SWB has a pre-disposition towards melancholy and has a tendency to feel aggrieved. She is currently on a sabbatical from work to enjoy the pleasures of child rearing, which brings its own challenges and aggravations. As a stay-at-home mum in Belfast she has plenty of time to be irritated by her own off-spring, and those of other people. Still, this beats being at work teaching other small children and then hand almost her entire salary over to a crèche.
The Small Child is raging. The features on her five year old face are scrunched into a frown, her forehead all furrowed and her eyes threatening tears. Very upset indeed she is. And the reason? Big sister came home with a tiny teddy bear, boasting hearts on the upsides of his paws. There’s a boy in her class, (we’ll refer to him as Bert, to preserve his anonymity.) Cracker wee chap he is too- full of exuberance and fun. He’s had his eye on herself from P1, and what with her being a sensible sort of a child, and him being inclined towards causing mischief, I think she’s often paired up with him to keep his behaviour in check.
I’m surmising, because I found myself in a similar position in P2. There was a boy in my class, (we’ll call him Neville: though in fact his parents were Plymouth Brethren, so he could well have been called Neville.) He was was gorgeous, all shiny blond hair and sparkly eyes, but a bit of a ruffian, and loved a good rake about. Once an educational psychologist came in to observe his antics. ‘That little girl Helen is very good with him,’ she opined. Neville annoyed me once, and I remember the eagle-eyed teacher, calling my name sharply as she saw my thumb and fore-finger poised to give him a good nip. He escaped, that time.
I digress. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get a bear,’ I tell the Small Child. ‘But really, you’re very little for all this business. Much better to think of Valentine’s as a day to have fun with your family, and give us lots of hugs.’ ‘I just want a bear,’ she sniffed.
I tell her that sometimes she will have a boyfriend and her sister won’t; and vice versa. That sometimes she will feel jealous and sad, because life can be unfair. I tell her that before I met her daddy I had some boyfriends who never got me a card or a present, or treated me very nicely at all. I tell her I didn’t keep them around for long. We eat some Marks and Spencer chocolate hearts and read ‘The Children of Cherrytree Farm.’ I register the paucity of adjectives in Enid Blyton’s prose, but rather enjoy reading about red squirrels and moles. The older child cuddles in; the teddy bear who caused all the strife abandoned on the sofa while we three huddle under the duvet on the big bed.
Later, I jog down to the town centre, where I’m learning to ‘work the desk’ at Belfast 89 : it’s harder than you think, this radio lark, especially for one with an aversion a technology. I don’t know how many times I left the mic on, so all manner of shit could have been bandied about over the airwaves, with me blithely unaware. Anyway, as I run, I pass several chaps carrying bunches of flowers. A few have been over generous with the aftershave and it lingers in my nostrils for several yards after I pass them. It makes me smile. It reminds me of last year when we took a trip to Malahide. Sitting on the Luas was a girl with a teddy bear the size of a chimpanzee. ‘Jaysus,’ sighed an elderly woman, who was actually wearing a headscarf. ‘He’d have been better off giving you the money.’ Given the expression on the girl’s face, I think she agreed.
The thought of jogging home again makes my heart feel sore, so LSB leaps in the motor and comes to get me. Later he nips down to get petrol and I take out the bins. I lament that the children’s dinner is in the green compost caddy and that LSB has fed them a bagel instead. He cooks two steaks and we open a bottle of Beaujolais and I understand for the first time why the French tend to export most of their yield because it tastes like Shloer. I light a candle.
With f@*k all on the TV, we watch the episode of Friends where Ross sleeps with the Xerox girl because they’re ON A BREAK. The cat purrs beside us. It’s been a strange old Valentine’s Day. ‘I’m glad I have you,’ I tell him as we clink glasses. ‘Aye, you’re all right too,’ he replies, giving me a kiss.
*Welcome to all my new readers! Thanks for finding the blog and I hope you enjoy my musings. LSB, by the way, is the acronym for my husband, and stands for Long Suffering Bastard.
Recently LSB has started attending a gym near his work. He’s found himself a PT called Tom, and he’s all delighted with him: it’s all ‘Tom says’ and ‘Tom this’ and ‘Tom that.’ I’ve had to take his shirts to Oxfam and buy him more, as buttons have started pinging off all over the joint since his shoulders have filled out. He’ll deny this, but I’ve caught him having a sneaky look at his new pecs in the mirror. Thrilled with his new physique, he is. I had a session myself with a PT a while ago now, at the Ramada. A sanctimonious twerp he was too: I couldn’t be having him. He lacked all humour and made disparaging comments about yoga. ‘I’ll not be working out with you again you, you prick,’ I thought.
However, of late I’ve not felt at my best. I’ve no waist to speak of, my arms are droopy and I lack upper body strength. I’ve joined the PEC but hardly ever go because I lack the confidence to use the free weights room and I rarely make it to classes. ‘You need a PT,’ says himself, ‘just to get you started.’ I’ve tried going to the gym with him (I mean what’s the use of being shacked up to a running coach if they can’t at least train their wives,) but he has me doing all manner of daft exercises. I end up giving him savage looks which are not conducive to marital harmony. Luckily, my pal Marie-Louise comes to the rescue. ‘Mary-Jo lives up the road from you,’ she says. ‘She’s my mate and she’s brilliant. Off you go.’
Turns out, Marie-Louise is right. I don’t just want to go BACK to Mary-Jo, I want to adopt her. Everyone needs this pint-sized dynamo in their lives: the National Health should make her available on prescription. When I arrived on Wednesday, a frazzled mess, she had a cup of camomile tea waiting for me and took time to chat before heading out to her studio. She took my blood-pressure first, to check I wasn’t suffering from hyper tension and didn’t have a stroke mid-session. ‘Not great for business that,’ she said. ‘Indeed,’ I agreed.
Her studio is compact and bijou: all white with pops of bright colour provided by her equipment. I can see that attention to detail is everything with Mary-Jo. There is a tall bottle of chilled water for my refreshment, and even my glass is beautiful, with a dragonfly imprint. In between exercises I keep shrieking ‘I love that tune!’ and she admits to using Spotify to tailor song choices to her clients’ age. There’s a good vibe in the studio- already I know I want to come back.
She designs a circuit of exercises which work on my legs, arms and core. The benefits of having her beside me as I work through them are manifold. She gently reminds me to engage my core, regulate my breathing and ensure my stance is correct. Having been involved in an accident in my twenties, I am always paranoid about lifting weights, lest I aggravate old injuries. Mary-Jo is sympathetic to my neuroses, (which are many) and knowing that she is looking on, to see I’m not doing any damage to myself, reassures me. I know that weight training improves speed and builds strength for running, but I lack the motivation to it. Having her there to keep count of reps and encourage me keeps me going.
I can imagine though, that after a few sessions, I would quickly gain confidence. Mary-Jo may be sweet faced and softly spoken, but if your aim is to lose weight and change your shape, she’ll channel her inner terrier to get you there. I do the circuit once, and since I’d run 10k earlier, I decline the next two rounds. Her sessions usually involve three circuits with the smallest of breaks inbetween. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. ‘Course you are; you’re strong!’ says Mary-Jo. For one so mild, she doesn’t even look shocked by the stream of invective I release during a particularly brutal core exercise.
It is also, despite the work out, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. She tells me that some of her clients are so chatty she sets a timer as a means of discipline or they wouldn’t manage to complete their workout. ‘People pay me to get results,’ she says, ‘so they have to get value for money.’ By going to Mary-Jo you get more than value- you get a bit of TLC too. In the warmer weather she will even take her clients outside and serves up tea and dark chocolate as a post work-out treat. I mean, who DOES that?
There are no miracle shortcuts though, and the exercise only works in tandem with a good diet, and exercising portion control. ‘Wine’s a killer,’ she tells me. ‘Don’t drink all your calories.’ ‘Bugger,’ I reply.
In truth, don’t walk, RUN up to her studio for a new step in your exercise journey. The day after my session I meet my friend Martina for a HIT (High Intensity Training) class at Queen’s. I notice that I breathe differently throughout and am more aware of my posture. I see that if I commit to a few more one to ones with Mary-Jo I’ll have the encouragement I need to see results and start using the weights at the gym myself, without feeling foolish and intimidated by the others around me.
A session with a good PT is an investment in your fitness, your confidence and self-esteem. Mary-Jo went to one herself 3 years ago; found a new way to train and was so inspired that she left her job in banking to become one herself. I’m very glad she did.
Here she is in action.
If you need some inspiration for check out Mary-Jo Tunney on Facebook.
On Saturday night, LSB and myself took a trot down the Ormeau. There was a buzz and a busyness in the air. The restaurants were heaving. In The Northern Lights we met a friend out with her family. They were celebrating their child’s transfer test results and the relief on their faces was palpable. The process was over: they could exhale. Excitedly, they popped their coats on to go for pizza. I love meeting these guys- and I know whatever the results had been, they would have out anyway.
‘I want that to be us,’ I said, after we passed on our congratulations. ‘Whatever happens in that bloody exam, we are booking a table the week before. We will tell the girls that we are proud of them, and that we are sorry that they have to do this bloody, farcical test at eleven years of age.’
You may have noticed that I stay away from some of the controversial issues. I don’t write at length about Brexit, about the right to choose, about the chasm in our government. I ruminate instead about the everyday irritations I face, and I find this most cathartic. There are better, more informed and let’s face it, professional journos out there, who are paid to analyse and reflect upon the big stuff. Feedback from the people I meet and who like the SWB blog, tell me they enjoy the irreverent tone and the lighter things I touch upon. Unfortunately, as soon as one does start writing about tougher subjects, along come the trolls and up starts the abuse. I’ve enough to deal with in life without that aggravation.
You may, discerning readers as you are, have picked up on the fact that I’m a worry wart. I can put a day in rightly, agonising over Brexit, potential nuclear annihilation and getting cancer from the micro-plastics in my tap water. I have now started to stress in earnest about my children, and the transfer procedure. They are children who (usually) want to please. They try hard, and sometimes produce pieces of writing and pictures which make me stop and think ‘Wow. What an intuitive little buddy you are.’ However, does this exam really test what matters? And if they don’t get their desired result, how will it affect the rest of their school lives?
A former colleague of mine confessed that she had a headache, a sharp tense pain over her right eye, for four months. She was haggard by the end of the transfer process. Her daughter is bright and zingy and happily sailed off to her school of choice. But I thought about the impact the whole wretched debacle had on the whole family. A friend who had twin girls said he wouldn’t even let them sit the test. No way he said, what if one got it and the other didn’t? The ramifications seem endless.
When I did the 11+ as it was called, it was 1989. I sat in my usual p7 classroom, with my friends, and a kindly looking man in his seventies was the invigilator. He looked like my grandad. Classmates had brought in little ‘good luck charms’ and I set out a dog I’d made from FIMO and a teeny picture of Kylie and Jason dressed in their wedding gear as Scott and Charlene from Neighbours. There was a second exam a couple of weeks later and I don’t remember being overly stressed. Yes, we had done many practice papers in class, but it must, despite being a highly academic primary school, have been well managed by the staff. On the morning of the exam my mum worried I’d be up to ‘high-do’, but apparently she found me reading away at Judy Blume novel in the back of the car.
Now, as any shell-shocked parents know, children have potentially four tests to do, trailing from school to school and sitting in unfamiliar classrooms. I’ve personally been an invigilator at the grammar school where I used to teach. All of us were under strict instruction to be as welcoming and reassuring as we could. Still, it’s not enough is it? Our efforts to be pleasant do not compensate for the bureaucratic nightmare that it is. I think the system is wrong- separating kids from their friends and encouraging competitiveness and snobbishness (and that’s only the parents.)
As parents, I think all LSB and myself can do, is instill the best sense of self in our girls as we can. We will encourage them to work hard and offer our help and support. We will share our own stories from school, about times when we struggled and felt sad and lost, or moments when we found real pleasure in learning. I just hope it’s enough.
Right, fess up everyone. Who’s been watching Marie Kondo Tidies Up on Netflix? I’ll admit, I’ve found it hard to resist, but I’ve limited myself to two and a half episodes. I don’t have time to WATCH people tidy, I just need to get on it. I fear it might be a bit like cookery programmes- thinking yes, I’ll DEFINITELY make that, but I don’t, since everyone likes my Chinese Beef in Ginger so why would I risking something different? I tend to salivate more over the glorious décor than the recipes anyway. I felt so CHEATED when I learnt that Nigella Lawson wasn’t creating her shredded lamb and pomegranate salad in her West London Pad, but in a set at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire.
I digress. For the uninitiated, Kondo has taken herself off to America, land of excess, to bring her tidy tips to those who’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of shite. In she swoops, like an elfin Fairy Godmother, to help them rediscover who they ‘really are’, through binning their stuff. There are many cringe-worthy bits: the worst of which being the ‘group prayer,’ where they kneel and honour THE HOUSE to give thanks for its presence in their lives and apologise for not recognising its worth. I don’t know why I’m surprised; this is a woman who feels it’s shameful to pair socks. (I may have expressed my annoyance about this before.)
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a bit of Kondo rumination on the appropriate treatment of hosiery:
Socks and Stockings Some people think it doesn’t really matter if they wear socks with holes in them or tights that are pilled, but this is like declaring ‘today doesn’t really matter’. Your feet bear your weight and help you live your life, and it is your socks that cradle those feet. The socks you wear at home are particularly important because they are the contact point between you and your house, so choose ones that will make the time you spend there even more enjoyable.
Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel. Please put an end to this practice today.
See? Told you she was barking. The other irritating bit is when someone, often Kondo herself, falls over a pile of tat, to much hilarity. ‘Babe, we just have too much stuff!’ exclaimed one particularly irksome woman, after taking a tumble. I could just imagine the director staging the whole thing to inject some liveliness into proceedings, since Kondo has all the personality of one of those socks she’s so keen in folding.
The format is thus: in she trots, with lots of insincere ‘semi-hugging’, and cuddling of any infants who happen to be knocking about. (‘I’m the nice lady who’s going to put all your toys in the bin and teach you a new game called ‘organising’.) She then tries not to look absolutely appalled by the clip of the place.
I urge you to watch Episode Two, which features a deranged American-Japanese couple. God love them. They didn’t need Kondo, they needed a lifetime of therapy and an in-house Relate Counsellor. A more beleaguered looking husband you’d be hard pressed to find. The wife, who created the biggest mountain of clothing that Kondo had ever clapped eyes on, actually admitted that she shopped when he pissed her off so she could ‘hit him where it hurt.’ Fuck me.
Now that I’ve got thinking about what annoys me I can’t stop. I was apoplectic when I saw about 15 bags of clothes deemed ‘trash’ while another pile was destined for ‘good will’. Seriously? Up rocked the dumpster truck and off it went for landfill. And what had Kondo got to say about that? Feck all, so long as it was out of the way.
Happily, I think we’re doing better here in Ireland. When I dropped off very raggedy clothes into the Barnardo’s bins at Ormeau Recycling Centre, three of them were overflowing, which was heartening.
Thus to conclude, while I find her sanctimonious and irritating in the extreme, I concede that Kondo has a point. If we can move away from the mindset that stuff equals happiness, and make more conscious decisions about our purchases, we’ll be more content. I get it. Just don’t expect to me posting drawer-fuls of tee-shirts standing to attention. I’ve already got a lot of hobbies already, and folding ain’t going to become another one.
It’s the third week in January, when statistics indicate we will have abandoned our New Year’s Resolutions, be dreading the credit card bill and be cursing the grey skies and present cold snap. Mind you, I’m relieved to feel the chill because, no word of a lie, three weeks ago I saw what looked suspiciously like blackberries ripening in the brambles outside Forestside. Global warming isn’t just imminent: it’s here, upon us and scaring the s**t clean out of me.
Thus do we remain apathetic, or make some tweaks to our consumerist habits and do the world a favour? We do the latter people! No point sitting around getting depressed, no Sirree. On Friday morning I took a trot down the Ormeau and partook of a fine coffee with a friend in Root and Branch. It’s a jolly place isn’t it, if you don’t mind channelling your inner hipster and thinking ‘less is more’ with your thimble sized cup. I’m helping my pal run a pub quiz for Tour Guide NI, a fledgling business, organising local events for tourists. I’ve never been a quiz master before but I’ve been to enough to know what makes a really bad one. We’ve all sat through some abysmal quiz with an entire round devoted to soap operas (BOKE) and another one based upon obscure geographical facts that no one has any notion about and a collective gloom descends. The WORST is when the compere feels they’ve missed out their role in life as a comedian, and attempts humour instead of getting on with the rounds. Excruciating.
Now, if there’s one benefit to the new Netflix show: ‘Marie Kondo Tidies’ it’s that there’s fabulous buys to be found in charity shops, since the masses are leaping upon the band wagon and f**king out anything which doesn’t ‘spark joy’. The phenomenon has reached the Ormeau, if ‘The Hospice Shop’ and ‘Concern’ are anything to go by. I was tempted by Chanel inspired classics, 50’s inspired glamour and boho chic kimono pieces. I settled on a frock which looked every bit Desigual but from a company I’d never heard tell of. The lovely lady in The Hospice Shop told me that they find it hard to shift dresses and skirts. I just don’t understand- the stuff is gorgeous. And do you know who needs bright pretty ensembles? Teachers, that’s who. Kids love a bit of glam- who wants to sit looking at someone clad in beige or black, especially wee primary school kids who look at the same person all day. We had a geography teacher in school who was the personification of bland: her clothes were wishy washy and she was zero craic to boot. The Mothership, who used to sub-teach (ever since ditching her job to go gallivanting round Africa) and always chose her work clothes with tremendous care. I remember her looking out quirky pieces of jewellery and selecting lovely outfits since her lecturer at Stranmillis had said, ‘children like that sort of thing.’ She had a ring which looked like an eye that the wee boys in particular loved staring at it.
I recall too, that once you’ve worn a jacket into work and lugged around a few dirty old books, and had wee kids coughing and sneezing all over you; that your clothes get past their best very quickly. One therefore resents shelling out a fortune, and who wants to support fast fashion with all those dyes and micro-plastics flooding the rivers in Bangladesh.
So to cheer up a mizzly morning, take yourself down the Ormeau. Craic was ninety in the shops and you can sate your inner shopaholic guilt free. Check out my new ensemble (minus the shoes which I wouldn’t last 10 minutes in. I’m clumsy enough without heels, even if they are beaut.) Another top tip, if you happening to be organising a PTA event or pub quiz and are looking prizes, is to have a gander at all the loot IN the charity shops, and pick them up at a bargain price. You could make up all sorts of goody bags and create some much sought after and original raffle prizes. Plus, you’d have a fun morning outing. You see? January isn’t so bad after all…
In Northern Ireland, do not be tempted to go to a travel agents if you’re looking a holiday. Your local Foncab driver will tell you all you need to know.
‘I need a night out,’ I tell LSB. ‘You, me, candles. Wine and ambiance.’ I’ve had a headache for 3 weeks- every so often this happens and once I work out I’m not dying I just get properly fed up. Children, and the sounds they generate, are hard to tolerate when you feel that someone has inserted a drill in through your ear and behind your eye sockets. The pain has subsided but bright lights and noise are still an anathema to me. Still, it’s on the wane, and two paracetamol later and a frock on me and I’m good to go. We order a taxi.
‘Out for something to eat?’ asks our Fonacab driver. ‘Lucky for some.’
He grins at me in the mirror. ‘He spoils you rotten love. Good Christmas?’
There are only so many accounts your Christmas that you are willing to relate to strangers, no matter how lovely it was. ‘Grand,’ I mutter. What about yourself?’
‘Glad it’s over,’ he says.
‘Oh dear,’ I reply.
‘F*@king raging I am,’ he goes on. ‘I alwaysgo to Tenerife in January. Something happened this year, and we couldn’t get away. So I’m stuck here, trailing folk round the town. F*@king shite.’
‘Oh. That’s too bad.’ says LSB. ‘I’m sure you’ll get something.’
‘Wife wants to go in June. F*@king June! That’s my lads holiday and I’m not giving that up. I sez to her, we may get down to Thomas Cook because I’ve them vouchers to use. I’m thinking Tunisia, £500, all-inclusive. That’s for two weeks. No one goes there anymore, in case they get shot, but I mean, people are shot in London all the time. Or stabbed, and there’s no shortage of tourists there.’
‘That is the sorry truth,’ I say.
‘In June,’ he goes on, ‘We go out to my dad in Albufeira. Lads’ drinking holiday. We just go boozing for 4 days. Start on the beer at 9 or so. See by the evening? Can’t speak or nothing. When we go for dinner at night I just point at the wee picture. Them wee pictures of the food are great. Young’uns all drink them cocktails. I stick to the beer. But when we were having our fry ups the next morning the wee waiter man sez to me, “What would you like to drink?” and I sez ‘Give us a Pina Colada!’ Lads were near sick. But then we all ordered one. Just have to keep at it, know what I mean?’
Jeepers, I thought I was bad over Christmas, with all those glasses of late afternoon prosecco. I’ve nothing on this chap. I feel like a poster girl for sobriety.
Happily, we are now on the Ormeau Road. I would like a pre-dinner beverage, to give the semblance of a proper evening out. The fact that it is a Wednesday is irrelevant. ‘If you just drop us at the Northern Lights?’ asks LSB.
‘What? Iceland? Are yiz off to Iceland?’
‘No, the pub, that one there,’ says Stevey, pointing.
‘Ah.’ He pulls in. ‘I thought you meant Iceland, where they have those lights, them green ones. Have you been to Iceland?’
‘No,’ says himself. ‘But we were thinking of it.’
I will him to stop prolonging the conversation. My glass of Tempranillo is tantalising close, and yet so far.
‘It’s a dear hole. I’m telling you’.
I have opened the door. He’s off again. The meter is still running, but he’s in full flow. He reallywants to tell us about Iceland.
‘So my mate went last year, so he did. Took everyone out for their tea. The wife and him had nothing fancy and the kids had them wee chicken balls and chips. Guess how much that was, for that, and four cokes?’
‘A hundred,’ I sigh.
‘Ninety eight. Ninety eight quid! For that!’
‘So when we went,. I sez, we’re getting an apartment and I made sure it had a kitchen so I could bring my own food.’
‘Like, tins of stuff?’ I ask.
‘No! Steak, sausages, bacon. The LAT. I just wrapped it in tin foil. Into the bag it went. Never said nothing at customs. And they wouldn’t need to have either. Know how much a pint is? Twelve pounds. TWELVE POUNDS. We bought all our booze in the Duty Free.’
I try to open the door again but he’s really warming to this theme. The meter is still running. We are a couple of soft touches, LSB and myself.
‘Then we got on a bus to see them wee things that come out of the ground.’
‘Aye. F*@king a hundred and eighty pounds to drive round and see some pools, with steam coming out of them. I’m telling you, If you’re going to go, bring your own food and drink, hire a car and follow the bus. DO NOT PAY for the bus.’
‘Thanks very much,’ I say, and make to leave.
‘And the Northern Lights? F*@k that. Do you know what they were going charge us for that trip? Another hundred quid and then the wee man sez to us, it wasn’t guaranteed we’d see them! I was like, you’re telling me, I’ve to pay you to get on a bus, to drive through the dark to hunt for lights we might not see at all? No way mate.’
At this point we made our exit. I was very pleased to sit down, play some chess and stroke a small collie dog whom some fella had brought in with him and he took a fancy to me. I’d like to add to add that having a drink then a meal with wine at Shed does nothing for your headache, but it was still most pleasant to vacate the house for an evening, chat with lovely neighbours and share a steak meal for two, with enough left over to create an Asian beef salad the next evening. Everyone’s a winner, and we’ve some sound travel advice to boot. Fonacab-Travel. You read it here first.
The winter of 2010 was an absolute frigger. I blame myself entirely, because I had claimed to my mother that the snow was never that bad in Belfast and thus Christmas would be the perfect time for a wedding. However, despite snow and buggered heating and busted pipes, we managed it, and if I was in shopping mode I’d be away off to buy something cast in bronze (which is supposedly the eighth year symbol). I can’t be arsed obviously, but should you be bored in this festive lull twixt Christmas and New Year, when days slush and slide into one, you can have a listen to me on the podcast from the Tenx9 podcast, telling the story of how our wedding very nearly didn’t happen. Or you can read the transcript here:
Tenx9- Christmas 19th December 2018
‘So when do you think you’ll get married?’ everyone asked when we got engaged. ‘Christmas,’ we said. ‘A nice festive wedding, during that lull before New Year’. ‘Terrible time altogether,’ sniffed my Mother. ‘You can’t be asking people to drive through ice and snow. A dreadful imposition. They may not even come at all.’
Never one to take advice we booked the 28th December. I shrugged off mum’s dark mutterings. Her family was prone to gloom. ‘Seriously?’ I said. ‘When does it ever snow that much in Ireland?’ Well, that provoked the weather gods. ‘We’ll show you,’ they said, (the bastards). This was the winter of 2010. Snow fell in relentless drifts, and the city slowed to a snarled up standstill. Even breathing felt like a chore, my lungs unused to the savage bite in the air. In my head I had seen roaring fires, sparkling dresses, and cups of steaming mulled wine. Now I saw icy roads, ambulances and pneumonia.
Travellers languished in all major airports. My mother had to try hard to avoid saying ‘I told you so.’ I held my breath and prayed for global warming to kick in.
On Christmas Eve my lovely bridesmaid booked me a surprise treat at a beauty salon in Belmont. ‘Whatever you do, don’t flush the toilet,’ they said by way of greeting when we went in. ‘All the pipes are frozen, and we can’t turn on the boiler.’ We sat with blankets slung around our shoulders like Russian Babuskas while they manicured our nails to the hum of blow heaters. In hind-sight we should have cancelled the massage, in a freezing room upstairs. ‘My hands might feel a bit cold,’ warned the therapist, as I jumped 3 feet when she placed her icy palms on my shoulders. We left tenser than when we’d gone in, but at least our nails were done.
Feeling anxious I rang the hotel and a cheery voice reassured us that they had running water, the heating still worked and as such we were good. I started to exhale. It might, after all, be alright. One by one, our guests arrived from abroad. Robert from Montreal was staying us. His flight had been rerouted to Dublin, and he’d been bussed up to Belfast, jet-lagged and frozen. A few whiskeys cheered him initially, but when he woke at noon on Christmas Day he wasn’t in the form for the artisan sausages I’d bought at the Continental Market. ‘I’ve got the flu,’ he grumbled, emitting loud trumpeting sneezes. ‘Why the hell did you have to get married in the depth of winter,’ he moaned. ‘I’ve just come from one frozen shit-hole to another.’
We had a pared down and somewhat subdued Christmas Dinner, since my mother was obsessed by operation wedding cake. My parents never swore, or took the Lord’s name in vain. Occasionally dad said ‘Damn it!’ or ‘For frigg’s sake.’ When I dropped a clanger, mum was most disapproving. ‘Language of the gutter, Helen!’ So when I heard a series of shit shit shits issuing from the kitchen, I feared the worst. The bad thing about making a cake at Christmas is that when it breaks in half, you can’t depend on your local Co-op having baking powder to make another. My mother had never, in a lifetime of baking, run out of baking powder, but since everything else was going tits up, this did too. My fiancé came down to spend Boxing Day. The mood was dismal, with last minute cake related crisis and flu ridden guests. Just as in Bethlehem, there wasn’t much room, and he CERTAINLY wasn’t going to be sharing my bed. We weren’t THAT sort of family. The poor cratur spent the night in the baltic front room, the wind swooshing down the chimney and my brother coming in a bit pissed and sitting on him at 2am.
We arrived at the hotel the day before the wedding, so I could wake up at the venue, relaxed and stress-free. I imagined swishing into the hotel in my new coat, sipping a glass of something chilled, with twinkly lights in the background. ‘Hello! I’m the bride, all ready for tomorrow,’ I told the frazzled looking receptionist at check in. ‘Ohhhh, right,’ she said. ‘You’re the otherwedding.’ Everywhere there were small stampeding children, like errant elves, running amok while their parents looked on, oblivious.
Said children seemed magnetically drawn to us for the rest of the evening. Their parents looked as though they’d hit the bottle on Christmas of 2003, and hadn’t stopped. I sought refuge in the sauvignon blanc at the table. ‘Can’t hear a bloody thing,’ said Robert. He got quite binned too. In short, it was all quite fraught.
The snow had stopped but a thick fog and mizzly rain had descended on the big day itself. I’d hoped to have a jog before breakfast. ‘You’ll not be heading out in that,’ said my mother, ‘if you don’t want to end up in the Royal.’ I decided to have a swim instead, when the hairdresser arrived, earlier than expected. It was 9-45: I wasn’t due to get married until 2-30. ‘That road is very dangerous. Ring your guests and warn them, you don’t want anyone killed on the way here,’ she said. No, I certainly didn’t. For a person prone to anxiety, this news stressed me out a great deal. I sat, texting away while she curled my hair. ‘Take care on the corner! Mind the fog!’ until a pal put an end it to, ringing to say they were grown ups and could navigate their way safely. ‘And remember she said, it’s your fucking wedding day!’
I was ready by half 11. That left 3 hours to sit about, and wonder what else could go wrong. I opened a bottle of champagne and texted my husband to be, but there was no answer. I drank some more.
The photographers arrived. ‘Have you seen the groom? Can’t find him anywhere! they said. ‘Oh fuck,’ I said. ‘Helen!’ said my mother. I imagined the little Micra, which he’d only just learnt to drive, upturned on the road en-route to the hotel. I saw the headlines: ‘Bridegroom in pile up on frosty country lane, because selfish fiancé wanted a Christmas wedding.’
I sent my bridesmaid on a recce, and she returned to say all was well. Stevey had woken to no heat or hot water that morning, and had to shower at a friend’s. He’d arrived some time ago and was chatting to the vicar in a quiet corner. When I finally walked up the aisle, tears tripping me from excess bubbly and relief, he was looking rock-star handsome with his black hair teased into curls. The service itself gives me goose-bumps to this day. ‘You’re gorgeous, so you are,’ I slurred. ‘Let me fetch you drink,’ asked my new husband, when we’d done the line-up. ‘Please don’t,’ I replied, ‘I think I’m already quite drunk.’ I can tell you now that champagne doesn’t quell your nerves, and only made me less able to tolerate the ‘other’ wedding, whose inebriated guests Stevey at one point had to bounce off the dance floor. The band was late, the meat was tough and at one point the electricity cut out. However, if I was having a bad day, the other bride was having a worse one. I may have been drunk, but at least I wasn’t pregnant, or so I heard later from friends who’d encountered her in the toilets, having the most ferocious row with her mother. Aunties and cousins then piled in to offer advice and pour themselves large vodkas from quarter bottles in their handbags. ‘I could write a play about this,’ said one of my writer friends, all delighted. It could be called ‘Stories from around the cistern.’
All in all, it may have been one of the most strained experiences of my life: my Christmas wedding turning into a holiday special of Eastenders, or Shameless. I dreamt of renewing our vows in the Maldives, but even that’s been marred by tales of human rights abuses and our very own crooked MPs. However, Stevey and I celebrate our eighth anniversary in just over a week. We don’t need another ceremony to celebrate our union, and since Christmas is a time of miracles, we rejoice in the fact that we found each other at all, in this, the most topsy-turvy of worlds.
I’m NOT EATING THIS RUBBISH! says the Small Child. She mimes taping her mouth and sealing it with an imaginary padlock which she puts in a non-existent pocket. She points at the plate of shepherd’s pie and broccoli and shakes her head in disgust. The other one joins in. ‘Yes; it’s a DISGUSTING dinner. You always make us DISGUSTING dinners. So there.’ Down goes the fork.
We’d already had one almighty row because I made them turn off ‘Horrid Henry’, as tidying the kitchen is a hideous enough task without having that furore in the background. The Older One says icily, ‘You’ve already done ONE awful thing to us once today, making us turn off our programme.’ And, now, she goes on, stabbing an aldente broccoli floret with her fork, ‘you’re making us eat THIS.’
Do you remember Shirley Valentine? Well this was reminiscent of the scene where Pauline Collins gives her screen husband eggs and chips for his dinner instead of steak, which she’s fed to her neighbour’s vegetarian dog out of pity. ‘I’m not eating shite,’ he explodes, sticking his finger in the yolk to emphasis his point, before shoving it violently so it ends up in her lap.
I lose the head. I feel as though I have raised two little tyrants. ‘Fine!’ I yell. ‘Bed! And you better hope Cyril isn’t flying past because this will NOT go down well.’ Cyril and his twin Cedric are two of Santa’s seagulls who patrol the local environs, reporting back to Himself at The North Pole with behavioural updates. Last year, Cedric wrote my children a lovely letter which included tickets to the panto as a pre-holiday incentive not to be little shits. Clearly it was remiss of him not to call in advance this year.
‘Fine then, I’ll eat it!’ The older one tucks in. She has a good auld go at it too. The Small Child still won’t budge. ‘I wanted sausages,’ she sobs. MAKE ME SAUSAGES.’ You don’t even LIKE sausages,’ I say in a mystified tone. ‘Mum has a point,’ says her sister, ruminatively chewing some of the pie. Obviously worried that they’ll be no presents and that by association she’ll be scuppered come Tuesday morning, she has a brainwave. ‘This is a SHEPHERD’S pie, and you were a SHEPHERD in the Nativity, so this is part of you, and you, are part of it.’ I’m amazed. She delivers this information like an explanation of the Holy Trinity. This seems to resonate with The Small Child, and I get her to shovel a few mouthfuls into her disgruntled little face.
Fatigue, I think, is the problem, combined with some serious ‘over-funning’ which I feel, deserves a mention in the dictionary as a compound verb to describe what befalls children during the holidays. This afternoon we went to see ‘Alice in the Wonderful’ in the Lyric. (First –rate acting and singing but FFS, 2 hours is just too long for a panto. 45 minutes, interval, another 30 mins and bang, you’re done. That’s the only way with little kids, I’m telling you. Leave them wanting more and their parents not wanting to mainline the gin.)
Last night we visited the Christmas Market where they whirled around on the carousel, crunched on churros, and went for slides on Royal Avenue.
Let this be a lesson to you folks. Dole out your treats and organise your adventures sparingly. We all need to get a bit more Victorian I think, and rein in the craic, before we’re landed with odious little despots. I’m away to get an early night so I can get to town nice and early to return some Santa gifts. That’ll show ‘em. 😉
SWB is back and sourer than ever and it’s FRIGGING CHRISTMAS SHOPPING, that has me thus irked. Why so riled, you may wonder, after having been so earnest and eco-conscious. ‘I shall just buy a voucher for a hotel, and spend our money on experiences, as opposed to things.’ Yes that was me, I can’t deny it. But I can’t have the weans waking up to feck all on the big day can I? ‘Happy Christmas! Santa’s been, and he left a scooter and his voucher for a night in a hotel in January and nothing else!’ Of course Santa didn’t get his ass in gear and organise the night away on time, so anything left was hideously overpriced. Can you imagine it the disappointment on the wee faces. ‘Yes yes, all your friends are waking up to a mountain of gifts but no, you aren’t because your mother has taken agin ‘stuff’ and can’t be having any more clutter or what she deems to be ‘plastic shite.’
Speaking of the latter, I called into Smyths the other day with the intention of buying them a doll each. No sooner was I in than a large woman with a trolley almost bulldozed me over. She could hardly see over the top of the teetering tower of crap that she was pushing towards the till. Threatening to tumble out was a rake of LOL doll paraphernalia, the biggest of which was a ‘house’: ‘L.O.L. Surprise! Over 85 surprises!‘ said the box. I think the surprise will be on you lady, when you tear open your credit card bill in January and it dawns on you that you spent £179.99 on a big tacky piece of insubstantial nonsense. I looked in detail at the item when I went home, to see what exactly one got for their £180 quid. Bugger all, would be my opinion. It has one ‘working elevator’ (we’ll give that a week) and comes with ‘DOLL, LIL’ SISTER and PET!’ One birthday a child bought my daughter a doll, and as all the wrapping paper fell away to reveal tiny bits of inconsequential nothingness, even she seemed to concede it was a total take on.
Back to the dolls then. I did some mental calculations and worked out the girls have AT LEAST fifteen dolls between them, and that’s not even including Barbies. My front room has been overtaken by a veritable SEA of cuddly toys, because they seem to gather these at a rate of about one a week. Each. Their father booked a visit to Dippy at the Museum a few weeks ago, at which they were bored rigid. ‘Oh,’ they said. ‘Is that it?’ It reminded me of a time when an elderly relative took his cousin from afar to see the Giant’s Causeway thinking he’d love it. ‘Pile of rocks,’ said the cousin. ‘Pile of bones,’ said the children, except we later discovered that the replica was only plaster-cast. We’d all been duped, and LSB took it particularly to heart. ‘Everything I know is a lie,’ he said, almost descending into existential angst. He’s prone to that. To appease the children, he dropped thirty quid on two stuffed dinosaurs, each wearing a t-shirt. ‘They weren’t expensive,’ he assured me, but I found the receipt when I was emptying his pockets to wash his jeans. No flies on me, hell no. He gets away with nothing.
Back to Smyths, and the awfulness of it. I looked in the games section for some Christmas Day amusement. Well that was an education I can tell you. Have you seen the shit they’re churning out now as entertainment? And I’m using the word ‘shit’ literally here as there’s one called ‘Flushin’ Frenzy’. It involves a plunger, so perfect for the wannabe plumber in your life. Or how about ‘Doggy Do’? ‘Doggy loves his treat but when he poops you scoop.’ At least that one carries a valuable environmental message, but personally I could live without it after a turkey dinner. And then, wait for it: ‘Pimple Pete.’ I mean for fuck’s sake. Toys based entirely around dogs voiding their bowels and squeezing spots? Is this really where we’re at? There’s no end to the scatological theme. Have you seen the “Poopsie Surprise Unicorns?’ Vile, potbellied, alien looking creatures, which poop slime. £50 you have to pay for that bit of tat. I feel a bit sick at the thought.
If you happened to be in Smyths on Tuesday morning, and saw a woman with a pained expression, like she trying to pass a kidney stone, it was probably me.
PS. Later this afternoon, before posting this, I went into town. It was actually bearable (I know, I was surprised too.) I found some colouring on stuff for the kids and a few small toys, none of which had anything to do with poo. I picked up a few delightful items in St George’s Market, and then packed the whole lot onto a Belfast Bike and peddled up the road. It was mild and pleasant upon the bike, and I persuaded the husband to take me and the kids for dinner in Shed. It turned into a lovely evening, and helped banish all thoughts of defecating toys from my mind. Happy Christmas y’all.
How do you spot a tourist in Belfast? No, this isn’t some riddle you’d find in your cracker after your Christmas dinner. Shall I tell you? When it’s pissing down of a Wednesday afternoon at the Continental Market, the tourists are the only ones who have donned appropriate attire for the weather. The Lonely Planet guide, dutifully clasped in their hand, informs them that since it rains for at least 200 days a year in Ireland, it’s most likely they’re going to be on the receiving end of a downpour. ‘Bring your umbrellas!’ it instructs, and the clever foreigners also bring their rain macks because they’ve read that it can get kinda blustery and they don’t want to be standing like a tube under a battered brolly.
The Norn Iron populace though, exists in a perpetual state of denial about the rain. ‘Sure it’s just a wee shower,’ most of them say. ‘Why would you bother with a raincoat or anything of that nature? Just a quick dash from the bus into work anyway.’ Then lunch time rolls round and they decide they can’t resist a kangaroo burger from the market and eat it standing under a stall, water dripping from their noses onto their chargrilled marsupial.
And it’s the look of them, standing there, soaked, and utterly raging about it. ‘Always lashing in this fucking country,’ I heard a chap remark to his mate, as they stood outside a Centra having a coffee one wet morning last week. Coatless, he was too, or might as well have been, the futtery wee jacket he had on him.
I can’t decide whether people are optimistic or stupid. Hard to say.
We’ve no more wit when abroad, and I’ll use my husband to illustrate the point. I spent the summer of 2008 in Madrid and he joined me for a few days. Save buying some short sleeved shorts for the occasion, he arrived minus sun glasses, sandals or shorts and there was also a lack of sun-cream or protective hat. A quick trip to El Corte Ingles quickly ensued. I’m just after asking him if he owned a waterproof coat or umbrella before he met me. He shook his head. This is man who used to walk everywhere, because of an aversion to buses.
There was a lovely teacher in the last school where I taught, and he was forever traipsing out to bus duty in all weather, wearing a woollen coat, (not known for their waterproof qualities.) He was scant of hair and getting on in years and it used to concern me greatly. I couldn’t help myself one day. ‘You’ll not be well,’ I said, ‘Please, do get a hat, before you get a foundering.’ I don’t think he was overly impressed: I was only in the school 5 minutes and there I was, doling out wardrobe advice, and him a Vice Principal too. He continued to stand out, like King Lear, unbonneted and blasted upon the heath, until he retired.
Of course I can’t talk, having been equally ill-prepared at times. I remember temping once in a prestigious architect’s office on Bedford Street. I was running late, and had left the house in a rush. What had begun as a light mizzle gathered itself into a near monsoon, as I beetled towards the town. I’d only a flimsy suit on me from Next, and was unprepared for the tricks the capricious weather gods had up their sleeves. Head down, I was cantering along amid a sea of sodden folk, when suddenly they parted before me. A bill board had blown down and lay on the footpath. Given my tardiness (and lack of sense) I thought I’d just walk over the top of it. What I didn’t appreciate was that when billboards are wet, they are exceedingly slippery. What a tumble I took. There was a moment when I was airborne entirely, before I came crashing down. It gave me quite a fright, and I wonder if perhaps I didn’t sustain a mild concussion. Certainly my attempts later that day to type were somewhat impaired. I recall the senior partner almost recoiling in shock when I arrived in my bedraggled state at his practice. ‘What in the hell have Grafton sent me this time,’ his eyes said as shook my hand, before I took my little drenched self off to the loos to wring out my trousers.
So do yourselves a favour, Sour Wee Readers, and pop a rain coat and hats and gloves on your Christmas list. What with global warming, our seasons are only going to get more erratic, but with wellies and ponchos at the ready, we’ll be well fit for it.