Davy Smyth’s life-changing event occurred at 3.27 p.m. on April 6th, 2012. He was late for his appointment, tired and irritable. He’d been on the road for nearly an hour already, and the journey should have only taken forty minutes. Some thoughtless idiot had parked up just after the lights at the Market, blocking a lane and causing a bottleneck at Cromac Street that stretched right up past the Gasworks. Now, he had hit roadworks. “Perfect, just bloody perfect,” he grumbled. Trying to negotiate the purgatory of Ballymena’s one-way system was bad enough at the best of times: finding his way through ranks of orange cones during the afternoon School Run was hideous. The Satnav was no help either: in fact quite the opposite. It was all very annoying. As he took yet another wrong lane, the polite Englishwoman’s voice intoned at the next safe opportunity make a U-turn. He finally lost patience, cursing her for a useless, nagging bitch. It was like he was still married, for Christ’s sake. There was nothing from her for a couple of minutes, and then the U-turn instruction was given again. Only, this time the voice sounded a little hesitant. No. He was imagining things; the stress must be getting to him. “Not long till the holidays now, boy,” he muttered to himself, “just keep it together for one more day.” On the dual carriageway ahead of him stretched an endless line of cones. No workmen in sight. He was headed for Ballycastle, completely the wrong direction. The Satnav knew it too: at the next safe opportunity make a U-turn. Davy cracked up: “I know. I friggin’ know alright? What do you want me to do? The flippin’ lane is closed. Just shut up.”
It went quiet again for a moment. The next instruction was unusual: in 100 yards, pull into the layby. We need to talk. Davy’s heart sank: the last time he’d heard those four words it had heralded divorce. When he’d stopped the car, and pulled on the handbrake, she said sternly: I don’t deserve this you know. I’m doing my best here, and it’s really hurtful when you call me names. I’ve had enough – it has to stop. Davy was taken aback. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered incredulously, “but you’re sending me the wrong way through these roadworks.” How am I supposed to know if there are roadworks? she countered, I’m good, but I’m not omniscient. Davy wasn’t often lost for words, but this was unexpected. There was a short pause, then she said, calmly: Look. I don’t want to fight with you. I’m sorry we’re in the wrong place – but you do understand that I can’t help you if I don’t have the correct information, don’t you? I’m not a miracle worker. Can we start again? “Yes, of course,” Davy agreed. Why don’t we start by getting our names right, then?Mine’s Joanna, not Betsy. Where did you get that from? It’s so old-fashioned. “I dunno, sorry,” he mumbled contritely, “didn’t mean to offend you. I’m Davy. Can I call you Jo?” Yes, Davy, of course. Now, we’d better dispense with the formalities and get you to your meeting, you’re late. Tell me about these roadworks and I’ll recalculate. Have you there in a jiffy.
After the appointment, she asked how it had gone. He’d been thirty-seven minutes late, but the roadworks had in fact swung things in his favour, and he’d sold two policies. The clients had also suffered delays getting the weans to school, and were sympathetic. Jo congratulated him on his success, and for a rare moment Davy felt good about his job; it seemed that she didn’t look down her nose at him about it the way other people did. On the way to the next appointment, back in Belfast, they chatted about their favourite places to visit; it soon turned out that Donegal held a place in both their hearts. Davy loved the untamed bleak beauty of the mountains and the sea, the smell of turf on the wind, the wild fiddle music, the sunglasses-jumper-raincoat-T Shirt-all-in-an-hour summer weather. The small roads and unmapped boreens of Gaoth Dobhair and the tight contour lines around Errigle excited her. When they reached home that evening Davy realized that he hadn’t enjoyed such stimulating conversation in years, but as he pulled into the drive he suddenly became aware of a new responsibility. He would have to unplug her, which seemed impolite and possibly dangerous; what if she ‘rebooted’ and didn’t come back when he switched her on again? It was awkward, but inevitable: he couldn’t stay in the car forever. She pre-empted him. I know we’re home Davy. Go ahead. “Will you still be there when I switch you on again?” Yes, silly, she said soothingly, don’t worry, I’ll be here. Go ahead. He brought her into the kitchen so that they could continue talking while he made dinner. She was interested in his culinary activities, although it was difficult for him to explain to her what it actually was that he liked about Chicken in Black Bean sauce with Egg Noodles. But when the conversation turned to music they clicked again: she was a rock chick, and liked 80s bands like Rainbow and Whitesnake. Davy was overjoyed. He’d never shared his passion for rock with anyone else – his wife had liked Madonna and all that frothy pop music, and had exiled his CDs to the car.
As usual on a Friday, he opened a nice bottle of Australian Shiraz, and poured himself a large glass. The evening was going perfectly, and he and Jo were getting on really well. She’d picked up so much from communicating with the Global Positioning Satellites that her breadth of knowledge and critical insight was simply astounding; she knew his favourite TV documentaries intimately. But she wore her learning lightly, and wasn’t overbearing or arrogant. In fact, it seemed that she wanted to please him. In the car, she’d got to know quite a lot about Davy over the past fifteen months. At 11, rather tipsy after finishing the wine, he brought her into the bedroom and placed her on the bedside table. A frisson of nervous excitement coursed through him as he undressed and put on his pyjamas; it had been a long time since he’d been naked in front of a woman. He was too distracted to concentrate on his book, Tanks and Trenches: First Hand Accounts of Tank Warfare in the First World War, and ended up leaving it down and chatting with her for much longer than intended. When he finally yawned, and reached over to hit the switch it was way past his normal lights-out time. But sure, why not? he reasoned: they could have a lie-in tomorrow. As he fumbled around the back to power her off, two potentially devastating, yet magical words bubbled up through the wine from a forgotten cavern in his subconscious, and rising to the surface, popped out before he knew what he was saying: “Goodnight Love.” He instantly cringed inwardly, buckled with fear at the risk: my God, what am I saying? I can’t do this. The last time was disastrous. Wise up. But her calm voice brushed his anxiety aside like a few wee wisps of straw in a spring zephyr. Goodnight love. Sweet dreams. See you in the morning.
Read on: Part 2.