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.




SWB on post marathons and single use plastics

So folks, I tried. Down I went to clap and cheer on the Ormeau Road, and try as I might to ignore the mini mountains of plastic bottles strewn along the route, but I couldn’t.


I do love the marathon ever so much. My pal Alison was doing the full thing and is a bit of a pro now it must be said. She stopped though, to give her child a hug, and  the tears were tripping me. I’m utterly emotionally incontinent these days, and marathons evoke strong feelings. I was equally excited to see my friend Brenda, who decided to run her first marathon before turning 40. This is the sort of notion I would bandy about, when 3 glasses of Malbec in at a party. I would never, follow through upon it though. ‘People who’ve had broken backs shouldn’t even COUNTENANCE such a thing,’ says the Mothership. What she really means though, is that she doesn’t want to be minding my children while I lie, prone, on the sofa, for three weeks afterwards.


In the event, I didn’t see Brenda. I didn’t see Brenda because while she ran past, I was pestering a poor girl at a Cancer Focus stall to give me a black bin bag to facilitate mass bottle collection. Brenda saw my children, standing at the side of the road scavenging for bottles. By now, they had entered into the activity with vigour. ‘Where’s your mum?’ she called. ‘She’s recycling!’ replied the Small Child.*


We scooped up over 100 bottles. I scrounged more bags from the kind lady at the stall, then when the arse feel out of one, went into Graffiti where Stephanie gave me a more robust bin liner. LSB joined us after his leg of the relay and was promptly handed a heavy, leaking bag of bottles. ‘Thanks,’ he mumbled. He was slightly more enthusiastic than usual because River Rock are offering 10p for the Running Club with every label collected.


River Rock, as far as I’m concerned, can take their 10 pence and shove it up their grossly inflated arses. While they claim to be supporting local groups with their measly offering, they are doing disservice to the planet as a whole. They know it, we know it, David Attenborough knows it, and still they insist on providing single use plastics, in their thousands. Since they sponsor the event, they perpetuate this notion that runners NEED plastic bottles at 6 miles along the route. Most of the bottles we collected were at least three quarters full. I’m not taking anything away from the relay runners, but most of these guys aren’t doing more than 6.8 miles (6.8 in Leg A) and can surely manage to go for more than 5km without a drink. Churches were also out in force with refreshments, as were individuals and pop up gazebos from charity groups.


In London this year, while there was still some reliance on water bottles, they also handed out edible seaweed pouches of water along the route. These are an infinitely better option for the environment. Belfast, you need to catch up. Yes, River Rock are the sponsors,  but maybe they could take their profits and direct them in to developing eco-friendly options. We’d all be grateful.


Wd came home and operation ‘make a fish to make a point’ began. Water was decanted into 2-litre milk containers, which will has already been used to flush the toilets. We cut off the labels and now a big bag of bottles is waiting to go to the dump. The children have taken some to make ‘jet packs’. In the meantime, should anyone find a purpose for over 100 small bottles do get in touch.


*Before some jobsworth contacts social services, I was a mere few feet away, but rummaging in a box, hence momentarily obscured.

SWB feels sorry for herself

Sometimes the depth and range of my ineptitude and astounds me. Upon waking this morning, I made to turn over and reach for water to slake my thirst. This slight incline to the left and ‘rotating motion’ was clearly too strenuous for my aging form, and I experienced a sharp and nipping pain. My neck now aches and LSB has fed me an Ibruprofen the size of a Tim Peake’s space pod and I’ve a hot water bottle tucked down my dressing gown. I look like an asymmetric hunchback as I sit, grimacing, at my breakfast.

Imagine,  sustaining such an injury, in the very place to where one is supposed to recuperate, rest and restore. Maybe it is the bed’s revenge from overuse of late. Not, sadly, due to amorous exertions (does that actually happen  to couples nearing forty with 2 children and an attention seeking cat?) but since dabbling again with full time work, I tend to come home, and be drawn, sonambulant like, to the cosiness of the king-size. I retreat up the stairs and lie very very still, for AT LEAST half an hour, while the children ignore instructions to ‘sit quietly’ and wreck the house, plastering stones with acrylic paint and strewing stuff about. My father called recently, Mothership in tow, of course, and they actually GASPED when they peered through the window. I didn’t see this of course, because I was lying down, but the Mothership was fit to tell me when I emerged blearily sometime later.

‘Now Helen,’ she began, after pressing a cup of tea upon me, ‘we need to discuss this.’ I swear, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas could evoke less fear in a person, and that’s when he’s waving a handgun about, with half of Medellin’s finest up his nostrils.

Undeterred by my expression, which I think conveyed both pathetic-ness and mirth, she went on.

‘When you own a house, you must ‘Respect the space.’

What the heck has she been reading now, I wonder? ‘Respect the space?’ It’s not like my mother to watch morning television and quote some wanky mindfulness guru, but then again, she’s always had the ability to surprise.

‘You have to look after it. Look around you. Pre-empt disaster before it strikes.’ She led me outside, where my father was doggedly digging out leaves from the guttering. ‘You’re storing up trouble for yourself,’ he puffed, ‘if you let these accumulate.’

The children, in the meantime, still looked like Smurfs, with hands a lurid shade of blue. The windowsill in the living room and a section of the floor, boasted a similar hue. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the Mothership, ‘but I’ll not be starting into that. Yon pair don’t know what to be at. Why don’t you HIDE things? Leaving paint and GLUE about? Put them in the cupboard! High up! Or better still, IN THE BIN.’

That was last week. I haven’t got around to cleaning any of it. And now my shoulder is banjaxed. Today is of course marathon day, and LSB is doing the relay and our two friends on the street, without whom I would infinitely more sour, are running the full hog. They will, because they are brilliant, run the 26.2 miles, and shrug off any compliments or praise. They will finish, looking as though they’ve done nothing more arduous than a big shop at Sainsbury’s. And they will say, as they always do, ‘But how are YOU, Helen?’ and I, unable to help myself because I’m a master of the PLOMB (Poor Little Old Me Bullshit) will say, ‘I’ve tweaked my shoulder and it’s very sore,’ and they will look sad on my behalf and ask me about it all week and offer to be of any assistance.

And to think, that one of the reasons I say I will NEVER run a marathon (apart from being a lazy bastard) is because I ‘don’t want to injure myself.’ I should just have run the flipping thing then at least I could have lapped up any sympathy which came my way.

I’m going to get showered now and try to avoid further mishaps, before heading down the Ormeau with a load of Easter Egg bits in an old Celebrations tub to offer runners. I will take care to only clap with mild enthusiasm lest I bugger the neck further. And I shall try to avert my eyes from all the plastic bottles. Should you see me, please remember to look sympathetic.

SWB leaves her common sense at home

For a pessimist, I’m surprisingly optimistic, or perhaps just plain stupid, you can decide which after you read this. Before we set off for Valencia, a friend who is presently there, texts to tell us that the weather has been ‘a bit sketchy’ and to bring warm clothes, and even raincoats. We check the temperatures and they are due to improve when we arrive. Easter is late this year, it is almost May and so we are not going to need things like trousers, and socks and sensible foot wear, (or so I tell myself.) Valencia, we have read, is the ‘ciudad de correr’ and LSB is most excited at the prospect of racing along the repurposed riverbed that splits the town in two. ‘Bring your trainers,’ he tells me, ‘and have a wee skip up and down. You’ll need your head showered,’ he adds, nodding in the direction of the youngsters. I am adamant, that I will not need trainers. I am on holiday, and will thus be devoting myself entirely to relaxation. I have two pairs of sandals and three summer frocks. I intend to float about, eating ice creams and jamon Iberico, drinking red wine mixed with lemonade with bits of Valencian orange bobbing about in it.


We arrive and though the sky is blue there is a notable chill in the air. The friend who gave us the clothing advice waves to us from the steps where she is waiting to board her EasyJet plane home. She is wearing a fleece, as are many other passengers in the queue. I am wearing a sleeveless jumpsuit. I am fucking freezing. I am also, as further testimony to my stupidity, hungover. Last night, I got firmly into ‘holiday mode’ with our neighbours at a BBQ. Wine was taken, then instead of heading home at a sensible hour, more wine was taken and the dancing began. Such frivolity, such fun and merriment. Such a desire to vomit this morning, but instead, houses had to be cleaned and bags packed and arrangements made for cats who are not coming on holiday.


I am so tender of head and grumbly of gut, that I cannot even countenance the thought of a nerve-steadying gin on the journey. This is unfortunate, as it is a bumpy sort of a flight, so much so that we are urged to ‘buckle up’ for almost the duration of the flight and to avoid using the toilet. No one else looks particularly bothered as we hurtle towards Spain, but so terrified am I that my Tourette’s comes out in full force. The man in front, an impassive sort of a fellow, (though one look at his wife explains a certain numbness to life and its vicissitudes) looks round in disapproval as I yelp ‘FUCK’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’ I am as perturbed as him by my involuntary and blasphemous utterings, but I am most rattled. The man has already horsed 3 small bottles of red into him and has 2 more ordered so he can reserve his judgement.


By the time we arrive, and another elderly chap has almost clunked the Small Child on the skull with his valise, I am seething, nerves positively asunder. ‘Did you leave your manners in Belfast?’ I ask, through clenched teeth, pulling the Small Child close. ‘I’m not actually from Belfast,’ he replies in a thick Brogue, but seeing the manic look in my eyes he quickly looks away, which is awkward, as EasyJet gangways are not wide and by now LSB is ratty too.


Sandals, I learn, are not appropriate travel footwear. Exposed toes are no match for wheelie suitcases and other passengers’ feet in crowded airports. I feel the beginnings of a blister and I have even set foot in a Spanish plaza. We have barely ordered our first plate of patatas bravas before LSB has googled the nearest H&M. My lips start to form the words ‘fast fashion,’ which he pre-empts because the link he shows me is about their new ‘sustainable cotton’. In the end, I never buy sensible shoes, but hobble about in my sandals with freezing toes. I do, however, frequent several small boutiques and after quizzing them in Pigeon Spanish about the origins of their wares, purchase a few items. They are neither warm nor functional, but will spruce up my wardrobe. I do buy one pashmina but the Older Child keeps nabbing it to wrap her doll in.


Most other tourists wear jeans and are attired sensibly. Two girls walk past in hot pants revealing acres of goose bumped flesh. Their accents are unmistakeably Irish. I open my mouth to pass comment but shut it again. I may not be wearing buttock skimming denim shorts but I’m still in no position to judge.






SWB gets guidance from The Mothership

I can tell you what you don’t need, two hours before you’re playing ‘hostess’ at a soirée for the p2 mums, and that’s The Mothership on the telephone.

I’m hosting a night for my friend who sells Tropic products. I’m totally smitten by Tropic with all its green credentials and the fact that it makes me look visibly more youthful, which is no easy feat, I can tell you.

I’m stuck in a traffic jam at the Rosetta roundabout, having collected two fatigued children from dancing. I’ve stopped off with the crew at Harper’s Yard to pick up grown-up cupcakes and rocky road bars, when the phone goes. I answer in a weary tone, which is instantly detected.

MOTHERSHIP: I’m just ringing to see how preparations are going for your ‘do’. I’m assuming, from your tone, not well.

SWB (irked) :  I’m fine. Just nipping home to clear up a bit (in other words, gather armfuls of shite and hide behind the sofa or in a laundry bin or shove into one of the many ‘drawers of doom’.

MOTHERSHIP: Well, what I was really ringing for….

(Ah fuck, here we go, I think)

…is to check that you’ve cleaned the downstairs toilet. I would heave in a good capful of bleach: LEAVE for half an hour, NO LESS, then give a good scrub round with a brush. Don’t forget to  flush.

SWB (through gritted teeth): RIGHT.

MOTHERSHIP: You can tell a lot about a person from the state of their toilet. And I’m sorry to say, yours is often in a terrible state. I’d be ashamed, actually, if anyone were to come in, and see it. With regards to the sink, I saw on Monday that it was grimy around the plughole. I advise taking an old tooth brush and a spray of Dettol to that.

SWB: Is that it?

MOTHERSHIP, (AKA MRS HINCH): No, it is NOT all. What I want to know is this: what do you intending feeding these people?

SWB (sighing): Gin and tonic cupcakes, rocky roads, homemade guacamole, an assortment of crisps and a ‘mayonnaisey’ dip from Alison.

(I am very pleased, proud even, with the range of refreshments I have gathered. There are four bottles of Proscecco chilling in the fridge, plus an assortment of red and white wines and 2 non-alcoholic alternatives. I have even scrounged some wire off a child in school and intend to craft little ‘glass charms’ to fix to glasses so people don’t mix up their beverages.)

MOTHERSHIP: Excuse me? Crisps and a dip?

SWB: Two dips. And buns.

MOTHERSHIP (aghast): I’ve never heard the like. I thought a fork supper would be more in keeping. Some of these mummies might not have had time for their tea! They could end up on their ear, with all that drink.

SWB: It’s not until 8 pm, they’ll have had their dinner.

MOTHERSHIP: Would you not put the oven on for a few cocktail sausages? Hard to beat a sausage, I think. Denny are probably your best bet.

SWB: I’ve made a lot of dip.

MOTHERSHIP: Come to think on it, I have some vol-au-vents in the freezer. I could take a run up and they’d almost be defrosted.

SWB (in a state of mild panic, envisioning the Mothership arriving and causing all manner of chaos in the kitchen): NO. Absolutely no need.

MOTHERSHIP (ignoring me  and sounding increasingly animated at the prospect at the prospect of a jaunt): I have a lot of mushrooms I could make into a sauce with a tin of Campbell’s Chicken Soup, and you could have mushroom patties. Do you like my mushroom patties? They go down a treat up at the church.

SWB: I think we’ve enough, honestly. Now I’m nearly home here…

MOTHERSHIP: You sound very crabbed. I’m only trying to prevent another incident like last Easter.

(Oh God. So last Easter, I over-exerted myself. I had all the family for Easter Sunday, then a party on the Monday, with about 12 people and consumed a significant amount of Rioja, and then, on the Tuesday, I had my aunt and her daughter and HER daughter. I was ill-prepared and hungover, if I’m being truthful. Normally, my children don’t eat much, but on that occasion, they ate all round them. There was very little food to go around in the end, and the disappointment was evident).

MOTHERSHIP: ONE pizza. ONE pizza, between how many of you? And then there was supposed to be a soup, which never actually materialised. And left over cheesecake. One slice. When I THINK about it, I’m embarrassed all over again.

SWB: I digest this with a stony, mortified silence. Tragically, she has more or less summed up the situation accurately, except there were a few crisps and some sandwiches; chicken, if I remember correctly.

MOTHERSHIP:Well, before you go, take a duster to those window sills. And put out napkins. I hate it when I go out, and there’s not a napkin; it shows a distinct lack of foresight.

SWB (frostily): Will do.


Despite my mother’s reservations, doubts, even, the night is a success. One by one, mums arrive, bearing bags of wine, crisps and chocolate for children. The Older Child is very taken with the Tropic party, and writes little notes beside products. : ‘Go on, buy me!’ ‘Take me home, I smell fruity!’

The Small Child is ‘serving’ which means I hover around her with a look of desperation to make sure nothing’s smashed. She’s actually very careful. I, on the other hand, have been clumsy of late (I think the period is due) and with that in mind, have borrowed several large plastic glasses. They are much easier to wash and dry, as I can be heavy handed and many’s a wine glass has met its end because of my vigorous washing up style.

People in Belfast, I find, are a most magnanimous bunch. Even friends who can’t make the soirée, lend chairs and plate stands and send up foodstuffs. With at least 6 unopened bottles of wine, I try to press them upon my visitors as they leave. They look almost offended at the prospect. I enjoy a mini-facial from Pauline, our delightful Tropic rep, and as I sit, glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, savouring the hints of vanilla and lime from the cleanser, I think, really, there are worth ways to spend an evening all right. At 12-30 though, my stomach starts to grumble. ‘Feck, I think, ‘a wee mushroom pattie would have gone down quite nicely after all.’

(Rocky Road with dark chocolate, almonds, cranberries and pistachio. Below, gin and tonic cupcakes. Harper’s Yard on top of their game, as always)






SWB takes on the dinosaurs

Is anyone else’s head f**king turned? I mean, where the BLEEP are the holidays? Why is Easter so FECKING late and why does no one just reschedule the holidays and let us all have a break because I’m not coping; the kids aren’t coping, and poor auld LSB’s just had the head chewed off him for looking at his phone when I was trying to talk to him.

I’m fed up people; WELL fed up. I feel like I live under a tyranny of relentless washing, ironing, cooking, and the bane of my F**KING life; getting children and all their paraphen-f**king-alia ready for school.

‘Where are my shoes?,’ (always the shoes.)

‘Why have I no clean vests?’

‘Because all your bastard bears are wearing them, THAT’S WHY.’

‘My show and tell is tomorrow!’ Of course it is. I’ve had the sheet for weeks but only now, at 5-45 the night before have I found it within myself to address the issue. 6- 30 and a yawning child is trying to pen: ‘I’m a Diplocous, my long tail keeps me stable!’ It still looks shite. The printer has spat out a stegosaurus with half a head. We set the bar too high with the previous Show and Tell and have thus created an unrealistic standard to try and maintain. I put the child and her annoying sister to bed at half seven.

‘It will wait til the morning,’ I tell them through gritted teeth. I’m lying of course- it will never wait til the morning. A sodden LSB arrives in from training, drenched and pitiful. Happily, he stopped at The Vineyard. Just as well. I open a Malbec and he starts googling dinosaurs.

‘What would the Small Child be if she were a dinosaur,’ he opines.

‘Which one was the biggest melter?’ I retort, savouring the first mouthful.

‘Here’s one looks like Jacob Rees Mogg,’ he says, and he’s right; it’s wearing a Top Hat and glasses, like some sort of anti-EU arch villain from the Cretaceous Period. If only an asteroid with drone like precision could take him and all those other twats at the ERG out and we’d all, (well all 56% of us who voted remain in NI) be happy.

Anyway. We do some snipping and attaching pictures of dinosaurs to a pin board.

‘I’m a Tyranosaurus Rex! My closest relation on Earth today is a chicken!’

‘Hello! I’m a stegosaurus! My brain’s the size of a walnut, but even I voted to remain!’

I slug more wine. There is still a meal to cook and lunchboxes to wash. I fecking hate lunches. The Older Child will, at least take a cheese sandwich, but ONLY on white bread, preferably from M&S. ‘I NEVER want to eat Kingsmill 50/50 again,’ she declared on Wednesday. The Small Child eats ‘butteries.’ These are two circles of bread, perfectly formed as I take a cookie cutter to a slice of pan loaf and make nice shapes so she doesn’t succumb to starvation. She won’t countenance any class of a filling, so butter it is.

‘You know how we have a donkey cutter?’ she asked on Monday. (We do, I bought it at the Donkey Sanctuary.)

‘Can you make my butteries in a Tyranosaurus Rex shape today?’

‘No I flipping can’t,’ I snarled.

This week, for their ‘healthy snack’ they had ‘vine fruits, two ways,’ otherwise known as a tub of grapes and a smaller one of raisins.

I can’t make the lunches the night before because even though the containers claim to be 100% BPA-free I don’t trust that they are, and so leave this task of slicing and buttering and cutting grapes in half lest a child choke until the morning. See? I can be quite a diligent mummy.

It’s just hard, keeping on top of it all. The air has been a striking, vibrant shade of blue. At pick-up a while ago a mum remarked that her daughter had been told off for swearing. ‘She certainly didn’t hear it at home,’ said the perplexed Mum.

‘Mine TOTALLY hear it at home,’ I said, not to make her feel better, just because it’s the truth. They hear it all, my children, and I hope to God they have the wit just to accept it when I tell them that mummy is just stressed to f**k and they’re not to go repeating it.

If the Mothership reads this I’m so dead. I give it an hour, and the phone will ring, and they’ll be an aggrieved pensioner on the phone.

I’m off- there’s a few facts about a Triceratops I still have to look up.

SWB chats about her innards

It’s been a while, but last night I made it back to a Tenx9 in the Black Box. We heard tales of poltergeists, dour Scots, Irishmen genuflecting to the Queen Mother and Indian cremations. It’s like the theatre of the absurd, and wonderful in every way. Here’s my story, should you like to read it, about my bowel issues, (a theme which my regular readers will be well used.)

Tenx9, Theme- Welcome

‘Please God, let them have at least two toilets,’ was the prayer I fervently said, over and over, as I took the bus with classmates, on my first ever visit to the Free State. My school, Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor, had long been running exchanges with Loreto College in Dublin. During the spring term we would welcome visiting girls to our school, their long maroon skirts reaching their ankles. They made our royal blue jumpers and navy skirts look stylish, rakish even, and for that we were grateful. ‘Awk, would you not come?’ asked one of my pals, when initially I said no.

As a teen, I was most self-conscious. Prone to spots, I feared anyone seeing me before I’d applied my tinted moisturiser. I was also inclined towards constipation, and as a result, very attached to my own toilet. One of the few perks of living in our large but ramshackle house, was that the toilet was at the end of a long corridor. One could disappear for quite some time, without being hurried about their business.

But then Mrs White, our history teacher, asked to see me. Quite sniffy she was too. ‘I don’t understand why a keen young historian like yourself wouldn’twant to visit Dublin,’ she said. I couldn’t very well explain my badly behaved bowels to her, so reluctantly I agreed.

Being an Ulster Protestant, most of my holidays had been spent on a farm where my aunts and uncles lived, near Garvagh. Hence, when the bus trundled into Dublin, the green post boxes struck me as quite different altogether. At Loreto Convent, you couldn’t look right or left without encountering a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary. There were even a few nuns gliding around in their robes. We stood, huddled in our crowd, like cobalt coloured cattle, to be paired off with the Dublin girls. My partner, when I met her, seemed a nice, if  reserved sort. I was however, more worried about her bathroom situation, than her character.

I hadn’t had a relaxed bowel movement in years. In hindsight, I didn’t do much to help myself. In those days, you didn’t run round clutching of bottle of Evian, (other water providers are, of course available) lest you dehydrate in minutes.  I sated my thirst on a slurp of tea at breakfast, a carton of Um Bongo at lunch, and little else. I was uptight and prone to angst. At school, I fretted continually over exams, and in my spare time, by way of recreation, I hung out at the Pentecostal Church. This was another source of anxiety as I was brainwashed into believing that anyone, who wasn’t a happy-clappy born again, or who didn’t namedrop God or Jesus into every conversation, needed saving, and I had to do my bit.

At the time of my Loreto trip, the Elimists were having a mission, called JIM, or Jesus in Me. They had a bus, which didn’t go anywhere, but parked up on Main Street Bangor, and enthusiastic teens harangued passers-by to climb aboard, drink Mellow Birdsfrom polystyrene cups and embrace the Word of God. The testimonies of some visiting speakers featured in a magazine, which one Saturday morning, a few of us were conscripted into delivering. A former Mafia hit man, who’d turned to God, was expected to bring in a big crowd.  How he’d managed to avoid being gunned down, given the Mafia law of ‘blood in, blood out,’ was a miracle in itself. We were also welcoming a German popstar, who since seeing the light, had been cured of his gayness, got married and sired a child.

So off I went to Dublin with my ‘Jesus in Me’ badge firmly pinned to my blazer. Jesus was DEFINITELY listening to my prayers because when my new friend and I hopped on the Dart for Howth, she told me I was to have HER bedroom, all to myself, complete with an en suite. We’d had a busy day; and by the time we reached her house, I thought, just maybe, I could squeeze out a movement. However, my host mother intercepted me and insisted I drink some tea.  Then she asked about my badge. I spoke, for quite some time, about Jesus and our mission and His speedy response to prayer. I’m sure I saw a flicker of relief in her eyes as she showed me to my bedroom.  ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph,’ she said, (at which my eyes nearly fell out of my head: they really DID need me in Dublin,) ‘I forgot to say: they’re STILL fixing the FECKING water pipes on the street. ‘No showers in the morning! A quick wash will have to do you!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured her, I’m very eco-conscious,’ ‘and whatever you do,’ she went on, ‘DON’T FLUSH THE TOILET.’

I literally felt the motion that had been brewing, shoot back up inside my large intestine. What? Not only defecate in someone else’s house but LEAVE it there? It was all I could do to manage a modest pee. The mere thought of it clogged me up even further.

You would have thought, that a year later, when I decided to do French for A level, that I’d have bypassed a trip. But no. I was a slow learner. Off I went, this time to Rennes, a trip that took two flights, the latter of which was so tiny it was like ‘Fisher Price My First Plane’. Miraculously, I quelled the urge to convert anyone on board  as we shuddered and juddered our way to France. My bowels remained steadfast throughout. It turns out, GCSE French teaches you eff all, other than how to say your name and what your parents did for a living. It was EXTREMELY stressful staying with a family with virtually no English. They were, however, exceptionally kind, and keen on sharing their love of La Cuisine Française. I hoovered up the baguettes and pasta and cheese with tremendous gusto. With my mouth thus engaged, I didn’t have to mumble incomprehensible French, just nod ‘mmmm, ‘c’est très bon’, like the village simpleton. It was a win-win situation. Except, of course, for the inevitable. I got very blocked up. Before this impasse, I had been smiley, if perhaps, a tad gormless, but a change in my demeanour occurred, as my stomach became bloated and my smile forced.

‘Mais qu’est elle a?’ my French Maman asked her daughter, in whom I’d managed to confide. Upon learning the nature of my ailment, Maman saw this as the greatest challenge to the French since The Occupation. Off to the supermarché she went,  and came home laden with prunes. ‘Il faut les manger!’ she said, pressing them into my hands. Every time I ventured near the bathroom she would look up, expectantly, only to retreat, deflated, when I shook my head.

When family friends came to visit, Maman introduced me thus: ‘Voici Helen; elle est très, très constipée’. They discussed my condition at length, in grave, sombre tones. I rang my mum. ‘A coffee and a cigarette used to do the trick for your Aunt Nelly,’ she advised. As usual, The Mothership had a point. After 5 long days, I forced out a poo. I had worried that at that stage, I might actually block the toilet, but what I produced was rather feeble. Still, Maman’s reaction made up for it, and I suspect the arrival of a first grandchild would have been greeted with similar enthusiasm.

Happily, my issues were sorted for good after a good bout of dysentery in Madagascar 4 years later.  On the odd occasion, I’ve been known to LONG for a dose of constipation. Now, it’s my turn to be a host mummy, and a steady stream of students and au pairs have passed through our doors. I offer them plenty of water and give them exclusive access to the downstairs bathroom. I still think back with fondness to my host families, who welcomed this highly strung teenager, whose head was as knotty and strangulated as her innards, and offered her kindness, or as in the case of my French Maman, an espresso and a Marlboro Light.