We finished the drawers, gathered all the brushes into a vase, the paints into a shoebox and started on the paintings, classifying them by theme and geography into the bins of a rack along one wall. We had a cup of tea and a scone (thanks Mum), and waded back into task. After some time, I turned over yet another grey-backed Rowney art-board to reveal “Duncannon Strand 1961”. There we were, my sister and I with our older brother and the red-white-&-blue Lilo air-mattress that we had brought from England that year for the annual visit to Ireland. There also was the red-white-&-blue beach-ball which never existed but which he had inserted “for balance” or, as we asserted indignantly at the time, because he had the paint there and didn’t want to waste it.
Apart from us and our partly mythical beach-gear, the beach in the painting was empty as far as the Fort on the headland and the sky was full of scudding cloud. So it must have been the Easter holidays. We came almost every year, often at Easter, to visit an ever diminishing store of elderly female relatives in Wexford and near Lough Derg in County Tipp. In Wexford, we would invariably stay in The Hotel, Duncannon. We spent every dry moment on the beach or in the dunes: damming the stream, making bastions against the incoming tide, daring each other to touch the raw-liver-coloured sea-anenomes or just turning white and wrinkly in the sea. With such small shoes, we tracked unbelievable quantities of sand back into the bed-rooms. Wet days were spent in the front-room of The Hotel wrangling and playing cards; watching, through the rain-slattered windows, the showers coming in one after the other across the sea from beyond the Waterford shore. The clock ticked loudly in the hallway and the day inched forward. If we could blag three-pence each from our parents, we went up the village to buy, and be delighted by, Lucky Bags but otherwise we were sustained by the enormous meals cooked by Nan Doyle. She laboured away in a fug of bacon-and-cabbage in the kitchen far down the dark corridor beyond the yeasty clatter of the bar.
The pinnacle of my day as a young gannet was the appropriately named high tea: the chairs in the dining room made no concession to little legs and my chin barely cleared my plate. But the appetite was undiminished: we ate like arctic explorers to replace the calories whipped away by wind-chill and “bracing” sea-water. After laying a foundation with slabs of white and brown soda-bread cemented with butter-&-jam, washed down by tea the colour of tomato soup, the fry arrived: rashers and sausage and fried egg sprinkled with the acrid black smuts which flaked off from Nan’s enormous black crusted skillet. After that, a selection of Nan-made sponge cakes was presented. We never ate like that at home and I’ve never eaten cakes with such loft, such subtle sweetness and such variety since that time.
Nan Doyle has long since gone to her rest, The Hotel burned down decades ago and was replaced in the boom-time by some handsome apartments. The crumb of Madeline which sent Proust tumbling back in time to a childhood tea with his Tante Léonie was gone in a minute. My father’s painting, which wrought a similar miracle of time travel for me, has lasted better. I must remember to tell the grand-children the truth about the beach-ball lest they think we had an extravagantly flaithiúlach childhood.