at four am we piled into the car-myself, my wife and the youngest child-and drove away from our house in Fermanagh. The hedges were dusted with snow-like blossom, and the fields were filled with pillows of mist. The world seemed newly minted that morning.
In Belfast, at the SeaCat terminal, we got into line. A Stena stewardess was checking boarding cards. Men in shiny green football jerseys swaggered past. I paid no attention.
The line rolled forward. We were one from the front, behind a Ford XRi. The driver produced his boarding card and the stewardess bent down to look through the back passenger window. Suddenly, the driver put his head out of the front window and deposited his breakfast on the tarmac; ham and potatoes in lager.
The stewardess tapped the roof; the XRi accelerated away. I drove forward, shouting a warning. Too late. The stewardess stepped back into the puke, spearing a spud with a high heel.
“Oh God!” she said, trying to wipe her soles on the tarmac.
Stepping into the passenger lounge, ten minutes later, I saw why I should have paid attention to the swaggerers in green. Our companions, to a man, were Celtic supporters; the entire West Belfast supporters’ club was making the journey with us. My wife found two corner seats and together we formed a sulky middle-class huddle while the fans roistered around us.
At half-four in the afternoon, I found myself in a genteel Edinburgh hotel. We had done the wedding (this was why we had come to Scotland) and were now at the reception. Beside me sat a woman with cornflower blue eyes and a cut-glass English accent. We were eating roast beef.
“Where’re you from?” she asked.
“Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.”
“I know where it is,” she said, tartly.
Maybe she’s Ascendancy, I thought. “Are you from Ireland?” I asked.
“Goodness, no,” she said, “but Fergus, my late husband was.”
Five minutes later, I had the story. Fergus’s family were Catholics. His father, a career soldier in the British Army, returned at the age of 50 to Ballymena, and a sinecure in the RUC. This was in the 1950s. Fergus wanted to study engineering but was obliged, as a Catholic, to settle for Celtic Studies.
“It made Fergus bitter,” said his wife, “and as soon as he graduated he left. We met in the middle east. He took me…