The carriage was quiet at first. Just me, my cappuccino and my book.
Then the old ladies came. Some alone but most in pairs, they shuffled along the aisle, halting every few steps to regain their balance, dragging their bags on wheels behind them. There was a chill in the air: the train heating is only on during the summer months, and the frail bodies of the elderly ladies did little to alleviate the cold. If one person is supposed to give out the warmth of a heater, these were malfunctioning single bar electric ones.
â€œOooh, itâ€™s coldâ€ they chattered, before settling down with their newspapers. Their ranks swelled as we passed through each station. Being one of the front carriages we carried the promise of a shorter walk at Heuston station. Old ladies are cunning. They all seemed to know each other and conversation was soon flowing. â€œIt took a long time to get to Charleville today, didnâ€™t it?â€ â€œWhere are we now?â€ â€œOhh, Limerick junction, I didnâ€™t think weâ€™d stop here, we took so long to get to Charleville.â€
The cold and damp was spreading through me; it had reached my ankles when the tea trolley arrived. I raided my many pockets and pulled together enough change for a cup of tea. On the journey down it had cost me â‚¬1.80; now it cost me â‚¬1.70. Maybe Iâ€™d been mistaken for a pensioner and given a discount? Maybe the last guy was skimming money off the tea and coffee? Maybe he just hated the English?
They got on at Thurles. Lower-middle class residents of middle England, they carried the slightly bewildered look of their type when overseas in a country that seems so similar, yet is so, so different. A son, his mother and her sister. The family resemblance was oh so very clear.
I was careful not to speak; to do so would have given away my nationality, with all sorts of dire consequences. If I wasnâ€™t careful Iâ€™d end up accompanying them to the airport after giving a tour of Dublin. I put my headphones in.
I had the plum seat of the block, by the window, facing forward. The son sat next to me. Mid thirties, overweight, ginger hair, glasses, a dirty hand-knit jumper and 3 day stubble. He pulled out his Judge Dread comics and started reading immediately, ignoring his motherâ€™s fussing. He was wearing a Claddagh ring, with the heart pointing outwards to indicate his availability. Hmmm.
His mother sat opposite me. She was wearing a black t-shirt with a tigerâ€™s head printed on in gold. Heavy gold hoops pulled her earlobes down, and she wore several pendants on a gold chain. Eschewing the traditional simple cross, she had a full crucifix in gold plate, dying jesus and all. Her skin was saggy and leathery, her nose hooked, and her teeth yellowing. She wore a badly crocheted blue beret on top of her mess of mousey brown hair.
Her sister was next to her. Clearly she too was a big fan of the Elizabeth Duke for Argos jewellery range, with heavy gold loops in her ears and the biggest sovereign ring I have ever seen on her left hand. Purple was evidently her favourite colour: The purple top, trousers, shoes, socks, and fur-trimmed purple coat made for quite an outfit. Her yellowing buck teeth and badly applied pink lipstick completed the look.
As a group they decided on coffee. Two purses and a pocket were emptied on to the table to allow for sorting the euros from the sterling. The mother held up a silver ten pence coin. â€œIs that a Euro?â€ she asked, â€œIâ€™ve got my proper money mixed up with them.â€
â€œHow much is a coffee?â€ she asked her son.
â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€ he replied, â€œProbably a Euro and a half.â€
â€œWell thatâ€™s a Euro there,â€ she said, pointing at 70 cents in change in front of her.
The son bought the coffee. He was able to work out the complexities of a decimal based currency not dissimilar to their own.
Nobody took sugar. They all took milk. I adopted a blank expression as they fumbled to open the tiny little uht milk pots theyâ€™d been given, podgy, unskilled fingers struggling with the dexterousness needed. First the aunt, then the son, and finally the mother, all spilled milk on themselves.