and told myself that with John and I out of the house, Dad would get some peace and quiet.
Dad dug into his pocket and handed me a few wrinkled pound notes.
“There’s a little extra,” he said with a tired smile.
I stuffed the notes into my new pigskin wallet, the one Dad had given me for my birthday. With that ordeal over, I felt a surge of relief and excitement: this could be fun.
Osman arrived a couple of mornings later carrying a small rucksack and the three of us took the bus to the roundabout at the edge of town. John showed us how to stick out our thumbs, begging for a ride to the port of Fishguard on the Western tip of Wales. We planned to catch the ferry to Rosslaire in Ireland that evening.
For some reason, drivers seemed reluctant to stop for three adolescent boys messing about on the side of the road. Finally, John settled on an old family trick: when you have six children needing a lift, hide five of them! John stuck out his thumb, Osman and I kept out of sight and whenever a driver slowed down, we leapt out of hiding and crowded into the car.
Rides were few and far between so Osman and I had plenty of time to chat. His family had come from Algeria when he was a child. It was hot there, in contrast to Cardiff’s damp chill. He was proud of his heritage, proud of being a Muslim: Ben Ali, his middle name, meant he was descended from an important religious figure. As the eldest boy, it was his job to assist in the ritual slaughter of the sacrificial sheep for the feast of Eid. The animal lived in their backyard for days while his father coached him in Arabic prayers and the correct way to slit the sheep’s throat. Eid was the high point of the family’s whole year.
The day slipped away; with so few cars stopping, we took any ride headed in a westerly direction, even those well off the beaten path. Dusk fell and we found ourselves on a deserted back road. It started drizzling. Tired, irritable and getting more sodden by the minute, we read the sign for the next village: Eglwyswrw. With that unpronounceable name, it did not look promising.
“John, we can’t keep going. The ferry is miles away and there’s no cars.” Fed up and cold, my enthusiasm had worn thin. Osman looked totally miserable.
“Just wait. Something will turn up,” John replied. As usual, he was annoyingly optimistic.
At the edge of the village we spotted a small gray chapel. It was set back from the road behind a low iron fence; its arched windows were dark.
“Hold on. That’s it, just what we’ve been looking for.” John sprinted off the road and around the back of the chapel. My heart sank: Oh no, what’s he up to?
We peered into the murk to see if anyone was around. Osman’s eyes showed up large and white against his brown skin. “I’m not going into that place. I’ve never been in one of them and I’m not going in now.”
After a few minutes, John reappeared, positively beaming. “I’ve found an open window round the back. Come on you two—get a move on before anyone sees us. Wait for me at the front door.” Reluctantly we walked up the path and stood nervously outside the door.
John must have got into the window because, in a few long minutes, there was clanking from inside and the oak door creaked open. Osman stood rigid, not making a move. “You two go in… I can’t, I can’t. It’s full of ghosts.” His voice trembled.
John sounded irritated. “What’s your problem? Where’d you get that stupid idea? It’s just a dusty old chapel.” He caught hold of Osman’s arm to drag him inside.
Osman dug his heals in and pulled back. “Everyone knows them places are haunted. My Dad told me—they do bad things in churches. Drink blood and stuff.” He was honestly scared.
John scoffed and kept dragging at him but I felt a shiver of fear up my spine. This is a church, a sacred place! Maybe there are ghosts. Maybe we’ll get punished for desecration. Is it a sin to seek shelter from the cold and rain?
That last thought decided me: we couldn’t sleep outside and we weren’t doing any harm. I helped John drag Osman through the door.
Inside, the air was still and musty—no incense or rich textures like a Catholic church. A faint light bled through the windows, just enough to see the shadowy pews. John lit his cigarette lighter and went off to explore while Osman and I huddled together, peering around for ghosts and thunderbolts.
“I found some candles in the back room.” John’s voice echoed slightly. He came forward carrying a flickering light and the chapel took shape. It was plain and cheerless: simple pine benches, a pulpit and bare altar. The only floor covering was a strip of brown carpet on the steps up to the altar.
“Where are we going to sleep?” I asked John.
We searched around the unadorned room for anything soft and comfortable—nothing.
“I suppose it has to be the steps. There’s nowhere else.”
I could tell Osman was beginning to relax: there was no blood, just a big empty room with nothing to soften the hard surfaces. Using our bags pillows, we huddled together on the threadbare carpet.
Sleep was fitful; the floor was cold and a part of me stayed alert in case someone or something burst in. At first light, blurry and irritable, we dragged ourselves off the floor. Osman and I slipped out the door while John locked it after us and exited through the window. No one would know we’d ever been there.
We walked over an hour to Fishguard, bought ferry tickets and hung around until the evening. Once on board ship, we joined a crowd filing into the large open lounge fitted with rows of rigid red plastic chairs. The growling engines fired up and as the ferry rounded the harbor walls and Atlantic waves pounded the hull, the bar opened up. A gang of rowdy men made a mad rush to get their duty free booze.
The journey across the Irish Sea was a nightmare. The lounge was stuffed with heaving bodies, families with screaming babies crouched on the floor and drunken men sang sad Irish songs. A haze of cigarette smoke mingled with the stench of alcohol and vomit. The hard seats were torturous and with no room to stretch out, I dozed uneasily amidst the bedlam.
A dreary dawn saw the ferry berthed in Roslaire harbor. Exhausted and dispirited, we dragged our way down the gangplank to the station platform in time to catch the morning train. I hardly noticed where I was; all I could think of was sleep.
John went to buy tickets. As soon as the train arrived, we shoved our way through the crowd and installed ourselves in our own train compartment, a little room with soft benches facing each other and a rack above for bags. Closing the sliding door and pulling down the blinds, we were safe from intruders. Bags were stuffed into the racks and amidst a chorus of groans we threw ourselves down on the worn fabric seats.
Instantly, I was fast asleep. At some point, intermingled with dreams, I sensed a conductor open and close the door. Sounds of whistles and banging doors jolted me awake. I pulled the blind aside and looked out. The sign said Mallow.
“John, wake up. Is this our station?” I called out.
Sleepily, John sat up and looked out the window. Immediately, he shouted, “Shit, we’ve missed our stop. Get the bags, we’ve got to get out—now!”
With an adrenaline scramble, we jumped out of the train just as it made a forward lurch along the platform. Whooping and panting, we watched as it pull away and disappear around the bend.
“Where are we?” asked Osman, looking bemused.
The three of us stood alone on an empty concrete platform with a small redbrick building behind. Around us was a sea of green trees and overgrown bushes. Puffy white clouds drifted across a watery blue sky; it looked like it might rain. I took a deep breath of cool moist air. I’m in Ireland. Even with a furry mouth and hunger pangs, it felt good.
John shook off the last wisps of sleep and took charge. “We must’ve slept through Dungarvan. We’re in Mallow, miles away. Maybe we can catch the next train back.”
We found the uniformed ticket officer behind a battered wooden counter. He looked up, unhurried and amiable as we approached. John explained we’d missed our stop in Dungarvan and asked about trains.
The ticket man answered in a creamy-thick, singsong accent: “Dungarvan? You’re out of luck, boyos. They shut down the station in March. You could take the train to Waterford—that’s closest. Let me see…” He consulted the timetable on the wall. “That’d be the milk train, six fifteen tomorrow morning.”
Not again! I couldn’t face another sleepless night. Osman and I gave each other a questioning look: how come John hadn’t known the station was closed?
John asked for directions to Dungarvan. The officer paused and looked thoughtful. “Well now, I suppose that’ll be the Fermoy road. When you get to Fermoy, take the Lismore road to the crossroads. You’ll see the sign for Cappoquin… ” The directions went on and on. I was totally lost and hoped John got the gist of it.
We thanked the man, left the station and turned onto a narrow lane crowded with overgrown bushy hedges.
“So—didn’t you buy tickets to Dungarvan?” I asked John.
He gave a grin. “Well, not really—just to Wexford. It’s the next stop along from Rosslaire and they never check tickets after that.”
That explained our predicament: one of John’s ethical lapses.
In the mossy lane, a mass of leafy plants with large white umbrella-shaped flowers grew along the roadsides while blackberry brambles tangled through the hedges. We searched the hedgerows, but the blackberries were unripe. Of more concern was the road: the tarmac had a strip of grass growing down the center.
Hitchhiking in Ireland was worse than Wales: fits and starts, long walks and short rides. A rusty old car passed every five minutes or so, usually a local farmer ready to turn onto a track a mile up the road. Those who stopped were older men with vehicles smelling of cow manure and hay. Invariably friendly, they wanted to know all about us and where we were going. John chatted easily in a half-Irish singsong accent. Osman and I stayed quiet.
A couple of hours later, weary and hungry we arrived at the town of Fermoy and got something to eat and drink at a cafe. There was more traffic but it took half an hour before, a small green Ford pulled over. The driving seat was filled to overflowing with a hugely fat man. He leaned over awkwardly and opened the passenger-side door for us.
“You guys looking for a ride?” The accent was Texan drawl, easy to recognize from all those John Wayne movies. John explained we were trying to get to Dungarvan.
“Well, get in. I’m going to Waterford—if I can just get this piece of shit moving.” With difficulty, Osman and I crammed into the back seat. John sat squashed against the door in the front. The fat man revved the engine and off we went—sort of.
With a roar and crashing of gears the car made a violent leap forward and stalled.
There followed a lot of American cussing. “I don’t know what’s wrong with these goddamn Irish cars. This one’s got no more power than a lawn mower.” He turned the ignition, the car gave a few violent jerks, the engine rose to a high-pitched whine and we crept forward at a speed of fifteen miles per hour.
John half turned and gave us one of his looks. In the back Osman and I spluttered, trying not to laugh out loud. After an excruciating mile crawling along, John put the driver out of his misery: the car was not automatic—you had to shift gears. What a revelation! John proceeded to coach the massive Texan on how to use the clutch and gear stick, and before long, the big guy, covered with smiles and gratitude, drove us on our jerky way and dropped us at our destination.
Dungarvan town square, with its painted shop fronts, looked bright in the late afternoon sun. We thanked the Yank for the ride and John led us to his favorite pub, Keane’s. The dark wood-paneled bar smelled of beer and cigarettes with a single customer nursing his drink in a corner. John strode up to the counter and ordered three pints of his favorite—Black Velvet—a wicked mixture of draft Guinness and hard cider. The barman looked at us twice but pulled the pints and set them up.
We took our potions into the snug, a small secluded area off the main room and over drinks and peanuts we made a plan of action. John had left Ireland ten month’s earlier. Since then, Mummy had sold the Harbor Rest pub so he had no idea where she lived—a detail he’d failed to mention. But he had a solution: Bob Mahoney who owned a grocery store was sure to know: my mother bought provisions there. Feeling a little sick and dizzy, I stumbled out of the pub and we set off to find Bob Mahoney: Grocer.
A bell tinkled as we entered the tiny shop on Main Street. Directly in front of the door was a wooden counter surrounded by shelves and bins crammed to overflowing with all kinds of foodstuffs. A curtained doorway let to the family rooms and at the sound of the bell, Bob Mahoney popped out from around the curtain, all smiles and welcomes. Rotund and jovial, immaculate wavy white hair pomaded down, broad tummy covered by a spotlessly white apron, he looked every inch the perfect grocer.
Bob called for his wife and they fussed over us, asking how long we intended to stay, pressing bars of Cadbury’s chocolate into our hands. Overwhelmed by the effusive kindness, I stood silent and smiling. When the hubbub subsided, John asked for directions to my mother’s new home.
Bob’s smile left his face. “Ah, your mother. She could do with a little help. Go on down Main Street to the end, then right onto Church Street. It’s down the alleyway on your left—Bath Street. D’you know the one, John? It goes down to the quay. You can’t miss it” Somewhat puzzled by the instructions we left the cosy little shop.
After a short walk we entered Bath Street and looked around. The narrow alley was bordered by tall featureless walls except for an open derelict site piled with rubble, overrun with nettles and brambles. Hunched against a sidewall with its end to the alley was a small caravan, its rounded roof sagging, its hardboard walls covered with peeling gray paint, the whole thing looking like an old toaster made of sodden cardboard. Red curtains blocked the windows giving the impression the caravan was abandoned. An equally neglected gray van squatted beside the caravan with nettles growing around its wheels.
“Is this the place?” asked Osman in a small voice.
“I don’t know. I think this is her van.” John seemed confused. “We’d better check and see. The door must be around the side. Moey, why don’t you knock? She might not want to see me,” he added with a crooked smile.
Reluctantly, I edged along the side of the caravan past a couple of water-filled buckets and knocked gently on the door. John and Osman moved across the alley as if to avoid contagion.
There was movement inside and a muffled but familiar voice shouted angrily, “Go away! Get away from here or I’ll call the Guards.”
I stood back from the door but John gestured me to go on. I knocked again and called out, “It’s me, Moey—your son. We’ve come to visit.” Suddenly it struck me: This is a very bad idea. She didn’t know we were coming and she doesn’t want us here.
“Hold on.” Her voice was sharp but not quite so fierce. The caravan rocked slightly in rhythm to some clumping and banging inside, then the door was shoved open with a wrenching screech of metal and there stood my mother, hair awry, a floral dressing gown gaping open to expose a flimsy blue nightdress beneath. I stepped back.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, eyeing me up and down. Then she caught sight of John and Osman. “Oh, it’s you; I might have guessed. I thought you were the local hooligans.” Her tone was part exasperation and part acknowledgment. “And who is that other boy?” She glared over at Osman who looked ready to run.
“This is Osman. He came over with us from Cardiff.” It was easier to speak when Mummy’s spotlight was on someone else.
“Oh, all right. Wait a minute while I get dressed.” The door closed and we stood around in silence. In a few minutes she reappeared at the open doorway dressed in black slacks and jumper.
“As usual, you didn’t bother letting me know you were coming.” She gave John a hard look. Turning to Osman, her voice softened: “You better come in and sit down—things are a mess. John, you light the Primus. Moey—fill up the kettle from the bucket.” She handed me the kettle and stood back while first Osman and then John stepped up into the gloomy interior of the caravan.
I took my time filling the kettle, putting off the moment I had to enter Mummy’s lair. I thought of poor Osman, stuck in there with her. If John and I were so unready for her reception, what was Osman thinking?
Eventually, I stepped inside with the filled kettle. Immediately, the smell of paraffin, stale wine, cigarettes and moldering damp slapped me in the face. John was fiddling with one of the two Primus stoves on top of the tiny cooking area—a metal counter directly across from the door. A blue plastic washing bowl with wet dishes sat on a lower platform. Cupboards filled the rest of the space, overflowing with a jumble of pots, pans and clothing.
At the other end of the caravan, all of three paces away, my mother sat opposite Osman on a bed-seat covered with worn red cloth. Their knees almost touched. Beyond them, a low cupboard was crowded with a stack of books and an old-fashioned oil lamp, its glass globe blackened with soot. On my mother’s side, a burning cigarette perched on the edge of a filled ashtray. Beside it sat a half-filled wine glass next to a squat wine bottle labeled Emu. The glass had the imprint of bright red lipstick on the rim, a familiar sickening image.
The Primus was troublesome, flaring sooty yellow flames toward the low ceiling. Mummy called out instructions. “Don’t pump ‘til it’s hot. Careful—don’t burn the caravan down! That’s it. Now put the kettle on.” As the flames turned blue, I handed John the kettle and squeezed past to sit on the bed-seat next to Osman.
It was too close for comfort. At this distance I could see the individual pockmarks on Mummy’s face and neck. Her hair held a reddish tinge from her last visit to the hairdresser but the roots were turning brown. Determined green eyes gave her jowly face a kind of strength, an obsessive intensity that at this distance, made her presence overpowering.
My thoughts raced. Should I give her a kiss? What do I call her? I can’t call her Mummy like I used to—that sounds childish. This person in front of me was almost a stranger, yet I felt something—a jumble of embarrassment, pity and mysterious connection. She was my mother after all. If I couldn’t call her Mummy, then I’d call her Mother. Maybe that would help create a little distance. Mother suited her well: a title rather than a term of endearment.
John made tea in the teapot and while we drank, Mother subjected us to the third degree: “Why are you here? How long are you staying? Where on earth do you think you’re going to sleep? Do you have any money? Don’t expect me to pay for food.” The welcome was relatively benign, considering. Thank God we had Osman to take the edge off her meanness; her words could cut to the bone, but with a strangers she was almost polite.
After tea, John was sent to Mahoney’s to get supplies for supper while Osman and I endured more interrogation. I’d forgotten what it was like talking to her—a barrage of questions and opinions rather than a conversation. Every word clipped and sharp edged, every statement definite, it felt like being ensnared in a hedge of thorns.
On John’s return, Mother rose to the occasion and put together a fry-up: eggs, sausages, bacon and fried kidneys with frozen peas. After the meal was cleaned, we were assigned our sleeping places: I was to sleep on the bed-seat across the narrow walkway from Mother, less than an arms length away. John and Osman were more fortunate; they were given a couple of blankets to snuggle up in the back of the van.
Getting ready for bed was tricky. Mother had little modesty and was impatient with mine. “What are you doing? Don’t be silly. I’m your mother—I’ve seen you naked. Now get undressed and get into bed.” I was six years old again.
In the middle of the night, I got up to pee. As quietly as I could, I opened the screechy door and crept out. A dim streetlight cast an orange glow over the ivy covered rock walls and nettles. I walked along the side of the caravan to the shallow shit-pit in the corner of the walls and peed.
Back in bed, I struggled to sink back into blissful unconsciousness, but the soft snoring and jarring presence a few feet away, kept pulling at me. What am I doing here? How did I get into this weird situation?
Lying on the narrow bed in the caravan felt strangely familiar, almost déjà vu. Was it destined to happen, no matter what I did? Maybe john would come up with an escape plan, but in the meantime, I was ensnared and there was no use struggling.
The Hero’s Journey
We all know the plot—have read it in countless novels and seen it in hundreds of movies. The budding hero, male or female, launches into a long and dangerous journey. Against her better judgment, she renounces all that is familiar to set out on a perilous expedition in search of redemption, a just cause, a priceless treasure and often, true love. Ultimately, she wins the prize and discovers her courage and true purpose in the process.
Joseph Campbell called this narrative pattern the Hero’s Journey. We recognize its predictable structure in the action movies that come out of Hollywood. We’ve seen every plot twist. We know the protagonist will suffer terrible trials, are confident the quest will be successful. Even though trite and hackneyed, the narrative of the hero’s journey grips us, almost against our will.
Deeply embedded in our psyches, the hero archetype is a protagonist in the stories of our own lives. Celebrated tales—Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, Wonder Woman—resonate with the champion prowling our unconscious. In my earliest heroic incarnation, I was a knight of the round table on a quest to save the world from evildoers. Later, I was Siddhartha in Hermann Hesse’s book of the same name on a tortuous journey to attain enlightenment.
The hero ignores risk. Think of the explorers who set off on reckless expeditions—Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Vasco de Gama and myriads of others. We laud their success but forget the many adventurers whose journeys failed. They also embarked with confident optimism—but like Captain Robert Scott in the Antarctic their quest ended in disaster. Why did they set off into peril?
In essence, they were gripped by the archetype, blinded by a myth of epic achievement. The hero and the hero’s journey are spirits of exploration, of creativity and disruptive change. For the brilliant, brave and foolhardy, it bedazzles with visions of accomplishment; it propels the adventurer, the artist and inventor into the indefinite future even against their better judgment. These are the trailblazers: Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Einstein, Steve Jobs or Gandhi. Without their courage, our society and culture would be impoverished. We need them to show us what is humanly possible.
The hero lives within us all. It compels us to grow up, change jobs, get married, start a family and travel to foreign lands. It pushes us out the door of childhood to confront our fears and contend with the unnerving world of adulthood. Not knowing what to expect, not sure of success, we do it anyway—and that’s the point. If we were certain of a good outcome, the journey would be a dull excursion, not a transformative voyage.
Like most adolescents, I was hypnotized by my own hero myth. Our expedition to Ireland with its sleepless nights and misdirections was epic in my mind. Arriving at Dungarvan was meant to be the prize, the happy ending with me as the star of the adventure. I had suffered through terrible discomforts and sleepless nights; inevitably the rest would be easy and I would find self-assurance and inner peace. Like most adolescents (and many adults) I was enveloped by a pleasant fantasy; the disturbing reality of my mother and her situation was far from my awareness. I had no sense that things might get difficult.
The heart of the hero’s journey is ordeal. There are trials and hardships, diversions and missteps, false climaxes and daunting challenges. The path is long, twisted and rocky. Without the struggle—the anxiety and insomnia, the doubts and inner turmoil, the pain and misery—the whole thing is pointless, worthless. To become who we are meant to be, we are called to embrace difficulties with fortitude and determination. Purposeful suffering is the grit that polishes our souls.
As I stepped into the caravan, I crossed over a threshold and took on a mythic task. I entered an arena, an ambiance more intricate and mysterious than I could imagine—and my life slid sideways. A conspiracy of the universe had enfolded me in its dark cloak. Blind to reality, all I could see was the veil of illusion before my eyes.
The trip to Ireland had a feeling of fabled predestination. Like Oedipus I was ensnared by the fates. On the way to Thebes, Oedipus did not realize he had killed his own father. He thought he could saunter past the sphinx without solving her deadly riddle. I had no idea what it meant to go to Ireland. Unthinking, I’d blundered into the sphinx’s cave with no clue there was even a riddle to unravel.
The hero archetype had gripped me and pushed me off shore. My small self was adrift in the vast ocean of the unconscious; I had embarked willy-nilly on a long and arduous hero’s journey.
Read the next chapter: 9: The Complex Mother
 Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (2008). New World Library.