Life

Jake O'Kane: You can't beat a family shindig – even if it's in the skinny-road country

I was once dragged to dancing lessons by my cousin Anne. Eventually the dance teacher became so frustrated with my Frankenstein stumbling – and fearful that I might cripple my cousin – that he stopped the class. He pointed to my feet and asked: 'Left, right, right, left – how is this difficult?'

It’s not that I’ve got anything against dancing; it’s just that my feet suffer a rare form of rhythm intolerance

IN THE same way that amputees can experience phantom limb syndrome, I think I’m experiencing phantom beard syndrome. I keep stroking my chin, surprised to feel skin instead of hair. It’s been very disconcerting.

My fresh-faced look got its first public outing last weekend when I travelled into the high Sperrin Mountains to attend my Aunt Monica’s 80th birthday party. As a city boy, I find the further I travel from Belfast, the less road there seems to be. It’s not that the road runs out, it just gets skinnier – it’s as if the road machine runs out of tarmac the further it gets into the mountains.

On my journey, the M2 motorway gave way to the A6, which tapered out as I passed through Draperstown. I was now travelling on a road so narrow I couldn’t see how two cars could possibly pass. Predictably, having just thought that, I met a tractor and trailer coming in the opposite direction at full tilt.

Realising he wasn’t for slowing, and having moved so far over I was picking branches from my teeth, I momentarily considered bailing from my car into the hedge. Luckily, the tractor driver possessed a spatial awareness unique to those in the country and, unconcerned, eased past me with millimetres to spare, nonchalantly waving as he did so.

Be it one finger, or all four off the steering wheel, the act of waving at a passing vehicle in rural parts is completely reasonable when you consider the car being met is invariably either a neighbour or, more likely, a member of the extended family. While I occasionally get a one finger wave in the city, the motivation is of a different type.

Crawling along the ever-diminishing road, waving back at people I didn’t know, I was relieved when my satnav definitively announced: "You have arrived at your destination; your destination is on the left." I peered through the gate of a field to have my gaze met by a bemused cow staring back; either my destination had moved – unlikely – or my satnav had decided to abandon me when I needed it most. I was to learn later that while humanity can put a probe on Mars, putting a wifi signal into the Sperrin Mountains is seemingly still beyond its capabilities.

Utterly lost, I decided there was no sense in turning back, and not wanting to be late for the party, travelled on more in hope than confidence. My bravery was rewarded as three miles later The Shepherd's Rest suddenly appeared; an amazing establishment – part pub, part holiday campsite, part clan gathering place.

I was one of the first to arrive – I’d forgotten that in the country a 7:30pm start really means 9pm. As the room filled up it became clear that pretty much every family between Ballinascreen and the Bendy were represented. I won’t try to name them as I’d be sure to miss one out – an insult so grave it could only be rectified with bare chests and fists at dawn.

One of many lovely touches during a wonderful evening was a wall of memories, with pictures of our extended family displayed. I’d never known that photos of both my great-great and great-grandfathers existed, but there they were, two sturdy men staring at me from a time and place long gone. After a delicious meal a photo album was passed around containing pictures of me – you know you’re old when all your childhood pictures are in black and white.

Meal finished, tables were cleared as it was time for dancing. I don’t dance. It’s not that I’ve got anything against dancing; it’s just that along with a gluten intolerance, my feet suffer a rare form of rhythm intolerance.

I was once dragged to dancing lessons by my cousin Anne who, having been asked to be a bridesmaid and needing to learn to waltz, kindly volunteered me as her partner. Eventually, the dance teacher, a patient man, became so frustrated with my Frankenstein stumbling – and fearful that I might cripple my cousin – that he stopped the class. Calling me forward, he pointed to my feet and asked: "Left, right, right, left – how is this difficult?"

So you can imagine my anxiety when my octogenarian-birthday Aunt pulled me on to the dance floor. I need not have worried – a dancer of some renown, she carried me with great grace and skill, ensuring no injury to herself or innocent spectators.

I’ll never be John Travolta, but I’ll happily dance with my aunt again on her 90th.

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