Twenty-Fifth of the Fifth, 2010. Our iconic day.
It went something like this… Clamber into the punt, whizz around West Cork’s beautiful Goat Island and whistle for the goats, get up close to some wild seals, watch the gannets dive, circle Long Island and stop to catch a mackerel. Head to Long Island pier, visit one of the Islanders for tea and get given a cabbage three times the size of my head. Carry the cabbage the length of the island to Westerland strand, rescue some stranded jellyfish and barbecue the mackerel. The End.
Or so we thought…
The next day, I headed back to Dublin and my friend Mick (now my husband) stayed in West Cork. Unknown to us, that legendary day was just the beginning and Long Island was about to become more special to us than we’d ever hoped.
In the early 1900’s, Long Island had a population of at least two hundred. But, like the corn crake, the numbers dwindled, and by the 1980’s, the population had depleted to about thirty. Mick remembers the ferry carting several children across Long Island Sound every morning for school. He talks of the days when the cattle were swum across to the mainland for market, of the time the island got its first donkey.
Those days are long gone; now there are no children on the island, the cattle don’t swim, and only three people inhabit the island year-round. But like the corn crake, the spirit of the island prevails through stories old and new.
The lady on the island that we visit is a legend; in her eightieth year, she still carries hay bales and digs up cabbages three times the size of your head, like the one she gave me during our visit. It’s characters like her – and my husband – that maintain the island’s spirit. Stories about a place keep it alive; and hopefully our own story will add to that.
One year after our first boat trip together on 25th May 2010, we decided to recreate our symbolic day, but the terrible weather and wild seas prevented any boat trips until June 11th.
As I got ready to go, Mick turned up with a huge bag, stuffed to the brim with goodness knows what and with several sticks poking out of the top. He never ceases to amaze me so I expected an ad-hoc camping trip or a quickly assembled home-made barbecue – what I wasn’t expecting was for us to reach a certain spot on the island, and for him to ditch me…
“Wait here and I’ll come back in a few minutes,” he said.
Luckily, being a writer, I always have a notebook to hand; and once I start concentrating, I don’t notice the time. Which was a good job seeing as he didn’t return for an hour and a half! Reappearing he handed me a rusty trowel (of all things) and pointed to Westerland Strand.
“Go on, get digging!”
That’s when I noticed huge arrows drawn on the sand. Clambering over rocks and around driftwood, I found a bottle sticking out of some pebbles. In it, was a hand-drawn treasure map which I began to follow. I’m terrible with directions so he stayed close behind, calling “you’re going the wrong way” at optimum times. After a while, I found a stick poking out of the sand and – as the map directed – started digging. Buried twelve inches down was a bottle containing a letter; the label said: ‘Don’t read me yet’.
Over the course of the next hour, I found two more sticks leading to two more bottles. After the third bottle was retrieved, I was finally allowed to sit and read the beautifully written letter inside the first bottle (I later found out that it had taken a month to write). Like any perfect love letter, it said many touching things about me, our relationship and our trips to Long Island. It finished with: P.S. One more thing… X marks the spot!
Having no navigational ability, and my guide having disappeared from view, it took a while for me to locate the giant X, realising as I did that that was what the sticks poking out of the bag were for!
As for the treasure hunt, I was still none the wiser. You see, this man is a rogue and I always fall for his tricks. I was sure he had me digging for a potato! But it was a good game so I played along.
After another ten minutes of digging with a rusty trowel, without any potatoes in sight, I needed some help.
“I can’t find anything,” I called out, hoping the words would reach.
“Dig deeper,” came the reply from behind a boulder.
Wondering why my partner was cowering behind a giant rock, I continued my quest. Still no potato.
“I can’t find it.”
Mick’s head peeped out for an instant, then disappeared again:“Dig wider.”
Almost half a metre down, my face red from the effort, I found a small box. Inside, it held some tiny shells and a note: ‘Will you marry me?’
As I ran to my future husband, my face collided with a fistful of roots, covered in sand. As he’d heard me running over, he’d reached out and grabbed a bunch of sea pinks. Wrestling sand out of my contact lenses, he apologised;
“I forgot to get flowers! I can’t believe I didn’t make the effort.”
The effort was certainly above and beyond anything I could have ever expected. We got married under a jacaranda tree in Australia six months later. No sand, no trowels; but I did push him around in a wheelbarrow.
The rest is history. Long Island history.
(This autobiographical story was originally posted on Writing.ie in Monday Miscellany)