SWB puts the ‘open’ into ‘Open House Festival’

Tenx9 audiences usually enjoy a good bowel story; as they do tales of acute embarrassment; odd family  idiosyncrasies and close encounters of the evangelical kind. (There are many of those here in Northern Ireland.) My stories often include all the above. Last year in Bangor I told a tale about growing up on the Esplanade. This one is a bit more exotic and is about my trip to Thailand back in 2004.

‘What are you reading about tonight?’ The Mothership asks when I go down home on Friday night and foist my children upon her and my Dad.

‘The time I had the runs in Thailand,’ I reply.

‘Awk you’re not, are you? Who would want to listen to the like of that? Your father couldn’t stomach it at all. He’d have to get up and go out. Wouldn’t you Ronnie?’

My Dad feigns deafness and pours himself a glass of wine.

Hers’s the story, should you wish to read for yourself.

Tenx9- At The Seaside

I should have known not to have seconds of goat curry. And thirds. Definitely not thirds. This curry was, like most I had eaten in South East Asia, generously spiced with red chilli, and not even the coconut milk was rendering it tolerable. But on I lingered at the table, because this was a celebration, for not just one, but two good reasons.

Rahesh, the owner of our backpacker hostel,  had just completed the building of a sixth hut,  so at least 2 more guests could climb a rickety wooden ladder to a enjoy a ‘rustic’ stay, sleeping on less than pristine bed sheets. Each hut did, at least, have a bathroom, although water pressure was an issue as neither the shower nor the flush had much of an ‘oomph’. I had taken to using the loo in cafes and bus stations and even shops if they’d allow me, because I was very much in love with my boyfriend and I feared that this may not be reciprocated, if he had to hear me emptying my bowels through paper thin walls. On the up side, each hut cost £6 per night and since we were travelling for 3 months, it was in our best interests to be frugal. ‘Please, eat! eat!’ urged our host’s mother, a tiny wiry woman who kept appearing at my elbow, smiling a huge toothless grin as she ladled out spoon-fuls of sticky rice and curry. I ate up. I was very hungry.

The second reason why this was a celebration; was the fact that we were alive and able to eat curry from plates improvised from banana leaves. Two hours earlier I had feared death by drowning in the Andaman Sea after being caught out in a squall. ‘Come kayaking, it will be fun!’ said our new American friends, and so we had assembled at 10am on the beach for a trip. The last place I had gone paddling was Killyleagh, where we had not only been issued with life jackets but helmets too.  Our tentative safety enquiries were met with much derision by the men hiring out the kayaks from their shack on the beach.  ‘You will not need such things. You can swim, right?’ So in we hopped and with a push and a whoosh we were off, paddling through azure waters. It was exhausting. ‘Oooh, let’s look at these fish!’ I would say, ‘What fine phosphorescent creatures!’ My boyfriend knew rightly that I just wanted to rest.

Chicken Island, when we arrived, was unremarkable. We had just left one stunning beach with white sand, for an identical stunning beach with white sand. There was a bar serving the same jam-jars of iridescent red shite which in Thailand masquerades as a cocktail. I was not a fan of these at any time of day, but especially not at 11-30. Even by my standards, this was uncalled for. There was pottering, and sunbathing, and watching in awe as a fruit seller deftly sliced pineapple into uniform pieces with what looked like a machete.

But then I feel rain. Rain does not pitter patter in Thailand. Rain thunders down in heaving plumps, with a force not emulated by the shower in our hut. My intrepid boyfriend, and the American lads, who had told us several times, that they are ‘very strong swimmers’, are flexing their muscles and gearing up for the challenge. We decide to go before the squall whips up even more. Tourists had come over in a glass bottomed boat and they were pointing with incredulity at us, as we clamber into the kayaks. We paddle, fruitlessly. Waves crash into our faces, my stomach lurches and my arms ache. The sky is a huge purple bruise. ‘Paddle harder,’ shouts my boyfriend. ‘FUCK UP!’ I shout back. I cannot paddle any harder. I have reached peak paddle. ‘Can we go back?’ I yell. ‘No need!’ he replies. ‘Look, it’s calmer out there.’

It is not, calmer out there. It actually looks worse. I am going back, I decide. I will swim if I have to.  We turn the kayak. The wind behind us makes our paddle to the shore infinitely easier, and we are almost catapulted onto the sand. There is hardly any room on the glass bottomed boat but for a price they let us drag on our kayaks and we bump our way back to Tonsai beach. We pass our Americans, who are still valiantly trying to conquer the waves. We ask if we can stop and pick them up. I can’t hear what our Captain says but his voice is gruff and his hand gestures are more than a little dismissive.

Back on dry land we scan the seas. ‘Please,’ we ask the owner of the kayak shack.  ‘Can you do anything? Our friends are still out there.’

‘Out there?’ says the man. He laughs and shakes his head. He looks, not only unperturbed, but amused. A long 20 minutes later we see two dots appear on the horizon. Just as suddenly as it arose, the storm packs up its bags and buggers off.  We watch as our friends, who don’t look nearly so cocky now, edge closer and we swim out to greet them. ‘Drinks later?’ they ask. I nod with alacrity.

We have a rest before Rahesh invites us to partake in his mum’s special curry, before heading to the other side of the bay for evening frivolity. On the terrace, windchimes tinkle in the light breeze and Morcheebais playing in the background. The sea is calm and in the darkness it meets the sky in soft, velvety swathes. Everyone is lounging on bright cushions drinking beer, or Coke, all in ebullient form. All, that is, except for me. I am squatting, in a way that is both graceless and deeply uncomfortable, in the most basic hovel known to man. The curry has turned against me. It is the revenge of the goat. In the absence of a lock, the door threatens to open and a misguided cat is mewing and trying to get in.  Twice I try to stand but I am doubled over by crippling cramps. And then, above the whine of the                        crickets I hear my boyfriend’s voice. It is not a voice I want to hear right now. ‘Just a second,’ I say, ‘go back to the others.’

‘I’ll wait for you,’ he says. ‘It’s dark out here.’ There are times when you want your other half to be kind and chivalrous. This was not one of them.

I blunder out and gesture that I need to leave. To reach our part of the island we have to climb over a few rocky outcrops. We usually love donning our head torches and having a moonlit scramble. There are no water taxis tonight. Usually we have to convince them that we like the walk home, and to leave us be. I am now vomiting behind one rock and having the runs behind the next. I have vomited over my new duck-egg blue skirt. I have vomited over my boyfriend’s feet. I don’t know how I have any fluids left. Back in the hut, I assume that I have no moisture remaining to expel, from any orifice. I am wrong. ‘Yon fellow’s going to wish he’d installed better plumbing after this,’ says my boyfriend, as he tries to force carroty pieces of sick down the plug hole with a pencil. The embarrassment I feel singes my soul. I fear that I may be given the boot, but when I crawl into bed I see him futtering with his First Aid Kit. ‘I wonder could I improvise a drip,’ he ponders. He is, you see, a doctor, and instead of being revolted by my condition, is seeing it as a medical challenge. The thought of needles makes me want to vomit again, so instead he rubs my back until I sleep.

When I wake in the morning my mouth feels like the bottom of a hamster’s cage, but I have a concave stomach, for the first time in my life. In bounds my boyfriend with fresh mango and water. ‘It’s gorgeous out there,’ he says, beaming. ‘Shall we go for another kayak?’

‘Fuck off dear,’ I reply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SWB and the School Holidays

So you know those films where children run amok and you chuckle because it is so extreme and therefore could not happen ‘In Real Life?’ Or else you comfort yourself because you think, ‘Phew, at least mine aren’t that bad?’ Well, shimmy on over and pull up a front row seat because mine are being absolute melters; candidates for Horrid Henry or Alvin and the Chipmunks. Day one of the official school holidays and we have already reached ‘peak melt.’  Earlier, as I walked past the living room, I saw The Small Child tying a basket to a piece of pink tinsel that was hanging from the light fitting. She was loading three cuddly toys (two ducks and a dragon) into said basket and giving it a vigorous push, like those big round  swings at the park.  I always want to curl up and read a book  on that swing sown in Cherryvale Park, except some bastard child is usually already ensconced. Darn shame. They need to open parks, at night, for adults, not necessarily for devilment, just quiet contemplation in relaxing environs.

The pink tinsel, I must admit, has been strung around the light fitting  since the Older Child’s birthday back in October. I think I am still recovering emotionally from that week before half-term when I was at the primary school two night’s running for the ‘Halloween disco’, then we stupidly decided to host our very own ‘Flamingo themed’ party in the house. The recollection of that time still makes my right eye-brow twitch. Even looking at the tinsel brings back feelings of angst and I can’t bear to  actually touch it. Last week I was visiting a friend and I saw she still had some Christmas decorations up in her dining room. ‘Don’t ever change,’ I said to her, clutching her hand in the manner of one demented.

Back to my off-spring: let me list their other offences. Perhaps the most annoying thing is their utter inability to finish a meal while keeping their backsides on a seat. They eat with their hands and with their mouths open, like savages. As a child, my parents were most particular about table manners. Once, I used to be particular about table manners, but I have now given up entirely on such trifling affairs. Avoiding scurvy and Beri-Beri: those are my current concerns, so I do not care how they eat vegetables, as long as they ingest some vitamins which don’t come from a packet of Halibo-Orange for Kids.

This eating ‘on-the-move’ habit which my girls have acquired means that the floor is strewn with bits of bagel, pizza crusts and ice-cream wrappers. LSB shows his love for the girls by buying them whatever they want.  At the moment, the children and Himself are on a quest for the elusive ‘Apple-saurus Rex’ ice-lolly. This has proved to be a fruitless search and to make them feel better he buys them oversized lollies such as Magnums or Super Twisters, to compensate.  Should any of you, on your travels, come across this refreshing icy treat, do get in touch as we have now started to believe that it is nothing but a ruse to draw dinosaur crazed children into shops.

The children are being especially bad and bold because we have a guest. They like to ‘up the ante’, when we have visitors, especially paying guests. This week we are hosting a French person. Her English is ridiculously good so they keep asking me if she’s really French. Our last lodger (of whom we were very fond and wanted to keep; I kid you not, she had a penchant for tidying and she LOVED children) had a very shaky grasp of English. However, since this didn’t interfere with how she enjoyed arranging my cushions neatly and doing jigsaws with my kids, this was no problem whatsoever. Anyway, as the French girl arrived the kids were returning from an outing where they’d ingested half their body weight in Haribo and were in ‘climbing mode’; clambering all over the furniture and swinging and jumping off the bannisters. ‘Go outside!’ I bellowed, at which point they came in to tell me that the cat had left a gift, which was of course a mouse. The cat then appeared with another mouse between her jaws, and we all looked on in horror as she batted it about.  The French girl hadn’t even had a cup of tea at this stage. Order was no sooner resumed when I looked in to the garden and thought, ‘F**k me but the cat really has got enormous,’ before realising it was actually a large black dog. A collie, I think. I had never seen said dog before in my life and then another appeared and they bounded in exuberant circles in the garden before making off through the fence. Meanwhile our feline  hissed and spat with a back so arched she resembled a boomerang.

‘It’s not usually as bad as this,’ I told the French girl. I’m not sure she’s convinced though, as today  the house was in a similar state of chassis.  I was trying to cook, blithely ignoring the children, (I’m a massive fan of the benign neglect method of holiday childcare) and they instantly set upon her when she came in. ‘Let’s play Hide and Seek! Come on!’  They led the poor girl straight into the garden before swiftly returning.  ‘Mummy,’ said The Older Child, ‘guess how many dead mice are on the patio?’

Three. There were three very small, very dead mice on the patio; another lovely job for SWB.  However, given how much food my youngsters leave at their behinds, I’m currently feeling very grateful for Izzy, the ultimate mouse-destroyer.

(In the interests of public health I would like to add that there is a large field behind where we live. There are sometimes cows. We basically live in a farm but without the benefit of fresh eggs. We also employ a cleaner, for whenever I miss a bit.)

SWB gets harassed

The Small Child has woken in prickly humour. I wake to find her little hand on my shoulder at 7-10, an unwelcome intrusion to my slumber. She is wearing a vest and her grey skirt. ‘I need a shirt,’ she says. ‘And a tie.’ Now.’ I am awake, but barely. It has been a busy weekend. It has been a  busy year. I have to get up, make lunches, serve breakfast, THEN go to work and top the day off with a visit to the dentist for two fillings. I wonder should I just book in my cervical smear test too and be done with it. I do not wish this day to begin. But begin it does. ‘Your summer dress is on the bannister,’ I say. ‘Put it on.’

‘No,’ declares the Small Child. ‘I DON’T. WEAR. DRESSES.’ In her white vest she is like a mini Stanley Kowalski. ‘It is not summer,’ she says. ‘It is cold. I am wearing my uniform.’ She disappears and returns holding her tie aloft, triumphantly. ‘Now I just need my shirt’ she says.

The child has a point. Outside the sky is grey and it has rained heavily in the night. I know this, because against her better judgement, the cat insisted on going out at ten-thirty as we went to bed. Thus, when I woke to use the loo at 12 I took pity and went down to let her in. She shot past my legs, her coat sodden, mewing pathetically. I lovingly dried her with kitchen roll and off she went to bed.

It is still mizzly and I feel for the child. I too, have shunned sandals of late, and returned to wearing ankle boots, with ankle socks underneath. Last week I wore a hoodie, and actually put the hood up to keep my ears warm. I counted three different men in Botanic Gardens wearing hats, and a few women in scarves: not wispy silk scarves, but scarves of weight and substance. I therefore get the Small Child’s point, but I’m f**ked id I’m digging out her shirts which have been washed, ironed and put away (in a rare show of organisation).

The Older Child is in ebullient form, leaping from bed to bed. They’re wild keen on the leaping, my children. In the garden, they are forever catapulting themselves out of the shrubbery, and often, I see a child, airborne, flying past at a ferocious rate.

The grandparents have been up minding them on Mondays of late. This means that when I get in at 4pm, they had been fed Maud’s ice-cream, pizza from Lidl and generous slabs of Dairy Milk. They are often engaged in gardening tasks, clearing weeds and suchlike. ‘They were VERY good,’ my parents will say, in a tone which suggests that they are wonderful children and don’t merit the complaining I do about them. But why wouldn’t they good, when enjoying such an abundance of treats? ‘Try doing their homework with them or making them have a bath,’ I want to snarl.

‘They have expressed interest in a swing,’ The Mothership tells me in a conspiratorial tone. ‘Will I just go out and buy one?’ ‘No’ I reply, with feeling. We live on a hill, you see.  Our garden is built on 3 tiers and given my children’s propensity for taking flying leaps I fear one or both of them would come sailing through the kitchen window as I’m peeling the potatoes. I grew up in a house with a large, flat garden. Never once, was it mooted that I be bought a swing, or a climbing frame, or any class of garden paraphernalia common to our neighbours on the Esplanade. I decide against voicing any of this. The Mothership will, of course, read it here, and then ring me up to gripe that I’m ‘doing her down again.’

Speaking of which, you wouldn’t need to be sensitive on this house. The Small Child, was hoking through a drawer of mine earlier, while I combed her hair. ‘What’s this?’ she said, aghast. ‘It’s a passport photo, of me,’ I tell her. (I got photos taken in Dalkey in February. I have yet to the fill in my application for my Irish Passport). The Small Child shakes her head. ‘Desperate,’ she says in a withering tone, putting it back. She is 6 years old and sounds exactly like the Mothership, when she was on the phone last week, insulting me. ‘I need to talk to you, AT ONCE. It’s about your hair.’

‘What about my hair?’ I said. I was just in from work and trying to enjoy a cup of tea and a Bourbon cream.

‘You need to do something about it,’ she says. ‘You put a picture of yourself up on Twitter, and it may have been in jest, but regardless of that, you looked about 50. “Ronnie,” I said. “Would you look at the cut of that?” There is a swathe, a swathe of white, not even grey, across the front. You need to get that sorted. I would suggest you have a few different shades put in when you get your high lights done. Or I could do it myself, from a packet. Save you a fortune.’

Well that would be a treat indeed- The Mothership doing my highlights at the kitchen table while my progeny laugh and cackle and possibly take pictures. No, I think I shall go and drink coffee and read Red magazine in Riah, as per usual. Anyway, I don’t think I’d be nearly as grey were it not for cantankerous off-spring and mercurial mothers.  And it’s almost the holidays! All that extra time with the children to enjoy. I think I might just pack them off to Bangor for a week by the sea. The Mothership might just be reviewing her opinion then….

 

SWB and the collapse of civilisation

 

It is Thursday and I am not working. I am walking back from a class at the PEC. LSB had dropped me down earlier and I met a friend for coffee. I bought some books for summer reading and sauntered a bit, before a gruelling 25 minute class. I cannot cope with hour long classes at the moment, preferring short bursts of horror to get it over quickly.  Many of the exercises at a ‘HITT’ (High Intensity Interval Training) class are burpee related, with much reaching over my portly tum. And lunging. There is an emphasis on lunging and squatting. These classes are not to be recommended after a latte and a peanut butter ball, a fact that I know well, yet am loathe to note. I thank the teacher and leave. I am keen to have a walk to disperse the lactic acid after my exertions.

As I walk along the embankment towards Ormeau Bridge I hear much shouting. I assume it is the the coxes in the rowing boats on the Lagan. I hate how they gulder. It is loud and aggressive. I do not need loud and aggressive voices right now. My thoughts can be loud and aggressive enough.

But it is not a cox shouting at his rowing eight. It is a crowd of men clad only in their pants, hopping on one leg as they tug on their jeans. They are barefooted. One wears a red felt hat, with yellow writing embroidered on the front.  His chest hair, of which there is an abundance, glistens with sweat and booze. He guffaws loudly as I pass. I feel his spit on my face. ‘Ha, look at this one!’ shouts another.  There are bottles of Buckfast and the stench of alcohol closes in on me. Several runners have jogged past already unmolested, and I refuse to cross the road. It is 12.43 in the afternoon. I will not be intimidated at 12.43 in the afternoon in my local environs. There are two girls also in the group, one of whom is shrieking and cackling at a pitch which is most offensive to the ear. Another is small and fine featured with chestnut hair, pulled into sleek pony tail. She has a sweet face and huge brown liquid eyes. Her expression, however, is not sweet. She seeks out and tries to hold my gaze as though to provoke a response. The menace from her is almost more unsettling than the larger men, in a state of undress. I refuse to meet her eye and walk on, but I do not alter my pace. They do not follow me or touch me or verbally abuse me. But their intention is clear, to create a disturbance and ruin a peaceful afternoon.

This is the third time I have felt threatened recently on the Ormeau; my favourite part of Belfast and the place I call home. This time it was older teens, or perhaps students. The previous occasions have been by young, drunk teenagers. They occurred in the early evening, further up the road, near the Vineyard. Stevey challenged one boy, who was flanked by two larger teenage girls.  He insulted an elderly man who had remonstrated with him for repeatedly thumping a sign. Alliance, I think it was. I recall it was yellow.

‘Could you not leave it alone?’ said the man.

‘Could you not fuck off?’ said the boy.

‘Here’ said LSB. ‘No need for that.’

The girls jeered and the young fella wanted to show off and retorted with another obscenity. We had been to Greens for pizza with the girls.

‘That’s enough,’ I said, gesturing towards the children.

‘You shut up, you’re nothing but a hoor,’ shouted the boy.

Well that was LSB off after him while I pulled the girls close. They were shaken and bewildered.

‘LEAVE IT!’ I yelled. The trio ran off and Stevey let them. He was furious. (Stevey has a bit of a superman complex and is often referred to as ‘Stevey Garland, Urban Warrior’ by his friends. Once he saved a couple of Emo kids getting their heads kicked in, in the McDonalds in town. He has, though, also been set upon in the past, and had a kicking himself.  Warrior behaviour is therefore not something I actively encourage. He couldn’t possibly put a wash on or get the children breakfast with head injuries. It would be a great imposition on my life. Anyway, it wasn’t even eight o’clock. Our evening had been soured, any bonhomie shattered.

So there we are. Marching season is not even upon us and the air is thick and turbulent, making me feel the need to keep sharp and alert. This is the time  when we should be able to relax, and enjoy the long evenings, watching as dusk merges into twilight and the sky turns from blue to lemon to pink and  the sun sets over the hills. I wish some sense could descend upon the city and we could do just that.

SWB on the pre-birthday wobble

‘Am I going to be middle-aged?’ I ask LSB.

‘Are you thinking of buying a sports car?’ he replies.

‘No,’ I say, with conviction.

‘Well then, definitely not,’ he says.

(I hesitate to tell him there’s a white Audi TT for sale down the street).

On Tuesday I will be forty. Months ago there was talk of a party, but then I not only joined the PTA with my friend but the two of us decided to chair it. Since that error of judgement, neither of us has an interest in organising anything ever again. We are done with organising now. Last week there was a party, an anniversary dinner for our school in a local hotel. We hired ‘The Bandoliers’ and such was the vigorous dancing on my part, that I feared I may be suffering from whiplash the following morning. I wasn’t, but that didn’t stop me lying in bed until 1pm after the exertion of the evening.

This weekend has been calmer. On Saturday morning I took myself to a sewing workshop at Portview Trade Centre in East Belfast. My friend Kirsty has a studio there and was showing a few of us how to make a decorative hoop to hang on the wall. LSB knows that Kirsty makes reusable hygiene products for women in the developing world. Given that I’ve recently started using a menstrual cup, he misunderstands and thinks that the hoop is some sort of Earth Mother gynae device. (His words). He is relieved when I tell him it isn’t, and that his intervention won’t be needed to extract it.

(One day, when I am brave enough, I will write a post about my Tulip Cup experience. I am au fait with the process now, but it took a while.)

Back to sewing and my friend. Kirsty is a bit of a legend, and I’m not one for bandying words like ‘legend’ about. She has founded the charity Shared Threads which brings hope and education and dignity to those who have none. She’s just back from a trip to India, where she taught women in a prison how to sew sanitary pads themselves. She took the family with her too. ‘Most people take their kids to Disney Land’, she laughed on Saturday. ‘Mine looked for tiger poo in the jungle.’ I think her children will remember that trip with fondness. None of that ersatz saccharine shite for them.

Kirsty’s studio has a minimalist feel to it, and it’s airy and uncluttered. Two spider plants sit on the window sill, underneath which is a table with a rose gold lamp and an old Singer Sewing Machine. It’s a space which wills one to be creative and exhale.  The vibe makes me feel like I could actually get some work done here. There is a rose gold cafetière containing extremely good coffee.

Kirsty shows us how to embroider messages onto fabric which will be encased inside a wooden hoop. I am sitting beside a heavily tattooed man with a well-groomed beard. He sews impeccable stitches in blue thread onto a speckled linen cloth. I am in awe at his precision. We sip our coffee and work steadily, mindfully, and I am grateful for the calm. I didn’t know what message to sew on my hoop, but I settle on the words ‘Still I Rise’ from Maya Angelou’s gorgeous poem. It’s about feistiness and courage and resilience; attributes I need to hone. I’m tired and bewildered and a bit directionless at the moment. Still, anytime I read the poem it brings me joy and a profound sense of hope. The letters may be a bit wonky but I kind of like the fact that life is messy, but that’s all part of the fun, or at least the journey.

Later on Saturday, a crowd of us gather at some friends to celebrate their child’s birthday. The men opt to drive and drink non-alcoholic beer while us girls sip prosecco. There are cheeses and pastries; fresh fruits and cured meats and two types of home-baked cake. The kids shed their shoes and bounce and play and there is a warmth and conviviality which has me almost in tears. I grow steadily more emotionally incontinent as the years pass. I identify the feeling which threatens to overwhelm as gratitude. I am so grateful for the kindness and the steadiness and in particular, the irreverent humour of the people around me. I find life a bit tricky at times. But like the title of Ruth Fitzmaurice’s beautiful memoir, ‘I found my Tribe’,  I feel I’ve found mine. I’ve a few tribes actually, some of which overlap. They all help me rise in different ways; whether it’s rising to challenges or rising above some of the nonsense in life one has to face.  I’m thankful for every one of them.

SWB ruminates on Formal Fever

Last night was another belter of an evening down at The Black Box for Tenx9. A huge thanks to Paul Doran and the lovely Cara. Pádraig was away at a poetry seminar but was well represented by a puppet instead. It’s quare craic, down at the Tenx9, and no better way to spend a Wednesday, in my opinion. The stories last night were magnificent. The theme was ‘ Once, when I was young…’ so I thought I’d write about my school formal. You can read the whole sorry tale below…

(a young SWB, aged seventeen and a half)

Once, when I was young, I had a dream, a dream that I would go to my Upper Sixth formal, svelte and glamourous, with a boyfriend in tow. For 7 years, the ‘formal’ had been at the back of my mind. The formal was when you shrugged off that bright blue uniform and emerged, radiant, to show your peers & teachers that you were more than just a nerdy teen. I was most disappointed that one of my teachers couldn’t go, as she had booked a Daniel O’Donnell concert on the same night. Most unfair, I thought, as everyone made an effort for this, even those who hung round church all weekend in their Lee jeans from the factory shop in Newtownards and Fruit of the Loom sweatshirts. Girls who NEVER dressed up, were rendered unrecognisable, with glossy locks and shimmery lipstick. And of course, they all had boyfriends. I rarely had a boyfriend. And then, miracle of miracles I managed to find myself a sort-ofboyfriend. He’d recently been dumped and needed a diversion, and I was anxious to fill that role because 1) he was a bit of a dish, and 2), it was Christmas and the formal was in February and I just had to hold on to him until then.

 

Formal fever took hold. We took the train to Belfast, going to Delaney’sfor lasagne and chips and sneaky bottles of Mateus Rose. Trips to Belfast were a new thing, and not something I did on a whim, lest I be blown up or shot. It was 1997, so that was still a real possibility. The mere mention of going to Belfast, & my grandmother would say in a sombre tone, ‘Watch out for the bombs’. In fairness, she had lived through the Blitz, hiding under the kitchen table while the roof crumbled above her. She probably had PTSD. However, I was willing to risk losing a limb if it meant getting a nice dress.

 

In those days, few people spent hundreds on formal attire. We ogled dresses from Kookai and Monsoon,thoughEtamsand Top Shopwere more our price range. I bought a red satin dress in Principlesfor £35 with a cowl neckline and spaghetti straps. Inevitably, another girl worse the same dress on the night, (cheeky bitch) but we resolutely avoided each other.

 

In the preceding weeks I was in shocking humour as I tried to diet, ditching my after-school snack of 4 slices of white toast, with real butter and homemade raspberry jam. Sometimes I had a slice of Cadbury’s Chocolate roll to finish, or a slab of my grandmother’s cake. Oddly the weight dropped off and I didn’t have to resort to laxatives. A friend gave me make up tips and I booked an up-do with Michael Conroy on High Street. Then, disaster struck. One of our friends was let down by her date. Never the most pro-active it had to be said, she left it up to us to find her another, with 2 days to go. At the time, the principal’s son was doing a bit of Janitor work in the school. He was a smiley sort of a fellow so I asked if he’d like to be her date for the evening. He said he would. Phew, we all sighed.

 

Then, mydate announced that he might not make it after all. Our formal was on a Wednesday and he worked in Dublin. Previously, it had felt like the height of sophistication, having a graphic designer ‘sort of’ boyfriend who worked in Dublin but that feeling soon dissipated when this news broke. Much to my embarrassment now, I recall asking if there were any flights between Dublin and Belfast. That, I thought, would be quite James Bond-ish, with him ‘jetting in’ for the occasion.  There weren’t, but he made it with just enough time to look smug and self-satisfied in a photo, with the air of someone who was doing me a terrific favour, which, I suppose, in a way he was.

 

The actual event at The Culloden, was probably the biggest disappointment of my life to date. We were served platefuls of dried up turkey, most of which was scraped directly into the bin. The band was mediocre and there was, to me anyway, a sense of acute let down. The real anti-climax, however, was the afterformal. The organising committee, had, in an act of madness or desperation, booked the Sea Catfor this. It was sold to us as an excellent option, as the bar was open all night. There was the promise of ‘live music’. God help anyone taking the journey for real that night, with about a hundred kids in formal attire lurching about from excess drink or the rhythm of the waves. The ‘live music’ was one disconsolate chap on a keyboard. His eyes bore an expression of utter defeat, as indeed they would, if your career trajectory had led you to here, playing ‘Sweet Caroline’ to a bunch of pissed sixth-formers. The janitor ditched my friend for another girl at the Sea Cat terminal before we even set sail, which meant that she spent the whole crossing to Scotland and back, crying inconsolably.

 

‘Sort of’ boyfriend and I broke up shortly afterwards. ‘Don’t worry,’ said my mum. ‘There will be other formals.’ ‘I never want to hear of another bastard formal again,’ I replied.  But six years later, there I was, this time as a teacher in Bloomfield Collegiate. Back to North Down we went, this time to the Clandeboye Lodge. I had an actual boyfriend this time, called Donal, but he was a doctor, up doing ‘doctory’ things that night in Coleraine. I missed him: I wished he could have seen me, in my finery. This formal was even more tedious than the first formal. It wasn’t so much no craic, as minus craic; a craic vacuum. I took to the drink, and suddenly, the band seemed to improve. I bopped about a bit and metamorphized into Miss McClements, the ‘young cool teacher’, giving it stacks on the dance floor. Of courseI took the shot a student offered. Ruby red in colour, it tasted innocuous enough, until the tabasco hit the back of my throat. Little f**ker. I retched & ran to the bathroom. If toilets could talk, that one would have rung the Samaritans. Up came the shot, the wine and the dinner. My eyes were streaming, my throat was burning and a small crowd had gathered outside the cubicle. ‘Are you ok Miss?’ they asked, genuinely concerned. ‘Oh, I’m absolutely fine,’ I chirped, adopting the cadences of the locale, as though that was going to detract from the state I was in.

 

My dad had kindly agreed to pick me and two others up when festivities were over. I rang home. ‘Can you come early,’ I bleated, ‘I am most unwell.’ I hid in the toilets before attempting to emerge discreetly. I didn’t manage that. My friends were in fine fettle by now and non-plussed at being told they had to leave. It was 10 o’clock. ‘My dad will be here soon,’ I said. And there he was, in his anorak, marching purposefully across the dancefloor. Raging he was too. ‘Into the car,’ he said. I was a dishevelled mess with mascara down my face. ‘What am I going to tell Donal?’ I wept. Donal was a committed Pioneer. He didn’t get pissed at formals, or anywhere else. ‘You say nothing!’ snapped my dad. ‘You’re not a Catholic, you don’t have to confess everything!’

 

I will urge my children when their time comes, to avoid the whole formal pantomime. Nine years ago, I did however, squeeze into my Principlesgown and attend another formal in the Stormont, this time with the husband. It too, was shite. ‘I’m sorry for dragging you to this,’ I whispered as we left early to go to the Errigle. ‘Totally worth it to see you in that frock,’ he replied. I wish I could have shared that moment with seventeen year old me. She’d have loved it.

(2009 with LSB, when I should have been old enough to know better.)

 

 

 

 

SWB and the Grammar Police

It is Saturday and my phone rings. I am looking at some crockery, (circa 1936) at an Antiques Fair. I don’t frequent such fairs as a rule but it’s held once a month at the church halls where my children do Spanish.  I love looking at the old brooches and watches and whimsical postcards while I hear the wee ones gabbling away in the room next door. Most agreeable. Anyway, it’s the Mothership, obviously.

THE MOTHERSHIP: It’s me here, and I hope you have a minute as I need to speak with you.

ME: I’m in a bit of a rush here, I can hear them singing their goodbye song at Spanish. I’m at the Antique Fair.

THE MOTHERSHIP: Well for some:;I would like to be at an Antique fair. Do they have any Royal Doulton? In fact, ask if anyone would like to buy some Royal Doulton. Have a look round. I’ve also some salad servers and cruet sets I want rid of. Make enquiries.

ME: Did you say there was something important?

THE MOTHERSHIP: Ah yes. A matter of some urgency. Now, your latest post, I see quite a few people have read it, and made a few comments on Facebook. However, there are some glaring grammatical errors which need addressed.

ME (with a deep sigh): Go on then.

THE MOTHERSHIP: Now I just need to find the piece of paper. Ah yes, here we are now. (THE MOTHERSHIP adopts her reading voice:) “Ack, Judith Kerr has died, and her meant to reading at the Hay Festival.” That should be SHE, not HER, meant to be reading at The Hay Festival.’

ME: Noted.

THE MOTHERSHIP: And another one, on down, where was that now….. ah yes : That should be ‘WE parents,’ not ‘US parents, falling over cats and children…’ Really, you need to come down here, and we will go over these pronouns. You seem most ill-informed.  Can you fix it? The sooner the better.

ME (Thinking yes, if I ever get off this bloody phone): I will, later.

THE MOTHERSHIP: Make sure you do . And simply no need at all for that vulgarity about the Lego, although I have to agree with you, that standing on Lego can be very sore. You ought to wear slippers. At ALL times. Especially in your house. You could break your neck if you’re not careful.

ME: If that’s all then…

THE MOTHERSHIP: It certainly isn’t. I had Derek on the phone last night, asking how your dad was. ‘Is Ronnie alright?’ he said. ‘He’s rightly,’ I said, ‘why do you ask?’ And it turns out, he’d been reading your blog, and VERY concerned he was, that your dad was not ‘steady on his feet.’ I had to put him straight, and tell him there is nothing wrong with your dad.

ME: There was a while back when he wasn’t in great shape.

THE MOTHERSHIP: Very little wrong with him now. Sure isn’t he playing his tennis and giving people lifts and helping at the church lunches? He’d be offended, if he thought you thought he was ‘unsteady on his feet.’

ME: Well he definitely shouldn’t be up a ladder.

THE MOTHERSHIP: No. At least that much is true. Some people just aren’t practical. Like you. You’re not practical.  Anyway, ‘Derek,’ I said. ‘Derek dear, you shouldn’t believe half of what you read on that blog, and Helen is often given to artistic embellishments, as most writer folk are.’

ME (harassed and with small children hanging off me): I’m away. Stevey and I are going for lunch and a day of frivolity after we’ve dropped the children over West.

THE MOTHERSHIP: How nice. Where shall you be dining?

ME: Ginger.

THE MOTHERSHIP: What? Ginger? They don’t know what to charge in there. You’ll have no money at all. I was reading about an ISA I thought might suit you…

ME: Bye Mum.

(Reader, the blog has been rectified-well the pronouns anyway. Incidentally, Ginger was CRACKER. I would recommend their fish soup with homemade wheaten – enriched with black treacle and Belfast Black ale for malty goodness, and their haddock risotto, with lemon and shredded crab. I had two glasses of Verdejo, after which I was positively BUOYANT. Sometimes a splurge is called for; especially after conversations like that.)

And the Mothership now thinks I belong to a community of ‘Writer Folk!’ Imagine! People, I almost feel as though I’ve MADE IT!

 

 

SWB muses on Mog

 

Ach, so Judith Kerr has died. Raging I am, and she meant to be reading at the Hay festival on May 1st.  She would have been looking forward to that. Only last week she was featured in the Guardian Weekend in the Q & A with Rosanna Greenstreet.  I’ve read several articles about her for years, writing her lovely books up in her attic, looking out over the trees in the park in her London home, often with a cat on her knee.

I’ve loved her work since I was a small child. When I was four or five, my mum took me to the Carnegie library in Bangor. I know the book I wanted, but all I could remember was that it involved a cat and a chimney. Perhaps Mog wasn’t as popular back in 1983 and my details were scant, but I recall the librarian taking ages with me, searching for it on the old Android computer and finally locating it. I was ever so pleased.

Just last Sunday  The Mothership was up and reading the children their bedtime story.  I was feeling terribly feeble and reclining on my bed in my room next door. The primary school teacher is still very much alive in my mum, and she got into the story of Mog’s Christmas with gusto,  clearly relishing the bit about the talking tree that scared the bejesus out of wee Mog.

“Mog thought, “Trees don’t walk. Trees should stay in one place.”

‘Did you know that my daddy is ‘a cat whisperer?’ I heard the Older Child say, in a conspiratorial tone. ‘He could have got Mog down off that roof.’ ‘Indeed,’ said the Mothership. ‘Your Papa too, but I wouldn’t have let him go up a ladder, on Christmas Eve, in the snow.’ And rightly so. My dad wouldn’t be the steadiest, on or off a ladder.

Do you know what else I like about the Mog books? It’s the simplicity; the gentleness of it. The way Kerr catches the quiet exasperation on Mr and Mrs Thomas’ faces. There’s a great story about Mog and Bunny, and poor Mrs Thomas going flying with her tea tray as she trips over Mog’s pink bunny toy. We’ve all been there, we parents, falling over cats and children and bastarding pieces of Lego. We’ve all been tortured with pets mewing in the night and leaving their grubby little toys in our slippers and on our pillows.

Though perhaps what I love the most, is the distinct lack of gaudiness. Oh, how I HATE the gaudiness and the saccharine shades consistent in all children’s books and TV programmes now. Bubblegum pink and lurid lime and putrid purple. I came down for breakfast and the kids had ‘Shimmer and Shine’ blaring on the TV and it was all just too much, at 7.50 of a morning. Part of me loves the slight dowdiness in Kerr’s work. In Mog’s Christmas there are the two glorious aunts ‘on tippy toe’. That’s exactly how my great aunts looked, in their cardigans and skirts that came just below the knee, taking enormous pleasure as they parcelled up our presents. All thrilled with himself is the ‘jolly uncle’, in his woollen tank top, carrying a balloon,  And  Mog herself and her range of catty expressions. I especially love ‘Pissed-off Mog’ with a slight narrowing of the eye and a flattened ear, which utterly conveys her disgust. Kerr claimed not to be a great illustrator, but I beg to differ. She captures the mercurial nature of a cat’s temperament perfectly. And Mrs Thomas in her headscarf, on a snowy roof with a fish for Mog’s supper. There’s a kindness and a selflessness to the stories- simple pleasures and a celebration of the banal.

As a refugee from Germany, Kerr knew all about precious moments. She knew about the importance of family and friendships and small, kind gestures. It’s in the faces of her characters. At the end of Mog’s Christmas when ‘the tree had stopped walking and made itself all pretty’  Nicky’s face is aglow as he shows Mog his toy car, and the elderly aunt is all chuffed with her new pair of tights, and Mrs Thomas is giving Mog a boiled egg and all is intrinsically right with the world.

My children love Mog so much that the Small Child went to the Halloween disco at school in a Mog costume. ‘I know she’s not scary,’ said the Small Child, ‘but I just really, really like her.’ I really like her too. Sleep well, Judith Kerr; we are grateful for you. You have brought us all much joy.

 

SWB embraces Life

I have decided this week that I am going to MAKE AN EFFORT. Oh yes. No more trogging about in tracksuit bottoms that are all bally and knackered and shite.  I’m tired of rocking up at the school gates looking more dishevelled than a war reporter returning from Gaza.

I’m also going to start accepting compliments. We don’t tend to be good at that, here in Ireland. ‘You’re looking well,’ someone will say to me. My response is to look behind me, wondering who they’re talking to.  ‘This dress?’ I’ll say. ‘I bought it for £3 in Cancer Focus 9 years ago. It’s all cat hairs. And see? There’s a coffee stain from earlier as I tried to slice strawberries, wash lunch boxes and feed the cat while I had my breakfast.’

No more of that caper. Yesterday I off-loaded my children at my neighbour’s so I could do some work in peace. I had dispensed with my usual grotty attire and it didn’t go unnoticed. ‘You’re looking very stylish’. said Stephen.  I agreed heartily with him.  I did look better than usual.  I’d donned earrings, (rose gold with wee diamante bits);  a t-shirt  from local designer Starling Bridge, and a leather skirt from the swap shop last week. I’d applied some of my ‘leg shimmer’ from Tropic so I could go ‘bare legged’ with ankle boots. I’ve no idea whether or not this look is ‘in vogue’ as such things never really occur to me. But yes, I did feel well-turned out.

It’s only been recently, you see, that I’ve started feeling reasonably contented with my refection in the mirror. For years I hated the way I looked. Everyone else seemed more put-together, more svelte and shiny (God, How I hate the shininess of some people) , or had an elusive je ne sais quoi that I lacked. I think these seeds were sown when I was very young and on the receiving end of some mean schoolyard ‘slegging.’ Wee fellas, I found, could be especially cruel. One such lad, when I was perhaps 10 or 11, screamed in my face that I was the UGLIEST person he’d ever seen.  Another one, a few days later, called me ‘a God-damn disgrace to the Human Race.’ I think he liked the way the words sounded: the little iambs bashing along together.  I’m sure plenty of children get insulted on a regular basis and manage to shrug it off, choosing NOT to carry the negative vibes round with them til they’re mid-thirties, but I appeared to lack the emotional resilience.

Girls can, as you know, be spiteful too. At secondary school when I was 14 or so,  a first former (imagine! the cheek of the wee bastard!) accosted me in the corridor to tell me I looked like a ‘Riddler’. Have you ever seen the ‘The Riddlers’? (I actually DO look like slightly like a Riddler, with the big wide mouth and the prominent cheekbones, but that’s hardly the point).   I couldn’t get over it.  Later that year, when I saw her in Etams down the town, I stuck my foot out and she went flying down the aisle, headfirst into the crop tops. I pretended it was an accident. ‘Did you trip that wee girl up?’ whispered the Mothership, who knew not to put that sort of thing past me.  ‘She was the one who called me a Riddler,’ I hissed, as we hurried out on to Main Street. ‘Just right then,’ said the Mothership.

That was all just childish unpleasantness. Then I met my first ‘long-term’ boyfriend. He should never have been ‘long-term’ but for reasons I’ll explain later I let him hang around longer than I ought. Having just started university,  I was trying on different versions of myself and seeing how they fitted. He was 24 to my 18; and had aspirations that we could get married and buy a nice three-bed semi in Bangor. I could get a sensible job when I finished my studies and be home by 5 to cook him dinner.  I felt a bit suffocated by these notions, and tried to leg it, which was when the subtle manipulation came in. I had been quite a good and God-fearing sort of teenager, so he tapped into this first. ‘God really wants us to stay together,’ he said. He tried to find Biblical quotations to illustrate his point. He failed. He didn’t like me going out with any other friends, or out dancing, or doing the normal things students did. I did them anyway. This was where the nastiness started. After I got my hair cut into an unfortunate bob; (it did make me look a bit like a hamster as my cheeks were a lot plumper back then), he told me I was so unattractive, that he didn’t think he could be seen out with me until it grew a bit. Given how awful I looked, and my myriad other faults, he insisted I was best just settling into suburban life with him. Who else would have me, after all?

After a year and a half of his nonsense, I got rid, but not without a quare dent in my confidence. I had the misfortune of bumping into him at the airport a couple of years ago as we headed off to Malaga on holiday. There he was, smug and balding, waving away with gusto, oblivious to what an absolute tool he’d been. I gave him the sourest of stares and he dropped his gaze sharpish. Even his wife visibly wilted. ‘Oh God, not again,’ said LSB. A few years ago, I’d met another ex at the airport, on EXACTLY the same flight to Prague, for maximum mortification. It’s dreadful, meeting exes at airports. There they are at the departure gate; there they are again at the baggage carousel; and then the f**kers appear at the taxi rank. There’s the distinct possibility you’ll also catch them again at Duty Free on the way home.

That was a longwinded way people, of saying that it’s taken a while, but I’ve finally started to like myself. I’ve stopped cringing at photos and feeling grossed out by my own appearance. It’s the change in perception that has made such a difference. Even looking back at old photos, I don’t feel the same pang as I used to. Yes, I may have been a different shape back then, and had some, if I’m honest, brutal haircuts. But my eyes were bright and my smile was wide and tragically my skin was much dewier than it will ever be now. I’ve cut myself some slack too. I made stupid mistakes when I was younger. I didn’t listen to some good advice, and I stayed in some relationships longer than I ought. But had all this not happened, like this, I may not have met LSB and had the two lovely wee ones. Incidentally, the Small Child looks just like me. And I think she’s absolutely gorgeous.

 

 

 

 

SWB feels buoyant

I just deleted a text I’d intended for LSB, catching myself on before I hit ‘SEND’. I was re-reading it to ensure there weren’t too many typos (sometimes he worries from my garbled missives that I’m mid-stroke, and rings to check if he needs to call 999). The message read: ‘Those towels u hung out are almost dry! No need to tumble! What a productive morning!’

Thus before he received it and thought: ‘What has happened to my wife, and by direct association, my present existence,’ I got rid of it. But the JOY, people, the JOY I felt when I went out to the line and felt the crispness of towels dried in the breeze as Nature Herself intended. There has been such greyness, such a prevailing dampness of late, that the recent rays of sun have been a benison, worth remarking upon. Yes, drying towels on a line as opposed to the tumbler CAN mean that they take the first layer of skin off should you rub too vigorously, but sure we all need to exfoliate, and rarely do we take the time. Dear Lord, I’m really warming to this theme, aren’t I?

By my standards, it’s not even the most mundane of messages I tend to send. Regularly, I give him ‘cat updates’; always a riveting read. ‘Izz loved her leftover chicken. Snoozing now.’ This will be accompanied by a picture of the cat, sleeping, for added intrigue.

I also keep him posted about my current ailments. ‘Left Achilles buggered after run. May apply ice.’

Often they are bowel related: ‘How r ur innards after that curry? Mine r in tatters.’

And they say romance dies 8 years into marriage. Not in this house. Hell no.

Thankfully I’m not alone. A friend sent a photo to the WhatsApp group on Saturday night with a picture of a Danielle Steele novel she’d found while dusting her book case. Yes, you read that right. Dusting. Her. Bookcase. Of a Saturday evening too. She has no idea where the novel came from, as it’s not her usual reading material, what with her being a Professor of Law and all. I too, had come over all Mrs Hinch and had cleared a few surfaces, and even taken out the Pledge. ‘Oh ho, we’re quare rock and roll this evening girls,’ I quipped wittily, to the group. ‘I’ve just put the bath mats on to wash,’ added another. ‘You win,’ I replied.

I was actually supposed to go out DANCING this weekend, until my friend told me that pre-dancing drinks would commence at 9-45. I baulked. 9.45? She may as well have said 2am. Alas all, it would seem that I am hopelessly past it, getting my kicks instead from slipping between laundered sheets, after a day of pottering round church fêtes, stroking baby goats and eating tray bakes made by Presbyterians.

But you know what? I’m ok. It was a quietly glorious weekend, with friends and sunshine and frolicksome children. It’s gently soothing NOT to be running the roads and make oneself fit for the public gaze of an evening. For now I’m content. I’m away to pop on Radio 4 and do a bit of ironing.