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  • Writer's pictureLizzy Shannon

At Robin Hill

The plane arrived only an hour late; the pilot having taken a diversion north to avoid the ash from the volcano in Iceland. The walk to immigration was as long as ever, but this time I remembered to wear sneakered soles so I didn't clump along like an invasion of designer booted gestapo.

Belfast International is such an easy airport to navigate. Particularly at ten in the morning. Only a few yards past Immigration lurks Her Majesty's Custom and Excise... I always make a point of smiling politely at the officers, even though it makes them study me more intently.

Immediately beyond there lies the airport's two baggage carousels. In moments, it rumbled awake and the first class passengers' luggage spewed out from a darkened lair beyond the carousel. I spotted my leopard suitcase as soon as it tumbled onto the carousel. Good taste - no, but easily sighted - yes.

Collecting it and putting it on the free cart provided, I headed straight for the exit and down the long passageway leading outside. Dad told me to meet him at Short Term Parking/Pickup, but as soon as I stepped outside the airport I was met with a sign proclaiming that both were closed. As if proof were needed, several workmen in yellow plastic jackets lounged against the fence on the far side, smoking cigarettes and pretending to study a clipboard one of them carried.

The entire parking lot was so small I could see to the far exit, and saw Dad's blue Mazda enter the lot. I tried to follow where he parked but lost him in the maze of cars.

I had come to stand in the center island between drop off and the parking lots, and I realized I was making passing motorists alternatively puzzled, then annoyed. I was right by a zebra crossing, making them stop to let me cross, and then when I didn't, they'd accelerate angrily, drawing the attention of the female PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) patrolling the area. She began to beat a steady path toward me, but retreated when she saw me recognize Dad, striding through the parking lot.

I smiled and waved at him, pushing my cart across the zebra crossing to meet him. He looked alarmed when I bodily grabbed him and hugged him. He hadn't recognized me. I've lost some weight, but hadn't understood just how different it made me look.

Dad told me where the car was parked, and sent me in its general direction while he paid at the machine for the 30-second park. I could see the Mazda, several hundred feet away, but no way to get to it. Cars were parked so closely together, there was not a chance to squeeze between them with the cart. Nor were there any walkways to get through the cars. I eventually had to push the cart the length of the parking lot, out to where the cars could exit, and push the cart back in. I found Dad's Mazda and saw Sam and Ben, his elderly black labradors, dozing in the back.

Excited to see them again, because I thought for sure that last year would be the last time I would, I cooed at them, calling their names. They knew me at once, as they always have, no matter how long I stay away. They leaped to their feet, barking and wagging their tails. A shrill whooping half deafened me. Unfortunately, Dad had set the car alarm, but forgotten to adjust it so any interior movement wouldn't set it off. I stood by the car, my fingers petting the dogs through the partially opened window and pretended the shrieking and wailing was nothing to do with me.

We got the suitcases in with the dogs, and Dad insisted on driving. That was good; it gave me a chance to adjust to cars driving on the left again.

"It was slow getting here," said Dad. "Lots of tractors."

As though to prove his point, on the other side of the two-lane road, a huge tractor ambled along, an huge arm reaching out into the ditch at the side of the road, doing something to the grass. As we approached I realized the tractor was moving backwards into the traffic coming behind him. I almost put my hands over my eyes, but the motorists behind the tractor took it in stride, and waited for us to pass by before they attempted to overtake the tractor. That can't be legal!

When we arrived at Dad's house at Robin Hill, he put on the kettle for a cup of coffee. A robin appeared at the birdbath outside the kitchen window as though to welcome me, but I haven't seen him since.

Days have blurred into each other over the past week, and now it's almost time to return to the States.

Sam is not in the best of health. He's had two amputations from an infected tail, and it doesn't seem to be healing very well. He has a dreadful infection in his mouth... which gets worse weekly. I fear that the time has come for Dad to make a hard decision about him. He's almost 14, and I remember house-sitting when he was a puppy. Mum was still alive and they were off on vacation. I took Sam with me wherever I went, even to a Star Trek club meeting in a bar in Belfast. I only got away with it because there was a blind guy there with a bonafide guide dog, who coincidentally was also a black labrador.

I told everyone that Sam was a hearing dog in training, and no one ever asked for verification. The meeting was held in an upstairs bar with hard floors and pillars around the room. The first thing Sam did was lift his leg on one of the pillars. I hauled him to the other side of the bar, and when the poor guide dog came in and went to investigate the smell, he got the blame. But no one could throw him out! So the staff painstakingly washed off the pillar while I avoided eye contact.

But I digress.

Sam seems better today, and we're getting ready for our daily walk across the bay on Murlough.

It has been a bitter-sweet visit. One of the most pleasant I've had in years, as both Dad and I have mellowed, and we have not had any personality clashes this time. It will be the last time I will spend with either Sam or Ben, and perhaps even Robin Hill. Dad talks of moving somewhere smaller when the dogs pass on.

Dad himself is in fine form, but one never knows. I'll stop now before I make my mascara run. More to come later... an adventure with the gardener who believes in aliens...


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