Here’s a podcast featuring SWB on disastrous school trips

Anyone ever wondered what SWB sounds like? Well, wonder no more – here I am telling my Beowulf story at Wednesday night’s Tenx9 event in The Black Box in Belfast.

My story is first up, but listen on for two more fantastic stories from Paul Hutchinson & Máire Grattan all on the theme of ‘Never Again’.

I love how podcasts are like  ‘radio on the move’ as David Gordon said at his brilliant seminar on Friday afternoon at The Ormeau Baths. You can listen while you jog, have a bath or do the housework. So for those out there whose arses rarely hit a seat, this one’s for you.

 

The Mothership imparts wisdom

Life has been busy in Bangor, since The Wise Old Elf has been poorly and the Mothership has morphed into a cranky Florence Nightingale. He’s on the mend, thankfully, but mother is keeping a close eye. ‘Do you know he was all for driving himself to his Historical Club meeting  and I caught him leaving WITHOUT A HAT? “Oh no you’re not,” I said. “Get a hat on you and I’ll drop you AT THE DOOR.” On she goes: ‘I’ve never met his equal,’ I said to him: “Do you WANT to be ill?”

Then she imparted some sage advice: ‘I cannot emphasise enough that you DO NOT WANT to find yourself in the A&E at the Ulster, under ANY circumstance. The number of people coughing and spluttering all round you. I’m telling you, if you weren’t sick before you went in you would be by the time you left. It’s a wonder I’m as well as I am after the night we spent there.’

My mother has her own notions about why people end up in the Ulster.

Going out NOT properly dressed. ‘I was in ASDA the other day, in January and there was a young fellow in a T-shirt. I mean, is he mad or mental? I felt like saying to him, “You’ll be laid up,” but you never know how advice will go down with strangers.’ Quite.

Breathing in cold air (we hear this A LOT). ‘These RUNNERS that you see, out in the icy cold, gulping in lungfuls of freezing air. That is HOW. YOU. GET. A. CHEST-INFECTION. I’m telling you. Plenty of them in the Ulster: I saw it with my OWN eyes.’

Ill-advised eating habits. ‘People DO NOT appreciate how eating rubbish can actually banjax your innards. Do you remember the night I was in hospital with the chest pains? I thought I was a goner but it was just the indigestion. I haven’t eaten a pork pie since, and if I were you, I wouldn’t eat them either. You’ll only disorder yourself.

With so much commanding her attention at home, the mothership has not had the same time to be monitoring my blog and seeing what I’m putting out on display for public consumption.

So the phone went last night. The tone was a trifle acidic.

MOTHER: I’m after reading the blog post. The one about the film.

ME: Oh yes, it went down well at  Tenx9. People seemed to like it.

MOTHER: Hmmm. Some people like that sort of thing I suppose.

ME: Baffled silence.

MOTHER: Anyway, you should know there’s a semi-colon in the third paragraph where a comma would suffice. And you’ve spelt ‘bestiality’ wrongly in the last sentence. There’s a few other mistakes but I’ve forgotten what they are now.

ME: Ah. Thank you.

MOTHER: I’m away on now to make your father a cup of tea.

I can only assume that my mother thinks that I was entirely to blame for the shit-show that was the school outing I organised, or if not, that I should at least keep quiet about the ridiculous things that happen to me.

Until next time everyone, keep yourselves wrapped up, breath only warm air, and FFS, keep out of the Ulster.

 

 

SWB on Nordic Myths at Tenx9

Tonight was a cracker of an evening at Tenx9http://www.tenx9.com/events/tenx9-never-again-what-a-night-thanks-to-all-for-telling-and-listening/2018/1/17   

I feel privileged to shared a story at tonight’s event. The bravery and honesty of the readers never ceases to amaze me. And while some looked back on painful times, and others to an uncertain futures, I lowered the tone with a tale from my teaching days. I hope you enjoy it, and who knows, it was a good while ago now- you may even have been one of the poor traumatised youngsters…

(A big thank you to all my lovely friends in the audience, and especially to Malachi O’Doherty who was forced to endure my driving and much confusion over parking tickets.) 

‘Never Again’

Imagine you are a substitute teacher in a good grammar school in Belfast. There may be a permanent position coming up, so you find yourself in everything but the crib, trying to make a good impression. In teaching, I have learnt, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend preparing your A-level texts, or what innovative strategies you employ to bring the GCSE poetry syllabus to life. No. You prove your worth by staying after school to run round a muddy field with the cross-country club, or by injecting some life into the tired debating society. Just accept it. If anyone is going to be hurtling over the Glenshane Pass of a frosty night in February, to watch a piss-poor production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s going to be you.

 

But, to really get ahead, you need to show initiative and organise a trip, some class of an outing that will be both informative and enjoyable. So how my heart leapt when I saw that in the year eight English textbook was a chapter devoted to the Anglo-Saxon myth Beowulf, based on a translation by our very own Seamus Heaney. And how even more serendipitous, that the QFT, my favourite cinema in Ireland if not THE ENTIRE WORLD was showing a film, of said story; AND, since it was being screened as part of their film festival it would be shown as a matinee! It appeared that the god of newly qualified teachers was shining down on me.

 

This was truly excellent, I thought. Indeed, why stop at one class? How terrible it would be for the others who would miss out on this edifying experience. I’d organise for all the first year classes to go. So I booked the Belfast Bus Company and organised one hundred and fifty concession tickets for the QFT. I typed the letter to the parents, collected the reply slips, counted and transferred the money. I recruited the necessary number of staff needed for the ratio of children, and left cover for my classes that afternoon. (Should you ever find yourself dithering over whether to buy the £5 bottle of wine for the English teacher at Christmas or the £20 bottle, always go for the latter. Trust me, they’ve f**king earned it.)

 

Finally, we boarded the buses and off we set. There was a sense of excitement in the air, as we disembarked at College Green and the little ones descended, and gathered, locust like at the QFT bar and bought them clean out of Revels and Maltesers. I looked on, with a beatific smile. This was no typical excursion to a generic multiplex with its evil blue slushies and greasy popcorn. I had organised, a truly different cultural experience for these children, one that they would never forget. In future years they would say ‘Remember when our English teacher organised the trip to a proper art-house cinema and ignited within us a passion for the arts? It was all down to her.’

 

In we went, and conscientious bunch that we were, the teachers all spread out round the room so we could monitor the children’s behaviour, lest any other member of the audience be disturbed. As I settled in my seat I smiled over at my friend Anne. All the hard work was done and I could, as they say, sit back enjoy the show.

 

I’d studied the text in university and I knew that there was a fair amount of slaughter and savagery, but I had every faith that this production, with its PG certificate, would be entirely suitable viewing for my young charges.

 

I was wrong. In the opening scene, marauding Danes come stampeding towards a odd-looking bearded fellow and his even odder looking young son. The son, who we come to know as Grendel, hides for his life but watches his father being thrown to his death onto the rocks below. The small boy is spared, but decides he is going nowhere without his father’s head as a keepsake. He clambers down the cliff and does a bit of light hacking, so he can obtain his ghoulish momento.

 

It was all very brutal and shocking. I always looked to Anne to keep me right and I stared over, alarmed. She made a hand movement as if batting away a fly. Anne thought I had a tendency to overreact at the best of times.

 

But more battle scenes ensued with considerable blood and gore. The small odd looking boy turns out to be, in fact a troll, and all grown up, he sets to murdering all round him to avenge his father. Beowulf, the mighty Geat warrior, comes to the aid of the Danes, who are no match for the ferocious troll. Many more heads are lopped off and men disembowelled, all in graphic detail. Small girls leave enmasse to go to the toilet for a good puke. I looked at Anne again and she smiled in a ‘We’re still all grand here’ sort of a way. I tried to catch the eye of a senior teacher but he had parked himself at the rear of the auditorium and I couldn’t see him in the dark.

 

It wasn’t just the violence which was shocking. The language was also very coarse indeed, and there was one deeply regrettable reference to bestiality, which I prayed went straight over the heads of the first-formers. Again, I looked at Anne, and she gesticulated as much, waving her hands over her ears. Now just in case you think I’m exaggerating, I did some googling to find reviews of the film. William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes, “The film’s near-fatal flaw is its dialogue, which had to be invented wholesale from the Old English text. With more overuse of the F-word than any two Samuel L. Jackson movies, it’s a big mistake.” Indeed it was.

 

I looked at my watch and saw to my enormous relief that there was only about ten minutes remaining until we could leave and I could start drafting a letter of apology to the parents. But then, in a starling departure from the original text, the screenwriters decided to add a little spice. An action film just isn’t an action film without a sex scene now is it? And as the witch Selma explains to Beowulf that she has a bastard son, we get a flashback to his conception, with none other than Grendel, the troll. My year eights were innocent, but they were neither blind nor stupid. There were very audible gasps and titters.

 

I looked over at Anne. This time there was no reassuring smile. She shrugged and lifted her palms upwards in the sort of gesture that said, this is now in the hands of God and please let’s pray that none of the parents of these children are high up in the DUP.

 

I leapt from my seat and ran into the lobby. ‘I have an entire first form in that cinema and they have just watched a troll and a witch having SEX,’ I yelled at the chap on reception. He looked unperturbed. ‘Dead lice hanging off him’, as my mother-in-law would say. He reached over to a guide, then lethargically looked at his computer. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘Says here it’s certificate fifteen, not a PG after all.’ To go back to the reviews, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle says,

Beowulf & Grendel, is full of anachronistic cursing, dark humor and lots of hairy, homely, filthy-looking people. The filmmakers get their point across in about 30 minutes, leaving 70 more for severed heads and period charm.’

 

As I walked back into the auditorium the credits had startled to roll. Some children looked utterly delighted with themselves, others seemed a bit stunned. I had nothing left to give. I took the window seat at the front of the bus and felt its coldness beside my face. The children were in a state of high animation, although a few did stop and say ‘Are you ok Miss?’ which was rather sweet. The teachers walked up and down the aisles, showing them the QFT programme where the PG rating was clearly, indeed prominently displayed. ‘Miss would never have taken you to see that film had she know what was in it,’ I heard them say to reassure the kids.

 

I can safely admit that I wasn’t right for weeks afterwards. But those other teachers, if ever they were in need of alternative employment, could get careers as spin-doctors. There was not one single letter from a parent.

 

After school that day we sojourned to a local bar, where I consumed a glass of red wine the size of my head, in record time. It’s not everyday, children are subjected to graphic images of torture, references to bestiality and finally troll sex, all on your watch. Never again, said I, will I organise another bloody trip.

 

 

SWB looks lively

I am getting off my ass this January and rebooting my inner-programming. Everyday, I am learning something new, and recording this digitally. This initiative is called #learnuaryNI and was launched by a local marketing expert, Christine Watson. I’ve been in need of such a reboot for a while now.

 

Somewhere deep within my psyche, from a time which I can’t pinpoint, a feeling took root that I was just a bit shit. I disguised this with bravado, or humour, or basked in the reflected glory of some of my friends, but always, there lurked a great fear. ‘Don’t give me any responsibility!’ the voices said. ‘I don’t want it, because for certain I shall FUCK IT UP.’ Happily, for all concerned, I am learning to challenge these thoughts.

 

One way is to quieten the noises in your head and just to listen. On Saturday morning at Ormeau Park, I was sorting parkrun tokens, slowly, and counting them twice because I am not in my natural element with numbers. I looked up and saw that nobody else was way ahead of me: the piles of sorted tokens in front of me, were the same size as those in front of everyone else. Another parkrun devotee sat down beside me. If she’s not running herself she is marshalling, or scanning at the finish line, with a ready smile. ‘I hate counting tokens,’ she said. ‘I can’t count to save my life.’ She laughed and sipped her coffee.

 

Her lightness in spirit made me feel exonerated. I always think it’s just me who can’t do things. It’s just me who thinks they can’t count, (I got a B in GCSE Maths, I can’t be THAT bad.) It’s just me who stalls at red lights; who puts delicates on a boil wash by accident; who loses their M&S coupons so my points remain at zero when I’ve spent enough in their store over the years to settle the national debt of Greece. It’s just me who can’t get on the WiFi; who finds important e-mails in the junk three weeks late; who realizes it’s PE day and the kit is in the wash.

 

I have a good friend who happens to be a doctor. Her capacity for kindness seems infinite and she has a good smattering of common sense too. But when I start my usual ‘I’m not wise, I’m half mad’ sort of patter, she has absolutely no patience. ‘That doesn’t make you mad, that makes you human,’ she will say, just about resisting the urge to roll her eyes at me and call me a cretin. I find this enormously comforting and it stops me wittering on about shit so our chat can move on to more interesting topics.

 

I wonder at what stage this evil little goblin took charge of the controls in my grey matter, pushing the buttons that drip-fed this negativity. I need to break that goblin’s fingers.

 

For years these voices have said: you are stupid, you look shit; you can’t run; HA HA HA HA, think you can write? Oh how it rolled about with mirth at that one, the little shite. In short, the goblin said, ‘you aren’t good enough.’ Regardless of the fact I came from a secure family, had great friends and went on to meet LSB and have children of my own, the malign voices were still chuntering on in the background.

 

But, I’m rather fed up with them. And this January I have made it my business to be more positive. Eleven days in and I’ve stayed true to my commitment. I’ve written a little bit, everyday. I haven’t poured a large glass of wine in the evenings because I want to be productive, instead of doing what is easier and familiar. Instead of being intimidated, I have started asking people questions. Yesterday at the pool while my kids had a lesson, I noticed another teacher who was waiting for her pupil to arrive. ‘If she didn’t mind,’ I asked, ‘would she give me some hints on my front crawl?’ She* didn’t mind at all, and told me three ways I could improve and conserve my strength. (I wasted energy on my stroke and held myself back, which seemed to be a metaphor for life in general.)

 

So instead of saying ‘I can’t,’ I’m going to say ‘I’m learning’. I want to be open, receptive, and less full of fear.

 

My biggest bugbear is technology, so I have signed up to a class on podcasts in the Ormeau Baths next Friday. The former me would have listened to the voice which said ‘What in the name of God would you do that for? You’ll look like a right mug.’ It may have a point but I’m not giving that voice air-time and I’m going. It’s free and open to all, so why wouldn’t I?

 

As a caveat, I should say that I didn’t wake up on January the first and decide to change my personality. These thoughts have been ruminating for some time but I’m now, conscientiously, putting them into action. I’ve been reading encouraging words from Anne Lamott and listening to Ted Talks, one of which, ‘How to make stress your friend’ by Kelly McGonigal, was particularly useful in helping me to recognise triggers for stress and manipulate these to my advantage. The most salient point I took is recognising that everyone faces stress and negative thoughts, and by acknowledging this it shakes you out of the self-indulgent ‘Poor Little Old Me’ mind-set and encourages you to just get on with it.

 

So readers, I’m knackered from all the exercise I’m doing and the usual business of rearing children and trying to write and sort out this FRIGGING house; but I’m chipper. Ish. Or more than usual anyway.

 

*Her name is Lesley and she gives private lessons over at the Olympia. Lovely woman.

SWB is tested.

You may recall, how back in November I put up a post about spending half term with the children. It was Halloween and since LSB was off running 26 miles for the craic, and later lying around in an incapacitated state, I did it mostly solo. I was in high spirits, ebullient even, because our time together had been enjoyable, edifying, almost relaxing. This parenting lark, I remember thinking; I have it nailed. One simply needs to plan pleasant activities and adopt a positive mind-set. How happy was my heart, and how at peace my soul. And how short-lived was my euphoria (not to mention my naiveté). Fast forward two months and my positivity has shrivelled to vinegary ire. ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT NOW? CLEAR AWAY OFF!’ I am more likely to be heard telling my kids, as opposed to ‘Sit down beside me here and tell me about your colouring-in.’

These past few days, with the exception of some hours ‘out on parole’ with my friends, have been the longest of my life.  I have, on two occasions, actually hidden in our spare bedroom to salvage the few remaining shards of my sanity. My children have been like a pair of springer spaniels on acid. It is hard to avoid cliché because they have, literally, been bouncing off the walls. I have not managed an uninterrupted shower, or, for that matter, a bowel movement, for the best part of a fortnight.

I ring my mother to have a good old yap.

MOTHER: It’s this weather. Desperate altogether.  They can’t get out you see, to run off the energy.

ME: You are wrong there. They DO get out. They have puddle suits, and Ormeau Park may as well be an extension of our garden. And we did park run in Wallace on Christmas Day. They are ALWAYS out.

MOTHER: CHRISTMAS DAY? That was a monsoon. Well then, it’s no wonder then that they’re in poor form. They probably have bad colds, from being subjected to the elements.

ME: I don’t think so. I think they are just overindulged.

MOTHER: (Ignores previous comment as my children can do no wrong.) You have no sense. Pleurisy: that’ll be the next of it. Taking children out and it bucketing on them. There will be a day of reckoning, you’ll see.

ME: Deep sigh and wishing to God that it was February so that I could have a drink.

Back to my rant. There have been play dates and swimming and trips out. Baking, stories, even a little bit of schoolwork. Santa brought the older one a kids’ digital camera that excited her beyond measure. The cat is less enthused, for never has there been a more photographed feline. The more I think about the activities and time spent together, the more virtuous I feel. And FYI, I’m not one of those infernal ‘helicopter parents’ who breathes down their children’s necks all day. Hell no. They are free to watch TV and play and draw and off I fuck with a cup of tea and leave them to it. But without the daily routine of school they are anchorless and agitated. If I have the audacity to set my arse upon a seat they develop an acute need for something and cease not to shout until I attend them. Tidying has been an anathema to them, and rows have ensued at its very mention. I fear that my aching back and hips may be less to do with the gruelling 9 (mostly up-hill) run which constituted the Castlewellan Christmas Cracker and more to do with the ‘bend, lift, straighten and repeat’ which has been my occupation in the house, picking up toys and laundry.

LSB has admitted that he may well emerge with PTSD following this holiday, and that a trigger point may be any rendition of ‘Away in a Manger.’ It is the newest song in their repertoire and they sing or hum it CONTSTANTLY. As if to prove my point the older one has just wandered past, singing it away to herself. I found LSB slumped over the breakfast bar the other morning staring hollow-eyed into his coffee. ‘Who’s died?’ I asked him, passing with an armful of laundry. ‘No one yet but someone will soon if they don’t stop singing that FUCKING song.’ he replied. Now anyone who knows my husband can testify that he’s a civil sort of a fellow and this is most unlike him. Alas, these holidays have tested us all.

On Christmas Eve we were on the Ormeau and they were belting out their favourite carol as two auld dolls went past. ‘Lovely’ they said. Aren’t they just lovely?’ I smiled, in a watery sort of way, not wishing to disabuse them of the notion. Three seconds later and the small one was substituting every fourth word for a burp. I’m telling you, they are pernicious little menaces.

I have subjected myself to intense self-scrutiny. The phrase ‘Why am I so shit at this?’ whirls around in my head. The noise, the clutter, the ceaseless clambering over me like some sort of possessed puppies, is relentless. I am trying to make decisions about life and career and in this state of flux I can find no answers.  It is comforting to know that it is not just me either, because I have caught the eye of other parents and they too have the shell-shocked look of those who have plumbed the depth of the trenches these last two weeks. But at least there is hope, for tomorrow they are back to school and I shall exhale. And a week in and LSB and I are still OFF THE DRINK.

Seven days without the quare stuff

and with circumstance so grim

taking tea instead of craft beer

and tonic minus gin.

 

 

 

 

SWB takes on Dry January

The wind outside is ferocious. It comes in gusts and bursts making the flue of the wood burner whistle and echo ominously. LSB is at the gym and I wish he was home. I’m anxious. The children are still up and unsettled, (no surprise there, the little demons) and I’m typing with one hand, since the cat curled beside me looks up with reproachful eyes when I stop stroking her behind the ears.

 

But, I don’t feel shit. I ring LSB and check he hasn’t been felled by a tree and I go back to my January mantra: be positive, be creative, be kind. Yesterday I volunteered at the New Year’s Day double parkrun in Stormont and afterwards at Ormeau Park. With freezing hands I scanned in jubilant runners after the first run, and helped serve up tea and coffee in a hastily erected and none-too-steady gazebo after the second. The kids cantered about in their puddle suits and despite the driving rain there was an atmosphere of something approaching elation. My face was actually sore from smiling. Parkrun got my year off to a positive start, but it is part of my usual routine. More significant this morning is the total lack of a hangover, since I had only a couple of New Year’s Eve drinks, and I have made the decision to embark upon Dry January. Never before would I have thought that this was possible. January, as a month can be interminable- why would you willingly, willingly, inflict more distress and restrictions upon yourself? But I’m beginning to think that maybe drink is part of my problem. It perpetuates the cycle of stress: I knock back the wine to dilute the daily aggravations, but ultimately it just inflates the issues until they become more horrid than they actually are in reality.

 

Now readers, please don’t fret. I am not going to become an evangelist. I’ve been there, done that and my toes still curl when I think of it, (just read SWB feels Lost at 10×9) but I will keep you up to date with how the month off the booze goes.

 

Today, for example, I met one of my oldest friends, and we took a yoga class together in Flow Studios, before sojourning to a cosy table in Home to catch up on three years’ worth of chat. (Ten years ago, said friend went to spend a year in New Zealand and had the audacity to get a kick-ass job and stay on. TEN YEARS AGO. Can you imagine the cheek of it? I think it’s a disgrace.) Now in the past, (as in 3 days ago) the idea of meeting her for lunch, without wine, would have been inconceivable. I would have felt it was a missed opportunity, a subdued affair, lacking in joie de vivre. Yet it wasn’t. I asked our server Brian to conjure me up a mocktail, (not too sweet, I said) which he did with aplomb, and we ordered a selection of starters, from goat’s cheese fritters to Vietnamese duck. We lingered for ages, over our tapas style affair, and reminisced about our trips to Greece and South America where we dissected each other’s love lives and envisioned our futures over long decadent lunches and jugs of wine. We had a similar conversation today, and the lack of booze didn’t limit its scope or depth. I do believe we could have been in Home yet, had real life not come knocking in the form of children needing to be fed and a husband’s with an appointment at the gym to keep.

 

Fast forward half an hour though, and I’m trying hard to suppress the urge not to have a G&T. The children have taken it upon themselves to take down the Christmas tree, and are singing ‘I’ll Tell my Ma When I Get Home’ on a loop. Drinks have been spilt and the floor is invisible under a sea of cushions, toys and half-finished drawings. After dismantling most of the tree I nip out to take a phone call. When I return, the small child has bucked all the pieces of the tree out of its box and sits ensconced within, with a collection of her toys. ‘Tasha’s in a boat’, exclaims the older one with glee, and indeed they do seem to be afloat, on a tide of disarray. Laundry spills out of baskets, toilets need cleaned and dinners remain unmade. I want a drink. But thank God, I’ve done enough reading to realise that this knee-jerk reaction will be ineffective. All of the above will still need to be  addressed after a stiff one (feck is that not what got me into this pickle in the first place) and so I brew a pot of tea instead. Using leftovers I make the kids a chicken fried rice which the older one wants ‘Every day please’ because it is ‘so so tasty!’ High praise indeed. Instead of slumping, I have risen to the occasion. I feel chipper. The house still looks shit, but I accomplished a few tasks, and have remained lucid enough to write this post. So I have completed Day 2, avoiding temptation in Home where they have a belter of a wine list, and coming back to chaos with children in full ‘wreck the joint’ mode. This is encouraging, and I feel this is a challenge I actually want to stick at.  None too shabby SWB, I tell myself; keep up the good work.

SWB on self-reflection

Sourweebastard began as a means through which to document the daily trials of life: a place where I could unleash a bit of vitriol and chronicle my woes. You, dear readers, are the unpaid therapists who take time out to read my rants and endure tales of my obsession for recycling, my cranky bowels, irksome children and life with a running obsessed husband. Thank you.

I wanted to flex my writing muscle which has lain dormant for years, stifled by teaching, child bearing, but most of all a fear that what I’d churn out would be so shite I’d never get over the shame. This year, I have indeed churned out some rubbish, as my creative writing teacher may testify, but I’ve written some pieces of which I’m proud too.

Writing, in whatever form it takes is cathartic. It’s healing and it’s humbling. Each time I have told a story for the Tenx9 event in the Black Box, I have delved into my past and confronted times in my life that have been frightening, painful but somehow also quite funny, when one looks back with the benefit of hindsight. I am an anxious over-thinker who is easily irked. I need to work on these less than admirable qualities, while also acknowledging that they don’t make me a bad person, just a person who could do with letting some stuff go and perhaps seeing the glass half full for a change.

So this year I’m going to be a bit kinder to myself. Telling yourself that you’re shit is not only unhelpful but it’s a form of laziness too. It’s a way of saying why bother, sit on your arse, have another glass of wine and tune out.

I am thus going to attempt OPTIMISM. This may be optimistic in itself, (a writer in the Guardian guide made me giggle yesterday when he said that 2018 is likely to be just as equally batshit crazy as its predecessor) but I’m going to try and be less terrified about the world ending in a spectacular face-off between Trump and Kim, and focus instead on the small things I can control.

 

I am overcome with gratitude when I think of the endless patience of my friends and family when they have to listen to my neurosis and still tolerate my company. My mum is going to read this and say ‘Dear God are you STILL on about the world ending? People will think you’re NOT RIGHT WISE.’ Mum, they already think that. I’m not wise, but frankly, I don’t give two hoots. Sensible people, well, they can be a bit dull can’t they? And we don’t want that. Batshit crazy, all the way.

Happy New Year good people, may it bring you all great things and I’ll keep you up to date with my new found positivity.

SWB and the revenge of the sprouts

Sprouts. Fucking sprouts. I must have the worst luck, to actually like sprouts very much, but sadly, they do not return the love. My mother had followed a Nigella recipe and had simmered them in a large wok, softening their tough skins and filling the kitchen with fragrant loveliness. The kitchen smelt of Christmas cheer, and having managed to avoid all turkey and ham dinners so far this year, I was eagerly awaiting this one. The turkey, which can easily be bone dry and disappointing, was succulent and flavoursome; having not languished in the oven since my brother was there to keep an expert eye upon it. It was then up-ended to rest, so the juices ran through keeping it moist. ‘Good job,’ I said, as I tucked in. Alas, I knew not the havoc that the meal would later wreck upon my innards.

 

At three a.m. I woke after tortuous dreams to an acute throbbing of the lower abdomen. It seemed as though the sprouts had sprouted arms with mean little fists and were subjecting my large intestine to a succession of Chinese burns. How livid was I, for this Christmas I had exercised restraint. I had taken care not to overeat and had been respectful of my tender tum. After an hour of writhing I gave up and went downstairs where I sought some peppermint capsules and filled a hot water bottle. The tinkle of the cat’s bell was duly heard and in she sloped. This brought unexpected results. As she pontificated at the back door I squatted to give her a stroking, and this position, along with the chill night air on my face, brought unexpected relief, and the spasms relented a little. She opted to stay in when she felt the rain, and sought a chair on which to resume her rest. I did a quick bit of Googling which confirmed that sprouts belong to the cabbage family. These days I avoid cabbage at all costs, so why I thought I could munch on these mini versions without discomfort I don’t know. Sometimes my lack of gumption astounds me.

 

LSB awoke and sympathised with my plight. ‘I told you no good would ever come of sprouts,’ he said gravely. We drank tea upon the sofa, and watched an episode of Offspring (a fabulous hospital drama/family saga from Oz. It has filled my heart with glee for three series now, and makes me yearn for a trip to Melbourne.

 

You know your love is deep and true when each time you expel some wind your husband rubs your back and says ‘Well done, get it out of you.’ We went back to bed about half six. I’ve just woken after a two hour nap and it feels like ten at night. My gut still hasn’t forgiven me and I’m boasting my ‘five-months-gone look.’ I had hoped to don a cheeky Brit Pop ensemble as we are off to see an Oasis tribute band in the Limelight, but I’ll have to find some loose fitting garment instead. People will doubtlessly look at me with disappointment in their eyes when they see what they think is a pregnant lady swigging gin and tonics. At least the wind has subsided, which is a small mercy, for them at least. Well sprouts, I won’t look back in anger, and the babysitters arrived, so I guess I may just roll with it. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist but what’s Christmas without a crap pun? I blame the crackers.)

 

SWB feels unappreciated

The small child has a cold. Her nose has been wiped, she’s been all Calpol-ed up and put to bed but has come back downstairs to torment me. She adopts the guise of a languishing Victorian model and drapes herself along the sofa. ‘Go back upstairs. NOW.’ I say. My temper is short, like the day that is in it. She ignores me and leafs through a picture book, (The Sniffles for Bear, which is somewhat fitting). She sniffs, theatrically. I try to get on with my work but the sniffs become more pronounced. I look up and wordlessly she points to her nose, her eyes wide and sorrowful. ‘I can’t speak properly,’ she says, in perfectly formed words. ‘It’s good that it’s night-time then, and your bed beckons,’ I reply.

 

My children have not been their best selves this week. Not once, have we left the house without histrionics. Is there a worse thing to hear at five to nine than ‘I can only find one shoe’? They say this blithely, swinging from a bannister while Himself and I upend furniture and use a brush to hoke out trainers from under the sofa. (That’s me obviously, because I am so vertically challenged, with arms insufficiently long for reaching).

 

Children have a marvellous way of making you feel as though you have failed spectacularly at life. Mine are currently  ill-tempered and most un-eager to please. Dinners are shoved away and declared unfit for consumption. I don’t think the multi-vitamins from Boots are going to cut it and I fear the onset of rickets in these gloomy mid-winter days.

 

This evening I try a dish that my friend assures me they will eat: it is a stalwart in her house. So I duly buy the boneless sea bass filets from Sainsbury’s despite LSB looking unconvinced. This evening I set to coating it in seasoned flour. It makes a satisfying crackle as I lay it, skin side down in the pan. Since I’ve run out of chips and the children have taken agin boiled potatoes, I cook pasta and steam some asparagus. I finish the fish with a knob of butter, and dab a little on the fusilli twirls and vegetables. It is utterly delicious: a poem on a plate. I say to LSB that this rivals the fish dishes in Ginger on Hope Street and had the lovely Simon cooked it up for me there I would have happily paid £18 for it. Alas my children are less enamoured. The small child normally loves fish but this is ‘NOT THE NORMAL ONE. GET ME THE NORMAL ONE’ she fumes. She refuses to eat the pasta until all evidence of fish is removed from her plate. The older child at least tries it but her disappointment is most apparent. LSB is not keen on fish either: unless it’s from the Sea Fry on Rosetta. He is going out later, so is drinking tea and eating a Kit Kat while the dreary repast takes place. ‘This is why men do overtime,’ I say, ‘to avoid coming home to this shit-show of an evening.’ He shakes his head and smiles but since he’s headed to the Northern Lights to rendez-vous with his buddies, he retains his capacity for goodwill. Mine has long since evaporated, as I wish would the smell of the fish.

 

The worst thing is that they finish at twelve tomorrow and are off until the eighth of January. Yes, you read that right. If you have any ideas for nutritious meals that I won’t have to eat in triplicate don’t be afraid to share.

 

 

SWB recalls a time when the wheels came off…

So another week, another Tenx9: they’re coming thick and fast at the moment. I met the lovely Pádraig (who co-runs the evening with his partner Paul) at a Corrymeela event last Sunday and he told me they a couple of speakers short, so I volunteered to share the tale of a time around Christmas when my life hit the skids. I think the moral of the story is that it’s okay to sit in your arse once in a while, and not take on too much. Especially if you’re a trifle unhinged…

So pour a coffee, sit back and when you’re through, just pour another coffee. Here’s the story:

“Can we get a dog, can we? Please please please?” This was me to my husband (to whom I lovingly refer as LSB, or Long Suffering Bastard) two years ago. In fairness we weren’t really getting a dog, we were fostering one; my idea of course. LSB sighed and gave in, as he had done five years earlier when I’d suggested a baby, then eight months after she’d been born when I’d suggested another. Really, there should be a support group for beleaguered gentlemen such as he. It could be called ‘Demented Husbands of Belfast Unite’ and they could meet once a week in the Erigle. In fairness, such clubs may already exist.

The story beings at Halloween and ends at Christmas, so is bookended by two highly charged holidays if you have small children and busy lives. But we shouldn’t have been fraught, because I had made the decision to give the teaching up for a while and focus on the family. What was the point in working anyway, when I was handing my entire salary over to a crèche? Oh no, said I, I shall be a full-time mum. Our home shall be a place of warmth and conviviality, with delicious fare à la Nigella. I shall swan about in floaty garments while the children paint at easels in Cath Kitson smocks. The only thing this picture lacked was a golden retriever to bring my husband his slippers when he returned grey and drawn from the office. And so that’s when the giving bit of the story comes in.

Despite my lofty aspirations for domestic goddess of the year, nagging doubts assailed me. I had been a teacher, in a top grammar school. I had thus been thoroughly institutionalised: my former life had been dictated by bells. Teach this class, plan these lessons, mark these exams, record the results, go home, drink some wine and do it all over again. Would this new life, carting one child to her nursery and taking the other to the park be enough to occupy me? I wasn’t sure.

No, I felt it imperative that I contribute to society as a whole and perhaps undertake some charity work. So in an act of tremendous stupidity I volunteered to foster a puppy for a charity that provided ‘assistance dogs’ for children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Oh the irony! There was me, fretfulness personified, thinking that taking on an eight week old Labrador retriever was a good idea. The kids were still fitful sleepers and one was still in nappies. There was already enough shit in our house to make the Brexit negotiations look clean.

The convenor of the charity did have a serious chat with me before I took the dog on. ‘It’s hard work’ she said. “You’ll have to bring her to our specific puppy classes once a week, and walk and toilet train her according to our guidelines.” “We can do that,” I assured her. We we busy anyway with the weans, a small dog wouldn’t make much difference. Would it?

And then we got her. (I’ll call her Holly to protect her identity). Never had I seen the like. She was a gorgeous red fox retriever and LSB took one look at her and melted. She became his pet. In the evening he would have at least one child on his knee and the dog would rest her head on his shoulder. “You aren’t supposed to cuddle her all the time,” I remonstrated. ‘It’s in the guide book.” “She’s only a wee puppy, bugger off,” said he. We may have spoilt her a little.

Whether it was because of all the attention or not, Holly became quite demanding. She barked, constantly. She was like an unexploded bomb in our kitchen. Once awake, she demanded attention (or food or both) right away, and barked until she got it. I was not a natural at this dog-training lark, so generally acquiesced until she settled down. This was not what it suggested in the manual.

Remember Marley and Me where the dog knocks the toddler flying and Jennifer Aniston’s character nearly has an embolism? That was me, for two months. Though only a pup, she hurtled around leaving broken toys, cups and up-ended children in her wake. I stopped sleeping, and became a slave to the puppy and my children. I spent a large proportion of my day picking up poo. I started washing my hands Lady Macbeth style until they were red and raw. My nerves were permanently a-quiver and I started feeling very bleak. Never mind the proverbial black dog, I had a real-live russet one, and she was going berserk in my living room.

With a sense of foreboding looming over me, I took Holly to the final training session before the holidays. The trainer suggested we dress up in Christmas attire to have a little fun. I had bought Holly a red fleecy suit because it was so cold in the microclimate that exists in the Four Winds area. I myself, had intended to don a fetching elf costume I’d ordered from Amazon to wear at our local parkrun on Christmas Day. However, as I hunted that morning it was nowhere to be found. The only thing I could lay my hands on was a red jumper, and a short, black, leather skirt. In my haste I didn’t fully appraise this ensemble before leaving the house, but I did have time to appreciate the effect in the full-length mirror at the Club where the training took place. It was certainly festive, but in a sort of low-end shop window in Amsterdam sort of way.

I had got it all very wrong. The party bit was meant to be for after the training session, which I imagined had been suspended for that week while we drank coffee and exchanged tips on dog training. I was reprimanded for not having brought her official training bib. I then had to run up and down the hall in said leather skirt to demonstrate how she could walk to heel. She couldn’t, and was in no form to co-operate. We looked a trifle foolish in our matching crimson outfits and by now my face blended in too.

But Holly wasn’t the only one in bad humour. From the outset, something seemed very wrong with all the dogs. Some were snapping and growling and none were compliant. It was tense. The trainer was none too pleased and offence was taken all round. I left in tears and decided that this had been a foolish move.

After a few festive rows with the family, I felt myself unravel. I couldn’t shake the worrisome thought that perhaps the dogs knew something that us humans didn’t. I recalled the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, where several days before the disaster, it was recorded that the animals had begun behaving oddly and fleeing the coastal areas. The recent news headlines had been apocalyptic. Maybe we should all have been listening, to the dogs.

I finally had the wit to ring my GP and explain my predicament. I told her my theory about the dogs and there was a brief pause on the other end. She suggested that I come in. Immediately. She listened and nodded. “You’re experiencing some very irrational thoughts,” she surmised. “No,” I told her. “I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about any of this. To me this is all very real.” I felt a bit like Sarah Connor when she predicts full nuclear fall-out in Terminator 2, and tells the doctor if he’s not wearing factor two million sunblock in August 1997 “it’s all going to feel pretty fucking real to him too.”

‘Give the dog back’ said the doctor. She prescribed some pills to settle me and I acknowledged that I’d been ignoring symptoms of extreme anxiety for a long time, allowing them to grow and implode. I rang the charity and they were very understanding.

We knew that Holly was never ours, and by this time the children had tired of sharing their dad and increasingly mad mother with a highly animated pet. And so, two days after Christmas we took her to another trainer. After all the stress it was with some relief that I passed her on, but poor old LSB had tears in his eyes. But with her departure home-life calmed down and with that so did my nerves.

So what did I take away from my attempt at giving? The most salient lesson was that the tiny eco-system of my mind requires balance: tip the see-saw too much any direction and turmoil ensues. Keeping centred is essential to my well-being. Lesson two; while I like dogs, in truth I’m more of a cat person. And three, that LSB one, well he’s a keeper.

 

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