SWB on dining out with children

(The restaurant story, as promised. This was Thursday night in the Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Dalkey.)

Having been unexpectedly relieved of parenting duties for a full twenty minutes in the pool, I’m in fine fettle, and looking forward to a second glass of wine. Back in the room, LSB has donned a nice shirt, and is helpfulness personified, drying the girls’ hair and finding missing shoes. Perhaps I should encourage him to drink two pints at tea-time every night: bath time would definitely be a more relaxed affair.

Given that it’s now 7-15, we decide to dine in the hotel, to ward off any chance of ‘hangryness’ in the children. We learnt the hard way on holiday, that it was ill-advised to go traipsing the streets in search of dinner with starved youngsters.

So down the stairs we trot to ‘The Dungeon Bar and Grill’, which is as cavernous as it sounds with flickering candles and a black concrete floor. Feeling all romantic and remembering  our honeymoon, I squeeze LSB’s hand. ‘It feels like we’re back in Eastern Europe,’ I tell him. He smiles.

‘I’m tired,’ whinges a child. His smile fades.  The restaurant is busy, but the manager ushers us to a cosy table for four, looking out onto a lawn, softy illuminated with Narnia-esque lamp posts.

I sink into a velvety chair, with the sounds of exhalation common in people over thirty-five. A waiter is straight over and we order quickly. ‘I’ll be right back with that wine’ he lies. He returns with water, and nothing else, for a long, long time. It is almost half  8 and the children stare at their tablets with glazed expressions. There is still no wine.

Beside us, a couple have a fraught discussion over burgers. ‘I ordered the blue cheese and bacon,’ says the fellow plaintively.

‘I didn’t want bacon, I ordered  salad with no gherkins,’ says his date.

‘Feck, it’s like When Harry met Sally, but without the charm,’ I remark, (though quietly, as I don’t want a fork in the eye.) The muscle in the man’s cheek is flickering like it’s about to go into spasm. ‘Just leave it,’ he tells the frazzled waitress, and his date opens up her bap and starts flinging off bits of gherkin on to a side plate. I love gherkins and am tempted to request a slice as an amuse-bouche, but I sense such requests would be met wit ill-humour.

Our food is still notably absent and no one comes near us lest they catch the eye of the furious pair beside us. Finally, it arrives. The girls are now beyond hunger. They keep knocking over the condiments and glasses which they are using to prop up their tablets. Their headphone leads are trailing through their chips. There are globs of red sauce on the lovely linen tablecloth. I take a massive gulp of wine as the older child drops a nugget and starts pawing under the table for it. As I open my mouth to remonstrate with her I choke, spraying LSB’s steak with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The couple beside us look on with agonised expressions.

LSB dries his steak with a napkin and munches the last few bites. ‘At least I’d eaten my chips,’ he says. ‘Nothing worse than a soggy chip.’  Now that he’s drained his glass of wine, his mood is ebullient, despite the fiasco of dinner . ‘Please take those children away and let me finish this in peace,’ I plead.

Off they go and I try to relax. The narky couple leave, taking their guerny faces with them. In the absence of other reading material I take out my phone and check Twitter. I rarely Tweet anything of substance, since I seem to attract argumentative sorts. Instead, I Tweet things like, ‘Had a scone today in Kaffe-O,’ which though dull as f**k, at least supports a local business. A waitress tentatively approaches and I tell her that everything was lovely, aside from the wait.

‘I’ve just the place for you, to have a quiet moment,’ she says.

‘I’m fine, here,’ I protest.

Not to be dissuaded, she lifts my wine. ‘Come, follow me.’

It is indeed a delightfully candlelit nook, cosy and secluded. However, there is a small child already ensconced, with a colouring book and pencils. His parents insist they will oust him but he looks so contented that I am loathe to disturb him. A quiet child in a restaurant is a rare thing, especially of an evening.

I find another table and start reading an article on ‘Should You Embrace the Joy of No’ on the Guardian website when I hear an argument at the table opposite. This time another disgruntled pair are having it out with the bar manager who is wearily telling them: ‘I’m trying to be reasonable, I assure you, your meal is on the house.’

The woman actually has her head in her hands.

‘F*@K me,’ I think. ‘Your steak was tough, you aren’t in the Calais jungle.’ I don’t think that the Brexit negotiations could be any more tense.

The gentleman wants to ‘take things further’ and the manager is telling him ‘that’s his prerogative.’  They bat the word prerogative back and forth a while, and I concede that any chance of a carefree night of frivolity has long since past and take my leave.

I hear the children before I even open the door. In a moment of exuberance, the Older Child has attempted a cartwheel and caught the Small Child on the nose with her heel. There is no blood, but a good deal of squawking, and tears, from both the victim and the afflicter. ‘Bad things happen to me on holidays,’ sobs the Small Child. ‘You and me both,’ I sigh.

‘I’m not repeating the specials again until everyone puts down their phones.’

SWB takes a half-term break with the family

It’s half-term and we’ve decided to book three nights in a hotel, instead of the usual two, so we can ‘properly relax’, (LSB’s words). There is a flaw in the plan though, as after booking the accommodation, we discover that they don’t have a kid’s club. Suddenly the relaxing bit seems ambitious. The bar better serve VERY good wine, I tell LSB, who looks slightly crestfallen when he sees the depth of my despondency.  ‘Just have very, very low expectations,’ says my friend when I complain to her later. ‘That’s how I approach holidays.’

When we arrive at the Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Dalkey, however, I’m rather taken with it. There’s a sort of dilapidated chic about the whole affair. ‘New elevator coming soon!’ reads the sign, as we take the stairs.  The carpet is threadbare, and we have a veritable hike to our room, along three long corridors. This ALWAYS happens to us, like the way the departure lounge for Belfast flights used to be at the furthest outpost of the airport, in case the IRA blew it up. LSB calls it a ‘Bring a packed lunch’ trek. ‘How was your room?’ I’d ask after each business trip. ‘BPL’ he’d always say. This hotel has a faded grandeur about it, and it’s full  of grannies having afternoon tea, buttering scones and talking in hushed tones. There’s a whole table of pensioners playing poker and a bespectacled looking girl knitting a jumper. I think we’ll fit in here ok.

The kids swim time doesn’t start for another 30 mins so we sojourn to the Library Bar for what a ‘pre-swim fortification beverage’.

‘Just giving you a heads up,’ says the barman, as he pours a Guinness for LSB and a Chilean red for me, ‘there’s a strictly no children policy in here from 6.’

‘Very wise,’ I tell him. And don’t fret, we’re very quick drinkers; parenthood does that to you.’

‘I hear you,’ he says, mournfully.

The swim though, is more bearable than anticipated, because in the bar, I spy another couple, knocking back beers, while their children play on their devices. I sense kindred spirits. (Initially, I was agin the concept of tablets, naively thinking that kids glued to their screens, and not participating in conversation was a dreadful thing.  I’m 100% over that now, if it means an end to the relentless pestering that happens in the absence of screen entertainment.)

LSB says that the drive has tired him out and orders another Guinness, and I introduce myself to the family and we head to the pool together.  It’s all very jolly, as their daughters are in their teens, and are very tolerant of my pair, making sure they don’t drown while I chat to their mum, Louise. It’s a skill of mine, farming out my kids. I make vague apologetic noises about inflicting ourselves upon them. ‘No bother at all,’ says Louise, who turns out to be all the craic. ‘Sure I’ll keep an eye here and you head to the hot tub,’ says her husband. I’ve already warmed to this crowd a great deal.  Like me, Louise gave up work for a while, and while I fanny about still ‘discovering what I want to do’, she’s a full-time carer for a paraplegic. ‘I could have been a paraplegic,’ I tell her, ‘But luckily I broke my C7. Another centimetre up and that would have been me, needing my catheter changed.’

‘That would have been shite alright,’ she says, ‘but it’s surprising how much you can do with a broken back.’ Barry’s always asking me to fetch him things and I’m like, ‘Enough of your ordering me around, do it yourself!’

I look bewildered. ‘Seriously? Disabled from the shoulders down? What do you want him to be doing?’

‘There’s apps for everything these days,’ she explains. ‘He drives his own car and gets around rightly. You should have seen the clip of him though when I first took over.  Used to be sitting there, in these crappy auld tracksuit bottoms. I said to him, “I know you’re in a wheelchair and all, but are you trying to look disabled?”‘

‘How did that go down?’ I inquire.

‘Ach he has a sense of humour. Some days, anyway. We went to Next and got him jeans, and a proper haircut at the Turkish Barbers. Know what he’s up to now? Sending me links to clothes he thinks I should wearing! Told me the other day, that I looked ‘frumpish.’ ‘Frumpish?’ I said to him. ‘Least I knew better that to dive into the shallow end.’ They nearly threw us out of the café we were laughing that much.’

She’s taking him abseiling next month. I don’t doubt it. He’ll be parachuting next.

Unfortunately, the Small Child decided she’d had enough of the swimming and was shivering like a  drenched whippet at the side of the pool. Reluctantly I clambered out of the hot tub. ‘I could chat to you all evening,’ I told her, ‘You’re a hoot.’ ‘No bother,’  she smiles. I wish we could be friends.

(Tune in tomorrow or the next day, when I’ll have found the strength to write about our dining experiences down in Dalkey.)

SWB ruminates on St. Valentine’s Day

The Small Child is raging. The features on her five year old face are scrunched into a frown, her forehead all furrowed and her eyes threatening tears. Very upset indeed she is. And the reason? Big sister came home with a tiny teddy bear, boasting hearts on the upsides of his paws. There’s a boy in her class, (we’ll refer to him as Bert, to preserve his anonymity.)  Cracker wee chap he is too- full of exuberance and fun. He’s had his eye on herself from P1, and what with her being a sensible sort of a child, and him being inclined towards causing mischief, I think she’s often paired up with him to keep his behaviour in check.


I’m surmising, because I found myself in a similar position in P2. There was a boy in my class, (we’ll call him Neville: though in fact his parents were Plymouth Brethren, so he could well have been called Neville.) He was was gorgeous, all shiny blond hair and sparkly eyes, but a bit of a ruffian, and  loved a good rake about. Once an educational psychologist came in to observe his antics. ‘That little girl Helen is very good with him,’ she opined. Neville annoyed me once, and I remember the eagle-eyed teacher, calling my name sharply as she saw my thumb and fore-finger poised to give him a good nip. He escaped, that time.


I digress. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get a bear,’ I tell the Small Child. ‘But really, you’re very little for all this business. Much better to think of Valentine’s as a day to have fun with your family, and give us lots of hugs.’ ‘I just want a bear,’ she sniffed.


I tell her that sometimes she will have a boyfriend and her sister won’t; and vice versa.  That sometimes she will feel jealous and sad, because life can be unfair. I tell her that before I met her daddy I had some boyfriends who never got me a card or a present, or treated me very nicely at all. I tell her I didn’t keep them around for long. We eat some Marks and Spencer chocolate hearts and read ‘The Children of Cherrytree Farm.’ I register the paucity of adjectives in Enid Blyton’s prose, but rather enjoy reading about red squirrels and moles. The older child cuddles in; the teddy bear who caused all the strife abandoned on the sofa while we three huddle under the duvet on the big bed.


Later, I jog down to the town centre, where I’m learning to ‘work the desk’  at Belfast 89 : it’s harder than you think, this radio lark, especially for one with an aversion a technology.  I don’t know how many times I left the mic on, so all manner of shit could have been bandied about over the airwaves, with me blithely unaware. Anyway, as I run, I pass several chaps carrying bunches of flowers. A few have been over generous with the aftershave and it lingers in my nostrils for several yards after I pass them. It makes me smile. It reminds me of last year when we took a trip to Malahide. Sitting on the Luas was a girl with a teddy bear the size of a chimpanzee. ‘Jaysus,’ sighed an elderly woman, who was actually wearing a headscarf. ‘He’d have been better off giving you the money.’ Given the expression on the girl’s face, I think she agreed.


The thought of jogging home again makes my heart feel sore, so LSB leaps in the motor and comes to get me.  Later he nips down to get petrol and I take out the bins. I lament that the children’s dinner is in the green compost caddy and that LSB has fed them a bagel instead. He cooks two steaks and we open a bottle of Beaujolais and I understand for the first time why the French tend to export most of their yield because it tastes like Shloer. I light a candle.


With f@*k all on the TV,  we watch the episode of Friends where Ross sleeps with the Xerox girl because they’re ON A BREAK. The cat purrs beside us. It’s been a strange old Valentine’s Day.  ‘I’m glad I have you,’ I tell him as we clink glasses. ‘Aye, you’re all right too,’ he replies, giving me a kiss.

*Welcome to all my new readers! Thanks for finding the blog and I hope you enjoy my musings. LSB, by the way, is the acronym for my husband, and stands for Long Suffering Bastard.

SWB gets herself a Personal Trainer

Recently LSB has started attending a gym near his work. He’s found himself a PT called Tom, and he’s all delighted with him: it’s all ‘Tom says’ and ‘Tom this’ and ‘Tom that.’ I’ve had to take his shirts to Oxfam and buy him more, as buttons have started pinging off all over the joint since his shoulders have filled out. He’ll deny this, but I’ve caught him having a sneaky look at his new pecs in the mirror. Thrilled with his new physique, he is. I had a session myself with a PT a while ago now, at the Ramada. A sanctimonious twerp he was too: I couldn’t be having him. He lacked all humour and made disparaging comments about yoga. ‘I’ll not be working out with you again you, you prick,’ I thought.


However, of late I’ve not felt at my best. I’ve no waist to speak of, my arms are droopy and I lack upper body strength. I’ve joined the PEC but hardly ever go because I lack the confidence to use the free weights room and I rarely make it to classes. ‘You need a PT,’ says himself, ‘just to get you started.’ I’ve tried going to the gym with him (I mean what’s the use of being shacked up to a running coach if they can’t at least train their wives,) but he has me doing all manner of daft exercises. I end up giving him savage looks which are not conducive to marital harmony. Luckily, my pal Marie-Louise comes to the rescue. ‘Mary-Jo lives up the road from you,’ she says. ‘She’s my mate and she’s brilliant. Off you go.’


Turns out, Marie-Louise is right. I don’t just want to go BACK to Mary-Jo, I want to adopt her. Everyone needs this pint-sized dynamo in their lives: the National Health should make  her available on prescription. When I arrived on Wednesday, a frazzled mess, she had a cup of camomile tea waiting for me and took time to chat before heading out to her studio. She took my blood-pressure first, to check I wasn’t suffering from hyper tension and didn’t have a stroke mid-session. ‘Not great for business that,’ she said. ‘Indeed,’ I agreed.


Her studio is compact and bijou: all white with pops of bright colour provided by her equipment. I can see that attention to detail is everything with Mary-Jo. There is a tall bottle of chilled water for my refreshment, and even my glass is beautiful, with a dragonfly imprint. In between exercises I keep shrieking ‘I love that tune!’ and she admits to using Spotify to tailor song choices to her clients’ age. There’s a good vibe in the studio- already I know I want to come back.

She designs a circuit of exercises which work on my legs, arms and core. The benefits of having her beside me as I work through them are manifold. She gently reminds me to engage my core, regulate my breathing and ensure my stance is correct. Having been involved in an accident in my twenties, I am always paranoid about lifting weights, lest I aggravate old injuries.  Mary-Jo is sympathetic to my neuroses, (which are many) and knowing that she is looking on, to see I’m not doing any damage to myself, reassures me. I know that weight training improves speed and builds strength for running, but I lack the motivation to it. Having her there to keep count of reps and encourage me keeps me going.


I can imagine though, that after a few sessions, I would quickly gain confidence. Mary-Jo may be sweet faced and softly spoken, but if your aim is to lose weight and change your shape, she’ll channel her inner terrier to get you there. I do the circuit once, and since I’d run 10k earlier, I decline the next two rounds. Her sessions usually involve three circuits with the smallest of breaks inbetween. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. ‘Course you are; you’re strong!’ says Mary-Jo. For one so mild, she doesn’t even look shocked by the stream of invective I release during a particularly brutal core exercise.


It is also, despite the work out, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. She tells me that some of her clients are so chatty she sets a timer as a means of discipline or they wouldn’t manage to complete their workout. ‘People pay me to get results,’ she says, ‘so they have to get value for money.’ By going to Mary-Jo you get more than value- you get a bit of TLC too. In the warmer weather she will even take her clients outside and serves up tea and dark chocolate as a post work-out treat. I mean, who DOES that?


There are no miracle shortcuts though, and the exercise only works in tandem with a good diet, and exercising portion control. ‘Wine’s a killer,’ she tells me. ‘Don’t drink all your calories.’ ‘Bugger,’ I reply.


In truth, don’t walk, RUN up to her studio for a new step in your exercise journey. The day after my session I meet my friend Martina for a HIT (High Intensity Training) class at Queen’s. I notice that I breathe differently throughout and am more aware of my posture. I see that if I commit to a few more one to ones with Mary-Jo I’ll have the encouragement I need to see results and start using the weights at the gym myself, without feeling foolish and intimidated by the others around me.


A session with a good PT is an investment in your fitness, your confidence and self-esteem. Mary-Jo went to one herself 3 years ago; found a new way to train and was so inspired that she left her job in banking to become one herself. I’m very glad she did.

Here she is in action.

If you  need some inspiration for check out Mary-Jo Tunney on Facebook.



SWB on the Transfer Test

On Saturday night, LSB and myself took a trot down the Ormeau. There was a buzz and a busyness in the air. The restaurants were heaving. In The Northern Lights we met a friend out with her family. They were celebrating their child’s transfer test results and the relief on their faces was palpable. The process was over: they could exhale. Excitedly, they popped their coats on to go for pizza. I love meeting these guys- and I know whatever the results had been, they would have out anyway.


‘I want that to be us,’ I said, after we passed on our congratulations. ‘Whatever happens in that bloody exam, we are booking a table the week before. We will tell the girls that we are proud of them, and that we are sorry that they have to do this bloody, farcical test at eleven years of age.’


You may have noticed that I stay away from some of the controversial issues. I don’t write at length about Brexit, about the right to choose, about the chasm in our government. I ruminate instead about the everyday irritations I face, and I find this most cathartic.  There are better, more informed and let’s face it, professional journos out there, who are paid to analyse and reflect upon the big stuff. Feedback from the people I meet and who like the SWB blog, tell me they enjoy the irreverent tone and the lighter things I touch upon. Unfortunately, as soon as one does start writing about tougher subjects, along come the trolls and up starts the abuse. I’ve enough to deal with in life without that aggravation.


You may, discerning readers as you are, have picked up on the fact that I’m a worry wart. I can put a day in rightly, agonising over Brexit, potential nuclear annihilation and getting cancer from the micro-plastics in my tap water. I have now started to stress in earnest about my children, and the transfer procedure. They are children who (usually) want to please. They try hard, and sometimes produce pieces of writing and pictures which make me stop and think ‘Wow. What an intuitive little buddy you are.’ However, does this exam really test what matters? And if they don’t get their desired result, how will it affect the rest of their school lives?


A former colleague of mine confessed that she had a headache, a sharp tense pain over her right eye, for four months. She was haggard by the end of the transfer process. Her daughter is bright and zingy and happily sailed off to her school of choice. But I thought about the impact the whole wretched debacle had on the whole family. A friend who had twin girls said he wouldn’t even let them sit the test. No way he said, what if one got it and the other didn’t? The ramifications seem endless.


When I did the 11+ as it was called, it was 1989. I sat in my usual p7 classroom, with my friends, and a kindly looking man in his seventies was the invigilator. He looked like my grandad. Classmates had brought in little ‘good luck charms’ and I set out a dog I’d made from FIMO and a teeny picture of Kylie and Jason dressed in their wedding gear as Scott and Charlene from Neighbours. There was a second exam a couple of weeks later and I don’t remember being overly stressed. Yes, we had done many practice papers in class, but it must, despite being a highly academic primary school, have been well managed by the staff. On the morning of the exam my mum worried I’d be up to ‘high-doh’, but apparently she found me reading away at Judy Blume novel in the back of the car.


Now, as any shell-shocked parents know, children have potentially four tests to do, trailing from school to school and sitting in unfamiliar classrooms. I’ve personally been an invigilator at the grammar school where I used to teach. All of us were under strict instructions to be as welcoming and reassuring as we could. Still, it’s not enough is it? Our efforts to be pleasant do not compensate for the bureaucratic nightmare that it is. I think the system is wrong- separating kids from their friends and encouraging competitiveness and snobbishness (and that’s only the parents.)


As parents, I think all LSB and myself can do, is instill the best sense of self in our girls as we can. We will encourage them to work hard and offer our help and support. We will share our own stories from school, about times when we struggled and felt sad and lost, or moments when we found real pleasure in learning. I just hope it’s enough.

SWB on the Marie Kondo Craze

Right, fess up everyone. Who’s been watching Marie Kondo Tidies Up on Netflix? I’ll admit, I’ve found it hard to resist, but I’ve limited myself to two and a half episodes. I don’t have time to WATCH people tidy, I just need to get on it. I fear it might be a bit like cookery programmes-  thinking yes, I’ll DEFINITELY make that, but I don’t, since everyone likes my Chinese Beef in Ginger so why would I risking something different? I tend to salivate more over the glorious décor than the recipes anyway. I felt so CHEATED when I learnt that Nigella Lawson wasn’t creating her shredded lamb and pomegranate salad in her West London Pad, but in a set at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire.

I digress.  For the uninitiated, Kondo has taken herself off to America, land of excess, to bring her tidy tips to those who’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of shite. In she swoops, like an elfin Fairy Godmother, to help them rediscover who they ‘really are’, through binning  their stuff. There are many cringe-worthy bits: the worst of which being the ‘group prayer,’ where they kneel and honour THE HOUSE to give thanks for its presence in their lives and apologise for not recognising its worth. I don’t know why I’m surprised; this is a woman who feels it’s shameful to pair socks. (I may have expressed my annoyance about this before.)

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a bit of Kondo rumination on the appropriate treatment of hosiery:

Socks and Stockings
Some people think it doesn’t really matter if they wear socks with holes in them or tights that are pilled, but this is like declaring ‘today doesn’t really matter’. Your feet bear your weight and help you live your life, and it is your socks that cradle those feet. The socks you wear at home are particularly important because they are the contact point between you and your house, so choose ones that will make the time you spend there even more enjoyable.

Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel. Please put an end to this practice today.

See? Told you she was barking. The other irritating bit is when someone, often Kondo herself, falls over a pile of tat, to much hilarity. ‘Babe, we just have too much stuff!’ exclaimed one particularly irksome woman, after taking a tumble. I could just imagine the director staging the whole thing to inject some liveliness into proceedings, since Kondo has all the personality of one of those socks she’s so keen in folding.

The format is thus: in she trots, with lots of insincere ‘semi-hugging’, and cuddling of any infants who happen to be knocking about. (‘I’m the nice lady who’s going to put all your toys in the bin and teach you a new game called ‘organising’.) She then tries not to look absolutely appalled by the clip of the place.

I urge you to watch Episode Two, which features a deranged  American-Japanese couple.  God love them. They didn’t need Kondo, they needed a lifetime of therapy and an in-house Relate Counsellor. A more beleaguered looking husband you’d be hard pressed to find. The wife, who created the biggest mountain of clothing that Kondo had ever clapped eyes on, actually admitted that she shopped when he pissed her off so she could ‘hit him where it hurt.’ Fuck me.

Now that I’ve got thinking about what annoys me I can’t stop. I was apoplectic when I saw about 15 bags of clothes  deemed ‘trash’ while another pile was destined for ‘good will’. Seriously? Up rocked the dumpster truck and off it went for landfill.  And what had Kondo got to say about that? Feck all, so long as it was out of the way.

Happily, I think we’re doing better here in Ireland.  When I dropped off very raggedy clothes into the Barnardo’s bins at Ormeau Recycling Centre, three of them were overflowing, which was heartening.

Thus to conclude, while I find her sanctimonious and irritating in the extreme, I concede that Kondo has a point. If we can move away from the mindset that stuff equals happiness, and make more conscious decisions about our purchases, we’ll be more content. I get it. Just don’t expect to me posting drawer-fuls of tee-shirts standing to attention. I’ve already got a lot of hobbies already, and folding ain’t going to become another one.


SWB on January and Charity Shopping

It’s the third week in January, when statistics indicate we will have abandoned our New Year’s Resolutions, be dreading the credit card bill and be cursing the grey skies and present cold snap. Mind you, I’m relieved to feel the chill because, no word of a lie, three weeks ago I saw what looked suspiciously like blackberries ripening in the brambles outside Forestside.  Global warming isn’t just imminent: it’s here, upon us and scaring the s**t clean out of me.

Thus do we remain apathetic, or make some tweaks to our consumerist habits and do the world a favour? We do the latter people! No point sitting around getting depressed, no Sirree. On Friday morning I took a trot down the Ormeau and partook of a fine coffee with a friend in Root and Branch. It’s a jolly place isn’t it, if you don’t mind channelling your inner hipster and thinking ‘less is more’ with your thimble sized cup. I’m helping my pal run a pub quiz for Tour Guide NI, a fledgling business, organising local events for tourists. I’ve never been a quiz master before but I’ve been to enough to know what makes a really bad one. We’ve all sat through some abysmal quiz with an entire round devoted to soap operas (BOKE) and another one based upon obscure geographical facts that no one has any notion about and a collective gloom descends. The WORST is when the compere feels they’ve missed out their role in life as a comedian, and attempts humour instead of getting on with the rounds. Excruciating.

Now, if there’s one benefit to the new Netflix show: ‘Marie Kondo Tidies’ it’s that there’s fabulous buys to be found in charity shops, since the masses are leaping upon the band wagon and f**king out anything which doesn’t ‘spark joy’. The phenomenon has reached the Ormeau, if ‘The Hospice Shop’ and ‘Concern’ are anything to go by. I was tempted by Chanel inspired classics, 50’s inspired glamour and boho chic kimono pieces. I settled on a frock which looked every bit Desigual but from a company I’d never heard tell of. The lovely lady in The Hospice Shop told me that they find it hard to shift dresses and skirts. I just don’t understand- the stuff is gorgeous. And do you know who needs bright pretty ensembles? Teachers, that’s who. Kids love a bit of glam- who wants to sit looking at someone clad in beige or black, especially wee primary school kids who look at the same person all day. We had a geography teacher in school who was the personification of bland: her clothes were wishy washy and she was zero craic to boot. The Mothership, who used to sub-teach (ever since ditching her job to go gallivanting round Africa) and always chose her work clothes with tremendous care. I remember her looking out quirky pieces of jewellery and selecting lovely outfits since her lecturer at Stranmillis had said, ‘children like that sort of thing.’ She had a ring which looked like an eye that the wee boys in particular loved staring at it.

I recall too, that once you’ve worn a jacket into work and lugged around a few dirty old books, and had wee kids coughing and sneezing all over you; that your clothes get past their best very quickly. One therefore resents shelling out a fortune, and who wants to support fast fashion with all those dyes and micro-plastics flooding the rivers in Bangladesh. 

So to cheer up a mizzly morning, take yourself down the Ormeau. Craic was ninety in the shops and you can sate your inner shopaholic guilt free. Check out my new ensemble (minus the shoes which I wouldn’t last 10 minutes in. I’m clumsy enough without heels, even if they are beaut.) Another top tip, if you happening to be organising a PTA event or pub quiz and are looking prizes, is to have a gander at all the loot IN the charity shops, and pick them up at a bargain price. You could make up all sorts of goody bags and create some much sought after and original raffle prizes. Plus, you’d have a fun morning outing. You see? January isn’t so bad after all…

SWB gets travel advice

In Northern Ireland, do not be tempted to go to a travel agents if you’re looking a holiday. Your local Foncab driver will tell you all you need to know. 

‘I need a night out,’ I tell LSB. ‘You, me, candles. Wine and ambiance.’ I’ve had a headache for 3 weeks- every so often this happens and once I work out I’m not dying I just get properly fed up. Children, and the sounds they generate, are hard to tolerate when you feel that someone has inserted a drill in through your ear and behind your eye sockets. The pain has subsided but bright lights and noise are still an anathema to me. Still, it’s on the wane, and two paracetamol later and a frock on me and I’m good to go. We order a taxi. 

‘Out for something to eat?’ asks our Fonacab driver. ‘Lucky for some.’

He grins at me in the mirror. ‘He spoils you rotten love. Good Christmas?’

There are only so many accounts your Christmas that you are willing to relate to strangers, no matter how lovely it was. ‘Grand,’ I mutter. What about yourself?’

‘Glad it’s over,’ he says. 

‘Oh dear,’ I reply. 

‘F*@king raging I am,’ he goes on. ‘I alwaysgo to Tenerife in January. Something happened this year, and we couldn’t get away. So I’m stuck here, trailing folk round the town. F*@king shite.’

‘Oh. That’s too bad.’ says LSB. ‘I’m sure you’ll get something.’

‘Wife wants to go in June. F*@king June! That’s my lads holiday and I’m not giving that up. I sez to her, we may get down to Thomas Cook because I’ve them vouchers to use. I’m thinking Tunisia, £500, all-inclusive. That’s for two weeks. No one goes there anymore, in case they get shot, but I mean, people are shot in London all the time. Or stabbed, and there’s no shortage of tourists there.’

‘That is the sorry truth,’ I say.

‘In June,’ he goes on, ‘We go out to my dad in Albufeira. Lads’ drinking holiday. We just go boozing for 4 days. Start on the beer at 9 or so. See by the evening? Can’t speak or nothing. When we go for dinner at night I just point at the wee picture. Them wee pictures of the food are great. Young’uns all drink them cocktails. I stick to the beer. But when we were having our fry ups the next morning the wee waiter man sez to me, “What would you like to drink?” and I sez ‘Give us a Pina Colada!’ Lads were near sick. But then we all ordered one. Just have to keep at it, know what I mean?’

Jeepers, I thought I was bad over Christmas, with all those glasses of late afternoon prosecco. I’ve nothing on this chap. I feel like a poster girl for sobriety. 

Happily, we are now on the Ormeau Road. I would like a pre-dinner beverage, to give the semblance of a proper evening out. The fact that it is a Wednesday is irrelevant. ‘If you just drop us at the Northern Lights?’ asks LSB. 

‘What? Iceland? Are yiz off to Iceland?’

‘No, the pub, that one there,’ says Stevey, pointing. 

‘Ah.’ He pulls in. ‘I thought you meant Iceland, where they have those lights, them green ones. Have you been to Iceland?’

‘No,’ says himself. ‘But we were thinking of it.’ 

I will him to stop prolonging the conversation. My glass of Tempranillo is tantalising close, and yet so far. 

‘It’s a dear hole. I’m telling you’. 

I have opened the door. He’s off again. The meter is still running, but he’s in full flow. He reallywants to tell us about Iceland.

‘So my mate went last year, so he did. Took everyone out for their tea. The wife and him had nothing fancy and the kids had them wee chicken balls and chips. Guess how much that was, for that, and four cokes?’

‘A hundred,’ I sigh. 

‘Ninety eight. Ninety eight quid! For that!’

‘So when we went,. I sez, we’re getting an apartment and I made sure it had a kitchen so I could bring my own food.’

‘Like, tins of stuff?’ I ask.

‘No! Steak, sausages, bacon. The LAT. I just wrapped it in tin foil. Into the bag it went. Never said nothing at customs. And they wouldn’t need to have either. Know how much a pint is? Twelve pounds. TWELVE POUNDS.  We bought all our booze in the Duty Free.’

I try to open the door again but he’s really warming to this theme. The meter is still running. We are a couple of soft touches, LSB and myself.

‘Then we got on a bus to see them wee things that come out of the ground.’ 


‘Aye. F*@king a hundred and eighty pounds to drive round and see some pools, with steam coming out of them. I’m telling you, If you’re going to go, bring your own food and drink, hire a car and follow the bus. DO NOT PAY for the bus.’

‘Thanks very much,’ I say, and make to leave. 

‘And the Northern Lights? F*@k that. Do you know what they were going charge us for that trip? Another hundred quid and then the wee man sez to us, it wasn’t guaranteed we’d see them! I was like, you’re telling me, I’ve to pay you to get on a bus, to drive through the dark to hunt for lights we might not see at all? No way mate.’

At this point we made our exit. I was very pleased to sit down, play some chess and stroke a small collie dog whom some fella had brought in with him and he took a fancy to me. I’d like to add to add that having a drink then a meal with wine at Shed does nothing for your headache, but it was still most pleasant to vacate the house for an evening, chat with lovely neighbours and share a steak meal for two, with enough left over to create an Asian beef salad the next evening. Everyone’s a winner, and we’ve some sound travel advice to boot. Fonacab-Travel. You read it here first.

SWB is 8 years married today!

The winter of 2010 was an absolute frigger. I blame myself entirely, because I had claimed to my mother that the snow was never that bad in Belfast and thus Christmas would be the perfect time for a wedding. However, despite snow and buggered heating and busted pipes, we managed it, and if I was in shopping mode I’d be away off to buy something cast in bronze (which is supposedly the eighth year symbol). I can’t be arsed obviously, but should you be bored in this festive lull twixt Christmas and New Year, when days slush and slide into one, you can have a listen to me on the podcast from the Tenx9 podcast, telling the story of how our wedding very nearly didn’t happen. Or you can read the transcript here:

Tenx9- Christmas 19th December 2018

‘So when do you think you’ll get married?’ everyone asked when we got engaged. ‘Christmas,’ we said. ‘A nice festive wedding, during that lull before New Year’. ‘Terrible time altogether,’ sniffed my Mother. ‘You can’t be asking people to drive through ice and snow. A dreadful imposition. They may not even come at all.’

Never one to take advice we booked the 28th December. I shrugged off mum’s dark mutterings. Her family was prone to gloom. ‘Seriously?’ I said. ‘When does it ever snow that much in Ireland?’ Well, that provoked the weather gods. ‘We’ll show you,’ they said, (the bastards). This was the winter of 2010. Snow fell in relentless drifts, and the city slowed to a snarled up standstill. Even breathing felt like a chore, my lungs unused to the savage bite in the air. In my head I had seen roaring fires, sparkling dresses, and cups of steaming mulled wine. Now I saw icy roads, ambulances and pneumonia. 

Travellers languished in all major airports. My mother had to try hard to avoid saying ‘I told you so.’ I held my breath and prayed for global warming to kick in. 

On Christmas Eve my lovely bridesmaid booked me a surprise treat at a beauty salon in Belmont. ‘Whatever you do, don’t flush the toilet,’ they said by way of greeting when we went in. ‘All the pipes are frozen, and we can’t turn on the boiler.’  We sat with blankets slung around our shoulders like Russian Babuskas while they manicured our nails to the hum of blow heaters. In hind-sight we should have cancelled the massage, in a freezing room upstairs. ‘My hands might feel a bit cold,’ warned the therapist, as I jumped 3 feet when she placed her icy palms on my shoulders. We left tenser than when we’d gone in, but at least our nails were done. 

Feeling anxious I rang the hotel and a cheery voice reassured us that they had running water, the heating still worked and as such we were good. I started to exhale. It might, after all, be alright. One by one, our guests arrived from abroad. Robert from Montreal was staying us. His flight had been rerouted to Dublin, and he’d been bussed up to Belfast, jet-lagged and frozen. A few whiskeys cheered him initially, but when he woke at noon on Christmas Day he wasn’t in the form for the artisan sausages I’d bought at the Continental Market. ‘I’ve got the flu,’ he grumbled, emitting loud trumpeting sneezes. ‘Why the hell did you have to get married in the depth of winter,’ he moaned. ‘I’ve just come from one frozen shit-hole to another.’ 

We had a pared down and somewhat subdued Christmas Dinner, since my mother was obsessed by operation wedding cake. My parents never swore, or took the Lord’s name in vain. Occasionally dad said ‘Damn it!’ or ‘For frigg’s sake.’ When I dropped a clanger, mum was most disapproving. ‘Language of the gutter, Helen!’ So when I heard a series of shit shit shits issuing from the kitchen, I feared the worst. The bad thing about making a cake at Christmas is that when it breaks in half, you can’t depend on your local Co-op having baking powder to make another. My mother had never, in a lifetime of baking, run out of baking powder, but since everything else was going tits up, this did too. My fiancé came down to spend Boxing Day. The mood was dismal, with last minute cake related crisis and flu ridden guests. Just as in Bethlehem, there wasn’t much room, and he CERTAINLY wasn’t going to be sharing my bed. We weren’t THAT sort of family. The poor cratur spent the night in the baltic front room, the wind swooshing down the chimney and my brother coming in a bit pissed and sitting on him at 2am. 

We arrived at the hotel the day before the wedding, so I could wake up at the venue, relaxed and stress-free. I imagined swishing into the hotel in my new coat, sipping a glass of something chilled, with twinkly lights in the background. ‘Hello! I’m the bride, all ready for tomorrow,’ I told the frazzled looking receptionist at check in. ‘Ohhhh, right,’ she said. ‘You’re the otherwedding.’ Everywhere there were small stampeding children, like errant elves, running amok while their parents looked on, oblivious. 

Said children seemed magnetically drawn to us for the rest of the evening. Their parents looked as though they’d hit the bottle on Christmas of 2003, and hadn’t stopped. I sought refuge in the sauvignon blanc at the table. ‘Can’t hear a bloody thing,’ said Robert. He got quite binned too. In short, it was all quite fraught. 

The snow had stopped but a thick fog and mizzly rain had descended on the big day itself. I’d hoped to have a jog before breakfast.  ‘You’ll not be heading out in that,’ said my mother, ‘if you don’t want to end up in the Royal.’ I decided to have a swim instead, when the hairdresser arrived, earlier than expected. It was 9-45: I wasn’t due to get married until 2-30. ‘That road is very dangerous.  Ring your guests and warn them, you don’t want anyone killed on the way here,’ she said. No, I certainly didn’t. For a person prone to anxiety, this news stressed me out a great deal. I sat, texting away while she curled my hair. ‘Take care on the corner! Mind the fog!’ until a pal put an end it to, ringing to say they were grown ups and could navigate their way safely. ‘And remember she said, it’s your fucking wedding day!’

I was ready by half 11. That left 3 hours to sit about, and wonder what else could go wrong. I opened a bottle of champagne and texted my husband to be, but there was no answer. I drank some more. 

The photographers arrived. ‘Have you seen the groom? Can’t find him anywhere! they said. ‘Oh fuck,’ I said. ‘Helen!’ said my mother.  I imagined the little Micra, which he’d only just learnt to drive, upturned on the road en-route to the hotel. I saw the headlines: ‘Bridegroom in pile up on frosty country lane, because selfish fiancé wanted a Christmas wedding.’ 

I sent my bridesmaid on a recce, and she returned to say all was well. Stevey had woken to no heat or hot water that morning, and had to shower at a friend’s. He’d arrived some time ago and was chatting to the vicar in a quiet corner. When I finally walked up the aisle, tears tripping me from excess bubbly and relief, he was looking rock-star handsome with his black hair teased into curls. The service itself gives me goose-bumps to this day. ‘You’re gorgeous, so you are,’ I slurred. ‘Let me fetch you drink,’ asked my new husband, when we’d done the line-up. ‘Please don’t,’ I replied, ‘I think I’m already quite drunk.’ I can tell you now that champagne doesn’t quell your nerves, and only made me less able to tolerate the ‘other’ wedding, whose inebriated guests Stevey at one point had to bounce off the dance floor. The band was late, the meat was tough and at one point the electricity cut out.  However, if I was having a bad day, the other bride was having a worse one. I may have been drunk, but at least I wasn’t pregnant, or so I heard later from friends who’d encountered her in the toilets, having the most ferocious row with her mother. Aunties and cousins then piled in to offer advice and pour themselves large vodkas from quarter bottles in their handbags. ‘I could write a play about this,’ said one of my writer friends, all delighted.  It could be called ‘Stories from around the cistern.’ 

All in all, it may have been one of the most strained experiences of my life: my Christmas wedding turning into a holiday special of Eastenders, or Shameless. I dreamt of renewing our vows in the Maldives, but even that’s been marred by tales of human rights abuses and our very own crooked MPs.  However, Stevey and I celebrate our eighth anniversary in just over a week. We don’t need another ceremony to celebrate our union, and since Christmas is a time of miracles, we rejoice in the fact that we found each other at all, in this, the most topsy-turvy of worlds. 

SWB feels less festive and more fury

The many faces of The Small Child

I’m NOT EATING THIS RUBBISH! says the Small Child. She mimes taping her mouth and sealing it with an imaginary padlock which she puts in a non-existent pocket. She points at the plate of shepherd’s pie and broccoli and shakes her head in disgust. The other one joins in. ‘Yes; it’s a DISGUSTING dinner. You always make us DISGUSTING dinners. So there.’ Down goes the fork.

We’d already had one almighty row because I made them turn off ‘Horrid Henry’, as tidying the kitchen is a hideous enough task without having that furore in the background. The Older One says icily, ‘You’ve already done ONE awful thing to us once today, making us turn off our programme.’ And, now, she goes on, stabbing an aldente broccoli floret with her fork, ‘you’re making us eat THIS.’

Do you remember Shirley Valentine? Well this was reminiscent of the scene where Pauline Collins gives her screen husband eggs and chips for his dinner instead of steak, which she’s fed to her neighbour’s vegetarian dog out of pity. ‘I’m not eating shite,’ he explodes, sticking his finger in the yolk to emphasis his point, before shoving it violently so it ends up in her lap.  

I lose the head. I feel as though I have raised two little tyrants. ‘Fine!’ I yell. ‘Bed! And you better hope Cyril isn’t flying past because this will NOT go down well.’ Cyril and his twin Cedric are two of Santa’s seagulls who patrol the local environs, reporting back to Himself at The North Pole with behavioural updates. Last year, Cedric wrote my children a lovely letter which included tickets to the panto as a pre-holiday incentive not to be little shits. Clearly it was remiss of him not to call in advance this year.

‘Fine then, I’ll eat it!’ The older one tucks in. She has a good auld go at it too. The Small Child still won’t budge. ‘I wanted sausages,’ she sobs. MAKE ME SAUSAGES.’ You don’t even LIKE sausages,’ I say in a mystified tone. ‘Mum has a point,’ says her sister, ruminatively chewing some of the pie.  Obviously worried that they’ll be no presents and that by association she’ll be scuppered come Tuesday morning, she has a brainwave. ‘This is a SHEPHERD’S pie, and you were a SHEPHERD in the Nativity, so this is part of you, and you, are part of it.’ I’m amazed. She delivers this information like an explanation of the Holy Trinity. This seems to resonate with The Small Child, and I get her to shovel a few mouthfuls into her disgruntled little face. 

Fatigue, I think, is the problem, combined with some serious ‘over-funning’ which I feel, deserves a mention in the dictionary as a compound verb to describe what befalls children during the holidays. This afternoon we went to see ‘Alice in the Wonderful’ in the Lyric. (First –rate acting and singing but FFS, 2 hours is just too long for a panto. 45 minutes, interval, another 30 mins and bang, you’re done. That’s the only way with little kids, I’m telling you. Leave them wanting more and their parents not wanting to mainline the gin.)

Last night we visited the Christmas Market where they whirled around on the carousel, crunched on churros, and went for slides on Royal Avenue. 

Let this be a lesson to you folks.  Dole out your treats and organise your adventures sparingly. We all need to get a bit more Victorian I think, and rein in the craic, before we’re landed with odious little despots. I’m away to get an early night so I can get to town nice and early to return some Santa gifts. That’ll show ‘em. 😉