Tuesday 27 August 2019


The Mills and Boon editing team weren't overly fond of Tara, though she probably is my favourite character in the novel....
Her attempts at orienteering recall my own adventures once upon a time.


Tara avoids the N11 brought to a standstill by the weekly Sunday scamper from suburbia, and follows the scenic route to Enniskerry instead. The road winds through narrow gullies, snakes past undulating farmland and for a few miles ancient oaks and beech provide a thick canopy of gold and copper over her head. At Powerscourt she turns left and follows the sign for Djouce Wood passing her favourite mid-term break retreat, Powerscourt Spa, and then begins her slow ascent to the Pine Forest. There will be no beauty treatment for her this midterm as she is heading to Europe with Jane. They made a pact to explore the salsa potential and local brew of some European capital.
Her apple green Mini Cooper splutters on the incline and chugs reluctantly towards a darkening tree skyline; she changes gear and lets out a long sigh. Tara loathes the great outdoors unless it is relieved by a balmy Mediterranean breeze and accompanied by a G and T, cuisine al fresco, and an exotic waiter hovering around her, but she has walked briskly around Blackrock Park three times every evening for the past week in preparation for this, her first orienteering event. A glimpse of the darkening sky overhead prompts her to tilt her rear view window and scan the back seat of the car for her pink woolen hat and mittens. No sign of them. She smooths her recently straightened hair with a sigh; without the cap her blonde locks will look like a bird’s nest if these clouds open.
Djouce Woods is looming on the horizon, over shadowed now by a low heavy laden sky. Running through trees on an inclement afternoon in late September is not her idea of fun but she can hardly set up an orienteering club if her only contact with the sport is on-line.
How difficult can Orienteering be? She has bought a compass and she will be provided with a map. She is wearing a new pair of Nike runners and has rooted out her one and only tracksuit from the pink charity bag due for imminent recycling. Luckily the baby blue cotton-velour suit survived the last purge, and while she suspects that it might be a bit démodé, who is she likely to meet in the wilds of Wicklow?
Tara levers a packet of cigarettes out of her handbag with her left hand, shuffles the box, extracts her last cigarette, pinches it between her lips and takes a mock drag. Fags and fitness just don’t match, but she is keeping this, her last, for an emergency. The road sign she has been anxiously looking for glides out of vision on her right. Tara stands on the brakes and reverses into a stony enclosure already full of orienteering enthusiasts.
Jeeps vye with Mazdas and four wheel drives for space in the small makeshift car park, while young men in black lycra limber up with a professionalism that suggests that perhaps Tara has under estimated the demands of the sport.  
So this is where the talent comes on a damp Sunday morning in post modern Ireland. Forget the night clubs. Here they all are, biceps and triceps bulging through skintight fabric, toned, tanned and running for Ireland. Tara places the cigarette carefully back in the box, tucks it into her pocket, reaches underneath the pedestrian seat for a bottle of diet coke and pops a piece of Wrigley’s Cool Breeze into her mouth. Slowly and deliberately she strolls towards the two men who are registering competitors at a fold up table.
“Think I might be out of my league here, lads.”
“Not at all,” replies the younger man grinning as he gives her a long, slow, head-to-toe appraisal.
“This is the West Wicklow One Day?”
“Three events to choose from- Beginners, Intermediate or Advanced?” says the older man, anxious to avoid another long discussion about the various categories.
“Advanced sounds a bit daunting. Do you think I might qualify as an intermediate?”
“Whatever you like, you’ll hardly get lost.”
There is a group of eager West Wicklow Gazelles building up behind her and she notices that they are all wearing black lycra.
“Official gear?”
“You’ll be grand,” says the younger man. “Frankly you look far too fit for the intermediate category.”
“You’ll rescue me if I don’t get back before nightfall?”
“Personally.” He has a great set of orthodontically rearranged teeth; there is no doubt about it, that lad will be dangerous in a year or two.
Equipped with a map and a card Tara sits on a mossy bank and considers her options, speed versus accuracy or hopefully a winning combination of both. Should she rely primarily on the compass or the map? She slides the brand new compass out of its leather bound case. The young female sales assistant in the Great Outdoors was too busy chatting up a customer to pay any attention to Tara’s legitimate apprehension about the plethora of dials on display in the clock face. She looks now at the confusing array of needles and arrows and slides the compass back into its case. She has only five minutes to decide on a route before a whistle blow sends her hurtling through potted tracks and wet stream beds.
The jogging is pleasant until a stampede behind her alerts her to the competitive arrival on her shoulder of the Gazelles who are here to settle a score with Bray Antelopes. Tara withdraws into the path verge and lets them past. Then she resumes a gentle jog. Colourful butterflies and luminous blue flies flit past her and a brief glance at the map every few minutes assures her that she hasn’t already strayed off the course. This necessity does, however, slow her down and after another five minutes of halting progress a small excited gathering of lycra to her right pulls her attention to the red can in the tree branches that she is about to by-pass. She punches holes in her card and studies the map again. To heck with speed, she almost missed that first can! The Gazelles have already plunged into the depths of the thickly forested parkland to her left.
Sitting on a boulder Tara considers the symbols on her map more carefully. She extracts the compass from its brown leather case and tilts it this way and that. The next can should be at 10 degrees North West of her current position, the opposite direction to the break in the vegetation left by the Gazelles’ heels, but they are probably doing the advanced challenge. She spends another few minutes rechecking her position and then sets off at a brisk walk.
The ground underfoot is becoming stony, ferns and reeds choking up the track. The forest is unrelievedly pine and every junction looks exactly like the one before, pathways appearing that aren’t mapped on Tara’s small 6x 6 inch map. After ten minutes she decides that it has been too long since her last can sighting and she begins to listen for the sounds of lycra legs breaking through the thickets, but the only sounds come from the  streams that gurgle in the mossy underlay beneath the trees and from the buzzing of late summer flies. More ominously, midges begin to gather in dark clouds around her head. 
She stumbles along a path strewn with fist size boulders until the track deteriorates into a muck trail. Tara is forced to negotiate her steps along the grassy verges, abandoning all attempts at record breaking. She passes several piles of chopped tree trunks, newly cut, but none of these are marked on her map. The streams are not even indicated. Tara hadn’t noticed that September has been a wet month until now. A fork in the road prompts her to consult the compass in her pocket but its leather case feels light as she eases it out. The sound of twigs cracking nearby startles her; it isn’t the crash of legs through thicket. Sweat trickling into her eyes blurs her vision. The compass case in her hand is empty and she digs her fingers into her pocket again; a gap in the pocket seam explaining everything.  Her eyes strain in a wide arch but she can see nothing beyond deadwood logs and pine trunks. She listens intently. The thud of hooves breaks the silence as a herd of about five actual reindeer sweep into view, scamper through the trees and disappear again. She realizes that she is holding her breath.
Ahead of her the terrain begins to open up into an expanse of gorse covered hills. She studies the now torn map in her hand but there is no indication of open ground on it. She has obviously strayed off the map. She clutches for the mobile in her other pocket, her fingers curving gratefully around its solid shape. She should have taken an emergency phone number at registration- she should have taken that Goddamn little flirt’s number instead of simpering back at him like a besotted adolescent. In her mind’s eye Tara sees herself being spirited out of the mountains by a helmeted, uniformed volunteer from the Wicklow helicopter rescue service.
Overhead the sky is darkening and the first few spits of rain hit her forehead. She sets off towards the hilltop, twisting her ankle as she labours up the uneven surface, gorse bushes scratching her hands as she forces her way through closely packed clumps. The rain is falling more steadily.
Dave MacFadden hears the voice, high pitched and alarmed, and on the hilltop ahead of him he sees the figure waving her arms and calling out to him. A damsel in distress! Djouce woods is full of them on Sunday mornings. He lengthens his stride and dives through the furze bushes with the vigor of a man practised in the sport of hill running. By the time he reaches her side Tara’s hair is plastered to the sides of her face and her Mac mascara is dripping ink stains down her cheeks. She lights up her last cigarette and inhales deeply.

No comments:

Post a Comment