Getting Away From It All

On the Road or On the Run in Peter Hollywood’s Luggage

Maeve O'Lynn

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Peter Hollywood’s novella Luggage (2008) is a perplexing blend of the impressionistic and tangled, in which reality, paranoia, nightmares and history are interchangeable. In so doing, Hollywood quietly subverts the politically expedient, binary notion that past and intra-conflict Northern Ireland is a signifier for what is backwards and horrifying, while present-day Northern Ireland symbolises something frankly positive and inspiring.

A notable example of this can be found where reader is introduced to modern day Newry through the funeral of a well-known republican. While watching the cortege file past, the novella’s central character, Thomas, is amazed at being able to look around him and see:

no binoculars, observers, check-points, concealed convoys of waiting land-rovers, police cars; no caterwaul of rotor blades drowning out orations and prayers, no downdraughts scattering hats and headscarves – handkerchiefs; no unmarked cars, spies-in-the-sky; ranks of riot shields leaning Trojan-like in side streets ready to be snatched up; no rubber bullets, batons nor tear-gas; no ‘PIGS’ nor water cannons, nor dragon teeth; no Saracens; no metallic, megaphone voice booming from on high. No riot (p.34).

Thomas has a perhaps surprisingly ambivalent reaction to these trappings of modernity and normality. Newry for him is now defined by what is not there and, in the absence of all the signs of conflict he expects to see, Thomas remarks ‘the hairs stood up on the back of his neck’ (p.34). The absence of obvious signs of civil unrest, violence and a heavy security force presence on the streets has become the norm, but, for Thomas, it is not a state of affairs which feels secure, comfortable or even real.

Yet this discomfort is not tied to the physical space of Newry or even Northern Ireland itself. For much of the novella, Thomas and his family are travelling around France. Thomas has been disturbed by an incident which occurred on the boat from Belfast on the first stage of their journey, an incident which is only ever partially explained. Far from being a relaxing holiday, therefore, it is clear from the novella's outset that the trip from its outset has become something of an ordeal to Thomas as he continually makes connections between the family's progress and that of the arduous Tour de France cycling race: 

Thomas sat on the terrasse of the Café de Paris in Belvès...The Tour had passed to the west of Belvès the previous day and Lance Armstrong, 'L'Homme de Fer', was maintaining pole position. The same wind that had chopped up the water on the river had blown into the faces of the riders and had slowed up that stage's progress (p.20).

The reference to the wind which blows into the riders' faces and which also 'chopped up the water' on which Thomas and his family were canoeing creates an almost metaphysical connection between the race's difficult progress and the family's journey across France. Thomas himself seems to particularly identify with Lance Armstrong, 'L'Homme de Fer' or 'the iron man' and the next update on the Tour underlines Thomas’s feelings of anxiety and stress, casting a pall over the holiday:  

He wanted to catch up with Lance Armstrong. The stage of Luz-Arinden had been yet another incident filled ordeal...At the press conference afterwards, he said: ‘...this has been the Tour of too many problems. Too many close calls, too many near misses...I wish I could just have some uneventful days’ (p.60).

Thomas's inability to relax and enjoy the holiday lead to an atmosphere of stress and paranoia: ‘That night before falling asleep, Thomas got out of bed and double-checked that the door and windows of the mobile home were securely locked’ (p.72). Confused and frustrated by her husband's edgy demeanour and odd behaviour, Judith finally confronts Thomas about the strange atmosphere: ‘There's times when it just doesn't feel like a holiday. It feels more like we're on the run’ (p.74).

Thomas and Judith both travel on the same journey through France but have very different perspectives on what that they experience, even though they are, by and large, experiencing exactly the same things. Thomas freely admits to his wife that he has been in a very strange mind-frame throughout the holiday, blaming it on the fact that he saw a notorious loyalist killer on the boat en-route from Belfast:

It's just that holidays are supposed to be getting away from it all. Aren't they? And yet there he was: hijacking the holiday. It wasn't even the first day of the holiday: it was the first fucking hour...seeing a psycho like that before you've even left the country, when you're supposed to be going off and enjoying yourself: it sort of makes a mockery of it (pp.74-75).

“The Man On The Boat” looms over much of the novella, taking on a supernatural quality in Thomas's nightmares:

The piratical ponytail clicked metronomically, swung pendulously to and fro; it seemed to grow longer and bushier, the nearer Thomas drew...All the time, his quarry seemed to grow and transmogrify in stature until he was towering above him and Thomas had to crane his neck back to see (pp.19-20).

It is clear from Thomas's reaction that he believes with people like this man being free agents, no one in modern Northern Ireland will ever be able to feel entirely safe or free from anxiety. The past has not been dealt with, excavated, faced or understood. Many people, such as Thomas, cannot move out from under its shadow. However, Thomas's fears are countered by the attitude of his wife who cannot understand why this particular man unnerves him so much as well. The rationality of Thomas’s anxiety is further undermined by the over-arching impression for the reader that the man that provokes such horror in Thomas is actually quite a sad figure, haunted by his past actions:

The truth was: the man had never ventured out on deck; he had remained stuck to his seat for the duration of the crossing...The man had, in fact, placed himself with his back to the sea, facing the boatload of people and had never once dared to go outside on deck. He had glanced once at the door with what Thomas now recognised as a startled, haggard look of agoraphobia. It was as if the image of the man was frozen now, for all time, in the frame of the door, paralysed and going nowhere (p.104).

The pathetic figure of this former ruthless killer trapped in a liminal state of stasis makes the reader question why the man's appearance has such a profoundly unnerving effect on Thomas. One possible solution that suggests itself is that Thomas has a connection with the man that pre-dates his encounter with him on the boat. The reader is told very little about Thomas's life in the years between his childhood in Newry and his current situation as a middle-class, middle-aged man, married to a Protestant woman from Bangor with whom he has three children. What we do know is that he grew up in Newry, traditionally a republican stronghold in the north, and that at the beginning of the novella he attends the funeral of a former classmate, who was also presumably a friend, a few months before his holiday in France. The classmate had been a prominent republican comrade and along the route of the cortege, men queue up to carry the coffin, the same men who Thomas has not seen for years but nevertheless has to stop and nod to or shake hands with along the way. It is clear that Thomas is more interested in art, philosophy, music, literature and travel than he is with politics during the course of the novella but he nonetheless harbours a barely restrained bitterness against the SAS and is deeply unnerved by encountering this former loyalist prisoner on the boat. This, when combined with the undocumented years of Thomas's life in before he met and married Judith, carry the hint of a suggestion that perhaps Thomas recognises something of himself, or what he had the potential to be, in the monstrous figure of the man on the boat, which offers a partial explanation, albeit a very fragmented one, as to why Thomas is so unnerved by his presence.

If this is an explanation, it is one that his wife is entirely unaware of and Judith remains perplexed, reasoning with her husband that many prisoners have been released from both sides as part of the Good Friday Agreement and confused as to why this particular man has had such a profound effect on her husband. By way of further explanation, Thomas only offers that he considered pushing the man overboard, which is later revealed to be a lie as Thomas reflects at the end of the novella that the man was never on-deck and was, in fact, apparently agoraphobic. The only clue as to why the appearance of this man has so badly unnerved him is Thomas's catch-all comment: 'I just don't trust peace. It's like the Holy Grail' (p.76).

Equally as prominent as the conflict in Thomas’s mind are memories of his father. In Luggage, Thomas unconsciously apes not just his father's behaviour but also his own probably exaggerated perceptions of his father's behaviour, gleaned from stories about events which happened before Thomas was born and which he could not have witnessed first-hand. One of these involves Thomas's perception of his father's heroic knife-fight with an American soldier found trespassing in the family home:

Possibly still dazed from the tumble over the crate of beer, the soldier did not anticipate the assailant's swift move. His father got a vice-like grip on the right arm and, linked like this, the two men waltzed on into the grip cursing and struggling and strangling and whirling each other around (p.41).

Thomas's father suspected the soldier of trespassing with the intent to rape his younger sister, who was also at home at the time. When Thomas and his wife find themselves witness to the French police apprehending a man wanted on a string of rape charges, Thomas unconsciously mimics his father:

Thomas realised that all this time he had had a grip of Judith's arm, having reached for it across the table. He gave it a comforting pat now and as she continued to peer all around her and out the window, he quietly replaced the steak-knife beside his plate, from where he had deftly snatched it up, moments before (p.38).

The extent to which Thomas has been influenced by his father is underlined in his own mind in the connection between where the legendary knife-fight took place and where Thomas himself grew up: ‘It happened in that busy market town his father, and later he, grew up in, located close to the border’ (p.39). The confrontation between Thomas's father and the soldier takes on an exaggerated, almost Western-style pastiche effect, reinforced by the arrival of Joseph Slow Waters, the Navaho military policeman on the scene shortly after the incident. The contrast between this almost cartoonish fight and Thomas's own encounters with soldiers over the years seems striking: ‘There were soldiers too in the town, when Thomas was growing up. These ones, as you know, were not on leave’ (p.42).

His father's account of his struggle with the American soldier reappears in a distorted, horrific form in Thomas's nightmare about confronting the former loyalist killer on board the boat from Belfast:

It was a David and Goliath struggle in the dream that night with the reappearance of the man on board the Seacat, leaving Belfast. It was dark, yet Thomas had no trouble recognizing the figure standing at the rail, his back to him...Thomas put out his arms, palms forward, fingers pointing to the sky and increased his step. Then, at the last moment, as if endowed with some sixth-sense, a built-in warning system, the man spun round and seized both of Thomas's extended hands and grinned in his face. Now they danced and grappled about the had become a simple matter for him to hoist Thomas up off the deck and extend him out beyond the railing; from there he merely tossed Thomas off into the dark where, moments later, he found himself, awake, beside his wife, and bathed in sweat (p.20).

Thomas again finds himself unconsciously replicating his father's actions in this nightmare where he, like his father, almost dances with his quarry; the physical fight between the men transfigured into something graceful and deadly. However, whereas Thomas's father, at least in his own account of events, comes across as heroic and skilled, Thomas's gestures are ultimately impotent as he grabs a knife without ever wielding it and even in his dreams he is unable to defeat his foe no matter how he grapples with him.

Thomas is anxious in how own ability to be a father. Thomas's children, for all intents and purposes are happy, healthy, and confident. There is no obvious factor in the children's lives that should cause Thomas any concern as a parent but he is fretful of their safety nonetheless. Thomas, however, grew up as the son of a pub owner in Troubles-ridden and economically depressed nineteen seventies Newry, a background which has created no small degree of bitterness within him, even over thirty years later:

The Devil...Came to my hometown in nineteen seventy five... There was a book published by an ex-colonel in the S.A.S. In it, he describes the various dirty tricks campaigns the army waged in the North and one of them, it seems, entailed spreading rumours of devil worship in a small town near the border. My fucking town. He boasted how successful it had been in keeping the local youths, who would otherwise have been out throwing stones and bottles at the soldiers, off the streets for a couple of weeks. They had made the whole thing up; all that time they had been messing with my fucking mind. All that time to have believed we had been in danger of being kidnapped and cut up. And only to have learned the truth a couple of years ago (p.54).

Caught between a childhood in which he was afraid of a bogeyman who threatened to kidnap and 'cut up' children and the revelation as an adult that these stories were the product of misinformation campaigns conducted by the SAS, Thomas is understandably wary of trusting the forces of law and order and mindful of the effect such terror can have on a child. In spite of the safety of the cocoon Thomas has created for his family, several incidents in the novella reveal both the children's vulnerability and Thomas's limited ability to protect them from the dangers of life itself, for example the family's close call with the skinheads in Morecambe Bay and the incident in which Molly, Thomas's youngest daughter, climbs to the very edge of the Colosseum the family is visiting in Nîmes, with no barrier between her and the fatal drop into 'the dizzy swirl of traffic' (p.97) below. Thomas therefore begins to realise that there is a limit to how much he can protect his children from the world around them. This revelation is reflected in Thomas's decision at the end of the novella to refrain from physically grabbing hold of his son, Jason, who is leaning over the rails of the deck of the ship. Thomas stands close by him, 'watchfully' but refrains from actually physically intervening.

This moment, in fact, closes this brief, troubling novella; a degree of insight into what the future might hold. The family return home, still safe and united, into the new Belfast, which is symbolised by the Odyssey complex pointed out by Thomas's son as the boat travels down Belfast Lough. Thomas allows his son to climb on the railings, not intervening, but providing a level of physical support nearby if needed, and his son is fine. While new by no means simply equates with good in Luggage, ultimately, it appears that Thomas has begun to learn to trust the place, to trust himself and can finally concede that neither the place itself nor its past holds any threat to his children and there might be a future ahead, unburdened by the luggage / baggage of the past.