This following essay is dedicated to and about 'Our Ben'. Its part of a longer article which appeared in the Sunday Independent some years ago. Ben is my mother's brother who has a learning disability. On the death of my grandmother, when I was about 9 years old, Ben came to live with my family - not something I was too happy with at 9! However Ben proved to be a great asset to our family for lots of reasons. He also provided great anecdotes and stories. But this one - about Ben's Big Adventure - is by far the best! Enjoy
One of the first things my mother discovered when Ben came to stay was St Michael’s House. Ben began to attend one of their sheltered workshops back in the early seventies. He is now one of their longest attending and their oldest client. Ben loves ‘going to work’ and is collected by minibus every morning and arrives back mid afternoon. The red bus from St Michael’s House is a common sight on the road.
When we were all still at home and both my parents were working, morning times got very hectic in our house. Bathroom time was strictly rota-ed and one overstayed their allocated time at their great peril. I don’t know how but we managed. Perhaps the secret was co-operation. It was no doubt with this in mind that I particularly felt a degree of responsibility that Ben should be ready for his bus and aware of when it had arrived on the road. It’s normal routine was to drive slowly past our house and go down to turn. By the time it was back outside our door Ben was at the gate. The bus normally arrived just before 8:30am.
This fateful morning I glanced out the window to see the familiar red bus driving slowly past our house. “Ben hurry up” I roared, “the bus is early.” Ben whose greatest nightmare was to miss work, quickly gathered up his lunchbox and jacket and headed out the door to the shouts of Bye Ben from the house. We continued our strictly choreographed morning routine when at just after 8:30 there was a knock at the door. The bus driver from St Michael’s house was not pleased that Ben was not at the gate!
“But Ben’s gone” we said, baffled.
“He couldn’t be” said the driver “we have only just arrived”.
“But the bus came at about ten past eight and Ben is gone. Could there be another bus doing the run this morning also?”
“I don’t think so but I’ll ring the office and check”
While we waited we double-checked the house and garden to make sure that Ben had not returned. No Ben and no other bus.
Where was Ben? My mother decided to phone the Gardai and duly reported our Ben as missing. We began to get worried. Could Ben have been kidnapped? Who would kidnap our Ben? My father decided to get up on his bike and tour the neighbourhood for clues. The rest of us were told to go to work or school. I felt awful. I was the one who told Ben his bus was early. But I definitely saw red minibus. We had no idea what had happened.
Finally at about 11am the phone rang. It was our local Garda Station. A person answering Ben’s description and clutching a lunchbox had been ‘handed in’ to Bray Garda Station. Could someone go and identify him and collect him. It had to be Ben – but how had he gotten to Bray? My brother was dispatched to collect him.
While he was gone the phone rang again. Our neighbour and good friend across the road was laughing so much that it took a while to establish the facts of Ben’s disappearance.
This neighbour had recently started to take in students; mostly adults coming to Ireland for short intensive language courses. Many of them worked for Siemens Nixdorf in Bray. On this particular morning she had two gentlemen who were to be collected by minibus for their day at Nixdorf. One however was sick and stayed in bed. At about the same time as her lone student was boarding the bus, our Ben shot out of our door and onto the minibus. The driver, expecting two passengers was happy enough and off they went. I am not sure if anyone tried to make conversation on the way south but the bus duly arrived at the Nixdorf facility in Bray whereupon all the passengers disembarked but our Ben who was cute enough to know that this was not St Michael’s House.
The driver invited him to leave but Ben stayed put. The driver went looking for help assuming that this fella had no English at all. A tutor arrived out and again tried to converse with Ben to no avail. “Where - are - you - from” he asked in fractured English. Ben could never manage to remember a full address but did know that we lived near Stradbrook Road and so he boomed triumphantly “Stradbrook”. “Ah Strasbourg” says Mr Nixdorf and immediately switched to French. Still no joy. This interrogation must have gone on for some more time and Ben would not leave the bus. Finally someone arrived who realised that Ben was perhaps a sandwich or two short of a picnic. And so the Gardai were called in.
Ben was taken back to the Station in the tender care of a female officer who was still entertaining him and drinking tea when my brother arrived. To this day Ben still recounts this story with great excitement and we have all dined out on the same story for years as, no doubt, have the people at Siemens Nixdorf.
Dermot Healy International Poetry Award
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