On the way back from Dublin airport on Saturday I decided to come off the motorway before the toll and went into Drogheda to spend an hour or two. Found a free parking space, near pensioners’ bungalows just off Scarlet Street, and in the glorious morning sun, walked into town via the fourteenth century St Laurence’s Gate, which was being photographed from different angles on the main road by a group of young girls, presumably tourists.

I was trying to remember where the St Vincent de Paul bookshop was that I had visited about five years ago. At the junction of St Laurence Street and Peter Street I asked a woman passerby if she knew where the shop was – and she did. But before giving directions (it was nearby, just up the hill) she asked me where I was from… and what was the weather like in Belfast. It was sunny when I left, I said, just like in Drogheda. She then proceeded to tell me that last week she had been “down in Kilkeel shopping in Asda” and preferred it to the shopping centres in Newry. I would have used the expression ‘up’ not ‘down’, to denote travelling from Drogheda to there, as down to me is longitudinally moving from North to South (or going from a higher point to a lower point)! But that’s me being pedantic and literal.

She said that her daughter had ran out of some things yesterday and went to the local store, came back, showed her mother the three bags of shopping and asked her to guess how much they came to. Almost €80 she informed me, outraged, “and she hadn’t even bought meat!” She said that they go to Kilkeel regularly and are able to fill the boot with groceries for the equivalent of €100 which is great but that you should be able to shop in your own town for the same prices. I said that her trip might even be made easier in the future if they build the bridge over Narrow Water which would cut out Newry altogether.

She told me about her day so far. She had been to the credit union and the hairdressers to get her hair done (I had noticed that; her face made up; her silky white scarf; an attractive woman still). She was in great form, was 69, and she and a friend to whom she was speaking after Mass in St Peter’s just yesterday, “both of us are going to be celebrating our 70th next year”, he was saying how lucky they were to have their pensions. But then, they had worked from they were fourteen when there were factories and mills all around the town and now there were none. If she and he were in government they would take the money of those that had it, “fuck them out” and give it to those who hadn’t! I wasn’t expecting that word!

She was going to a young person’s party tonight and the young ones would be wondering where she got the energy from. When she was a teenager her mother wouldn’t allow her to go North with her friends but they went anyway and slipped up to Newry because the men there were better at jiving than the home ones!

I wished her a great party and soon found the St Vincent de Paul thrift shop at the corner of Fair Street with its books part upstairs. I searched every shelf. Ironically I came across novels by two new authors I had recently read: ‘UFO In Her Eyes’ by Xialolu Guo and ‘Incendiary’ by Chris Cleave but had read enough of them to know enough. I got three books for €5: ‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashell Hammett (what a great real name), which I have been meaning to read for years; ‘Men At Arms’ by Evelyn Waugh (I have the unread second part of the trilogy of which this is the first); and ‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster, who’s a favourite.

Had a conversation with the shopkeeper whom at first I thought was Polish. He is from Belarus and his daughter is at a local college studying. He told me his name is Ruslan. I said that when I hear that name I’m immediately reminded of the overture from Glinka’s opera ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’. He laughed: “You’re not going to believe this, but my wife is called Ludmilla! “ He was a PE teacher in Minsk but cannot get work in Ireland or else hasn’t got a work permit so has worked voluntarily in the bookshop for the past three years. He asked me about the North and was interested in the situation and had read about Bloody Sunday. Then we talked about writers. He loves anti-war writers like Hemingway, Remarque and Böll and asked me had I read Solzhenitsyn. I said I had read ‘One Day In The Life’ and parts of other novels but didn’t really like him and thought that he hated Russia [though Ruslan did not agree and thought that Solzhenitsyn really loved Russia but felt he had to challenge its rottenness). He had yet to read Camus and I told him about the MS that was found in Camus’s car after his fatal crash and which was published about fifteen years ago, ‘The First Man’, and which was wonderful. I also recommended ‘Alone In Berlin’ by Hans Fallada as a brilliant piece of anti-war literature. Then I hit the road.

17th February. Introduced Jean Ann Day (American Indian Movement) at tonight’s fund raiser for the Leonard Peltier campaign. She gave a very moving speech at the function in the Rock Bar. She gave me a present, a hardback copy of Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings and, ironically, I presented her with a copy of my book based on my prison letters, ‘Then The Walls Came Down’.

14th February. Finished the novel ‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave on the worthy subject of racism and the maltreatment of refugees/asylum seekers in the UK from Nigeria. Left me unmoved though there were passages were his powers as a writer peeped through.

Wrote a short feature for a brochure to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Patrician Hall in Carrickmore.