In recent weeks, someone said that telex machines are making a comeback; that, in this age of hacking and eavesdropping in the cyber universe, larger corporations have returned to older technology to transmit sensitive data. No doubt, newer models are less noisy and cumbersome than those of days gone by, but being of a wind-up telephone, telex and original mini-skirt era, I was catapulted into flights of fanciful dreams. With a track record of reliability, sensitivity and ‘common sense’ (according to one employer’s reference), and perhaps with a few minor ‘upgrades’ I might be recycled and rolled out for a second spin in the corporate sphere. Or, maybe an intelligence agency? After all, in a previous existence – and barely out of nappies – I had successfully pulled the wool over one interviewer’s eyes.
The newspaper advertisement bore the shamrock logo, over the words, ‘Aer Lingus, Irish International Airlines’, with a picture of two smiling hostesses and a handsome young male in uniform. The company was recruiting ground staff, for which a Leaving Certificate standard of education was required and training offered. I filled in the accompanying application form and wrote the letter of application, cycled to the post office, clutching the envelope, and sent it off with a silent prayer. Two weeks later, I had passed an aptitude test, and was walking down Dublin’s O’Connell Street, a stiff breeze in my face, for an interview, the words of my cousin, Patsy firmly etched in my brain. “When they ask you what your father does for a living, tell them he’s a farmer.” Patsy had worked for a bank in places as divergent as Naas, in Kildare and Lurgan, in County Armagh and now, Dublin. She was my role model, always delivering advice with a laugh. Her advice this time, based on her own experience and that of her contemporaries, seasoned in the ways of the world, proved to be invaluable.
Inside the Aer Lingus offices on O’Connell Street, I found myself in the company of about fifty other applicants, who, like me, were waiting to sit an aptitude test. Test over, we emerged into a corridor crammed with another wave of hopefuls and advised to ‘go and have a break and come back after lunch’. Back in the corridor, names were called, mine among them. I was ushered into a small room. Behind the desk, the most gorgeous-looking male I had seen outside a Hollywood movie, smiled and bade me take a seat in front of him. Feeling every inch a ‘culchie’, I waited while he leafed through my application form, my cover letter and aptitude test result. “Mmmm, that’s grand, so tell us a little about yourself…what does your father do?” I felt a smile creeping around inside. “He’s a farmer,” I replied, hoping the mask of deceit would hold. “Ah, and what type of farming?” the film star enquired. “Sheep-farming,” I told him. “How interesting,” he grinned. Tell me more about sheep-farming. A week later, a second interview took me to the Aer Lingus offices once more, this time before a panel of three. “I see you’re from a farming background,” one of the two women interviewers observed, without taking her eyes off my paperwork. Within days, I was a ‘ground hostess’, on temporary contract.
“You’ll be wearing green,” my mother said. “That’s a very unlucky colour. And I’m not letting you out on your own in Dublin!” Patsy delivered the news that a bedsit was vacant, just up the stairs from her flat and my mother’s fears were assuaged. Armed with cleaning materials, I set about a cleaning blitz on the bedsit – scrubbed and disinfected the sink, tucked into a filthy cupboard, washed the two cups, plates and cutlery, removed months of ashes from the fireplace, scrubbed historic stains from the carpet, table and two chairs, turned the mattress, made up the iron-framed single bed and washed, dried and ironed the curtains – all in an afternoon. I stored the tea, sugar, butter, brown bread and an apple tart that my mother had given me. Milk was procured from a shop which necessitated a ten-minute walk that assaulted my senses. Non-stop traffic, fumes, dirty pavements and rows of red-brick houses, built in the late 1800s, their unwashed, tattered curtains and unkempt front gardens, with flaking railings and gates hanging off hinges told me that most of them were let in flats. After a cup of tea and a slice of apple tart, I set my alarm clock for seven a.m. and turned in. Dublin Airport awaited.
The bus from outside the front gate took me to O’Connell Street. From there a ten-minute walk along Abbey Street to Busáras, the central bus station, where I caught another bus and set out on my first journey to the airport. As instructed, I disembarked at a cluster of portakabins, opposite a grand house covered in Virginia creeper. A nameplate on the wall read, ‘Corballis House’ and I suddenly longed for home. Corballis was the town-land in which we had lived when my brother Jimmy was born, in 1952. Within a short distance of the airport, a pub called, ‘The Boot Inn’ had been my parents’ first home as a married couple, in 1948. My father was the barman at the ‘The Boot’, which had, since the airport opened in 1941, been the local watering hole for air and ground crews. My mother hated the place. As I filed into a portakabin with my fellow trainees, I caught sight of the film star and struggled to stifle mixed feelings of smugness and guilt and then, suddenly overcome by a desire to tell him that my father, now a barman, had come from generations of farmers, that he should have interviewed my father. I knew diddly squat about farming.
In the weeks that followed, training was intense and my two-bus journey across the city each day, broken by my trot along Abbey Street, left me with little energy for anything other than bed. We were assigned our roles as ground staff, taken on a tour of the terminal building and thence to be fitted for uniforms. I had noted the positions of Television-like monitors displaying Departures and Arrivals and had caught sight of the display going blank on one, then a ‘tray’ of numbers and destinations suddenly reappeared.
My summer job at our local Post Office at age fourteen had sealed my fate. I was assigned to ‘Flight Information’. “I’ve heard that you can bring your knitting,” one of the lads said. Through a door, just off the main concourse, I was shown into a long room, lit by rows of fluorescent lights and a sliver of daylight from a row of small windows along the back wall. Here, rows of switchboards, of the type I had learned to operate during my summer job four years ago, their lights flashing incessantly, were operated by women in uniform, wearing headsets. In front of each operator sat a microphone, into which, against a muted background of aircraft noise, they made announcements, in Irish and English, carried via Tannoy, throughout the terminal. I was introduced to the Supervisor, a woman dressed in civvies who made a half-turn in her swivel chair and nodded while talking into the mouthpiece of her headset – with a pair of knitting needles moving at almost invisible speed and a lengthening garment of unidentifiable design in her hands.
I soon discovered the reason for the disappearing and reappearing ‘tray’ that I had seen on our tour of the terminal: changing flight numbers, destinations and departure and arrival times involved arranging and changing lettering and numbering on a board like a scrabble-board which was slid back and forth under a screen that was connected to the display monitors throughout the building.
With the exception of two days in Lost Property and a day in Reservations, I spent the next three months in Flight Information, working three shifts, including nights. I dealt with messages for passengers and those awaiting them and tripped over sleeping passengers, grounded while their flights sat on a fog-bound apron.
I learned how to type, using both an ancient manual typewriter and an up-to-date electric model as well as a telex machine, like a giant typewriter, with a roll of paper positioned in its innards instead of one sheet. It had a roll of ticker-tape attached, which became perforated with holes as messages were typed. The perforated strip would then be torn from the roll, attached to a separate piece of equipment on the side of the machine, a button was pressed and the machine clattered into life, the perforated roll winding automatically to the end, the message spewing simultaneously from a telex twin in another back office in Heathrow, Glasgow, Lisbon, Rome or Charles de Gaul.
Early and late shifts, outside office hours, brought welcome transportation by crew-car, a minibus which did a tour of the city and environs, picking up and dropping off air and ground crew. On day-time shifts, bus fares swallowed my wages and I lived on rations from home and coffee and yogurt, enjoyed in the comfort of The Shamrock Lounge, the venue for weddings and corporate events, with white linen tablecloths and silver service and a ‘select’ bar where crew hung out. From here I had a panoramic view of the planes boarding, taxiing, taking off and landing. On one of my coffee breaks in ‘The Shamrock’, I was joined by a familiar face from home. Pat, a poised, elegant and very attractive stewardess on the trans-Atlantic route, joined me. We ordered our coffees and in the course of our catch-up chat, another stewardess walked in and stood, scanning the lounge. “Ah, here’s someone you might know,” Pat said, waving to the new arrival. I recognised her straight away. She sat down and Pat introduced us. We shook hands. Nora looked at me intently. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” “You probably do,” I replied. “St. Kevin’s National School.” Her face went pale. “Oh, my God!” she whispered. “I still have nightmares about that place!” While I was in in sixth class, in ‘that place’, Nora had been our temporary substitute teacher. Tall, dark-haired and straight from secondary school, she had been the butt of daily torment by the ‘hard chaws’ at the back of the room. As soon as she dropped her gaze to mark copy-book exercises, a flotilla of paper airplanes, tips dunked in ink, flew across the room and out through the window behind her desk. Once a week, a pile of ‘Dandy’ and ‘Beano’, comics, confiscated during the week’s morning classes, sat on her desk and on one sweltering Friday in June, elicited a sarcastic grin from the curate, as he arrived for Catechism examination at noon. Nora’s cheeks turned crimson.
But it was just the beginning of Nora’s mortification on that day. During lunch break, a wasp’s nest, half-way up a tree in the wood below the schoolyard was ‘accidentally’ set alight. With the help of a few of the senior lads and several buckets of water, Nora was endeavouring, in pristine white blouse and black skirt, to extinguish the fire when the handsome, leather-clad local Garda rolled in on his motorbike on one of his school-attendance spot-checks. He was greeted by a Senior Room in uproar, the ‘hard chaws’ hanging out of the windows, observing, in fits of unbridled mirth, the heroic efforts of the ‘fire-crew’, now hardly visible in a fog of swirling smoke. “Where are they now?” Nora asked me, a faraway look in her eyes. Out on the tarmac, a jet engine roared into life. A collage of images of the former hard chaws, now flourishing in a variety of entrepreneurial pursuits, flicked through my mind. “They’re doing quite well,” I said.
Traversing the main concourse, or even walking to or from the bus-stop in uniform, guaranteed admiring glances, but more often than not, magnetised requests for help from the travelling public. Urgent bathroom visits were often postponed while soothing fears of flying or smiling through lengthy and wordy complaints about delays. The lads I had trained with seemed suave and self-assured, and all too care-free for the eighteen-year-old just out of convent boarding school, feeling greener than the Aer Lingus uniform with each passing day. Propositions from a couple of them were politely declined and invitations to join the staff tennis and swimming clubs regurgitated abhorrence of games at school, and while I was intoxicated by the buzz of the growing airport activity and absorbing new information daily, my social life would not improve unless I moved closer to the airport. But as the prospect of a permanent contract with the airline began to look likely, I had my uniform cleaned and handed it back to serve another season as ‘previously loved apparel’, collected my belongings from the flat and boarded the bus at St. Stephen’s Green that would take me back to the hills. Somewhere on Lower Leeson Street, I fell asleep.