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.




SWB muses on cats

It’s four am and I’m awake, wide awake because my nose has a tickle and I sneeze once, then twice, loud trumpeting sneezes which cause my small daughter beside me to start in her sleep. The husband has wisely retreated to the spare bed. But it’s not the intrusion of a small child that has woken me. Rather I must admit that it’s the cat fur on my duvet which has irritated my nasal passages, since our cat found a warm patch earlier as the sun sliced through the blinds. As I blow my nose I recall that I let her out around midnight and she refused to answer my calls and come in again. So I brave the cold tiles of the kitchen and make pushawhoosh noises at the back door. She answers with a pathetic mew and streaks past, her fur wet against my bare legs. I dish out some food to appease her before returning upstairs. At six o’clock I finally go back to sleep.


I can be a crotchety sort of a buddy. Had it been a human who had disturbed my slumber then a frosty stare may have met them in the morning. But I’ve been known to heat milk in the microwave for a cat, just to take the chill off it in winter. The cats in question lapped it up, without so much as a mew in my direction by way of thanks. Why am I such a sucker for the feline form?


Cats were a permanent feature in my husband’s house as he grew up. There was feisty Henry, a ginger tom who had to be treated with extreme caution, so ready with his claws was he, to maul a small child’s outstretched hand. He had a childlike attachment to his blanket though, and every evening would haul it up the stairs between his teeth and settle at the top of the stairs, perfectly placed to send family members flying down face-first if they weren’t on their guard.


In contrast to this truculent creature was Meli, a slight tortoiseshell who positioned herself at the window at four o’clock everyday day to watch for him, tripping up the path in his St Mary’s uniform. Aside from Oasis, the soundtrack to all his GCSE and A level revision was that of a cat purring, her whiskers tickling his ear while she wrapped herself round his shoulders like a scarf.


Cats change the dynamic in a house. When my grandmother died after a long illness we walked around like sonambulants, grief and relief mixing uneasily in our guts. Then Snowball, our cherished feline would weave around our legs like a caress, his soft purrs lightening the strange, charged atmosphere.


It wasn’t too long into our courtship when Himself remarked: “Your house feels a bit empty. A wee cat padding about would make it a bit more homely.” I needed no encouragement. We flicked open the laptop and beheld the number of cats in Belfast looking for their forever home. As luck would have it there was a lady in the Four Winds area who took the overflow from the Cats’ Protection. Off we zoomed. I was halfway down her drive when I realised that Himself was still in the car; in my haste I’d locked him in before leaping out. Not wise, me.


“I think I’ve just the cat for you,” said Irene, directing us to a cage from which she lifted a small black kitten-cat. She handed her to Himself where the cat purred serenely. “Take me with you” we could hear her croon. “I am the very cat for you.” We were smitten. “I think I’ll call her Marshmallow,” I simpered.


As if to spite me, the cat soon put paid to that notion. Although she craved company she wanted it solely on her own terms. She became Cleo, for like the Egyptian queen she’s best treated with respect, veneration even. Attempts to lift or stroke her were more often than not, met with outright hostility. On my thirtieth birthday, champagne had relaxed my inhibitions and in a fit of misguided affection I scooped her up for a cuddle. She lashed out in a rage, scoring my neck with her claws. “She could have had your eye out!” roared my mother.


I was teaching at the time and the kids delighted in listening to tales of her misconduct. They loved any diversion from learning their avoir and être verbs. Their favourite tale was the one in which I turfed her off my freshly laundered duvet and she crept back in and urinated extensively on it. “You’re not the boss of me,” said that gesture.


Despite this though, we were all besotted with her. It was my mother in particular who waged a sustained campaign to claim ownership. “What sort of a life is that for a cat?” she would sniff. “Stuck up there on the Cregagh Road. She’s already been knocked down once. Next time it’ll be the end of her, I’m telling you.” Always full of optimism, my mother.


Coming home for Christmas one year I was meant to be bringing the cat, so she too could enjoy the sea-air of Ballyholme. But being no dozer, she sensed a change in the force when we produced a box. She took the stairs three at a time before springing on top of the wardrobe. From this vantage point she hissed and spat, taking well-aimed swipes with her paws, claws out for maximum impact. Defeated, we left her to it and arrived, cat-less in Bangor. “Where’s Cleo?” asked my dad, who was looking forward to some feline company over the festivities. “She said she wasn’t coming,” I replied, sucking the bleeding scratch on my wrist. “Oh dear,’ he said all crestfallen. “Well maybe next time.”


Be careful what you wish for Ron, because Cleo is now a permanent resident on the Esplanade, casting her imperious eye over Belfast Lough. “Mine, all mine” one can almost hear her croon, little Bond villain that she is.


With much aggravation and thick gloves we had manhandled her into a box before heading to Kenya on safari. After hiding behind the microwave for three days she made herself quite at home. In fact on our return she took one glance at out tanned faces and leapt straight back behind her preferred hiding spot. We were drinking tea on a sofa watching an episode of Frasier when she emerged, deliberately picking her way over my husband then me to curl up on my dad’s lap. There she narrowed her eyes and turned her back on us, every so often glancing round with palpable disdain. Dad looked a trifle smug.


Mum buys her a tub of cream every week and varies her food between choice cuts of Sheba. Only the best for Cleo. She is the Naomi Campbell of cats and my mother takes tremendous pride in the glossy sheen of her coat.


And now, ever the gluttons for punishment, we’ve a new addition. It involved another trek to a cat lady, this time in Killyleagh. She let us to a shed, where two black and white cats competed for our attention. But Himself was drawn to another small tortoiseshell, a ragged bag of bones, bald behind the ears and her side shaved where she had recently been spayed. “She’s just come in,” said Alison. “She won’t even let me stroke her.” We looked on in amazement as she sniffed my husband’s hand and rubbed against him. “Engine’s on” he reported, as her purrs started up.


And so to our children’s delight, we brought her home. Six months on, and our cat is resplendent. Half-hearted efforts to keep her off the beds have been shelved and I make ineffectual gestures with a sticky roller should guests be coming. She chooses a different bed each day on which to stretch and sleep, luxuriating in the quiet time while the girls are at school. Her tummy almost touches the floor because Himself is a soft-touch and the slightest miaow, plaintive or otherwise, ensures she gets her Sheba fix.


The night we got her my mum rang. “I want you to raise a toast to Auntie Isabel. She would have been one hundred and six today.” “Izzy it is then,” said Himself and we clinked our glasses. “I’m sure Aunt Isabel would be made up with that,” said Mum wryly. My aunt had a big heart. She’d have been delighted.





SWB and Fake News

Here’s an elf, skiving off work to read the paper on the toilet

This year, I’m not buying any wrapping paper. At all. Not a jot. If I’m really stretched I might pilfer some from my mum who will have a stash (much of which will be recycled so I won’t feel bad). But gift wrap is an environmental disaster of which I want no part. But what about the presents Santa leaves? How do I get round that? Turns out easy enough. I was doing the reading with the girls and the pile of yet-to-read-Guardians caught my eye.

“Here, I came across something about Santa Claus earlier.” I say. Their wee ears prick up. “Turns out that he’s going to do a bit of recycling  and be environmentally friendly this year.”

“Ohh?” They say. (Poor wee buddies don’t have much notion but on I go.)

“Yes, sometimes he uses a boost of diesel to power the sleigh but this year he’s just feeding the reindeer up with lots of pasta for energy and vegetables.”

“Like carrots,” adds the small child, who is still tickled pink with her letter from a certain Mr Claus last week, who alluded to the eye-sight enhancing properties of our household’s favourite root vegetable.

“Indeed,” I say. “They can’t be clattering into skyscrapers and steeples in the dark.”

“Skyscrapers?” interjects the older one, “Like in Majorca, where Dad used to live?”

“No, that’s New York.” I say. “Dad lived in New York. Majorca is sunny with beaches and you don’t get shouted at if you board the subway going the wrong way.” I still recall the ticket seller almost making me cry at Bowling Green.

“Ahh yes.” She nods, probably none the wiser.

Back to the point. “So, he won’t be wrapping up the presents in fancy paper for your stockings.”

“Ohh? What sort of paper then?” they ask.

I glance at the floor. “Newspapers, or magazines.”

“Like the Guardian?” says the older child.

“Quite,” I say. I can’t imagine Santa being a Daily Mail reader. I’m rather  impressed we’ve managed to indoctrinate the children already with left wing papers of choice.

“But there’s a problem,” I tell them. They look decidedly rattled. It’s not hard to discombobulate a four and a six year old when it comes to casting doubt over presents. “He’s raging actually, because they’re way behind schedule in the North Pole.” Their eyes widen. “That’s what it said in the paper anyway, I go on. The flipping elves are sitting round, reading the paper and eating mince pies and drinking mugs of hot chocolate. They aren’t making gifts or wrapping a thing! Santa’s getting a bit fed up.” (None of this was inspired by ‘What the Reindeer Saw’ the other night at all. Oh no, never any plagiarism on this blog.)

I pretend to scan the page. “No, it’s ok. He’s back on track. The elves get stars on their charts if they stop getting distracted and there will be a special treat after Christmas if all their work is done. They are busy little bees again. Phew.”

Big exhalations all round.

“But they probably won’t have time to use sello-tape; they’ll just sort of roll up the presents and shove them in the stockings. Do you reckon that’s alright?”

The girls nod. “It’s what’s inside that counts.” I smile. My job here is done people.



SWB feels lost at 10×9

Where else would you go on a Wednesday evening to unburden your soul? Tell a story at 10×9, go on, I dare you. It’s a free event, so will save you a fortune in therapist’s bills. Here’s the tale I told last night: have a look if you want to read about SWB’s evangelical phase.

(Many thanks to the lovely Caroline Orr for her generous introduction and photo credit to Pádraig and Paul).


Story on the theme of Lost

My story isn’t about losing my wallet, or my engagement ring, or my car in Forestside’s underground car park. It isn’t about getting lost in Hanoi searching for our backpacker’s hostel, charmingly named the Ming Dung, where we learnt to our cost that misdirecting disorientated tourists is  a Vietnamese national hobby. Or even about my friend and I getting so spectacularly lost in the Mournes that when we heard a helicopter above we assumed it had come for us. (It hadn’t, and after seven hours wandering we found Hare’s Gap and grateful and exhausted, we trudged home.) No. This story is about me thinking that I had lost my eternal soul and would forever be pitched into the darkness, or fiery pits. Let’s face it, both sound equally fucking dire.


“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” I thought as a student of English Literature, you would know that.” Those were the less than sympathetic words of my dad’s friend Trevor, as I sat, rocking back in forth at his kitchen table, convinced that the end of the world was nigh. I was drenched with sweat and waiting for the booming voice from the heavens to blast forth, and tell me I was doomed for failing to live a sufficiently Godly life. Earlier that evening we had sat round that same table, drinking red wine while our conversation veered and looped around subjects as diverse as political activism, vegetarianism and the time Trevor’s partner Lou joined a cult and got married in a pagan ceremony, in a darkened tenth floor apartment with hay strewn about the floor and on the window sills. It was worldly and bohemian and refreshing for a student who usually sat watching repeats of Friends and music videos on VH1 in between lectures at Queen’s.


It was July, 1999. I had made the somewhat misguided decision, that as a twenty year old student, it would be a good idea to go on holiday, with my parents, to stay with an old family friend, a professor in the university of Concordia in Montreal. One could say that I was already a bit lost in somehow thinking that this was a good idea. The generational gap suggested that we may have different expectations of a trip, and with the benefit of hindsight I probably ought to have left them to it. But, I was heading on my year abroad to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion the following September, so I thought maybe some ‘quality’ time could be good.


In truth, I was a deeply anxious, some might say demented young woman. As a fourteen year old, I had been duly confirmed in our Church of Ireland, and thought I had a comprehensive enough understanding of God and what it meant to be a Christian. But then a friend took me up to the Elim Pentecostal where I was duly brainwashed. It was at once terrifying and exhilarating. While our Anglian rector urged quiet contemplation and pared his message down to ten minute sermons, evensong at the Elim went on for two hours. People arrived early to get good seats. The music, the hand-waving, the speaking in tongues and the crying, (dear God, people were always crying,) was powerfully emotive. And I was converted, saved, and with all the enthusiasm and passion of a teenage fundamentalist, I was keen to share the good news. People hated to see me coming. I remember calling ‘Jesus loves you!’ up at the bedroom window of an atheist friend, because if you weren’t into all these public displays of religiosity you couldn’t really be a Christian. Could you?


And then, after a period of eighteen months, something happened. I suddenly felt, quite acutely, that this wasn’t for me. This devotion demanded body and soul and they wanted us there, ALL THE TIME: fellowship on Friday, Youth Club on Saturday and Church on Sunday: preferably twice. Other Elimites began to doubt my commitment when I started to falter. And then, my friend asked if after my GCSE mock exams if I would like to go out to a disco. It was upstairs. In a pub. And less by hook and slightly more by crook I got there, and realised that the same transcendental joy I felt clapping until my hands were red raw in the Elim; could almost, almost, be found on the dance floor, cavorting about to James, and Cotton-eyed Joe and singing along to Dizzy by Vic Reeves.


I went back to the Elim once more after my foray into the world of the damned. It was the youth fellowship and some of the teens had got wind of my transgression. They turned nasty. “Is there no where else you can go?” they asked, “than to a pub? With alcohol?” They shook their heads and muttered ‘backslider’. An older girl stood up to speak and said, with some conviction, that if we weren’t doing right by God that he would just get rid of us. She clicked her fingers. “Just like that.” Several people glanced over at me.


I left. I made occasional trips back to St Columbanus in Bangor but not many. And when I moved to Belfast I made no effort to join up anywhere. As an Arts student one has a lot of unregulated time at their disposal. I had always been studious but I found it hard to focus and manage my time. I felt lost. But, there were parties and part-time jobs and boyfriends and my time abroad to which I looked forward immensely. But there was a constant, gut wrenching dread that in the long run, nothing really mattered. Ultimately, I was going to hell.


And then, just before the end of second year, before we left to go on holiday, Channel Four showed clips of a documentary based on Nostradamus’ predictions that the world was going to end, on July 4th 1999 to be precise. It showed footage of trees being bent backwards and ferocious waves and lightning. My friends laughed because I had to leave the room when it came on. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” they said. “Catch yourself on.” But one girl did admit that the Book of Revelation terrified her too. Oh shit, I thought. It’s not just me.


So back to Montreal and the evening of July the fourth. To my relief the world hadn’t ended and I had fallen into a slightly tipsy slumber. It was a warm evening. Montreal is almost suffocatingly hot in July and the heat still rose steamily from the pavements, even at midnight. I drifted off to sleep with the window open and the gentle cacophony of city life, laughter and car horns and jazz in the distance. I woke to a massive bang. A gust of wind ripped through the room, opening and slamming the door shut again. The white curtain billowed and when I shot out of bed and looked out the sash window I gasped. The scene below was just as the trailer for the show had depicted. Plastic chairs from cafes danced down the street. The trees were bent at a forty-five degree angle from the ground. The sky was streaked with yellow and pink. I lost bladder control.


Pulling on pyjamas I blundered into the living room, where my parents’ friends were sleeping on a pull out bed. “Put your pants on dear, “ Lou told Trevor, who thankfully acquiesced. “Lucky you didn’t come in a few minutes ago,” he said. As if I wasn’t in enough turmoil, I now had to erase that image of my dad’s fifty-six year old friend from my mind. Lou tried to put the light on but the power was off. I mumbled something incoherent about Armageddon and she quickly realised my distress. “It’s just a storm,” she said rubbing my back. I hadn’t heard any voices from above, or seen the four horsemen, but I wasn’t convinced. “It’s a warning, it must be,” I said. “Breath” said Lou. Trevor quoted the line from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, just to show how clever he was, but it really wasn’t that helpful. By now my parents were up and I began to feel embarrassed. Outside the wind died down and sirens shrieked in the distance.


On turning on the news in the morning we learnt it was a mini tornado. While storms weren’t unusual in summer, the force of this was without precedent. Three people had died, including a child when a tree had crashed down on to his tent in the garden.


My mum and dad were quite worried about my reaction. “Well you’re one to be going out to a tropical island to live on your own,” sniffed my Mum. Not only was Reunion subject to frequent cyclones but it also had an active volcano, so it was just ideal for a person with bad nerves. But I went anyway, and was frequently apoplectic with fear there too.


I have since made some degree of peace with myself. I sometimes go to church, and actually find the Catholic services most comforting. I would be lying if I said I still didn’t feel a flicker of terror from time to time. But I recall something a great aunt of mine said. She had lived through the Blitz and the Troubles. She also owned the Donaghadee post office and had to get up at dawn on freezing winter mornings. One day over their coffee break, she and her colleagues were ruminating over heaven and hell, as people in Northern Ireland are wont to do. “I don’t think there’s a hell at all,” said one of the girls. “Of course there is,” my aunt retorted, “we’re in it!” I think of my Aunt Emma often, and I think she had a point.


SWB gets fanciful and festive

This morning my kids found a brown envelope by the fireplace. “It has our names on it!” they shrieked.  And so there was, plus a little stamp with a funny little creature, bedecked in red and green. Within they found a letter. It read:

Hello girls,

Here is an early Christmas present, from me, Santa. I hear you have been very good. Well done! Keep helping your mum and dad and tidying up. Remember to eat your vegetables, especially carrots. You will need good eyesight to see my sleigh going past on Christmas Eve.

Tally ho,

Santa Claus


Well, they were thrilled and gleeful, especially when they shook the envelope and out fell tickets to the pantomime at the Lyric. I picked them up last week when I went to see ‘What the Reindeer Saw’ (which I do recommend if you need a giggle.) The cashier smiled when she heard my idea and gave me fliers so the girls could imagine what was in store for them.

I thought further on the notion of giving experiences rather than gifts when I trotted into my hairdresser’s earlier. “You should do vouchers,” I told Nuala, donning my marketing head. (In fairness, Riah is almost always packed, so they probably don’t need me sticking my nose in). On I went anyway: “Buy a blow-dry for your buddy.”  Who wouldn’t like that; a blow dry when it’s murky and grey and you feel like a sack of shit in January? I’d love it, especially if the friend minded your kids while they were at it: the gift of gorgeousness and time.

I hadn’t intended getting my hair done at all but then I caught a glimpse of  my barnet in a shop window and saw it was in need of some TLC.

“Squeeze me in,” I pleaded. “I’m doing a story tonight at 10 by 9, and you know I can’t do my own hair.”

“You can do your own hair,” replied Emma, who’s a straight talking gal. You just don’t.”

“All the better for you” I replied, and got nicely settled with my Red magazine and a latte. And oh, the joy the occasion brought me. There was an article by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan of A Visit from the Goon Squad fame, and another from my heroine Brené Brown. What sense they spoke, and what unassuming ladies they seemed to be, considering the success of the pair of them. And had I not stepped in off the Ormeau Road for a spot of impromptu indulgence I wouldn’t have seen the magazine and been thus edified.


Emma massaged my savaged scalp (some people bite their nails, I tend to scratch holes in my head for purposes of recreation) and we had a chat. “I’ve been shopping in the charity shops, for Christmas presents,” I offered by way of explanation for what I’d been up to, prior to wandering in to the salon.  (I’d also met LSB for yoga in Hill Street and had brunch in Le Petit Ormeau, so as mornings go, it had been quite marvellous.)

Emma made noncommittal noises as she combed my hair.

“Yes,” said I. “Stocking fillers for the children. They will notice neither packaging nor price tags, so it is senseless to buy useless tat, made in China and shipped over at great cost to the environment. Let us instead buy them pre-loved toys while they are too small to notice the difference.” Emma nodded politely.


And here is my other idea, and one that I think you good people will appreciate. It involves a get-together AND recycling, two of my absolute favourite things. Yesterday I went to my friend’s house for breakfast and lined up in her hall were bags destined for Oxfam. “Give me a look through those,” I said, digging out a little red sparkly bag and a wooden toy. This prompted a thought. How about a pre-Christmas bash (and I would suggest late November to get ahead of the game) where guests bring an assortment of items that they want rid of and thus ‘donate’ as potential presents for other children. The host or hostess provides drinks and festive tit-bits on which to nibble while this glorious merry-go-round of gifts takes place. Rejected items can make their way to the school fair or St Vincent de Paul collections.


And here comes the best bit! You know by now that I have a great hatred of excessive packaging. So, people could come armed with leftover decorations, (perhaps some newspaper and yarn and bits of greenery) and some creative and environmentally friendly wrapping could take place. Doesn’t that sound like a convivial idea?


I must be honest and add that we will be purchasing some shop bought gifts for our kids. I’m not advocating that they get nothing first-hand. But I bought an assortment of toys this morning in the Hospice Shop for under a tenner. On Monday, both the Frank Mitchell phone-in and You and Yours on Radio 4 were about spending less this Christmas. I appreciate that I sound a bit whimsical and mad but any action that stops the bins overflowing with wrapping and plastic on Boxing Day can only be a good thing, right?

SWB gets distracted

The cat and I are having words. I have work to do. I’m trying to analyse a tricky poem and I want to look again at a short story I started last week, which has come undone towards the end. It’s about an auld doll who goes for a massage and finds herself strangely stirred. She gets to  wondering if Sapphic tendencies have laid dormant for years within her repressed frame, but really what is she supposed to do when she’s married and sixty and living in Limerick? This requires concentration. But the cat has other ideas. She has already wheedled another portion of Sheba out of me as she said it was time for her elevenses. A cat can be hungry after a sojourn outside of a frosty morning. I hear the tinkle of her bell and look up to see her sniffing the hob with interest, her little paws atop the work-bench, which in a fit of uncharacteristic vigour I have just cleaned. (See? I’m supposed to be writing. So what do I do? I scrub the kitchen. And now I have to fecking clean it again.) “Get down,” I say sharply. “Cats don’t belong on work tops and tables.” She eyes me defiantly, only jumping down when I leave the laptop and come over. She gives me a disgusted mew. I mew back. Turning she  leads me to her now empty bowl, her tail up in hopeful fashion. Time for seconds she says. Little chancer.

A plump robin swoops in and perches at the window, the shock of red at its throat catches the light. It looks a bit dishevelled and its blast beruffled plume* makes me smile. I eye the cat. She would make short work of it. “You’re going nowhere for a while, lady,” I tell her.

*Thanks Hardy

SWB on Black Friday

I flipping hate Black Friday. I hate the crowds, I hate the frenzy and I hate the way people are goaded, yes goaded, into buying shit they don’t need and can ill afford. Did anyone hear a snippet from yesterday’s budget? The economy’s a shambles. Families may have less to live on next year because of draconian cuts and this messy Brexit divorce.


I’m not stupid, or oblivious to the fact that retailers need to make a living too, but I find it hard to repress my despair when people start lamping each other in Curry’s over cut price TVs or being crushed in a stampede to snap up a pair of Nike Air trainers. And I don’t buy into this notion as mooted by one of the guests earlier on Talkback, that that’s just how society is now, so we have to accept it. But is it? Is it really? My Facebook feed this week would suggest the contrary. Friends have posted less about binge-shopping for Christmas and more about charitable initiatives, such as this one from Barnardos to gather used and new toys for children at Christmas, and another from Concern to donate to the Rohingya crisis, (worth doing now because until December 17th the government will match every pound which doubles the value of each contribution).


I suppose now I’m going to sound sanctimonious, but there needs to be some sort of antidote to the relentless beat of the corporate drum. So much of the shopping is the adrenaline thrill of ‘bagging a bargain’ and calculating your savings, with a smug little pat-on-the-back and an ‘Aren’t I clever?’ look towards your friend who’s the mug who’ll have to pay full-price next week. Alternatively, you could use your imagination and leave the graspers and grabbers to it and think of different ways to spend your money, (if you’re lucky enough to have any.)


Tonight I’m going to the Lyric and while I’m there I am going to collect tickets I bought for the kids and me to see the pantomime in December. In the spirit of festive fun I’m going to put the tickets in an envelope, write their names in fancy writing, (as though an elf with a talent for calligraphy has been at it,) and leave it on the hearth. It’s going to be an early Christmas gift from Santa, and hopefully they’ll be as excited about having an enjoyable experience as they would be about a tangible gift. I’ve been spending the last year trying to declutter, so I don’t want to spend the next six months tripping over mounds of shite in the form of more plastic toys.


I’m not a miserly old git. There will be stockings and there will be presents on Christmas morning. I was as excited as the kids last year when bleary eyed we opened their gifts. But there wasn’t masses of stuff and the clearest memory I have of Christmas Day was the Wallace Park Run with our friends, and the kids playing on the swings later and LSB whizzing along on the zip wire. (I have to confess to getting torn into the bubbly at my in-laws and falling asleep in the car to Bangor to see my folks, hence the rest of the day lost a bit of clarity.)


So here’s my wish-list: A ten class pass for Flow Studios, so I can start my year all blissfully stretched and soothed; a copy of Female Lines, since it’s a beautiful book and one I’ll want to keep for posterity and it may even inspire me to try a bit more creative writing of my own; and keeping to that theme, LSB has promised to buy me a subscription to Judy Blume’s on-line writing class. With all these diversions, the house is never going to be cleaned again. But then again, if I get a handle on the clutter and don’t have to keep shunting piles from one end of the house to the other, that job might become more manageable too.