Monthly Archives:

May 2018


Non, SWB ne regrette rien

(Thanks to Tenx9 for the photo. Who doesn’t need a set of crocheted undergarments? There’s LSB’s Christmas gift sorted.)

Oh people, what an absolute cracker of a night was had in The Black Box at Tenx9. It’s an evening where you manage to come out tickled and humbled.  Last night my ribs were sore from laughing during some tales, and I struggled to hold back tears in another.  You never know what you’re going to hear next, and one story can be as poignant as the next is hysterical. Or maybe it’s both, and therein lies the joy, along with the whole delightful absurdity of the human condition.

My offering on the theme of Regret is below, and I urge you to check out the podcasts from some of the other stories. Make a cup of tea, preferably  Barrys, (since it’s Richard O’Leary’s preferred brew, and he’s a  seasoned Tenx9 story teller and a committed tea-drinker)  and get listening.



Some of you may remember a story about my time on Réunion Island, where I went to improve my French as part of my degree. You may also recall that I didn’t, in fact, develop my language skills much at all, instead sampling the delights of this idyllic isle, and hanging out with the other teaching assistants, most of whom were English.


So enamoured with the experience was I, that I applied for another post as an assistant in Corsica, as by now, I had developed a penchant for island life. I thus finished my degree and half-heartedly applied for a PGCE as a back up plan and booked no fewer than 3 flights to go to Corsica in September 2001.


Now, language assistants, since they are often young and gormless, are assigned a ‘réponsable’ to look out for them when they first arrive. My ‘réponsable’ on Reunion had been called Alain Cretineau, and he was every bit as cretinous as his name suggested. He batted away my questions with a  flick of the wrist and let me use neither the telephone, nor the internet to let my parents know that I had arrived safely.


(My poor mum agonised for days, drawing solace only from the fact that she didn’t hear any news footage of Air France planes plunging into the Indian Ocean.)


But when my predecessor from Queen’s who’d been in Corsica the year before, contacted me, she assured me that this would not be the case this time. She was full of rapturous praise for Elizabeth, who would be my ‘réponsable’. ‘Ohh she’s wonderful,’ she gushed. ‘Une ange!’ Deborah was one of those annoying people who continued to pepper her conversation with French words long after she’d returned to Irish soil.


So I rang Elizabeth to announce my arrival and hopefully be put up for a day or two at the start of my séjour. But the conversation didn’t go as I’d hoped. It went something like this:

Brrrrrrrr Brrrrrrrr

Allo? (sullen voice of male, possibly a teenager.)

Bonjour! (Me chipper) Je m’appelle…… So in French I said I’m ‘Helen, I’m the language assistant, can I speak to Elizabeth please.’

Non. Elle est morte. (In more sullen tones, the young fellow appears to be telling me that his mother is dead. I imagine I’ve misheard and blather on.)

Non, mais je suis l’assistante irlandaise et….

ELLE EST DECEDÉE! This time I understand and mutter ‘Mon Dieu! Désolé!’ before hanging up.

Elizabeth would thus not be waiting for me at the airport with open arms because she was suddenly and inexplicably deceased. ‘Oh shit,’ I said.


Then 2 days later on September the 11th as I bought a few last minute items for my trip, I saw on a TV screen what appeared to be a joke as the twin towers came crashing down.


The world appeared to be going mad. I was feeling a bit unhinged myself. ‘Should I go? Or stay in Belfast and wait for the world to end here?’ I didn’t know, but if we WERE on the brink of the apocalypse, perhaps it would be better with a fabulous red for which Corsica was famed in hand. So off I went.


In the absence of Elizabeth’s hospitality, I stayed my first few nights in a grimy boarding area of a local school. Luckily, another teacher, Fabienne, came to my rescue. In fact, the other assistants and I spent so much time at her house that she devised a system whereby we paid 30 francs if we wanted a vegetarian meal, or 40 if she threw in some chicken. Given that the wine flowed at these soirées, this was quite a bargain. There was still the problem of my lodgings, but once again, Fabienne was on to it.


She rang me with great news after a week and a half of living in squalor at the school. ‘I’ve found you somewhere and ‘c’est parfait!’ she said with glee, before escorting me to an apartment in her blue citroën 2CV. She had good reason to be excited. The flat was above a boulangérie, so the aroma of freshly baked goods wafted up to the balcony, which overlooked the Mediterranean. My bedroom was spacious, the rent was cheap and Geneviève, my future room-mate seemed lovely and normal. I moved in immediately and Geneviève took to cooking me specialities from Aix-en-Provence where she came from, and we ate delicious meals with a glass of sweet muscat as an aperitif to start, sitting on the balcony under starry skies. She had a large boxer dog by the name of Kitsy, with whom I got along famously, especially when I took him for walks along the beach several times a day.


Now unlike Reunion, where I worked a limited number of hours, here, I worked hardly any. The college to which I had been assigned, were having staffing issues, and my role was far down their list of priorities. Each week they would say, ‘We don’t need you, we’ll call you on Monday.’ This might sound perfect, but when the other assistants were busy at their jobs, and the only other people expressing interest in me were salacious men in cafés, it got quite lonely. I felt unnerved, especially when I turned on the TV and saw that the French too, were convinced that the end was nigh. Every channel showed footage of nuclear warheads being fired up and grave-looking Parisians holding up envelopes they thought contained anthrax but were actually washing powder. I tried going to the gym. I tried immersing myself in literature, but I grew more anxious by the day.


This was exacerbated by Geneviève’s ex-boyfriend, who took to landing round at the flat. He was a pugnacious chap who bore a striking resemblance to the dog, except the features which make a boxer so handsome beast don’t translate quite so well on to the human visage. His visits only served to upset the dog, who clearly resented his master’s impromptu leaving, and he took to urinating extensively over the furniture in a fit of pique. Facts slowly unfolded that Geneviève had only booted Luc out of the house a mere two days before I was asked to move in. It was all very awkward.


One day, after Luc arrived unexpectedly I took the dog for a walk to get out of the flat. Kitsy was unsettled and pulled hard at his lead. His mood was not improved when a small, West Highland Terrier had a bit of a yap at him. He took off, and proceeded to shake the Westie like a rat. Naturally his owner went berserk. ‘Prends ton chien, prends ton chien!’ he yelled, but I had no mission of wrenching Kitsy off. All I managed was a feeble, ‘Mais ce n’est pas mon chien,’ (It’s not my dog!) by way of explanation. Kitsy finally released the Westie, who miraculously remained unhurt, although tufts of white fur flew in the wind. His owner had fallen on his arse during the tussle, and it was all rather frosty. The dog, upon returning to the flat, went straight outside and hid on the balcony. He knew he’d been bold.


Two months in, I decided I’d had enough. I booked a flight, or rather 3 of them, and left. So cross was I about the school’s lack of concern for my well-being, that I didn’t even tell them I was going. The caretaker eventually called to the flat to make sure that I had neither: ‘been kidnapped or killed’ or so it was reported to me. Speaking of which, I finally discovered what had befallen Elizabeth. Turns out the ‘réponsable’ had been none too responsible at all, and this lady, famous for her pearls and twin-sets, had managed to asphyxiate herself in an act of auto-eroticism. Not so angelic after all, then. The newspapers had ruled out third-party involvement and concluded it was ‘la plaisir solitaire’ that had finished her off. No wonder her son had sounded so glum on the phone.


So did I regret going to Corsica? Well, it wasn’t a roaring success. I came home 7 months early and it took a while to regain any semblance of equilibrium. On the plus side though, my French progressed exponentially, because Geneviève’s English had been non-existent and she spoke very very fast.


It also taught me a hefty dose of humility. After my year on Réunion, I had been a bit dismissive when students complained about their year out. ‘It’s what you make of it,’ I had thought. But no matter what I tried to do in Corsica, I couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t an easy lesson, and it didn’t do my liver any good, but ultimately, I feel grateful for the experience.



SWB hits the news (letter)

Did you know that Belfast has 3000 acres of parks? No, neither did I, but Chris Hawkins on BBC 6 music this morning, has just given it as a ‘fun fact’ about Belfast . Given how much time I spend in the parks, and Ormeau in particular, I feel I ought to have known that. But it’s another reason why this is such an amazing city in which to live. Parkruns, fun days, rose weeks, orienteering: it’s all happening, and if people aren’t chucking lit BBQs into bins (this actually happened in Lady Dixon last week and the Fire Service had to get involved. FFS, Tracy) it’s all good fun.

On Wednesday, I roped my good friend Martina into digging out her wedding dress and popping it on for a photo shoot in Ormeau. (‘Thank you very  much’, her dress said, ‘it is nice to be released from the SHOE BOX in which I’ve been stored for the last 10 years’). The wee kids in Parkside looked on agog as we played on swings and frolicked on roundabouts. I actually, no word of a lie, didn’t want to take my dress off. The sheer heft of a full length gown is something we rarely experience; there’s a heft to it which somehow grasps the weightiness of the decision to get married. It’s the real deal, getting hitched, and putting the dress on again made me relive choosing it and that sense of excitement and promise.

So I’ve come to a decision about what to do with my dresses. The pearly frock in the photo above is staying, and the kids can play in it and if it’s worth salvaging by the time their big day comes, they can do with it what they wish. And the other gown gown, in which I actually said ‘I do’,  is going to be repurposed. How, I don’t know, but I’ve been to Bangor and brought it up to Belfast where proceedings will begin post-haste. I’m thinking of having to shortened and dyed, so I can  wear it out of an evening.

I’ve loved gathering stories about dresses while researching my article, and loved what my friend Helen did with hers, donating it to Oxfam but keeping her veil which she has lent to pals as their ‘something borrowed’. What a gorgeous idea. My oldest child has been running round all weekend wearing my tiara, and it’s rather lovely. I’d love to think of it being worn again on a special day.

And while I’m talking weddings, I’m getting political and saying that I’d like to see the same right extended to our gay and lesbian friends here in the North of the Ireland. One couple close to my heart have been together 23 years and refuse to get married until they can take their vows in the City Hall. I hope this happens soon, and they know where to come if either of them wants a tiara.

P.S. I’ve finally dragged my ass out of the dark ages and can now be found on Twitter and Instagram. If you’d like to follow me, jump on board and share some pictures and ideas.


SWB and the Wedding Dress Conundrum

Last week I posted a photo of a candy-floss pink shirt so you lovely readers could help me decide whether to keep it or send it on its merry way. Tonight I’m bringing out the big guns and for the week that was in it, tackle THE WEDDING DRESS dilemma. I’ve actually got two, not that I’ve been wed twice and have managed to keep that quiet (as if, you know  how I like to off-load), but no, I managed to acquire two beautiful wedding gowns but in the end I did the standard thing of walking into a bridal shop and going for the brand-new option.


The other, an empire style, be-jewelled beauty, I bought for a song in Blush outlet, but after much deliberation we decided it didn’t look its best after a trip to the dry-cleaners on Stranmillas .(Incidentally, it has  since changed ownership I believe). The Mothership took one look and said, ‘No, I’m not having that, I’ll buy you a new frock. Come along.’ She got very forceful.


My poor father just sighed and sojourned to the other room with his Daily Mail every time the wedding dress came up in conversation. ‘Oh please, make it stop,’ his eyes seemed to say.


So I wore the other, a gorgeous, full-length champagne gown and it was a cracker. LSB still talks about it and every time we pass Jenny Lindop’s shop in Bangor (from which it came) he cranes his neck to see what she has in the window and usually says ‘Not a patch on yours’.  In fairness, he said the same about Meghan Markle’s dress so I think he may just be trying to gain favour. Nonetheless, it’s still good to hear. Life’s hard enough without worrying that your betrothed thought that you looked like a sack of spuds on your wedding day.


I digress. Two frocks. One stained and crushed with mud round the hem and a ripped underskirt. The other, very elegant but in need of TLC. The former needs a dry-clean and reparation, which could cost £100 or more.


Both children tonight expressed considerable interest in the dresses, but there’s probably about a 5% chance of them actually doing anything with them.


So, should I:

  1.  Dry-clean and donate
  2.  Up-cycle and repurpose them so I still have 2 cracker dresses
  3.  Dilly-dally further and do nothing. The plus side of this is that it won’t cost anything and still give the girls an option if they want to do something with them when they’re older.


(Full disclosure, I’ve kinda made up my mind  but I want to see what you people think because you come across as an intuitive, creative bunch.)


Also, while you’re in the mood to share, have you done anything special with your dresses? I have a couple of ideas which will appear in The Newsletter on Saturday. If you like them, maybe we could get our heads together…

I  found this site today when I was doing a bit of research  and the writer had some brilliant ideas. I just wish I’d found it 8 years ago. Would have saved the parents a fortune… 

                                                This is the couture dress from Blush that I didn’t wear in the end. How wonderfully Jane Austen it is though. Elizabeth Bennett-esque in every way.

And this is the one I wore, Paloma Blanca from Jenny Lindop. Just imaging it in a much more creased, bedraggled state. There was some energetic dancing that evening to which the dress now sadly bears witness.


Four things I’ve learnt from my first triathlon

A week ago, I did my first ever sprint triathlon and I’m still aglow. Here’s four reasons why: 

People are generally nice

You know me. I can be a moody sort, prone to bouts of misanthropy. But the truth is, since I started training for this event, I’ve been smiling more. Some of this perkiness, I’ve put down to the dopamine produced by the exercise. But much of the good-feeling came from hanging out with great people.

The obvious ones to mention here are the tri-girls themselves, full of craic, bonhomie and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. In my head, triathletes, of any description, were an intimating sort, but happily, not this bunch.

Also nice, were the poor random swimmers I accosted, and shamelessly pumped for tips for my dodgy front crawl. Or all the people who said ‘Your first tri? Cool!’ instead of being of harbingers of doom or casting doubt over my ability.

My understanding of bicycles and how they operate is embarrassingly limited, rather like Boris Johnston’s diplomacy skills.

The morning of the tri, my friend’s husband kindly checked my tyres and brakes before we set off. (‘He loves doing that sort of thing,’ she assured me.) However, he warned me to check my brake which was rubbing on the front wheel. ‘Don’t worry though,’ he said, when he saw my face. ‘Someone up there will take a look.’ And sure enough, I’d only stood about looking gormless for five minutes at Limavady Leisure Centre when a twinkly eyed man called Colin appeared, tweeked my brakes, adjusted my saddle and sorted out my gears. ‘Not a bother!’ said he, as I cycled off with renewed confidence and comfort.

This triathlon, has thus restored my faith in people. Sure, there’s a few total spanners out there, but in the most part, folk are kind and want to help. We all need to remember that when we’re feeling a bit disenchanted with the world.


Triathlons are actually super fun

 I normally take parts in running events, where there’s a great buzz at the start and finish, but other than that, not much craic. If you’re an event junkie, you therefore NEED to do a triathlon, if only for the frenetic fun of the transitions. Even getting my head stuck pulling my cycling top over my wet tri-suit couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Up-beat tunes blasted from speakers; an excitable fellow manned a microphone and volunteers shouted encouragement as I mounted and dismounted my bicycle with all the dexterity of an arthritic rhino. I didn’t detect a single snigger.

It’s ok to do it your way

Most people, unless they are total novices or else a tad unhinged, choose to do their cycle on a racing bike. The aim, after all, is to maximise your time with minimal effort. Wide, mountain bike tyres aren’t then, the ideal choice. But I had never sat astride a racer before this year, and when I tried it I felt precariously perched, rather like a circus elephant atop a ball. As I didn’t want to invite such unsteadiness into my first triathlon, I did my cycle on my mountain bike. I didn’t fall off, and though I wouldn’t break any records with my speed, I didn’t break any bones either. I was happy with that outcome.


Take your place

And here is the most profound thing I’m taking away from the experience, and one that I may apply to life in general: don’t be afraid to take your own space. When I’m swimming, for example, I tend to hug the side of the lane, so I don’t impede the person coming in the other direction. The downside of doing this is that your arm gets bashed off the rope which is painful after a while. I did this A LOT at the event because I was nervous, but after being continually clipped my elbow got sore. So I moved over a bit and enjoyed the remainder of my swim.

I was up to the same foolishness on the bike, keeping into the side so much that I was wheeling through pothole after pothole and at one point narrowly avoided the ditch. ‘You mad eejit,’ I said to myself, ‘Would you just shift your ass to the smooth bit of the road.’ I noticed that the other cyclists were  whizzing along merrily; they weren’t confining themselves to the hedgerows. Hell, they couldn’t those spindly racing tyres couldn’t have tholed it.

There I was, trying to make myself small and unobtrusive, but I was actually putting myself in danger and feeling mighty irked in the process. No one likes a martyr. This martyr in particular, didn’t really like herself.

Lesson learnt. Own your space in life. You don’t have to be dick about it, just trust who you are and what you’re doing.


To sum up:

There were so many reasons that I may not have done this event. Fear of looking stupid; fear of not being fit enough, or fear of falling off the bike. But the scariest thing of all, is how I could easily have let fear stop me having such a brilliant, life-affirming experience. I loved everything about the triathlon, and raised some money for a most worthwhile cause while I did so. So my only question is, when’s the next one?





SWB has a dose of the jitters

There are few sorrier sights than a half-deflated paddling pool still full of water, reflecting our tentative optimism from Sunday, when it seemed summer might deign to appear. Now the water slowly drains way, along with our good-humour. Bits of garden debris float in its murky depths, and a Barbie Mermaid lies facedown at the bottom, like a plastic Ophelia. She’s not even ours, and belongs to our best bud Sophie down the street. Looks like that’ll be another trip to Smyth’s Toy Store for a replacement.


The cat is miffed beyond belief and wanders around mewing plaintively. She seems to hold LSB and me personally responsible for inclement weather, endowing us with some sort of meteorological-god-like status. How I wish that were indeed the case! Perched upon the sofa with my over-sized cup of tea and listening to the crackle of the wood burner, I wish I could stay here for the next two days, but as you know, in a fit of over-exuberance (or delirium perhaps) I signed up for the Roe Valley Sprint Triathlon. And it’s tomorrow. This title may be misleading because in no way, and I repeat, in NO WAY, does the word ‘sprint’ relate to my vitesse. I merely want to survive the event with limbs and head intact.


For the uninitiated, (of whom I was one, until lately) a sprint triathlon refers to  shorter distances than those in a ‘normal’ triathlon. It is thus ideal for newbies like most of the girls in our group, or those who want to show off and get an amazing time. (I shall choose to avoid such individuals, should I come across them. I’m not sure we’d get on.) So what lies ahead of us tomorrow is a 750 metre swim, followed by a 20km cycle and finally a 5km run. This all sounds doable enough, until one considers the transitions in between and the fact it all takes place within roughly two hours. Presently, if I go to the pool and then pootle about with my day, I’m ready for a power-nap come 4pm. Thus the prospect of squooshing all three things together has me a bit perturbed. (I should say that I rarely get the chance to nap, since good-parenting practice dictates that I keep an eye on my offspring of an afternoon.)


The mood on our Whatsapp chat was buoyant up until a couple of days ago. Now the LOL’s and smiley faces are being replaced with WTF?s and ‘Bleepity Bleep Bleep Bleep Bleeps’, as reality dawns. Panicked questions pop up about every 20 minutes or so. ‘Have you got a race bib?’ ‘Are you taking gels or jelly babies?’ ‘Who in the name of God is going to be out of the pool in 22 minutes? Who dreamt up that notion and can we hit him?’ ‘AND WHAT IF WE GET A PUNCTURE?’


When I decided back in January to do this triathlon I was feeling quite confident. I started swimming regularly, trotted diligently off to spin classes and got back to speedier times at my parkruns. Then life got busy and tricky and sad in February and my training floundered. I got it going again in April until a bad dose of indigestion coupled with a banjaxed shoulder saw me head to the Royal fearing I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t, thank God, but I was advised to rest. ‘For F**k’s sake,’ I said.


Since I’m both a pessimist and a worry-wart, I felt a bit antsy. I hadn’t done enough stretching or all-round conditioning for the event. I was going to be shite.  So I had to have a word with myself. ‘SWB,’ I said firmly. ‘Take it handy in the swim and don’t bust yourself for the cycle. On the bike, just don’t fall off. And then run like your life depends on it to make up for the poor performances which will precede it.’ I started to feel a bit better.


I’m clearly still a bit jittery though because tonight I scrubbed my hob until it gleamed) and vaguely colour-co-ordinated one of my  bookshelves. This is not normal behaviour for a Friday evening…


The best bit, of course, will be the after-party. Some husbands mooted that they could come up and cheer us on with children in tow, but this notion was strongly discouraged. Given how little my arse actually hits a seat at the weekend, I’m tempted to see this whole adventure as a bit of downtime. (After the swim/cycle/run bit of course). Merriment is planned for later, as we sojourn en-masse to the Radisson Roe for bubbly and a picnic lunch, before we hit a fine eaterie in Limavady for dinner. Here, my aim is to stay awake along enough to avoid face-planting into my meal.


What I really hope, is that the rain stays off to make the cycle less arduous. So if you have a Child Of Prague, set him out. And the rest of you say a few prayers and send positive thoughts our way that we don’t make big mad eejits of ourselves. I’ll be back with a debrief some time next week. I hope.




SWB gets some tips from The Mothership

If you happened to be listening to Radio Ulster of a morning over the month of April, you may have heard a new voice on ‘Thought For the Day’. And that little voice belonged to me, Helen McClements, AKA Sour wee you-know-who.

I told some of my friends to tune in and a couple rang me in astonishment afterwards. ‘What that you?’ they said, ‘You sounded lovely! Totally different!’ (Oh the surprise of them.) One pal said: ‘I tuned in and thought it was someone else. So I turned it off again.’ That says a lot for my captivating message, doesn’t it?

Of course one was more surprised that I was going to be on the radio than the Mothership. Here’s how that chat went.

MOTHER: You’re going to be on where?’  (incredulous tone) Thought for the Day? I thought it was only people of note who got on to the like of that. Sorry. Not that you’re not ‘of note.’ But you’re not really, are you?

(Flip, but you wouldn’t need to be sensitive, would you?)

SWB: I wrote a few things and they liked them so I’ll be on for four Mondays in April.

MOTHER: And what, dare I ask, will you be ruminating upon? Not your terrible childhood in Bangor you keep writing about, I hope?

SWB: No, just topics like loneliness and parkrun. Friends and stuff.

MOTHER: Hmmmmmm. Well you had better let me vet them. God only knows what you’ll be saying, on the air.

SWB: I’ve already sent them on. I just have to go down and have them recorded.

MOTHER: So you’re reading them?

SWB: That’s usually how it works.

MOTHER: RONNIE, SHE’S GOING TO BE ON THE RADIO AGAIN. Sorry, I was just shouting up the stairs to your father. Now, you won’t like this, but I listened to you when you called into Frank’s Phone In and you didn’t sound well at all. Think it was cups you were on about. Plastic ones. But you were very nasally. As though you had a bad cold and were full of catarrh.

SWB: Deep sigh.

MOTHER: When I taught over in the Londonderry, (primary school in Newtownards for those unfamiliar with it) some of those children used to be singing down in their boots and I soon put them from it. It’s very simple, just hum through your teeth until your lips tingle. It clears out your airways. Do it now, til I hear you.

SWB: Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…. (humming)

MOTHER: Are they tingling? They have to tingle. If they don’t, you may as well not bother your head.


MOTHER: Good, now do that before you go in. And then say ‘Oranges and apples I eat everyday.’ That helps you enunciate. Stretches your mouth out.

SWB: Can I go now?

MOTHER: They could nearly have me on you know. I’ll have a think of some future ‘thoughts for the day’. I have plenty of things I could suggest.

SWB: Oh God.

So if you saw a short person walking in the direction of the BBC at the end of March, making odd shapes with her mouth and emitting a low buzzing sound, it was likely me.

(In fairness to the Mothership, when I listened in to the first one, I hardly recognised myself. She does, alas, know what she’s about. Just don’t tell her I said that.)