Christina’s family have a house and a now-closed café on Valentia Island. She always told me great yarns of the place, but I never made it down. The closest I had come to country living – up until this time – were the hours spent on long empty bus journeys to and from Galway during the year I lived there – blank fields off motorways flecked bovine or pocked with bales of yellow hay.
Though I love my desk in my little house in Dublin’s Ringsend and find great solace in the suburbs where I was reared, something had to give. Or was starting to give.
Despite my constant, stable gratitude at no longer living in California, I’d been having nightly sleep paralysis for over a fortnight. The novel was towering over me. This is to say, the least of this summer has just gone; adulthood’s stark truths don’t stop because you’re trying to ‘make art’ or do your job, or whatever lucky streak it is when those two things intersect – I was simmering low with weird adrenaline and the concrete world was making things inexplicably worse.
I took a train across the country, then a bus down narrow roads. Mountains became rugged, there were less power lines. The web of tension in the triangle between the apex of my neck and my shoulder blades began to soften. I grazed Heuston Station pick’n’mix and listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea around eight times until my iTunes flickered into silence – no coverage. What should have been frustrating was a deep relief. The quiet started there.
I found Christina, waving her arms at me in excitement, in Cahirciveen. We heaped into her mother’s car to take the last jaunt on the ferry over to the island. The kind of friendship we’ve fostered over the years is low-pressure: she is one of the few folks on this earth who reminds me to remain grounded and take stock of the good times completely. I believe her, I listen to her, and if I ever don’t I’ll return to this essay and stare into it until I do again. The island opened up to us and we drove in.
Burning waterfalls of montbretia poured from the fields onto the road to the Lighthouse Café from Knightsbridge and I was breathless from the shock of them as we wound around by ruins and slopes and the strange, dark slate cave of the quarry.
The Duff home on the island was a patchwork quilt – a white house with blue doors, a now-quiet café hooked on at the side, curly lettuce and nasturtium fields, a ruined stone shed full of flowers, a wee barn or two, half a rowboat, a terrace with a picnic table, a gazebo fit for Electric Picnic (battered leather chairs and all) and a set of flower beds growing who knows what. It was more than a tiny bit Tolkien – all of it, like if there was an Anthropologie in the Shire.
There was fresh mint out of the corner of your eye. There, those are tall and narrow chives – more, more nasturtiums. Orange, yellow, red, deep wine: all popping from this corner and that. They were the bright twine that sewed each part of this place together.
Christina’s folks tended the place with love and it grew beautiful in return.
There is the Atlantic, then, the shadow of Dingle across the water, maybe the Blasket Islands – a lighthouse, if you looked down. The grass under your feet so tender it pushed you back up as you lifted a step. I was moved, as Christina and Paula gave me a tour of the nooks and crannies of it. Benign, busy insects made their way about their daily rote. Swallows, who had taken up nest in the corner of the old marquee, dived and played. I immediately understood what it is that calls people about the world outside the city. Things were soft out there.
Dinner was already on. Paula, all serenity, pottered about, putting fresh salad together with the same deceptive effortlessness I’ve written about before. Paul, Christina’s dad, was keeping business as usual – harvesting organic lettuce from the one of the fields for the local cafes and hotels. The most I’d been able to manage for myself during the day in the lead up to my gentle exile was pink fruit-goop scooped out of a blender: it occurred to me that not only would this island feed my wrecked head with all its serenity, but it would feed my body too.
I sat down for an hour to write in the white café, a whole big table to myself. Christina, planning the seeds of a big idea of her own, was perched at another table. There were pistachio green rafters and each window was sneaky tiny portal out onto the surreal green and blue of the coastline. All the talk was wiped out of me. The swallows dived about beyond the glass, a soothing distraction, the only thing moving at speed for miles. My brain took the hint – the crumbling, squeaking chalk of my anxiety dissolved.
After the hearty, generous lasagne we ate for dinner, framed with leaves from the field and red peppers, the clouds blew over what should have been the second night of a meteor shower. We could see nothing that night, but stayed out an hour, Christina and I drinking minty, fennel-strong Sleepytime tea. When we wandered back in we sat down to say goodnight, and conversation turned to the flowers. Paula mentioned they were a garnish for salads – something my own mother had mentioned when they grew in our own garden. I asked her what they tasted like and she mused around that distinctive caper taste. Poor man’s capers, she said.
Paul disappeared, magician-like – then returned and told me to open my hands. He placed a feathery heap of just-picked nasturtiums in the cup of them and I was so earnestly delighted that I felt my eyes well up. I ate one and it was pepper and dill and capers and it dissolved, silken delicate petals and all. A tiny beetle crawled along my finger, a tiny harmless surprise – a fleck of life, glitter after the magic trick.
Paula said we could make pesto from them, if we liked.
My sleep paralysis stopped for the three nights I was there. I slept inky and deep and real in the wide double bed comprised of two singles pushed together, Christina facing the west towards Dingle and I inland, towards the quarry, a foot and a half of quiet white duvet between us. I woke in and around half six every morning and only lay in until eight on the last day, to listen to the fresh rainfall on the window, punctuated by the occasional bleat from the sheep on the hill, the whispering rush of the ocean almost out of earshot, but just there, shhh, shhh.
(The sheer quantity of coffee I drank should have made a difference, should have kept me up, but it didn’t. A car-engine of a coffee machine was mounted in the kitchen of the café. I write for a coffee website, but I don’t know how to use one of the machines yet – I watch Paula and Christina wrench ground coffee into it and get espresso in return. I don’t burn the foaming milk with steam. Chrissie tells me this particular roast of coffee reminds her of cigarettes, the burn at the back of your throat. When I drink it, the oily espresso of it, I think of smokes. She’s right: it does have husky nicotine notes to it, the kind that linger at the back of your mouth. I love this, even though I’m easily eighteen months off them. I miss cigarettes in Dublin because myself before emigrating is the hologram that walks after me everywhere, but on the island I miss them because I feel invincible in the sea air, like they wouldn’t matter against how restorative this whole place feels. The coffee pushes more of me onto the pages. The ending of the novel waves from loose strands into something nearly complete, at least a braid.)
Paula feeds us generously over the weekend. Green curry full of slow heat, gives us makings for cold meat sambos on a hike up Geokaun Mountain (Christina arranged little boxes of vegetables, olives, cheeses with fruit, we are gourmet on the cliffside facing into the mist) sautés fresh, light crab claws in butter and parsley and garlic. I am hungry for the first time in weeks. By the coffee machine early one morning Paula says to me that I look happy. She’s right. I ask can we make pesto from the flowers. She says yes.
Christina and I quest out over the bridge to Portmagee to a tiny, pokey shop to find walnuts for the recipe. There are no walnuts. Peanuts for days, mind you, but no walnuts. Or pine nuts. We opt with Brazil nuts and hope for the best. We eat jelly-snakes on the drive home and they taste precisely like 1994. As we drive over the bridge, ridges on the road thunder the car. Christina tells me that when she was a child, these bumps were the countdown to their summer holidays.
In the field beside the lettuces, we pick flowers – a whole box of them. I have never picked flowers like this, free to pull as many of them from their beds as I liked. We are watchful for bugs, for bees that hum loud and hungry. Paula assembles the pesto in the kitchen then and I watch, enthralled. Lighthouse Pesto it is, and I take it back to Dublin in two jars. What couldn’t be taken home though, was the peace. Even a fortnight later, I thumb idly through my Instagram shots of the weekend and try to summon peace from the colours of it – the fire of the flowers against the cool of the sea – and strangely, it kind of works.
This recipe is straightforward and the only equipment you really need is a food processor. The flowers grow commonly in gardens in Dublin – buy a plant in a garden centre and foster some. Ask pals with gardens. Try not to steal them. The bright petals give the pesto a fabulous golden colour rather than the usual shades of green. It sits well with cream cheese and smoked salmon and dill and of course, capers. Eat it on toast, or a bagel. Mix it into fresh pasta with hot poached salmon. Eat it with a cracker, or a spoon – you’ll get no judgment from me.
As Many Nasturtium Flowers As You Like, basically. We used a whole fruit box – which, when crushed, comes to around 12 ounces, or four cups, if you’d like some rules to go by. They wilt small when they are washed – and you’ll need to go petal by petal so there are no bugs. We dried them out in a salad spinner afterwards.
About a third of the above of Nasturtium Leaves. We didn’t use many, because we didn’t want it to be too green. Again, wash them real carefully. No bugs in this pesto, no sir.
A cup, or four ounces, of Olive Oil. Use your own taste and judgement on this – when blended see if it needs more. You don’t want it to be too dry, or too wet.
Four cloves of Garlic – or less. Garlic in the raw is super overpowering, so again, this is a matter of taste.
Four or six ounces (a cup and a half) of Brazil Nuts – or Walnuts.
Four or six ounces again of finely grated Parmesan Cheese.
Place all of the above in a blender or food processor, oil first. Press go. Watch it all turn gold. Procure a cracker or a spoon to taste. Eat your heart out.
Sarah Griffin is an Irish writer who has just arrived back in Dublin after 3 years abroad. She’s an Aquarian and a feminist. She has a masters degree in writing from NUIG and is only interested in video games that came out before 2005. Her favourite food is warm bread and ketchup, but she’s been eating a lot of peaches and nectarines before they go out of season – and putting bee pollen on everything. You can buy her nonfiction book about moving away, Not Lost, published by New Island Press, in all good bookshops in Ireland. Her YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, is coming from Greenwillow Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the autumn of 2016. She tweets (mostly animal pictures) @griffski and has a website, sarahgriff.com