Never Been Gone

Slow travel: there’s a lot to be said for it, taking one’s time to get from there to here so that your head and your heart can keep pace with your body; so that the emotional you and the physical you arrive as one to your destination. My first stop is on the other side of Glasgow, close to Prestwick Airport, at a little place doing takeaway coffee (and, importantly, with a bathroom). Two small planes land in the twenty minutes that I sit in the carpark sipping my coffee. I scribble in my journal. It’s not just me on the move, I note. Maybole is next. A doleful place; crumpled, dejected, it makes me sad to drive through it, but before long, my gloom lifts. The Ailsa Craig does it to me every time. A massive bulk of blue granite rising majestic from the Irish Sea, 340 metres high, solidly staring at me for twenty miles as I drive south. She’s like the Mona Lisa with her fixed gaze, except the sky around her isn’t fixed, it changes quickly, dramatically, clouds breaking like a craquelin topping on a choux bun from the finest French patisserie. Blue sky cracks open in shards that expand and deepen. Ten miles out of Turnberry, I pull in and photograph her from a cliff edge and I’m whipped by a wind that reminds me I’m going home to a place with wind just like this. Driving on, two buzzards hang in the air, they are so low and black that, for a moment, I think they are those fake ones that the farmers put up on a wire to scare away the smaller birds. I have my Carly Simon CD on, anything longer than two hours and I seek her company, and I listen to the words of Never Been Gone and realise I’ve never properly heard them before. She knows just how I’m feeling.

At Cairnryan there’s some coming and going in and out of the terminal building, but most people stay in their cars – just the slightest reminder this is still a different world.  Car doors are open, boots popped, flasks and sandwiches appear. Legs are stretched, dogs are walked, and all eyes seem to be looking outwards to the ocean, towards the other side. How long has it been? And then I’m on. I’ve parked in the bowels of the boat, I’ve climbed nine flights and I’m seated in a quiet lounge looking out onto the bow. My body vibrates with the hum of the engines and I feel soothed by the gentle clinking of plates and cutlery of my fellow travellers, most going solo, like me. I watch gulls sweep the waves in front as the boat gathers speed. The sky widens, the sun drops, the Mourne Mountains rise, and there is the East Antrim coast, skirted by a shimmering haze. The clouds put on a display – noctilucent clouds, summer skies, wisps hanging over the land in layers. At the halfway point we pass another ferry. I suck on a Foxes Glacier Fruit sweet as more of Ireland comes into view and I feel a shift of readiness inside myself. Blackhead’s lighthouse flashes its welcome. Thank you, I whisper. Slow now, the engine roar drops, and I recall how much longer it takes to sail into Belfast Lough than one anticipates. It begins to feel like a highway once we get close to the harbour; boats loaded with freight, flanked by small pilot boats, steam towards us, close enough for me to read the notices on deck: No Smoking. The port and starboard posts of the Victoria Channel guide us home to the birthplace of the Titanic. Belfast isn’t a pretty city from here, it’s all cranes and pylons and industrial boxes and two hulking cruise ships; ghosts, for now. Seams of slate grey cloud bearing down on Cavehill add to its industrial feel. But it is the first stepping-stone to home. I chase the setting sun as I drive north, and sixty miles later, there it is: the night hanging on the ocean over Portrush, and it feels like I’ve never been gone.

Never Been Gone, Carly Simon

The wind is coming up strong and fast

And the moon is smiling on me.

Miles from nowhere so small at last

In between the sky and the sea.

I’m bound for the island

The tide is with me,

I think I can make it by dawn

It’s night on the ocean

I’m going home

And it feels like I’ve never

I’ve never been gone.

 

Seagulls cry and the hills are green

And my friends are waiting for me

Great ambition is all a dream

Let me drown my pride in the sea

I’m bound for the island

The tide is with me,

I think I can make it by dawn

It’s night on the ocean

I’m going home

And it feels like I’ve never

I’ve never been gone.

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