SWB is sunny-side-up

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I’ve given up trying to eat breakfast with the family. I only end up with indigestion and that seems an inauspicious way to start the day. So I sip a coffee or a ginger tea while assembling lunches and being ordered about by my mini-dictators, and once they’re deposited at school or summer scheme I break my fast in peace, and usually in one of my favourite coffee shops.

I blame my mother. I usually do, if you’re familiar with my blog, but the woman has a lot to answer for. Sure who could settle for a bowl of cornflakes after the the decadent breakfasts she used to put down to us when we were little.  Not really a morning person, (how could she have been, neither my brother or I slept until 4am until we were about two,) she deliberately booked us into the later session of nursery so mornings could be a more relaxed affair. Being a child of the country, she was always keen on a good feed of a morning, and indeed she dished out a veritable smorgasbord. There was freshly squeezed orange juice, carefully checked for errant pips. Sometimes there was sliced pineapple or mango, but inevitably these were served up with deep sighs of disappointment, for back then the fruit didn’t seem to make the journey from the tropics unscathed and were inevitably deemed bereft of flavour “and at the price of them too.” Then she would fastidiously de-seed grapes, so we’d be spared the indignity of having to spit the seeds out ourselves. I remember being horrified when I saw a wee friend having to de-seed her own grapes because her mum didn’t get going with the paring knife. To me, that was tantamount to neglect.

After the fresh fruit course came soft-boiled eggs, with a knob of butter  on top, for added cholesterol. “Soldiers or sailors?” she’d inquire as to what our morning preference was for the width of our dippers (sailors were wider, apparently). Then we’d plough in, my brother and I, digging out every last bit of yolk and white (“mind the shell now!”) and requesting more buttered toast to complete the task at hand. We’d finish by up-ending them and presenting them to our granddad (who lived with us) who’d pretend to tuck in to one, only to find its innards already gouged out. Oh, how we chuckled….

There may have been more toast, cut this time in triangles and liberally spread with homemade preserves, usually from strawberries picked by ourselves from the ‘pick-your-own’ fields in Ballywalter. Particular tableware was employed, because children can be fussy creatures and woe betide the thoughtless parent who serves up such dainty fare as boiled eggs in a displeasing receptacle. I recall the vivid primary shades of a plastic tablecloth, and the way the sunlight spliced diagonally through the dining room, illuminating our repast.

While Mum would be preparing this feast I’d be generally clobbering her round the legs with a book, or battering her with a doll that needed its dress put on. In these instances she’d shout “Take that away in to your granddad!” who seemed never to grow tired of reading my favourite story, “The Little Lamb” or wrestling some doll into the chosen attire for the day ahead. (You can deduce from this that I was a right royal pain in the arse).

As we got older the breakfasts were adapted to fit the time constraints of the school run. Sausages (shortened to sages in our house) and bacon were cooked the night before and popped into a buttered roll to ensure we’d time to ingest them. On many a night Mum would leap up from Coronation Street yelling ‘The SAGES!” to go and yank their cremated remains from the oven. My grandmother, who also lived with us, used to make a large saucepan of porridge of an evening in the winter, and I would be handed a small bowlful before bed. She used to wear a blue housecoat or overall, and I remember its rustle as she stood stirring for what seemed liked an age at the stove. The bowls would be covered by a side plate and stacked, one atop the other, to be reheated in the microwave the next morning. Something about a cold breakfast seemed to send shudders down the spine of my family. It was inconceivable, that one should wake up, and eat cereal with milk straight from the fridge, especially on a morning when there was ice on the ground and it would have ‘foundered you’. There were dark mutterings about some auld doll who fore-went her cup of tea one morning and was found collapsed at a bus stop somewhere near Kilrea.

I’ve never been able to replicate eggs or porridge like that made by my mum or my grandmother, and aside from a period of buggering about with over-night oats and compote I’ve more or less given up. So in the light of this, is it any wonder that when I got my bank statement this morning there was nothing only contactless payments to Established on Hill Street and Kaffe O? As I said, I blame my mother entirely.

Anyway, we’re off to Spain on Monday, where I’ll swap my eggs for croissants and cafe con leche and tell my children to serve their wee selves from the all-you-can-eat buffet and leave me in peace. I’m almost levitating with excitement.

SWB needs her head showered

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Has anyone else’s off-spring been total melters this summer? Mine have been extremely bold the last couple of weeks; I think their aim in life has been to render me an incoherent and gibbering wreck. The house has been trashed. Many of the newly painted walls boast peeling patches, where they have ‘Pritt-sticked’ their artistic endeavours. They’ve turned into little fashionistas and go through several ensembles a day, so every conceivable space is strewn with clothes. The laundry’s a riot, I can tell you. They have erected a ‘slide of death’ in the garden, where the toddler sized slide has been placed at a jaunty angle above a short drop. This provides a thrill for them but alas proves an issue when actual toddlers visit, and mine refuse to re-situate the said slide and behave in a manner which complies with normal health and safety standards. In these instances it’s usually up to me to play ‘catch the infant’ while the poor guest drinks coffee with a bemused expression.

 

Last week’s misdemeanour of note however, was when the small one nabbed my engagement ring and chucked it in her dressing up box. Two days I spent looking for it, achieving very little else until it was located. At least in the fun charade of ‘hunt-the-ring’ I found a missing shoe, a make-up bag and a tenner. Then finally, I thought I’d take a look in their room (or pit) where I probably ought to have started, to be honest. “THERE IT IS!!” I shrieked, as I shook a witch’s costume (how apt) and clunk, out it fell. “Oh yes,” she says, mild as can be. “I dropped it in there.” She’d sworn she’d never seen the ring, let alone touch it. Amnesia when it suits her, clearly. She’ll go far if she fancies a career in politics.

 

Back to their other foibles. They have taken agin being washed, in either tub or shower. After an episode tonight in which all was well and truly soaked, the small one told me I was definitely going back to mummy shop, sharpish. “Can’t bloody wait,” I said. (My language has gone to the dogs these holidays. LSB keeps giving me wild dirty looks for shrieking “Will you pick this shit off the floor before I break my bloody neck?” It hasn’t been the most tranquil of abodes, to be sure.) “Will there be other mums there?” I enquired. “Yes,” she nodded. “What about tea? I asked. “Will there be plenty of tea, and maybe a biscuit?” “Yes” said she. “And, you can sit on a shelf with the other mummies.” Sounded fair enough, as long as there was no laundry involved. “Great. Can’t wait. When am I going?” “Now,” she went on, “But they’ll be no wine, or dancing. Just cup-of-tea-ing.” The other one nodded, solemnly. Wine or no wine, I was all for packing a bag.

 

Interestingly, there has never been any mention of a Daddy Shop. That’s probably because their dad takes them to the cinema then goes to Forestside to buy them each a pair of dungarees but comes home with a whole new wardrobe for the pair of them, plus pink hair extensions. Just what I need, more garments through which to wade.

 

I think upstairs in Brewbot could be the perfect Mummy Club. I’m happy to join any of the other ‘returned goods’ of an evening. Mums or dads, anyone’s welcome, and they’ll be sympathy aplenty for those deemed unworthy by their rude and entitled progeny. No wine, my arse.

SWB jumps on the Supper Club bandwagon

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One new thing a month: that’s the task I set myself when I took the career break. The year out turned into two and I’m thrilled to say that come mid-August this summer, instead of dragging myself back to the chalk face, I’m heading to Spain on hols instead. So as my third year out approaches I’ve stayed loyal to my resolution of doing new things. And this month it was an ambitious one, to host a supper club, from the SWB residence, no less.

 

Broaching this with LSB (My husband, Long Suffering Bastard for any new readers) required some tactical manoeuvring. I sneakily waited until he was at a wedding in Liverpool and rang him the day after, when he was feeling less than sprightly. His resistance was lowered, and I could sense him shaking his head and acquiescing into his hair-of-the-dog pint. The last time he went away he ended up taking me for a slap-up lunch in Balloo House, followed by a visit to a woman who re-homes cats in Killyleagh. He came home with a lighter wallet and small tortoiseshell cat. An evening in the company of randomers sounded perhaps less daunting, and certainly required less commitment.

 

“You’re doing what? A nutter, that’s what you are.” That was the reaction from most of my friends and acquaintances when I told them. “That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?” said another. “Like how many, ten strangers, sitting in your own house?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Wouldn’t catch me doing that.” “Look,” I wish I’d replied, “I’m not lying naked on a table and letting them eat sushi from my less than perfect form. I’m roping a couple of friends in and cooking a meal for some people to come and hopefully enjoy.” So we planned it, did it, and you know what, we’d do it again. It was brilliant craic and no one got poisoned or got hammered and wrecked the joint or was insulted or offended (I think). People came on their own but left in twos and threes to walk down the road together or share lifts. Everyone laughed. A lot. Not enough laugher these days.

 

Mind you I wasn’t laughing mid-week when, distracted listening to my hyper off-spring I burnt my rice and fucked up the main course entirely. My friends, (valiant guinea pigs that they were) tried to be supportive about the bland chicken they were fed. “What made you choose a Lebanese theme?” they enquired, tactfully. “You know,when you’ll admit yourself that it’s not your forte?” Well I blame the Guardian weekend magazine. There are only so many Ottelenghi recipes you can read before you start getting z’atar and pomegranate molasses on the brain. I had a fine cauliflower salad in Kaffe O one day and I thought to myself, I have to get into this Middle Eastern Cookery lark. So a plan started to form and between a few of us we made it happen.

My mum raided her cupboards for extra tablecloths and napkins and provided matching glasses. (You see Marie Kondo? This is why you dn’t go fecking everything in the bin). Claire (the other half of Supper Club) took her children to Botanic Rose Garden and collected a selection of rose petals to dress the table. There were trial runs and and more trial runs.

 

On the night itself LSB was roped in to keep the children off side and the French au pair did something special with potatoes. Once we’d removed the rice (and the children) from the equation it was grand. But the real star of the show is my friend Claire, one half of Harper’s Yard. I post about Claire and Martina often on my Facebook page because I have the greatest respect for them. Being a self-deprecating Irish woman I think “Ooooh, that would be a good idea,” then I think of everything that could go wrong with the plan and talk myself out of it sharpish. But these two are different. Claire’s English and Martina’s from the Czech Republic. They have a quiet confidence about them and are happy to give something their best shot.  Must importantly, their gift for doing things well is infectious.  On the night itself, my chicken was neither bland nor stringy.

 

So, we had eleven people round our table on Saturday evening, and what a diverse and international group we got. A Greek, an American, an English girl, a Chilean, and one brave man who came with his wife and had the best of craic. Two of my friends came which was lovely because it gave me a bit of encouragement to see two familiar faces, but to be honest, even had they not it still would have been fine.

 

One guest, the lovely Lyn who runs Hola Muchachos Spanish club, arrived with a basket of veg from her partner’s allotment. (orange beetroot if you please and it was cracker). Others who weren’t even drinking still brought a bottle, and everyone was hugely complementary.

 

Something we often forget, is that people are generally kind. I think if you’re a curmudgeonly old  bastard you probably wouldn’t put yourself through a night with strangers in someone else’s living room. A few weeks ago I went along to Haypark Supper Club for an evening of Thai cuisine. The food was restaurant standard and the hosts were incredible, welcoming us with a G&T Far Eastern style (Thai basil I think) and feeding us until we were almost ready to expire. I’d go again tomorrow except they’re nearly always booked out. Everyone there was lovely too, and do you know, even if the food was a bit shit, I wouldn’t have minded. If there’s openness, laughter and hospitality, that’s already a lot on the table.

 

So to those who came, thank you, and maybe we’ll do another in the autumn. In the meantime, I have to get thinking what my new thing this August is going to be….. any suggestions welcome (but I am NOT doing the naked sushi thing).

  • Thanks to The Vineyard and Kaffe O on the Ormeau Road for putting up posters
  • Check out Haypark Supper Club (posters can be found in Bread and Banjo on the Ormeau.)

 

 

 

 

SWB leaps upon her soapbox

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So here’s a scary statistic to greet you of a morning. Since the 1950s enough plastic has been produced to cover the whole of Argentina. And Argentina, in case you were unaware, is huge. I’m just after Googling it, and it’s about forty times bigger than Ireland. That’s a significant size, don’t you think? I haven’t been yet, but it’s on the list. I digress. Most of this plastic has been produced in the last decade, and most of it ends up dumped in landfill. I think this is the evidence that should finally start filtering through to people, that it’s imperative to stem the tide and think  about our cavalier approach to the using and disposing of plastic.

At the minute, if you start trotting around with your reusable cup and posting things on Facebook about the flood of single use plastic items, people get a trifle irked. I should know, being one of these members of the  anti-plastic brigade. But please, in no way do I want to sound like a sanctimonious twat. I grew up in Bangor, I spent my formative years surrounded by sanctimonious twats and I didn’t care much for them either. But I think, given President Trump’s utter disregard for the environment and the sheer number of single use plastic items out there, would it not be time to reconsider our options and tweek our life-styles to make some tangible difference?

Here’s a few changes I’ve started to implement:

  • Gift wrap- Apparently wrapping paper, once it’s been stuck with sello-tape can’t be recycled, so to stop mounds of it from going into landfill I’ve started thinking of alternatives.  No, I’m not buying into the gift bag phenomenon  (although I shamelessly reuse the ones I have) but I’m popping the gifts in to little shoe bags from Søstrene Grene. I organised the presents for the P1 teachers this year and this was how I packaged the presents. There were no complaints, in fact the teachers seemed to like this somewhat innovative idea, and they can chuck their heels in the bag and remember me fondly when they head to Lanzarote on their hols.

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  • Coffee cups-Yip, here’s me, headless of course, outside Established coffee shop with my lovely porcelain cup. Just keep one in your motor, or if you have a massive handbag, stash it there. Same for a knife and fork or chopsticks if you’re prone to nipping out unexpectedly for lunch. (Seriously, is it any wonder I’m broke? I need to address my addiction to food outlets.)
  • Bottled water- Now, aside for in Lancashire, where fuck knows what they did to the water but the locals were near poisoned, our water is lovely, and safe to drink. So why are we buying shedloads of the bottled stuff? I get it if you’re out and about and overcome with a powerful thirst, but this should be an emergency option, not an everyday event. It’s allegedly the age of austerity. If you can drink water for free, drink it. I used to bring a Zigg bottle filled with water to school, from which I sipped at regular intervals, so parched was I from all the teaching. The kids were always keeping me going that it was wine or indeed something stronger within, and on many’s a day I wished to God it had been. But I thought it was a good example to set, that you didn’t need to be seen sipping from a new Evian bottle everyday.
  • Children’s parties- plastic disaster all round. Parties will be getting their very own post entirely dedicated to them but in the meantime, I’ve recently seen loads of reusable cups and plates and table cloths being used and fair play to the mums and dads who are doing this. Go a step further. Address the issue of presents. I do not need any more plastic shit in my house. You wanna buy my kids a gift? Work away. Plenty of gorgeous books out there or a jigsaw to keep them busy. Lego, Playmobil, that too will keep them occupied. But I do not want or need a pile of plastic tat that they play with once then I fall over for the next few months.
  • Bathroom products-I’ve written before about LSB’s hairiness and his penchant for shower gel, which he works his way through like shit through a goose. Well, we were up in Derry last week and I bought a couple of manly soap and shampoo bars out of the wonderful Yellow Yard. It is so worth a visit and I got a trifle carried away I must admit. Anyway, he’s been using away at his zingy mint and T-tree bars with no complaint. (As I keep saying, he is a lovely sort of a fellow.)
  • Event management- Here’s a final bugbear before I go on. Running events, and the sheer environmental havoc they must cause. Could we not follow Carlingford’s lead, where they had reusable plastic cups that were used at the water stations and collected after? Small paper cups could be another alternative. There simply should not be masses and masses of plastic bottles going into the bin. I went round after Lisburn 10k, harassing the chaps from the council as to whether the bottles would actually be recycled. Not a straight answer to be had, so I’m guessing probably not. Not good and not on.

There endeth the sermon. If we can manage to remember our Bags for Life and composting our food waste, surely we could make a concerted effort to whittle down our reliance on plastic. And the bonus is, you won’t have to read another didactic diatribe such as this.

Why everyone needs their mammy

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I bumped into my friend in 5a coffee shop the other day as I recovered from a run along the towpath. “I’m away in here to sit down,” she said. “I’m exhausted.” She did actually look plain done-in. Her husband often works away and she has two small children. It turns out she’s also been promoted to a post which will mean increased hours and more travel. She’s excited, but also daunted at the prospect. I explained the joy of the au pair, which is how I came to be sitting, latte in hand in 5a of a Wednesday morning. “I don’t want someone all the time though” she reasoned. “If they could just lift the shite off the floor and clean up after dinner while I bathe the kids and get them to bed.” That’s one of the grimmest bits I recall when I used to work. The kids would throw themselves at me with glee when I picked them up at 5, but by the time I got into the house and tried to get them their dinner they were past themselves with fatigue. I wasn’t one of those organised mums who defrosted a lovingly made Annabel Karmel sweet potato stew, (primarily because my children wouldn’t have eaten it). So I would have been grimly draining spaghetti with them both hanging off my leg, trying to avoid a trip to the Royal with a small scalded child. Then there were the dishes, the laundry, the baths and the bedtime (always a moveable feast in our house anyway, we wouldn’t have been getting prizes from Gina Ford with our routine). These delights were followed by marking and lesson prep for the next day. Purgatory.

Anyway, back to the pal again. “What about a student?” I suggested. “Someone just to do a couple of hours each evening just to cut you some slack?” She looked unconvinced and frankly I don’t blame her. Students are famous for lacking in gumption, and often there’s an inverse correlation between intellect and common sense (dopey bastards). The last thing you need when you’re stressed is someone standing looking gormless in your kitchen. “I know exactly what I need,” she sighed. “I need a mammy.” Don’t we all?

Grandparents can be indispensable. My folks just come in, roll up their sleeves and get to it. They’re usually not through the door five minutes until they’re unloading Asda bags in to the fridge and making a pot of tea which they promptly forget to drink because they’re too busy hoovering and playing hide and seek with the kids. There will, inevitably, be some criticism of my housekeeping skills, but I can live with that when they’re ironing LSB’s shirts.  I usually just point to the wall, where some art work by the girls has been blu-tacked, and really, wasn’t that a better way to spend the afternoon, as opposed to cleaning? The parents acquiesce that indeed it’s brilliant and isn’t it all just great and we finally sit down to that nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

And the great thing is, even if they do make a horrible caustic remark you can a) make one back, b) seethe inwardly then write about it in your blog, or c) let it wash over you and open the wine. I’ve been known to do all three. And the thing is, generally with parents and siblings, you can get away with this. I know fine rightly I don’t realise how lucky I am. That’s what Lemn Sissay said when I saw him back in January in the Black Box. For him, the most magical thing about family is that you can be at your most dreadful you don’t even have to say sorry.

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Sure, it’s nice, indeed proper if you do, but I know my parents have seen me at my vilest and they’ll still come and put a wash on for me. A bit of appreciation goes a long way but isn’t it reassuring to know in this ever transient word that someone’s about when you need them? So yes, we all need a mammy. And a papa and the in-laws. And the gin. Then we all rub along just fine.

SWB on all the important stuff

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So, as if I need to tell you, it’s pissing down. Of course it is, what with it being July, and who doesn’t remember those sodden summers from childhood? A particular miserable memory of mine was ‘picnic time’ in Ballywalter. Grim wouldn’t be in it. A few dismal ham sandwiches would be assembled, maybe a Jacob’s cream cracker sandwiched with butter. A Penguin biscuit if we were lucky, though usually these were reserved only for break time at school. And we were piled, complaining, into the petrol blue Derby (which was, incidentally an abomination, and will be the subject of a post all of its own) and off we vroomed, to the dizzy heights of Ballywalter, so my mother and nana could take a tour of the ‘factory shop’, which for a child, was where hope went to die.

 

Inevitably it was raining, so we would be driven to some vantage point from where we watched the clouds gather into something of a rage, and have to remain seated IN THE CAR BECAUSE WHAT IF YOU GET WET? and eat our dreary luncheon fare. My parents had a terrible fear of children being damp, which apparently caused not just the common cold, but likely pleurisy, followed by TB, and then, quite probably death. They weren’t happy unless you thought you were at death’s door.

 

Then we’d go home, where further boredom would ensue. It was some craic I can tell you, being a child of the eighties in Bangor. That’s not all strictly true, as my mother will doubtless remind me, there was usually a pit-stop in Donaghadee where our lovely aunties would take pity on us and we’d be escorted to the The Cabin for their homemade ambrosia: custard ice cream. Even their large cones were pitifully small but it still saved the day. And what with it being summer, we were permitted to indulge our love of ice cream without fear of it killing us. I’ll elaborate….

 

To break the journey home from our cousin’s farm near Coleraine, we would stop at Mullin’s ice cream shop in Kilrea. On one notable visit, the helpful server told my brother and me that even the small tubs could hold up to three scoops. Oh, the unbridled joy as we could choose strawberry, chocolate chip and honeycomb. What a thrill, until we got in to the motor with our spoils. “Heaven help us” exclaimed my nana. “Have you ever seen the like?” Now there was no mention of tooth decay, or a tummy ache. No, she jumped straight to heart failure. Nana told us the sorry tale, which I shall try to recount here and replicate the doleful diction. “There was once a man, from the post office. And he went out of an evening, and he had a sweet tooth, and he bought himself a powerful size of an ice cream. And that very evening, he went home and took a pain in his chest. And that was the end of him.” Well. I mean for fuck’s sake, who does that to a child? There was tutting and shaking of heads from my auntie and my mum and the sound of my brother guzzling away because no amount of doom and gloom was going to come between him and his tub of delights. Was it possible to enjoy a frozen treat less? I think I ate a few spoonfuls before like Seamus Heaney, after his encounter with the angry toads ‘I sickened, turned and ran’. Of course I was in the back of the God forsaken Derby so I didn’t actually run anywhere but I retreated inwards to contemplate the perils of ice cream eating of a cold night and whether my death would be lingering, or quick.

 

This is all a long-winded way of suggesting that you all treat yourselves at Al’s Gelato, which has opened on the Ormeau. I think I’m already his best customer, having sampled almost every flavour already, from his mango sorbet, Bounty bar or Malteaser. Alistair makes the ice-cream himself and has strived to create a coffee bar/crêperie for when it shits it down and everyone’s too foundered for anything cold. It deserves a visit, especially if like me, you’re a person with a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to entertaining youngsters, then this is the hang out for you.

 

(I started writing this yesterday, as I sipped my usual one shot latte in Kaffe O, watching the raindrops bounce off the pavements. The sun is now beating down and it’s beautiful, while I wait in The Ulster to see if the small one needs a staple to the head after falling off a bench. She looks rightly, and is eating a Haribo and playing as I type. Here’s hoping no staples are required and we can get back in to the garden, although I may contemplate gluing her arse to a seat for the rest of the afternoon.)

 

 

 

 

 

SWB needs a hug

 

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I find myself in unchartered territory. Last year, the eldest child was leaving nursery and off to P1. I took that in my stride. (I didn’t take the summer in my stride, trying to entertain two small people who, after years of crèche then nursery were firmly institutionalised, thereby expecting wall-to-wall amusement.)

 

Call me unsentimental, but I’m not one to bemoan every last vestige of baby hood. To put it crudely, the sooner mine could clean their own arses the better. So they’ve finally lost their dummy? Excellent. Out of nappies and pull-ups? Yeeoooooo. No more reeking stench of ammonia to greet you of a morning. Ability to feed themselves? Result. All these are massive pluses in book, and means they are ready (or more than ready) to move on to the next stage.

 

Child number 2, to whom I lovingly refer as Father Jack because of her often un-sunny disposition, left pre-school on Friday. And I’m not quite sure I’m fit for the transition. She’ll be grand; I harbour suspicions that she’ll run for presidency someday. But for me, this means severing 5 years of almost daily contact with Hilcrest nursery on Anadale Embankment. I first dropped my eldest there when she was 9 months old, and I went and cried into a plate of mushroom soup in Graffiti on the Ormeau, on her ‘settling-in’ day. I wasn’t relishing the prospect of returning to work and leaving her in full-time day-care. ‘I’m such a bad mother’ I wailed to Louise, who soothed me more than child and assured me it would be fine. I neglected to check my teeth after the soup and when I collected her I must have looked like some medieval wench. (although after listening to the Reith Lectures by Hilary Mantel I now know that most people kept their teeth just fine unless they were punched out in a fight.) Louise again, didn’t pass comment at the blithering idiot I must have appeared to be and my baby was fine, and continued to be so until she left nursery last year and trotted on to P1.

 

And Louise was there through all the stages of crèche and nursery and in fact was the nursery leader for both the girls. And I’m a little devastated to be losing her. She’s heard it all: having endured all the trials of my working mum years, my building that fucking extension stage, my misguided decision to foster a puppy stage. She lets me come in and read the kids a story or teach them some French when a tiny ember of me wants to feel like a teacher again, (for a fleeting 15 minutes then that’ll do, thank you very much.) When my children have me driven pure demented she sympathises accordingly and assures me they never let me down a bucketful in nursery, thus saving all their tantrums for me.

 

Nothing makes my day more, than when I trot up the stairs and hear my child chatting and laughing before I clap eyes on them. Or if I creep in quietly and see then utterly engrossed in play. Or see them getting a cuddle or just having the craic with their teachers. When they can be such little tyrants at home it’s uplifting to see them behaving themselves in public.

 

So yes, I’m a bit gutted. Louise and the rest of the girls have been, without exception, an integral and wonderful part of this first chapter with my children. Tears were shed, less for them, the confident little buddies that they are, and definitely for me, as I sever these ties. So a massive thank you to all the people who make the early years such a special time for both kids and parents. You deserve all the credit. Ahh shit, there I go again, reaching for the Kleenex. If you see me on the Ormeau Road in dark shades you’ll know why. (Let’s face it, it’s hardly likely to be the sunshine).

SWB gets behind the mic again

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Last night I made my second appearance at the wonderful 10×9 event in the Black Box. What a cracker night all round. Some stories were heart-rending, some Hitchcockian in their duplicity, (thank you Eliza for almost giving me a heart attack) but all thought-provoking. After hearing about one girl’s account of being caught up in the latest terror attack in Brussels,  I thought, Oh Lordy, mine is a disgrace. Here’s someone baring her soul and I’m just talking about getting wasted on my year abroad. But I knocked back a G&T and on I went anyway. As the wonderful Anne Lamott says, ‘laughter is carbonated holiness’ And I got a few laughs. Here’s the story if you’d like a read.

Snapshot

Hélène! Quelle bêtise! In French, an act of great stupidity is known as a ‘bêtise’. And this phrase which roughly translates as “Helen, what daft thing have you done now?” was a refrain I came to hear often on my gap year on the French island of Reunion. Reunion lies in the Indian Ocean, tucked in snugly beside Mauritius to the east of Madagascar. As a French student at Queens it was part of the course requirement to spend a year in a Francophone country. Some of my classmates ended up in industrial Lille or stuck out in the sticks in the Massif Central. But I bagged my first choice: Reunion island! Frankly, I lucked out.

Reunion is a tiny little island, with beaches to the west, a mountainous interior and spectacular coastline on the east. It has a diverse weather system, caused by the mountains at its centre, over which the clouds break after midday. The capital St Denis, in the north was subjected to torrential downpours every afternoon. The east coast also got a daily dousing, and with no reef, it was foolish to swim in the sea for fear of being swept away by rough tides, or being eaten by a shark. But I was posted to St Pierre in the south. The sun shone 93% of the year. I’ll repeat that statistic, as that’s hard for a Northern Irish audience to digest. 93%. A strong breeze often blew in off the ocean but this was quite welcome to make the 30 degree heat more tolerable. We lived a stone’s throw from the beach, so there many a happy afternoon was spent.

Our flat became known as the ‘maison de fête’ because we truly did live on the best spot on the island. Errr, sorry, I hear you say, but weren’t you supposed to be working? Chi-ching, luck struck again. As a language assistant in a school one is contracted to work 12 hours a week, usually spread out over four days. I never worked on Mondays. I never worked 12 hours, as the assistant’s timetable appeared to be quite fluid. In France you can rock up for your lessons and leave when they’re finished, there’s no hanging about all day. No wonder I found teaching in Belfast hard to stomach. A mile from our school was a jolly little café which served up the traditional meal of curry, locally known as carré for lunch. We had a 2 hour lunch break, which meant there was ample time for a starter, carré, a beer or wine; followed by fresh, chilled mango and pineapple. We then knocked back expresso to shake us from our inertia and see us fit to teach that afternoon.

Happy, happy times.

Now you’d think that with all this free time we’d have produced some fairly stellar lessons. Alas no. Language assistants in my day weren’t big into lesson plans, and most of my students had such limited English that conversation classes were fairly one-sided. This is where my portable cd player became my closest ally. The nearest thing the Reunionais people have to a national religion, is their deification of Bob Marley. This was a lifesaver. I would print out the lyrics to ‘No woman no cry’ and “3 little birds” and leave a few gaps so the kids could fill in the blanks. You’d have thought that I may have tired listened to Bob, but I was just way, way too grateful for how easy he’d made my teaching prep.

Another benefit of the heat and Bob playing in the background meant that a laid back ambiance prevailed in my classes. Discipline was rarely an issue. Reunionais people in general tended to be quite chilled, and this could have been partially down to a local product, which grew willy nilly. It was everywhere, and it was called zamal. “We love zamal,” my students told me. “It’s very relaxing, you can brew it in your tea, or put it in a gateau au chocolat..” Being a naive 20 year old, I was rather green about these matters, but I still expressed a concern that it did sound just a little bit like cannabis. “Oh no” they assured me. “Not the same at all, sure we’ll bring some round and you can try it.” And this is how it came to pass that three teenagers arrived at my house with an sizable bag of weed, which no, wasn’t cannabis because it’s the dried resin, this was marijuana in it’s true unrefined glory. “Helene!” said the flatmates. Quelle bêtise! You can’t go buying drugs off your students! Don’t go giving it back though til we sample it.” In fairness no money exchanged hands, but here I was, former Pentecostal Christian and now supplier of Grade A grass, as apparently it wasn’t bad stuff.

So there’s drugs covered. On to theft. School began at 7-45, and to my misfortune, twice a week I taught a class first thing. Even with the bright sunshine, this was an ordeal, for I was seldom at my prime at this hour. I arrived panting at the bus terminal one morning to buy a new carnet of tickets before the bus took off. Bus drivers were seldom at their prime either in Reunion, and no ticket, no journey, and they won’t sell you a ticket on the bus itself. But the booth was empty. I waited and waited before losing patience and making a grab through the window for the pile of carnets on the counter. But ‘quel catastrophe’! The carnets were firmly fastened by a band and I couldn’t get a single carnet out. Then the woman came back. I panicked and unseen by her, threw the whole load into my bag. “Dix billets s’il vous plait’ I stammered. “Mais ce n’est pas vrai,” said the lady. “Où sont ils?” She looked around in vain while I stood in stunned silence at my act of theft. I was new to the island and unsure of their legal system. What would the penalty be for the pilferage of at least two hundred bus tickets, even by accident? I didn’t know and didn’t wait to find out. I bought a single carnet and scurried off. Quelle bêtise indeed. For the rest of the year, all the language students travelled for free on the buses. Some school kids did too. I was like the Robin Hood of public transport. I tried to seek advice from some locals about my predicament but they seemed to find it quite amusing. “Ne t’inquiètes pas oté’ they shrugged, which to paraphrase Bob means, don’t worry, about a thing….

But I never grew accustomed to how early Creole people got up of the morning. They often rose at dawn, as did their livestock. Our landlord lived in the apartment next to us, and below was a little garden with a veritable menagerie of chickens and goats. They were noisy little bastards and we grew to hate them. The problem with working (or not really working) a 12 hour week is that there’s plenty of time to enjoy other pursuits. The best live music bar on the island, Tam Tam Café, sold light citrusy bière blanche and it was just up the street. Their Rum Punch was another favourite and was of such high quality it seemed rude not to partake. So we all partook, with gusto. 5am, when the goats began their bleating and the cocks began their crowing, came round very quickly after a night out.

One morning in March, after months of being awoken by sprightly foul and beasts, a different pitch of bleat was heard. “Oh Lord, make it stop,” I groaned, and miraculously, it did. A knock at the door came later and our landlady invited us for lunch. It was a Hindu festival and we invited to join them for a feast of…… goat curry. And veggie and vegan friends I am so, so sorry but I ate the goat, at a makeshift table, with my bare hands, off a large banana leaf. They say revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but it was actually quite spicy, and it sat uneasy on a gut still queasy from a night on the rum. What followed was horrific. Ultimately, I think the goat had the last laugh.

To some up, I didn’t learn all that much French on Reunion Island. But I did become an authority on how to travel on a budget, a little about the sourcing and disseminating of local produce, and how many cups of rum punch one could consume before being violently ill. But most of all, I tried to absorb some of the island mentality: ‘Ne t’inquiètes pas oté’: every little thing was going be ok. For an uptight Ulster Protestant such as myself, this was some sage advice.

SWB on religious nut jobs

dont-be-a-dick-550x550-2It’s that time of year again, long balmy evenings, exams are over, papers (almost) marked, and we can slowly begin to exhale. It’s perfect weather to do a bit of light gardening, or open a bottle of Viognier and start on that pile of Guardian reviews lying piled, dust heavy in the cover. Or, you could don a suit, meet your cronies, and head out and start bellowing fire and brimstone Bible verses from a loud speaker. Are you familiar with this lot? If you live in Northern Ireland then I’m guessing so. Feckers are everywhere, scaring the shit clean out of you when you’re just relaxing after your dinner.

 

I used to live off the Cregagh Road and I loved it there, and had tremendous affection for my wee house. One night, I was getting ready to go and meet my friends when there was a powerful crack of static and then a roar: “Have you repented? I will ask again, have you repented for the hour of the Lord is near!!!!!” Oh it was awful. They were at the corner of my street, so not even on the main road, at the cross roads on an avenue. On and on the thunderous ranting went. I was practically a-quiver, not with rage, but with fear. You see, I’d had a very bad accident and was feeling very fragile and jittery. I didn’t like living on my own much and was new to the area. So to see these men dressed in funereal garb and yelling was not soothing to my soul at all. Not one bit.

 

Now, that I’m feeling a bit stronger in myself and less easily cowed I’d have made my feelings clear, with the aid of a power hose. But back then, not so much.

 

My friend has just bought a house in Lisburn, and she and her husband aren’t from that part of town. You can imagine how thrilled they were the other evening when a similar mission to save souls was staged practically outside their kitchen window. It was after seven and they were putting the infants to bed, or trying to, when this racket began. To exacerbate the situation the temperature had been in the twenties all day so the windows were open. “Who are those men and why are they shouting at us?” asked their frightened four year old. So fair play to my friend, out she went and had a quiet word and they shuffled off, with their portable sound system.

 

I’m telling you, if I had been one of their wives I’d have had something to say. Here’d be me: “Neville! Where do you think you’re headed with that loud speaker? Skiving off again? There’s laundry to put out and a child to bath so you may put that speaker down and get back in here. NOW.”

 

Or here’s an idea. How about, instead of scaring the bejesus clean out of children, these fellas make a few brownies and take them to their local mums and tots for the poor knackered parents who’ve been up all night with sweltered youngsters? Or they could visit a local nursing home and read some uplifting passages of Scripture to elderly folk who can’t make it out to church. They could bring a sponge cake with cream and jam, organise a flask of coffee and put in a grand afternoon there. This might make a lasting impression on the overworked care-home staff. You see, so many good ideas, which don’t involve being a public nuisance.

 

They’ll probably argue that they have to go to their work. Well if you’re so holy take a day’s unpaid leave and help the needy, instead of harassing the general public at an hour that suits you.

 

Now listen, you may not believe this, given my love of the wine and tendency to swear like a sailor, but I’m actually a believer. Yes, my faith could do with a bit more nurturing and I’m definitely a work in progress, but I have my beliefs, and they’re between me and the big man (or woman) upstairs. No group of men cawing like malevolent crows would make me wish to darken the door of any church. But I’ve met a few people who do, and they don’t need a loud speaker to show me how loving and compassionate they are.