Impulsively, I indicated right and turned towards Ballyfotherly. It was a route I hadn’t taken in almost twenty years but it was time to look again.
I’d forgotten how narrow these country roads are. Cutting through the undulating greenery of the best dairy land in County Down, they lead to farms and the occasional row of small bungalows with high-hedged gardens and double wooden gates. Forty shades of green, a pale blue sky and fluffy cotton clouds. Maybe that’s why I took the turning. I wouldn’t have on a grey day in November. But it was mid-June and a sleeping baby, snug in her infant seat, allowed for some spontaneity.
I imagined these were the exact conditions the day the photograph I had in mind was taken. My father is immaculate in a dark suit, white shirt and thin 1960s tie. He crouches outside our gate, one knee on the road, whilst I perch on his other leg. I can’t remember what colour my dress was, but in the black and white snap it looks light and bright in contrast to his dark trousers and jacket. The sun seems to bounce off my head and I’m clutching a sweet pea flower in my tight grasp.
My mother remembers taking the photo and keeps it in her special album with the baby photos and the locks of hair. She said my father was going to town for an appointment and I begged to go with him. She spruced me up and let me go, but for some reason felt the need to capture the moment before we set off. I am about three years old. Perhaps it was the first time she had let me out without her and she had to record that milestone.
As I weaved slowly round the bends I recalled how my father used to sound his horn ever so briefly just before each one. It was his way of avoiding a collision. I tried to imagine how I would cope if another vehicle approached from the opposite direction. So I beeped and beeped again, and here I was.
Ballyfotherly. The name of this Irish townland so familiar and yet so removed. Three barely recognisable cottages. Ours was the middle one. If I hadn’t know that, I could have driven for miles, thinking I was in the wrong place. Built-on extensions, garages added, driveways widened, and double glazing installed. Ours now had a hexagonal-shaped conservatory jutting out at the best angle to enjoy the views of the sweeping pastures to the rear. I stopped on this straight and wider stretch of road and let down the window.
Pure country air is a tonic. Traces of cut grass, warm tarmac and the scent of wild honeysuckle filled the car. I turned away from the cottage, my first home, and looked over the hedge to the field beyond and the stone farmhouse on the hill. This view hadn’t changed at least. A handful of Fresians swatted flies with their tails and the faint buzz of a bee flitting from blossom to blossom in the hedge was the only sound. I closed my eyes and whispered Ballyfotherly.
The driver behind me made two staccato ‘pip pips’ on his horn and I waved him past. It was eleven-thirty and I was late. I checked my daughter, still fast asleep and content. Taking one last, lingering look at the cottage, my eyes moved to the spot on the road where we’d sat for the photo. A moment in time captured for the child who wouldn’t remember it.
I drove on, entered Donaghadee from the end that leads past my old primary school, these days all colour and murals in contrast to the austere brick and dark blue paintwork I remembered. I pulled up on the road near the row of terraced houses where my father lives and carried my daughter undisturbed into the house. Her grandfather’s first glimpse of her was as a sleeping cherub.
She slept half on him, half on the sofa for another twenty minutes and it’s just as well. Awake, she was confronted with a face she had only ever seen in photos and she was wary. Only Mama would do and although I tried my best, Layla would not sit on Granda’s knee or give him a kiss. He took it well.
‘Och, sure she doesn’t know me yet. She’ll have to get used to me a bit first.’
She did eventually and tolerated him without lapsing into affection. We had a tour of the garden, the new shed, as neat and organised as his sheds always were, the ubiquitous girly calendar hanging on the back wall. I was surprised to see a 250cc motorbike.
‘My God, are you still repairing these?’
‘Ah, this one was given to me. Jean’s cousin found it down the bottom of their garden. They’d forgotten it was even there.’
He hadn’t lost his touch. The bike showed no evidence of abandonment for seven years and was all prepped and ready to paint. Red. He always plumped for red.
It was time to leave and I did my best to get Layla to go to my father’s waiting arms, but she wasn’t for turning. She endured a kiss and we headed out, my father seeing us to the front gate. I stopped to admire his roaming nasturtiums and the fuchsias cascading from the two hanging baskets either side of the door.
‘Have you seen my sweet pea?’ he asked.
We walked along his boundary fence to admire the riot of colour in the sunniest spot and he picked a mauve bloom for Layla. When she reached for it, she did so with two arms and I slipped her to him. The sweet pea was the decider.
Her grandfather looked into her face and she smiled a toothless grin, her sunhat pushed back emphasising her chubby cheeks. I fumbled for my camera, let my bag fall to the ground and snapped them. Not until the photo was printed did I appreciate the joy, the look of recognition in both their faces.
A sunny day in June, a moment captured forty years after the first but merged with it in a tiny palm clutching a sweet pea stalk.