Monday, February 27, 2006

On the matter of Full & Plenty

I hate moving office, but so far, my colleagues tell me, I've hardly had to move at all. They were afflicted with continual migrations from halls to offices back to halls again when the building was being added to a few years back and before I joined it. I had to move maybe twice, or maybe three times altogether in the past two-and-a-half years, and today was the latest departure. This time it was only the matter of moving my computer and paper files 12 feet to another desk, but it wasn't long before I was pumping out perspiration and crawling about on the floor looking for cables and plug-sockets.

In the middle of this, I heard the ominous creak of a seam in my trousers giving way...

When one is in a unisex office one can hardly check the nature of one's tailoring on the spot by feel without causing some unwanted rumours to begin circulating. I also gave some seconds of thought to having a peek at the damage in the mirror over the wash-hand basins in the Gents toilets, but the thought of a colleague walking in to view me gazing at my out-thrust pelvis in the mirror might also have caused some problems. I only thought of going into a cublicle and dropping the whole lot to half mast when I started writing this evening. It was that kind of a day.

As chill winds didn't appear to be blowing, I left things as they were and carried on regardless. When I got home and changed out of the work duds, it transpired that the crotch seam had given up. Not a problem repairing it, and better than the arse part every time.

It reminded me of the story my father used to tell of one of our miserly bachelor landlords, the Doyles. These three brothers (I only remember two, as one died when I was very little) lived in squalor in Scholarstown, despite having at least two farms of land and livestock. I remember Pete Doyle coming to inspect the land we tenanted every week or so, and the way in which his ragged trousers were held up with baler twine. There was no Steptoe exagerration you could make about these characters that wasn't actually true.

Tom Doyle used to hover around the farm house mowing thistles with a scythe until my mother would inevitably invite him in to share a meal with our family. Tom would literally lick the plate clean and ask for seconds. We got the impression that was how the Doyle borthers did their washing up.

One evening, he was offered stew and when he'd eaten as much as he could in multiple helpings, each time wiping the merest leftover up with a crust of loaf bread cut by my mother, he eyed the new jar of strawberry jam that was sitting on the table.

"I only have one tooth," he grinned. "But it's a sweet one!"

My sister, Eva, watched in horror as he ate several rounds of bread, and each time he licked the big tablespoon clean before driving it back into the jam in the jar...

When he left, Eva grabbed up the jar, spoon and all and threw the whole lot out the back door into the ditch.

One day a bullock got out through a gap in the hedge and into the hilly pitch and putt golf course that my uncle maintained next to Doyle's Farm. In the event, the beast fell backwards down the steep bank into the river and broke its hip. The only way it could be contrived to get the crippled creature out of the river and up to the knacker's trailer was to load it onto a large sheet of corrugated iron and to have several men haul the makeshift sled up the hill to the road.

Tom Doyle oversaw the operation.

"Hup!" he shouted, as the men strained on the ropes.

Walking backwards up the hill, he "Hupped" and "Hupped" until, unbeknownst to himself, he came to a small raised hillock near the top.

"Hup!" he shouted as he stepped backwards, caught his noisome wellington boot on the hillock and went head over heels backwards onto the grass.

The men rolled about the grass, roaring with laughter.

"Oh, laugh at a man when he's down!" cried Tom, as he struggled to his feet. What he didn't know was that far from laughing at the simple slip, the men pushing and pulling the bullock up the slope got a prize view through the large rip in the seat of Tom's trousers of his unused marriage tackle.

My Uncle Joe, never one to miss an opportunity for a quip, chimed in when the first of the laughter had died down:

"They look like they haven't been washed since his mother last did it!"

The men rolled halfway down the slope again in convulsions.

The Doyles. My father always said that as misers they died "in the middle of full and plenty".

I must go and fetch the needle and thread before my own predicament shows through.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Published in Ireland of the Welcomes, Jul/Aug 1994
Exquisite freedom. At ten or eleven of the final school-room day, doors would open, releasing a flood of five- to twelve-year olds, running home on eager feet to holiday for weeks and weeks.

Smiling Summer stretched ever onwards. Gone were sleepy mornings 'round the blackboard; chalk-dust sunbeams mocking through open windows; odours of inkwells and school-bin lunches. Here instead the long lie-in; cattle calling in flowering fields; bacon frying; and Dingo, our Collie, racing, racing through the long grass, whimpering in dreams.

Mornings were soft awakenings, twigs awaiting in the empty fireplace, jackdaws, late-comers, early-starters, hopping awkwardly on the slate roof, building, ever building in the tall, old chimney pot.

Summer swallows careered through clouds of cow-following insects; rushing headlong from homes in rafters of the tin-roofed shed; darting suddenly leftward, rightward, mouth agape, dip-diving back again, feeding hungry, noisy chicks in the dry heat.

Summer robins in the fork of a half-grown, full-wild hedging plant, parked left of centre of a one-time rockery, nestlings, tiny, bald, and comical, lying still in a down-lined cup of grass and sheep's wool.

Days were syrup slow, panting in shade, or sitting bare-legged on the cold granite doorstep. Dingo's white tufts breezed out to join western-passing billows grazing a bluer, huger sky.

Remembering that sun... lying in idleness among yellow dandelions and whitest daisies; catching it in a squinting, rolled-up fist at midday; rounding it like a captive ball; laughing, releasing it to sail onwards, blindingly.

Horizons pinned its sky earthwards: lines of planted trees in far-off, quiet ranks; yellow-smudged furze bushes on the mountainside; turrets of an old ruin running downwards, and nearer, earlier memories -- greens rising westwards down the lane, over hedgerows, dotted sheep, an orchard, and finally the tall, thin, two-storey picture-book cottage where the Summer sun set nightly in blazing red.

These, I think, were the finest times -- more so even than days patrolling rabbit-lively ditches with Dingo; or climbing among fern-choked gullies at the heads of young streams; or even resting, legs adangle on the crumbling archway of the laneway bridge, listening to the wind-songs -- evenings when the last rays of the sun declining swept across our dooryard, spilling in the kitchen window where my mother stood, watching the daylight leave; the reddened, aged sphere slipping inexorably downwards, now a mere hairsbreadth above ground; now closer, touching, sinking down in fire that spread like spilled wine or melted wax -- a lengthening puddle across the skyscape, pouring into spaces between clouds until darkness pulled its blue mantle over all, stars appeared, and twilight gave way at last to full night.


Published on the Internet in 1999
If I remember rightly, Mrs. Margaret Holdsworth, of England, asked me to write something about the sea to remind her of her own childhood's happy memories. I was at a loss for a long while, as we visited the seaside infrequently, (and, it seemed to me, for far too short a stay each time). I hope this small piece does her request justice. Better late than never...!

White peaks glaring under blue skies, sugar frosted by the Summer sun, a pert breeze plucked the topmost sand-dunes, whipping and whirling about tufts of squat salt grass. In paths worn by bare feet descending, billows and hollows zig-zagged excitedly, joined the muddled multitude of the beach.

On their way tracks skipped across stones, steadied by a boulder at the head of the strand, tip-toed by a belt of blackened weeds drying in the heat, slipped through a pool, and darting to the edge of the water paused where glitterdusted beach-head softened of a sudden to shrilling, shrishing surf.

The morning, glorious, filled with the sounds of sky and sand and sea. Gulls wheeled and dived, following the fishing boats, squabbling, calling, crying, brilliant white blurs dipping, diving into water snapping at scraps, rising again to hover on wings, a lazy, elongated M-shape casting about, sharp eyes alert, alive, alight.

A low wind whistle-wrapped the headland, sliding sideways, meeting its fellow by the dunes, plunging down to water's edge where motes collided, dropped, mingled with the lapping waves casting, cast again, some making landfall, others sailing quietly out to sea in mud-brown clouds. The water, green-blue electric, lace-trim brimming, elegantly bowed, spread arms in a broad sweep, lapped, slapped, wink-twinkled, retired, and bowed again.

Caché of brine and salt-sea rising, heat released as sea-breeze silenced gathered in shimmering, shore-side sheets, air dancing, grass-skirts waving, spirals scribing, climbing, shifting sands, baked land... grand.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thy Neighbour's Goods

Car thefts and break-ins occur in cycles, because those who do it eventually move out of the area, and/or get locked up, or because they die of the drugs they're on and associated diseases that go with them. Eventually a new crop grow to the age where they want to get into this mischief and the cycle starts all over again. This holds true in our area of Tallaght as anywhere else.

A few years back, the fashion was to break into cars and steal the contents. A neighbour who had put his golf clubs into the boot was missing them the next day. Another, who worked in a local bar, was coming home in the early hours and disturbed two youths in the process of tampering with a car door. They fled over the back garden walls.

Our own car was damaged when someone tried to pry open the door. They bent the top of the door out and down before they were disturbed. The Gardaí who came to the scene later straightened the door out for us, a kindness we appreciated as it certainly wasn't within their official duties.

Against this background, I had no sympathy when I heard a miscreant being "encouraged" by a large Garda to disclose who else had been with him when they caught him in a stolen car in the field opposite our house at three in the morning.

At 4.00am in the middle of all this period of commotion, Brig leaped out of the bed and ran over to the window when she heard the noise of running feet outside.

There was a youth making right up the driveway, as bold as you like.

"Oi! You!" She shrieked through the open window. "F**k off!"

A plaintive voice floated up:

"Do you not want your milk?"


First published Ireland of the Welcomes, Jan/Feb, 1992.
It played in blue. Jetting free on wide wings it turned, spun, was active, was full. It soared: dancing; spinning in the skyscape. It slipped, skimming, rolled joyously. It dipped, rose again, spiralled, gliding upwards, peaked, stalled brightly, then sinking slowly backwards it hung easily on its own cushion of purest air.

Slowly now, fluid, musical, trickling downwards, alert for sudden updrafts that might cut it loose to flail helplessly away, it ranged among the lower airways, self-contained, watchful, and utterly alone...

Lower now, closer, a shimmering haze dusted horizons, masking, dulling blue and green. Shifting slick mirages flowed across the country road or stood in silver pools between the telegraph poles and stone walls of summer. White pebble in a crossroads; yellowed grasses by an iron pump; heat spread a thick blanket on the landscape. Flowers laden with pollen were worked by bees that hummed through purple meadows. Grasshoppers chirped and sang. The sky here was blue-grey, empty and huge.

There, the breeze -- curious child of the sun -- stirred slowly. It sank lower, more comfortably, lazily resting. Gently, deftly, the warm air rising tugged until it slipped gently sideways, hovering a little to gaze out over the green patchwork of fields, then plunged to earth. Heady vapours rose as it descended, fragrant bouquet of wildflowers, aromatic in the sunshine. The brisk smell of drying hay it carried with it from a yellow field, welcome as a home-coming and whispering like silk though land and woods.

Lower still, it brushed the greying margins of the roadway, swirling miniature dust-devils to dancing-dervish frenzy. It dropped, scurrying the length of the straight, dry ditch, waving leaves and branches wildly where it passed; kicking twigs and brambles before it in a drain-bed. Leaping out, it bounced across the road, capered by the pump, scuffed tufts of grass, skipped the low wall around, then dived recklessly over. Ripples scudded sideways in the brook beyond, scattering startled fishes under safer stones. Rambling the riverbank, it drank in the cool air that lingered near the water, puffed itself up, cast about, blew a tuneful, swaying blast through a crouching willow. It laughed as the tree tossed, shivered, clawed, creaked, murmured, stilled.

Pleased, it chased about the meadow, dodging flowers. It gambolled up the slope towards the crossroads, quartering the land. Then, from the hilltop, the lower world refreshed and cool beneath, it leapt suddenly upwards, joyously, wildly, carelessly, away. Skimming fresh cloudlets, it ranged among the airways of its true and only home -- that huge, blue silent dome of the big sky...

Still Day

Published on the Internet, August 1999
It's hard to believe, as I prepare this piece to reappear on the Internet, that it was as long ago as August '99 since I wrote it. At the time, I was trying to mend the broken piece of me that shapes words. Writing is like walking: if for some reason you're off your feet a long time you face a struggle to recover. I stumble every day.

Quietness spoke to me. The stillness of the farmhouse of an autumn evening; the loudest thing the tranquil ticking of the kitchen clock. Pots simmering, filled the room with heady scents of rich, warm foods. My mother, writing letters to relations. The dog asleep; the table set, the family not yet home, but coming soon.

Outside, the weather colder; fat grazing cows, cropping the last few faded clumps of grass before the first frosts put paid to growth. Now, the thorns were rich with sloes, thumb-fat, purple, bitter when bitten. Their juice sucked out the mouth’s moisture.

Stillness filled the empty spaces between their sharp barbs; black branches, bereft of leaves marking the passage of the year from this season to the next. Above them, the pale blueness of the dome of the empty sky pulled further away from the drowsy earth, its air dry, unmoving, infinite.

Even the streams bubbled low. Their waters gliding gently past the brown banks, through naked briars, eddying around twigs and leaves and autumn’s leavings.

And then, as the clock ticked on, the windows misting from the cooking pots, the dog rousing, listening, the latch of the gate would lift, and here his boots ascending the stony path to the house, my father home, with him his eldest son and daughters in the lane. Teatime conversation of days events, clutter cleared away and fireside waiting, waiting, for sleep and the darkness of night.

The Carer's Allowance

My mother, Maureen Walsh, died of complications of an Alzheimer's-like illness on 27th October, 2001. She was 77 years of age.

Maureen (my mother) was in Respite Care towards the end of September, 2001, in Bellevista House on South Circular Road, Dublin. When I left her there for two weeks she was distressed, confused, not remembering her earlier stay in February after which she didn’t want to come home. She shared a room with five others, right in front of the Nurse’s Station in the Primrose Ward. The walls were painted that colour; the other ward was the Lilac.

I’d resisted applying for the Carer’s Allowance because of work I did on the computer. Teaching people how to use it brought in more money than was allowed under the means test, and so I was stuck between trying to make enough to keep up the car repayments and the rest and trying to provide a proper tuition service while keeping one ear cocked for Maureen in the other room. This fortnight “off” was something to look forward to and I was NOT going to feel guilty like I’d done in February.

How I’d wept when I came home that first time. I just hoped she wasn’t lonely because she’d never been away from my father and from me before.

But September was promising more. I had the Allowance, and under the new rules I could keep up the computer work and use a free travel card on the buses. King for a day, every day! I took her empty suitcase home with me on the number 65 to Tallaght and stopped off in the Penny Black to buy my dinner.

Then my father’s brother died on a weekend trip to Wales. John had had heart trouble before, but he’d kept himself active. His main interest throughout his life was in cars, car engines, vintage cars especially. He, his son Damien and another brother, Jim, went to a car show and on the way back he fell ill and died.

The day of his funeral I was sick with a heavy cold. It was raining, and I decided not to go. But that afternoon I got a call from the Nursing Home to go see my mother, who’d taken a fall.

Maureen had banged her head and though it looked bad (the nurse said) she hadn't fractured anything. I had the pleasure of Mom’s company for a number of hours in the X-Ray Department of the nearby Saint James's Hospital, in Dublin while we waited for the offical all-clear. Ten minutes in, I wanted to strangle the woman. She didn't have a doorkey, she complained, over and over and over again. The fact that we wouldn't be going home afterwards hadn't dawned on her, but her levels of suspicion were high. Finally, I walked her from the taxi to the Lilac Ward again. "Don't you leave me here" she wailed in anger and in grief as I parked her back into the care of the nurses. In a few minutes time, she'd believe she'd always lived there, but for me it was a heartbreak. You wouldn't leave a dog at the vet's without a bit of guilt. Leaving your mother in the care of strangers felt so much worse. So much for resolutions.

Anyway, the two weeks went by quickly, as they had on the previous time, and she was in bed and refusing to stir when I called back for her. "It's nice that you came to visit," she said. "But I'm going to die here." She closed her eyes. The nurses struggled with her to get her up and dressed. She didn't understand she was going home, cursed them, fought with then, but home we went. She was distracted by the traffic, wondering where we were going.

It was obvious that her health gone downhill in the fortnight away. She needed to be led, and she resented being led. She struck out, kicking, slapping, pinching. She became incontinent and had difficulty eating. I thought she might have had another small stroke while she was away.

I wasn’t worried. Somehow when you’re caring for someone who’s taken all the pills, seen all the doctors and who still is on the slippery slope, you switch off all the conscious worries and bury your daily grief. When she came home I almost felt the big switch trip in my head. There was a job to do on this and every day and I was the one doing it.

My father also had to make adjustments, which for him, I think were harder. No matter how I spent my day, washing her, feeding her, trying to get her moving, bringing her on fruitless journeys to the toilet, I at least walked out that door at 7:30 pm. Then it was the “night-shift”, and Tom had to lie half awake, to listen for her. At night, despite the sleeping pills, she’d get out of the bed and wander. Dad hung an iron gate at the top of the stairs to fence her in on the landing. But he didn’t sleep. He couldn’t. Even so, he had to leap from the bed sometimes in the small hours to pick her up from off her bedroom floor. Sometimes she could stand, but she couldn’t always walk at night.

The family gathered for my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary at the end of September 2001, none of us telling her, of course, that there was going to be a party, as she would have flatly refused to go. In the event it went very well indeed. Maureen didn't know where she was or much about who she was with but she was good-humoured, if baffled. We had a good meal in good company in the Black Forge Inn and the party resumed at the house. One of the last photos I have of her was taken then. Her grand-daughter, Elaine, who’ll be married herself in September 2002, sat beside her smiling. My mother peered suspiciously at the camera lens.

Next day, we siblings had the long-planned chat about her immediate future. Naturally, those who hadn't seen her on a daily basis expressed shock at her deterioration. I estimated that she had about a month to live. (In the end, she didn't quite have that). But even so we said that it was time that we looked for a permanent solution in the form of a nursing home.

Maureen beat us to the punch. Towards the end of October I couldn’t feed her any more and I sent for the doctor to ask his advice about hospital care. He phoned for an ambulance. I washed and dressed her through the blows and the curses. Two burly Dublin Fire Brigade men wrapped her in a green blanket and my father kissed her goodbye. He’d never see her alive again. We went through the motions in the Outpatients Department of Tallaght Hospital. “This is Willie’s way of getting rid of his mother,” she said to me, lying on a trolley in the corridor. I think it was the only thing she ever said in her life to me that cut me through and through. I could only flip a few more switches in my head, ones I didn’t know were there. Nurses came and went. She was moved to an examination cubicle where she slept fitfully all day. At times, she tried to struggle off the bed, or remove the drip from her arm. She beat the nurses and a young, black woman doctor. I was perversely amused that they couldn’t handle her. Sometimes I helped them examine her; other times surveyed their technique critically. It felt good that someone else was on the receiving end for a while.

I couldn’t fault the hospital staff, who did everything they could. It was a Friday and we arrived about 1:30 in the afternoon. They took tests all day. Brig arrived after work in the evening. It was 9:30 pm when a doctor other than the A&E junior had time to see her. She was young and confident, but unable for my mother, who slapped her as soon as she came near. I was tired, but I crooned something soothing into my mother’s ear until she calmed a little. Finally, they agreed to hospitalise her. My last words to her were: “Well, Mother… I’m off now. Remember, if you have to hit somebody, make sure and ball your hand into a fist beforehand!” The young doctor said a wry “Thanks a lot,” and I left. It was about 10:00 pm.

I stayed away all week, with the exception of telephone calls. She was very ill, unable to swallow food, drink, or medication. She beat the hospital staff and refused treatment. They were able to rehydrate her, but things were not looking good, they said. Dad and I would see her on Saturday. On Friday night, I went to bed and was awoken in the early hours of Saturday by a telephone call. Would I come to the hospital? Maureen had suffered a heart attack and had had to have the resuscitation team. I asked was she still on the ward. The moment’s hesitation in the nurse’s voice before she said yes told me she had died.

I’d never seen Tallaght Hospital at night before. Like a small city within its walls, it bustles with people coming and going. It has its own shops, even a bank, in the lobby. Tonight, only the porter was about. He let me in and watched as I walked over to the lifts. The John Osbourne Ward was near the back of the hospital along a curving corridor. “You’ll remember this walk for a while,” I said to myself as I passed by closed and darkened storerooms, offices, following the arrows on the hanging signs. I was met by a young nurse, wringing her hands. She was trying to find words to tell me the worst possible news. I told her it was okay, and not unexpected. She kept telling me how sorry she was. Would I like tea? To talk to the Hospital Chaplain? There was a nun of some kind hovering about. She offered me condolences. Unsure of Mom’s religion, the Catholic Chaplain had given her the Last Rites. They hoped I wasn’t offended. I told them she wouldn’t have minded. Finally, I got to see her.

She lay peacefully in bed near the door of the ward, her hands folded outside the bedsheet. “Well, Mom,” I said. “You’ve gone on ahead then.” I touched her face. It was still warm. I sighed, and went back out. Prayers were never my thing.

The night wore on as it had to. My sister and brother-in-law arrived and we contacted those in England who needed to hear; broke the news to my father and faced into a new day. Saturday. Eva, my sister, hugged me. “We’ve done this before,” she said. “This will be your first time.”

An MP3 Player in bed is too much like hard work

So the new MP3 player is taking a little time to slot into my millionaire lifestyle.

It has taught me new things about my "easy as" computer. Although following the hard drive failure 14 months in... we shall not speak of 12 month warranties... I already had an idea not to ever buy one of their PCs again, this was reaffirmed when I discovered that the handy USB port in the tower's front wasn't so handy when the machine is on the floor and you have to creep around on all fours trying to plug it in. That discomfort dealt with, I discovered that Windows had absolutely no notion that the player existed.

An hour of pushing and poking and cross-referencing on the Internet revealed that the ports in the back of the PC were a later version of USB, and that (naturally enough) following another episode of crawling about with the cat eying me nervously the player would plug in and Windows could recognise it.

I then proceded to download a heap of miscellaneous music from my PC. This consisted of a kind of rocky-pop playlist I have and a playlist of Blues from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s I'm still working on. As I was too busy practising inpromptu yoga among the computer cables, I haven't figured out the method (if any) of making new folders on the player, so they all went into the wash together.

Sunday last, Brig went out to meet her sister, so I had the perfect excuse to test the player. It hangs on a snazzy white rope thing from the neck, and it fits neatly up the jumper. I made a mental note to wear it differently when not in the privacy of my own home, because spasmodically stuffing one's hand up one's jumper in public to fiddle with the miniature player controls would probably frighten passersby.

On Monday night, I thought the soothing sounds might be restful, so I declared I was going to wear the player in bed. Brig looked kind of sideways at me over this, but she didn't make any objections.

"Goodnight," she said.

I popped out an earphone and said:


"I said, Goodnight."

"Oh. Yes. Goodnight."

I popped the earphone back in.

"Is the clock set?"

I popped an earphone back out.


"I said, is the clock set?"

"Of course the clock's set. Goodnight."

I popped the earphone back in.

"Don't forget to wake me if you hear the alarm clock."

I popped an earphone back out.


"I said, don't forget to wake me if you hear the alarm clock."


I left the earphone out and waited. Nothing. I popped the earphone back in.

"Do you love me?"


I popped the earphone back out.

"I said do you love me?"

"Yes I love you. Goodnight."


I lay there looking up at the ceiling. After a few minutes the sounds of deeper breathing indicated she had at last fallen asleep.

"Deadly!"I thought and popped the earphone back in. Anastascia was being left outside alone. Then Big Bill Broonzy was digging his potatoes. Next Muddy Waters was wishing he was a catfish. Then Bon Jovi was having a nice day.

My two feet were waving back and forth in the bed like windshield wipers.

I was thinking:

"I'll just listen to one more then go asleep."

The "one more" turned into another. I thought I could cheat by using the "Next" button every so often. The sheer number of songs was getting the better of me. Years ago, when I wore those big heavy headphones while listening to an LP record, you had maybe 24 songs, tops. This yoke had a capacity for hundreds!

Finally, I'd had enough and switched it off. I extricated myself from the wiring and dropped the player gently onto the floor. I looked at the alarm clock.

"Two in the morning! Oh crap...!"

Work tomorrow, and here's me only going asleep at two! Oh well. I rolled over. The tune of "Diggin' my potatoes" was jumping along through my head. Washboard Sam was giving it socks on his favourite instrument and the jangling Blues guitar was making my toes twitch. And the MP3 player was switched off and under the bed!

It was a long night.

When the clock went off at six, I blearily opened one eye. I felt like death. I'd spent half the night rehashing the songs in my mind and when I did go to sleep I was dreaming about running around places looking for the MP3 player.

Okay. Not on the bus and not in bed. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Why I may not ever use an MP3 player on the bus

There were two young men behind me on the bus chatting away as I was on my way home one evening last week. From the conversation I figured out that the twosome were making their own way home from a day in a training centre for intellectually disabled people.

They spoke about the various jobs they were doing and who among their work colleagues had said this and that. They also discussed an upcoming trip to Wexford or Waterford. Then the conversation (in perfectly annunciated English, with every attention to detail, including all the "-ing" sounds) turned to a philosophical nature:

"What way would you like to die? I mean, exploded or what?"
"I don't know."
"This world is going to end and then be reborn with only the animals left living on it. So which way would you like to die?"
"What would the animals do with the world?"
"The same as us. Eat. Shag. Shit..."
"Mess the place up."
"Yes. There are only three things in life. What are they?"
"Yes. What else?"
"Yes. What else?"
"Say it again."
"Say it again, louder."
"That's right. Well done"

I didn't miss my stop, thanks for asking. The new MP3 player, I think, will stay in the house a little longer.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Put one small miscellaneous piece out of place and the whole thing comes tumbling down

I don't know exactly why the dog was called Patch, because I don't think it had one on it anywhere, but the fact was that patchy or patchless I was going to mind the darned thing. This was a few years ago, and the pooch was a kind of long-legged, wide-arsed Jack Russell terrier my sister had acquired. That Patch had made it as far as Tallaght on the bus was a miracle in itself, because the dog was hog wild, as our American friends say. I don't think it got out much. And while my sister, Eva and my mother went shopping, I was to make sure the same rule applied.

It was a fine day, and I think I was doing something in the front garden, so Patch got to sun herself on the lawn and look out the gate. I could keep half an eye on her. It was going fine, so my thoughts turned to lunch. There was a meat pie in the fridge which just fitted the bill, so I put the oven on to heat and went back to clipping the hedge. In about 20 minutes, I put the pie into the oven and closed the door. When I got back outside, the gate was open and two toddlers from up the road were waving Patch goodbye as she disappeared over the horizon.

I couldn't curse too much in front of the kids, so I made some noise like


and galloped down the road after the dog. If my sister came back and the thing was lost I was a goner.

Patch and I shared one thing in common. Neither of us went running very often. Zig-zagging just didn't help her, I was gaining fast. Eventually, she considered a possible hiding to be better than the cardiac arrest she was about to suffer and keeled over on the green, four legs stuck stiffly into the air in submission.

I grabbed up the pooch and made for home in my best nonchalant walk. I put her down none-too-tenderly on the lawn and tried to remember how to breathe. Both our tongues were hanging out, but I resisted the urge to nudge her aside from the water bowl and start lapping.

When I got my breath back, I made sure the dog knew it was in trouble. She slouched around unhappily and tried to keep out of my way.

"Bloody dog," I grumbled, wondering how many years had been shed from my life.

After a while, I started to feel sorry for her. She looked so miserable, I decided she could share some of the meat pie.

We both looked into the oven on all fours. In fact, the pie looked so nice through the glass that if I'd had a tail I'd have wagged it.

Of course, thinking of the dog's discomfort, I forgot some basic safety procedures, such as

"Don't stick your head in the oven door the instant you open it."

Good God! The blast of heat singed my eyebrows and the dog's whiskers in one fell swoop and the two of us retreated, yelping, for the far corner.

When Eva and my mother arrived in later, Patch and I were sitting at the table, quietly eating meat pie. I thought it the only fair solution. If she noticed the dog was whiskerless, Eva never said.

Palm Sunday

First published on the Internet, 8th April, 2001

I always liked the Kris Kristofferson song, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down". Every weekday and second Sunday, I'm on duty looking after my mother, who has Alzheimer's. This piece describes what the walk is like on Sunday from where I've been, to where I'm going.

I closed the door and locking it behind me, stepped down onto the concrete path and turned away. Silent cars and vans were parked along the road like boats pulled up on little sleepy islands above the tide, resting, nose to nose. Their owners dozed in dim rooms while a man walked by with two dogs in the field. They were busy examining the hedgerow, and he strolled slowly, looking back to make sure they didn't wander. He wore a hat. One dog, a golden Labrador, wagged its tail in that broad, slow, lazy way they do when they're being a little more adventurous than they're sure is good for them. The other, one of the longer haired, golden Labs, lolloped about in the broad, swimming expanse of new grass happily. Its snout was wet with cold dew and it sneezed and blinked.

The grey paths wore patches and they flowed off westwards by screens of green shrubs. On the corner, the cherry trees had roots as round as a man's head, corkscrewing under the topsoil, ploughing through, heaving up a hydrant cover outside number sixteen. Red leaves were budding and I could see long, slender shoots emerging around callused wounds of last season's pruning. The daffodils in the gardens were just losing the best of their flowers but the lawns were growing, succulent and green.

The tall trees along the convent boundary were full of refurbished nests. Ravens had a rookery there for as long as anyone can remember, and a couple of their cousins, later-building jackdaws, were picking up sticks on the road. They'd find some disused chimney pot somewhere and drop them in patiently until one managed to get crossways, then another and another until a platform was created and they could furnish their nest. It was long past sunrise, and the raven colony was dispersed about its business in the fields and along the roadways. In twos and threes now they walked along the ground, eyeing, hopefully, discarded takeaway brown paper bags, lifting up pieces of litter quickly to see if food lay beneath.

Spring was seeping up out of the soil on this Sunday morning. Palm Sunday. I could smell it in the fresh, rich air and feel it in the warmth of the sun on my back. It would take me about twenty-five minutes to walk home, and I was thinking, as I stepped alongside the traveller encampment on the Firhouse Road, how nice it must be on mornings like this to wake up and throw open the trailer door, to hear the blackbirds in song in the gardens of the Carmelite convent on the other side of the tarmac. I wasn't paying much attention -- just looking at the wide-open doors of the trailer and the cars -- until I realised that a window of the trailer was smashed in, and the cars were also. One had been set alight. Its blackened shell sat silently in the trampled grass of the green belt that four caravans had parked on the week before. One trailer tyre was in tatters, whether deliberately slashed, or run on, flat, until it was simply worn away I couldn't tell. An empty yellow gas cylinder stood outside. Of the other three trailers, the red-haired children, the women who called to the convent door with empty water pails in the evening, there was no sign. Moved on; one way or another... Directly opposite were parked the cars of the faithful, attending 9:00 Mass in the little convent chapel, with the priest telling them of Jesus' triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the people waving and laying palms on the street before him in welcome. I turned sideways to squeeze by, feeling the rough stone of the ten-foot convent wall brush against my shoulders. A trickle of dry rendering flaked off and fell on the ground among the new season's growth of weeds.

A man stood impatiently at the lower bus stop. He had a foreign, Eastern European look and he stamped his feet, looking up and down the road. Behind him, a young man and a young woman were settling themselves to wait, seated on the low wall. She jumped up and went for cigarettes in the newsagent's shop. Morton's pub was closed. A learner driver stalled his car at the new Ballycullen-Firhouse Road junction, then over-revved to negotiate the bridge across the motorway. I turned left at the corner. A petite, middle-aged woman dressed in Sunday best hurried past going in the opposite direction, her face kept steadily down, her arms folded over her heavy gold-coloured neck chain. She was dressed in black slacks and a matching jumper. Her hair had been recently styled. I looked for the ginger cat that played sometimes in the pub's car park, tail twitching, keeping flat to the ground as wagtails hopped deliciously close across the white painted lines of the parking spaces. He wasn't there today. He was probably still at home in one of the two-storey houses of Mount Carmel Park I was passing.

A sign at the footbridge over the river Dodder read 'Diverted Traffic', and an arrow pointed onto it. Brown river water fell down the weir into channels between gravel shoals restored by workmen a few years before. They had dragged rocks into the foot of the weir using a mechanical digger. A heron stood hunched on one of them in the early morning and late evening. The river ran artificially straight under the motorway downstream.

I walked through broken glass bottles into the first underpass. The graffiti had been painted out with light-grey paint. Some of it still showed through. Somebody had gone to great pains to smash the lighting. The metal grilles fitted to protect the strip lights were bent inwards. I wondered if a length of six-by-four I'd passed on the red cycle track had been used as a ram. Cars circled above me, around the central green space of the interchange. The caged-in pedestrian bridge spanning the M50 below it was deserted. Above were nests of street lamps hanging from immensely-tall metal poles that grew more slender near the top. In fog, when the poles disappeared, the lights hung disembodied, UFO-like. There were skid marks on the cycle track. I looked left before I crossed it. In the second underpass, a new crop of graffiti was already growing. 'Doyler,' a girl who owned a red marker, loved someone or other. Someone else was gay, she said. A cast-iron bollard lay broken at the foot of the hill, rolled down from the head of the footpath. There were signs that a stolen car had been set alight at the end of Tymon Lane. A dozen or so metal cable clips from its interior were scattered on the ground like crumbs left over from when the Council's grab truck had come to haul the wreck away. A few blobs of lead from the melting battery were visible on the road.

'All visitors must report to the site office,' a sign read at Glenview House, the flats where the Health Board housed asylum seekers while their claims were processed. A compound of tall railings and barbed wire surrounded some leftover building materials. Outside, was a company car with one yellow wheel hub -- the kind used as a temporary spare. The owner had been driving on it a long time. There were marks on the windscreen from worn wipers or from something thrown on the glass. The road surface was grey with dust from the constant works on the motorway, pipe-laying, ducting.

A heavy chain was wrapped three times around the gates of the second-hand car sales yard. It was padlocked. I thought about the saying I used to hear when I was small: 'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' All that chain ... A slim, black man walked along the old Tallaght Road carrying groceries. He kept his head down, looking at no one. He wore a cream-coloured fleece and baggy black trousers. Three white teens in expensive tracksuits and American style baseball hats sneered at me as I passed them. One was carrying a badminton racket in a purple, zip-up cover. He juggled it. I suppose they were going to the Spawell to play on one of its indoor courts. They'd walk over the deserted, caged-in pedestrian bridge I'd just passed by, then take the long, long, footpath to Wellington Lane, by the dual carriageway. They might go to town after on the 65 bus, to spend their money. Big soft mammy's boys, trying to tough it; back in school tomorrow, looking sidelong at girls.

I didn't think the gates of Tymon Park would be open this early in the morning and as the next exit is a mile out of my way, I decided to walk through the housing estates instead of taking the usual shortcut across country. The private houses I passed were tightly packed with narrow gardens and bay windows. Young couples had begun replacing their wooden window frames with aluminium or PVC. I didn't think they suited, somehow. Some had new, modern railings to fence in their small plots of land. There were more parked cars and builder's vans, resting half on the kerbs, or pulled in neatly in the driveways. On Monday morning, they'd leave, one after another, to join the queues of traffic heading north to the city, or west to offices and workshops in suburban industrial estates. The newspapers would be full of gloom about interest rates and equities. 'For Sale' signs would peep, expectantly, over some of the wrought-iron railings.

In Balrothery, I passed through a lane with a short street lamp in its middle. The heavy, galvanised standard had been modifed with a large hinge, a yard from the ground. A worker could fold the whole thing down like a pocket-knife to change the bulb without a ladder or lifting gear. One man has blocked up his garage windows as they keep being broken by stones. Another has filled his garden with white pebbles. They lie washed up between black timbers, with the family car parked beside. Many of the backyard lanes are blocked with iron gates or closed off with block walls. At several corners there were flowerbeds with shrubs and things from garden centres. Some footpaths were tricky to walk on as 30 years of gas, electricity and telephone lines have left their marks.

In Castle Lawns, a man keeps classic cars in his front garden. One was painted grey; its old-fashioned 1950s headlights stared out from behind a modern car, parked crossways like a barrier. The lawn was paved over with red brick.

I met an old woman leading a small white dog. She peered at me suspiciously, knocked her walking stick off the ground so I knew she was carrying a potential weapon, and wished me a good morning. I returned the compliment and crossed the road. The grass verge by the Community School fence was rutted by the feet of hundreds of school goers in the mornings. Two people selling some kind of newspaper stood in expectation, one at each door of Saint Aongus church, waiting for the congregation to spill out. When it did, a woman clutched her handbag tightly as a man in a grubby nylon coat passed her by, his son's hood up and almost covering his face. Their hands were each thrust deep into the pockets of their coats. She turned off the path into a group of houses, and they carried on down the road, ignoring her. Another woman hurried into the Community Centre with a small bag of last minute groceries.

At the small, local shopping centre, the units on the southern side stood closed. Macaris, New Park Meats, the Chinese Takeaway whose name I can never remember... Strike Electric is going to be a hairdresser's, next week. Beside them, the Christian shop was open for business, its shutters up. The breeze-block walls of the electricity transformer behind the library were still pierced through. A kid had stood on a metal bar there some weeks before and been severely electrocuted. They say he'll lose some toes.

There were few people about on our road. Billy Devoy was taking something from the boot of his car and didn't see me passing. He moved through into his garage, deep in thought. As I entered the garden, I waved to Noel Logan, driving out for the Sunday papers. The latchkey turned in the lock and I closed the door behind me.

'How's my son?' my mother asked. She was standing, framed by the kitchen door, the light behind her, her hands on her hips. She was wondering if I would make my own tea.

'Fine,' I said. 'Anything strange?'

'No,' she said. 'Everything is deadly dull.'

Sunday, February 19, 2006

I shall now proceed with the mid-life crisis.

It's been a very strange and pleasant weekend. Saturdays I tend to lounge around, if I can, and (literally) let the hair down. My father sent over a gift of two jumpers he'd bought in the Lidl outlet, and I was pleased to find they approximately fit me. The black one, with its shoulder epauletes had a "Workzone" label inside and a slightly military look. This meant that with the wild hair and unshaven Saturday chins, I looked like the carpark attendant from Lost.

Although I knew my "surprise" birthday party was to be on Saturday, it was still very surreal to see my family gathered in the one spot without marrying off or burying someone. Also, the presents and cards that were handed to me in a steady stream just didn't register as being mine. I had to look them all over again today and put the cards up on the mantlepiece before it started to dawn through the fuzz of last night's alcohol that I wasn't minding them for someone else.

It's true to say I'm still in mild shock at the fact that I'm forty tomorrow and that Brig organised a great family party with catering and rounds of drinks, speeches and everything for me. Thanks a million for that, babe.

I've been very introspective over the "milestone" this past week. Some of my workmates even commented that I was quieter than usual, and speculated that I was just listening out for material for the blog! The truth was that I was looking forward to this fabled life that begins at forty, as the saying goes, while, at the same time, thinking about how much life has changed for me -- for the whole family, really -- over the past five years or so. You can probably glean some of this from entries on these pages.

Still mildly stunned, the night after the party. In case any of my thanks went unsaid, I'd like to again say how grateful I am to everyone in the immediate family and in my extended family who took time off and travelled, helped out, moved furniture or turned up in comedy spectacles... I love you all.

William was born

My sister, Joan, read this aloud to us at a family gathering last night

Mum was forty two when she was pregnant with her baby. Near her due date she developed high blood pressure. The doctor decided to take her into hospital to keep an eye on her and of course the baby. Eva and I were left at home to "take care" of Dad. Eva was thirteen and I was eleven. The taking care of Dad was not what it seemed, we couldn't cook! He came home from work every evening to see that we were ok, have his dinner and maybe go for a few pints afterward. Time went on but we did not go in to see Mum. I never thought of asking anyway.

We made dinner one night that I remember, boiled spuds, veg and a pork chop. Dad came in as usual but the potatoes were still boiling in the pot. Ever try willing something to cook quickly? I tested the spuds and decided they were done. Dad sat down and started to eat. He ate the chop but left the veg. Off he went to the pub. Wondering why he left the dinner, I tasted it. The spuds and veg were half-way cooked, no wonder he couldn't eat them. Ah well, he didn't complain so all was ok.

One Sunday Dad gave us some money to go to the pictures. We had enough for the bus fare, our way in, and some sweets. I can't remember what was on but it was an afteroon matinee. Later we made our way home and just as we passed Granny Walsh's house she spotted us and told us to come in for tea. We wanted to go home but she said Dad would be meeting us there later. We reluctantly went in for our tea.

Granny made a nice tea, but on the occasions we were there she made us wash up in the plastic basin on her kitchen table. Granny had taps and a sink in her kitchen but only cold water ran from the taps. She boiled water in her kettle and poured it steaming into the basin. We were not allowed to add cold water to cool things down. She used China cups and saucers. Thinking back, how the China survived was amazing.

Later we went to the sitting room to watch television. Granny asked us if we would like a brother or sister. I said I would like a brother.

"Well you got your wish", she told us. "Your mother had her baby today."

We were excited, but personally I tried not to show how happy I was in front of her. Dad arrived soon after that and he was grinning from ear to ear.

"When can we see the baby?" we asked.

In those days, mums stayed in hospital for a week after the birth. We would have to wait till they came home.

Mum had been gifted a pram by a woman she worked for. The woman was German, hence a German-made pram. I don't think anyone in the whole of Ireland had a pram like it!

Great, the day arrived, they were coming home! We had a pillow inside the pram and a hot water bottle with a baby blanket Mum had bought all tucked in neatly. Dad had gone to collect Mum and the baby. We waited excitedly at the kitchen window.

As it was February, it got dark early in the evening, so by the time we were waiting we were looking for car lights. At last, the car was coming up the lane. We ran down as fast as we could carrying the body of the pram, Eva one side, me the other. Mum appeared crying and with no baby. She explained that he had yellow jaundice and was kept in hospital. My God, how long more would we have to wait! I realise now Mum's hormones were probably running riot which made her cry so much.

A few days later, Mum told us the baby could come home. She brought us with her to collect him. We had to get three buses to the hospital, but we were getting a taxi home. We waited in the public waiting room till Mum came down with her precious bundle wrapped up snugly in two blankets.

"Can I see him???"

"No. Wait till we get in the taxi", Mum said.

Jaysus! More waiting!

Sitting in the warm taxi, Mum pulled the blanket down for us to see. I instantly thought how beautiful my brother was. A little yellow, perhaps, and hardly any hair, but perfect.

Mum chatted away to the driver. Her usual saying as we can all tell you was:

"There are ten years between my baby and my last one."

She was so proud, her green eyes twinkling. William has inherited her twinkling green eyes. The rest of us have blue eyes.

We arrived home and I remember I kept going over to look at him for the rest of the day. I sat beside Mum as she fed him his first bottle at home. I remember also hearing him cry that first night for a feed. I got out of bed and asked Mum was he ok.

"Oh yes", Mum replied. "Babies wake up every four hours to be fed."

I was awe-struck but glad I wouldn't be the one getting up every four hours. The routine went on.

Mum and Dad named the baby William James. William -- or Willie, as everyone calls him -- will be forty years old on 20th February 2006.

Happy Birthday, Willie.
Love always,
From Joan.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Ivy on the Old Mill

Ireland of the Welcomes, Mar/Apr 1991
Wild ivy brushed the arched bridge by the village school, creeping blindly, silently, on woody limbs towards the field and thorny hedgerow, gliding onwards by the boundary fence, until it found a quiet, unfrequented place, and gathered itself to leap suddenly upwards to prowl the weathered stones of the ruined mill. It paced the dizzy heights in one, slow stretch, plunged carelessly through the veiled windows to pad the lower levels where fogs gathered in the hollow of the evening. It peered through wind-hewn crevices where mice nested and reddish spiders swarmed. It slunk through mossy banks to twine about old roots, or dipped its spreading leaves towards the stream where moonlight gathered on the water. It menaced the blackthorn and the hazel tree, then glibly shrugged along the footpath, questing and curious.

It was careless too of the worn banks, where a wooden wheel once creaked, where a miller sweated and coughed to the sound of toothed wheels and pulleys, counterweights, the crackle of the drying-kiln, and the rounded stone, turning on its axle. Instead, it hung languorously from a mouldering beam of the aged floors, dangling, tail-like, one branch of waxy leaves, nonchalantly swinging in the breeze, caressing the splintered wood with gnarly fingers, whispering a tune as ancient as the bones of the mountains, as unchanging as the works of men fleet by. It may have listened to the evensong, as the brook, unfettered, scoured the fallen masonry, lilting to the nightime chorus of frogs and hunting-beetles in the grasses. It may have sensed the stirring of the barn-owl, emerging from the cleft behind the sheltered window, peering forth into the gathering gloom, or heard the faint scratching of mice beneath the hazel tree. It may have simply lain there, prying, insouciantly, at old, mortared blocks, loosening a stone here, another coping there, adding to the small, night noises the low patter of trickling dust.

Oblivious to the ghosts of labours past, it grows there, ignoring the rusted gears and cracked stone of the long-dead miller. Redundant, forgotten, and disused, they lie enshrouded in gossamer, faithful servants of another age. Slowly, as the moon rides lower, they decay a little more in their crumbled mausoleum, while the ivy, resting, waiting, sighing in the freshening breeze, clings comfortably, snarling shoots around a ledge as the sun rises and a trout breaks the surface of the stream below. It drinks in pure water of the mountains, extending, in one, sure movement, feeling the sun and its heat, putting forth a tightening grip on the living stone and pulling upwards to the blessed blue of the morning sky.

Going Back

Ireland of the Welcomes, Jul/Aug, 1993
It was the same. There at the roadway a pair of granite gate-posts; the crumbling sides of the arched bridge; the stream beneath.

It was different though. The gate-posts lacked the granite caps of old, prised off to add a touch to some bungalow's modern splendour; the crumbling bridge sides had been pointed and plastered to keep out the rain and frost; the stone-filled stream seemed no longer a hundred feet below the road.

We looked up the lane -- that lane I tramped from school with a burgeoning load of school-books; where a tin bread-bin would sit in a nook with a warm loaf inside (the lane being too long and rough for deliverymen to traverse in comfort); where envelopes or milk bottles nestled in an old, bird-proof, electricity-meter box on a post -- and there was the iron gate into the field.

Somehow, the white, new Nissan car didn't seem the match of the ancient lane, so we got out and walked -- picking our steps; (As my mother used to remind me on the way to school in the morning -- 'Pick your steps, now' she'd say, and I'd always wonder, as children wonder, what the words meant); picking our steps across the rutted lane where a small rivulet now ran ('That wasn't there before'); up the lane where cattle grazed in the fenced-off field ('The old hedgerow has grown neglected'); and where two horses ('horses!') eyed us solemnly from afar.

It was fifteen years or more since leaving. Brig had never been there, but had listened to my tales of roaming the fields, playing in the river, all the childish things I'd done when it was still possible to be a child, and still okay to play.

There was the house, or what was left. The windows were gone, the roof removed, and all the slates taken. The garden, overgrown even in the past, was levelled. The sheds still stood, but likewise were roofless. Everything of childhood was swept up and tidyed, put into some cardboard box in a back-room and backwater of local history.

'The Walshes lived there.' Who could doubt it? I stood at the iron gate looking up towards the yard. There was the lone tree of old -- a Fairy Tree, we were told -- the cattle track they used to and from the river; the green sweep of the field rising towards the furthest hedgerows; the woods beyond. Nearer to hand and down the bank, the boulder Dad dug out of the farmyard and dumped in the river; the green, wet bog (not a real bog, but soft enough to get your boot stuck in if you weren't careful); the briars -- now long, straggling, and barren -- where thumbnail-sized blackberries had grown.

'Shall we go in?' Brig said, looking at the cattle in the field, meaning that we might climb over the gate and walk towards the buildings. I didn't think so.

There were ghosts in that house. Not the familiar ghosts that kept us company day in and out, knocking secret knocks on the front door; standing in the windows during the day; creeping up behind at night.

They were other ghosts, the ghosts of childhood things that were better left undisturbed unless, like the deep-remembered drop to the river from my schoolboy bridge, they would diminish in adulthood to insignificance.

Once I had known every bush and tree; every twist and turn; each stone and pebble. Now, everything was subtly different. I decided it was better to stand here, some hundred yards from the house ('Was it a mere hundred yards? It seemed such a long way before') and just look. It grew cold and we didn't stay long.

Things large in memory look too small up close. Some times and some places you can never go back . But you can still visit -- and remember...

Things to fall over on your doormat

There are 170 unread email messages in my inbox this evening; another 135 filtered into Junk Mail, and 106 more in the Deleted Items folder.

By comparsion to this unending deluge of electronic crap, it's almost a relief to fall over five items of real junk mail on the doormat.

Tonight, in no particular order, I have been invited by leaflet drop to:

1) Sell my house with the best agent, for the best price, and with the best deal on fees;

2) Install customised iron gates, security grills on the windows and doors, steel doors or security barriers. I might also like to opt for that iron gate being made automatic.

3) Call a local Chinese restaurant which is offering me four telephone lines to contact them upon and 179 menu items, with Take Out Service and reheatable microwavable containers.

4) Hire a landscape gardener who will weed, plant, fence, flag, wash, or slab my garden. He will also lop, prune, shape, or remove my tree, poison the roots and grind them. And if my hedge feels left out, he'll prune or trim it as well.

5) Get Dancercise in my area. Where I couldn't Cha Cha, Samba, Rhumba, Jive, Salsa, Waltz or Tango, or for that matter Latin line dance, I can look forward to doing all of these and more if I'm so inclined.

So I think I'll select the iron gates, security grills and doors first, then get the garden trimmed, lopped, poisoned and ground down, before I'll put the house up for sale. While I'm waiting for that to go through, I think I'll order a Number 172 and to work it off I'll do a little Waltz to the Dancercise class.

That reminds me. I must get onto the Council again and find out what happened to our request for another waste-paper recycling bin.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

On being.... vague

A customer gave me an unexpected pin-prick of memory this afternoon when he phoned me in the La-La-Land of the Local Government Department I work in to enquire about his service. He opened the conversation in the usual manner:

"Hello. My name is Such-and-Such and I live at Such-and-Such address. I received a letter from you that says I never returned my questionaire. I'm sorry, but I'm more than 70 years old now and I'm the first to admit I'm a little vague."

My mother used to use that term in the early stages of her downward slide.

"A little vague".

I think it must describe the feeling as well as the actuality of the mind becoming less reliable. How terrible it must be, to find at first that you have become unable to keep track of everything that used to line up nicely in your life; that things are starting to somehow become less real in your own head. And worse, to know on some level that something isn't right, but not being able to figure out exactly what.

This man had enough savvy left to figure out there was a problem, and to give it some kind of a name.

When you live with someone with Alzheimer's, there are so many affronts to logic and reality that you either find a way to cope with it on a minute by minute basis or you simply walk away. My method of coping with my mother was to stick another layer of mental armour on. I could feel each layer click smartly into place whenever a new stage of the dementia presented itself. You have to find a way to tough it out. It's a waiting game with only one sorry ending. A marathon.

My customer and I discussed his income limits for the service.

"I have a pension, though," he said.

I told him that on the application form it would be fine to send a photocopy of his pension book as proof of income and that the relevant departmental section would determine his eligibility for a reduced rate for the service based on this proof. He was fine with this and we chatted about his living alone and the lack of anyone else in the household who would potentially put him outside the income bracket for the service.

He apologised for not sending back the questionaire another time and I told him this was okay. He could re-apply for service on the form I'd send him.

I scribbled out his name and address on the envelope as we were speaking.

When I was done, I reiterated that all he needed to do was fill in the form and send proof of income.

"What income?" he asked, the sound of confusion evident in his voice.

"Well," I said. "A pension, for example."

"I have a pension," he said, as if it was for the first time. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm a bit vague sometimes."

When I'd gone around the houses again and we'd hung up, I tossed his application form into the Out Post basket with the others.

I've been unhappy this evening. There are still a few armoured places in me, far more ready to rise up than I had thought still possible.

What My Mother Believes (2001)

First published on the Internet, 4th April, 2001

I don't know how long our family has been living with senility. It isn't something which is immediately visible overnight, like a head cold. In 1989-90, my mother suffered a stroke. Since then, she's deteriorated mentally bit by bit until today, in early 2001, we live an extraordinary life. I use the term "extraordinary" because many people in our position don't have the opportunity of being able to care for their relatives at home, instead opting for nursing homes or other institutions. Maureen has been well enough to stay with us, for the most part, but tough choices are still ahead of the family... In the meantime, here is a little bit about her (and my) average day.

'What my Mother Believes'
  • Mascara is lipstick.
  • Mascara is for eyebrows.
  • Mascara brushes are toothbrushes.
  • Talcum powder is face powder.
  • Polka dot blouses go with tartan skirts.
  • New clothes belong to other people who gave them to her to mind.
  • She cooks.
  • Food can't be left in the freezer in case it's needed immediately.
  • Lunch should be cooked at 9:30 a.m.
  • My father eats out every day.
  • My father's friend, Peter, has all his meals here.
  • My father goes to town on Saturdays.
  • Every half-empty milk carton contains sour milk.
  • Hot, used teabags might set the bin on fire.
  • Live television programmes are programmes she saw last week.
  • The volume of the television should be so low as to be inaudible.
  • Every barking dog is in our garden.
  • All cars passing by on the street are visiting us.
  • All white vans are ice cream vans.
  • Every bump or noise is a knock at the door.
  • All male callers wearing suits are doctors.
  • The cat she just put out the back door won't reappear at the front door in five minutes time.
  • A cat making any kind of movement requires feeding.
  • The cat's dish should be covered in case it offends people.
  • Mysteriously, the cat seldom eats all of its food.
  • The cat will tear her nylons with its claws as it walks by.
  • She's forbidden to throw out used tissues or empty bottles, boxes, bags, or containers.
  • She's forbidden to use the last of the toilet paper, nor the beginning of a new roll.
  • She's under strict instructions to keep the coal bucket full at all times.
  • She's under strict instructions not to stoke the fire.
  • She's under strict instructions, but she's forgotten what they were.
  • The date on any old newspaper is today's date.
  • Every evening, we have no bread for the following morning.
  • I'll be shopping tomorrow but I'll go without money.
  • Tomorrow is a special holiday and she'll be alone to make do with nothing in the house to eat.
  • Her daughter is coming to visit today or tomorrow, she can't remember which.
  • On Wednesdays, I'm her daughter.
  • The neighbours have x-ray devices so you have to undress or use the bathroom in the dark.
  • She's tired of being a housewife and of being over seventy.

Ireland of the Welcomes isn't dead and gone just yet, but it is different

I was walking through the Square shopping centre yesterday evening and a woman and a man were engaged in that last-minute conversation in a public place that people get into just as they are parting. You know the one: the last-minute instructions.

"Now," she said, loudly. "Text that number first. If there's no reply call it. Understand?"

"Yes," he shouted back.

I wondered what that was all about.

There was horrible weather over the space of about the next twenty minutes, not long after I'd got as far as the bus shelter, which was lucky, because this horrible weather consisted of squals of rain and wind that came down in wet sheets.

I was able to park myself into a corner of the shelter by its end, which provided a good wind-break. Several would-be fellow passengers took advantage of the not-inconsiderable shelter provided by me, and squeezed in behind. There was a dead chill coming in ahead of the waterworks, so nobody was particularly bothered about personal space, just enthusiastic about the idea of keeping relatively warm and dry.

I listened to a French man in his thirties discussing the location of Templeogue Bridge with a stranger, who happened to be from New Zealand, or had travelled there, I couldn't really tell which. The New Zealander (if that's what he was) was explaining that the bus would take him there and the French man was wracking his brain for as much English language as it could produce to understand and to check that the New Zealander understood his questions. Between them they managed to convince themselves that the bus driver would be able to confirm the location as soon as the French traveller asked about it. The plan being settled upon, the pair decided to strike up a simple-English conversation about everything other than Templeogue Bridge.

"Zee weather... It is better in New Zealand, no?"

"A bit."

When the bus pulled in at the stop, we all shuffled in misery into a queue in the rain while the French visitor delayed us by asking the driver about Templeogue Bridge. He turned and sought the eye of his erstwhile companion, then put that peculiar face on him that I thought only clichéd French caricatures did -- the bottom lip stuck out and the two sides of the mouth turned down while the eyebrows went up in the air. Obviously this was to indicate the New Zealander's information had been correct and that Dublin bus drivers did indeed know where they were supposed to drive their buses!

This evening, two other characters were standing at the same bus-stop when I got there. One was a stocky Pole wearing the batter-spattered outfit of an obvious plasterer. The other was a thin twenty-something Irish fella in a white knitted hat. The 49 bus-stop United Nations General Assembly was today discussing the pay scales of tradesmen versus unskilled labourers. As the duo had even less of a common language between them, they were engaged in what I thought was an ingenious method of communication: they were using the advertisement board on the end of the bus-shelter as an imaginary blackboard and were drawing invisible figures in the air with their fingertips.

"Me," said the Irishman. "No skill." He sketched a figure, complete with commas and decimal points in the air while the Polish man nodded in understanding.

"Now, you remember that room...?" He nodded encouragingly, but the Polish man frowned. The Irishman went on:

"The room...? You remember?" He mimed a large rectangle shape. "You plastered the wall? And the ceiling? It was this size..." He sketched a figure of square meteres on the bus-shelter in unseen digits. The Polish man nodded.

"That's worth €550. Per day."

The conversation continued as each compared prices of things, the cost of work and how much tax rates were (if you were to pay them and not receive money directly into the hand). Then a bus pulled in at the set-down stop. The Irishman held up a finger in the universal signal for "Hang on one minute." He bobbed off down the footpath and spoke briefly to the bus driver.

A hand emerged and waved again at the Polish plaster to indicate that the bus did go to where the Polish man must have earlier indicated he wanted to be. Although it was technically the wrong stop, the bus man let the visitor on and pulled away from the kerb. The Irishman returned to his own bus-stop.

Later, I saw him handing a dropped shopping bag to a woman on the bus as they were struggling to get off at a stop near Firhouse.

We're still friendly. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

But really.

Has anyone ever heard of a map?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Chicken Little and the Red-Wrapped Cherry Liqueur Incident

I got over the fright of people's unexpected limbs appearing in front of me bearing miscellaneous objects about a month after I went from sole-trader to just one office pleb in a crowd. So it was no bother today when a hand materialised in front of my eyes and waved a cherry liqueur chocolate wrapped in festive red paper in front of my nose while I was speaking with a customer about the quality of service she was getting from the local government. I just nodded my thanks in mid prattle and the sweety was placed gently on the desktop beside my computer keyboard.

One thing that has to be said about my workplace: no-one is stingy with the sweets. There is often a coming or going party for people happening in some corner, with oddments of treats from biscuits to whole cream cakes going a begging, and everything sugary in between.

Whether someone travels to the far side of the world or the opposite side of the road, they always remember to bring a bag of lollies or something for us to munch upon. So Valentine's Day was a perfect excuse for confectionary. It was from someone's thoughtful gift for the day that was in it that this particular sweety had emerged, and true to form the recipient decided to share the wealth.

When I'd finished my phone conversation with my customer and put the information he'd asked for into the external post basket, I sat back at the desk and eyed the sweety. It certainly looked like a nice one. The paper was that plasticy type in which rich chocolates are sometimes wrapped. There was no-one on the line for the moment, so I thought I'd take my chance and gobble it down.

The first bite let the thick, rich cherry liquer inside mix around luciously. "Not bad," I thought, although the dark chololate was a little bitter. There was a small piece of cherry in there somewhere too, which was a nice touch. As I swallowed the last bit down the phone rang.

The conversation went a little like this:

Willie: "Hello. Such-and-such Department. Can I help you?"
Caller: "Yes, please. I received a letter from you about my service? Can you help me?"
Willie: "Caawk! Awk, Gaack, HAAAH..AWK!
Caller: "Pardon...?"

The last feckin' swallow of chocolate had gone halfway down my windpipe and was bubbling about the top of my larnyx while I went blue in the face and made noises like a demented chicken.

Caller: "Hello...? Are you there?"

There came the sounds of someone shaking their telephone handset in puzzlement.

Willie (huskily and with tears flowing down his cheeks): "I'm sorry.... I'm having a bit of a problem here... HAAAH...AWK..!!"

Caller: "Bloody mobile phones! The reception is shite!"

Willie: "Gaa-ck..! HAAA-AWK!!"

I swear. No more liqueurs. My body just can't be trusted.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Firhouse, February 13th, 2006

There were silent lines of Garda tape strung along the Firhouse Road today. It hugged the line of the hedgerow, tied off at intervals on telegraph poles. A young guard stood watch on the edge of the cordon at the Shopping Centre, shuffling about in his blue uniform and hat, waiting for orders.

The scene flew by at forty miles an hour as the taxi passed and I looked out, like the bystanders, on whatever might be glimpsed. Human nature, I suppose, wondering, fearful, sympathetic, shocked. The news came through in rumour in my busy day, almost forgotten later in my Valentine's Day card hunt, joining the small crowd of mostly men looking bemusedly at red hearts on Easons display stands, handing them mutely to the checkout girls to ring up and paper bag.

Tonight as the news reader reported again the deaths of a mother and her two children, the sky, overcast since morning, slowly shed great wet tears. I felt them fall on my back and on my brow as I put a chain though the bars of our gate and closed the padlock tight. I think that Jesus wept this evening. I said a small prayer in the dark and went inside.

Tomorrow, February 14th, we will think about love.

Ecker and other inconveniences

I'm dawg tired this evening, and there isn't a spud peeled or a cat napped in the house yet. Looking at the Blog a few minutes ago, I was thinking of it like homework after a long schoolday. Let's hope that feeling doesn't last!

'Homework Exercises' (or 'Ecker' as we elegantly called them) are what Irish school teachers like to heap upon the miserable in their charges. Not only do we suffer a 9.00am to 3.00pm school day until around age 13, we also get to do homework in all the subjects towards the following day's lessons. Personally, I suspect the idea was an excuse to get us home before dark. I can tell you that the bogie man and banshee did more to scoot me across the fields than ever the fear of a teacher's cane did when I was younger!

I thank whoever is listening each morning as I pass the forlorn faces in school uniforms that I no longer have to go to school. No matter how stressful a day I'm having, there's no snide Irish teacher to confound me with verbs, or a Maths teacher to roar at me over multiplication any more. And no Ecker.

Cats to feed and spuds to peel and cook, though. That's my Ecker these days. Onwards and upwards.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ah! The cup of tay! and other breakfast musings

First published on The Dublin South-West Forum, July 30th 2005

My father recently forwarded a supply of teabags to us which, somewhat strangely, made putrid tea. It was bitter stuff, and the strangeness of it was that it was from a reputable tea blender. I can only guess that he came by an old supply at cheap rates someplace.

This morning I had the pleasure of *two* mugs of Barry's tea. Barry's is owned by the family of Peter Barry (born August 10, 1928) a retired Irish Fine Gael politician and businessman.

My mother and father went through the war years (known in Ireland as "The Emergency", but to everyone else as World War II), when tea was rationed to half an ounce per person per week. Considering that "loose tea" (as distinct from the modern bagged stuff, which although I drink it for convenience sake is still to my mind inferior) was generally sold by the quarter pound, this was a poor amount indeed to have to try to survive upon. Tea being so scarce, my father has tales of his Aunt Maggie serving tea all week from the same batch of leaves, which doesn't bear thinking about too closely.

We got our tea-drinking habits from copying the English who started drinking it in the 1650s. It was so expensive that early tea caddies came with locks and keys which only the mistress of the house carried. Antique teapots and teacups are therefore tiny, like dolls-house teasets. Great profits were eventually made from tea imports, but as time wore on it stopped being such an unreachable luxury and spread out from the upper crust in England through their houses in Ireland to become a staple of the Irish diet as it remains today.

In our house, the tea caddy was almost never empty and held mostly Lyons Green Label or Mauve Label tea leaves. We also drank PG Tips. A souvenir tea scoop, with the Isle of Mann coat of arms on its handle, was what was used to measure. One scoop per person, and one for the pot was the law. Of course, the pot must first be warmed with scalding water. The tea would not brew properly if dumped unceremoniously into a cold pot! And the length of time the brew was allowed to do its work was also important, as was a proper knitted cosy to cover the pot.

At work, we have a well-appointed canteen, which, until recently, suffered from bad tea. It had those large tea boiling urns that, no matter what end of the day one visited, consistently brewed "mouse trotting" tea. (Tea so strong that you could trot a mouse across its surface.) They lately changed tack and supplied us with miniature teapots, each accompanied by a single teabag. Now, if the strength of the tea is not to one's taste, the blame can't be placed on the canteen staff. It's still a teabag though. Not "real tea" as my mother would have liked it.

An American visitor in the 1990s complained that he couldn't get a decent cup of coffee in Dublin. Back then we invariably used the condensed granular stuff (We've since heard of coffee beans, btw). As I pointed out, you could always get a decent cup of tea. My American friend was not impressed.

"Tay" by the way, is the original pronunciation of the brew. It's survival in Hiberno English proves our long history of tea-drinking. In fact, the use of "Tay" instead of "Tea" was at one time a social stigma, at a time when all things English were considered superior, and anything of Irish origin considered inferior.

I read some place that Jonathan Swift, on visiting a Dublin high society soiree in the 1700s at which the ladies were doing everything possible to avoid the "Tay"-like accent and sound more "dignified", encountered someone who asked him if he had enjoyed his visit to the "Bee of Neeples."

She should have stuck to the cup of tay.

Of course the cup of tay is fine on its own, but it's at its best as a follow up to "The Full Irish", which is to say a proper fried breakfast.

Opinions differ as to what the full Irish actually is these days. With influences from foreign travel and the influx of visitors from near and far oddments have been added and subtracted. If you go into a cafe in the city, the full Irish is likely to consist of friend pork sausages, fried or scrambled egg, and maybe some black and white pudding. Extras include buttered toast or fried bread. Baked beans may also feature.

I don't think of beans as a breakfast food and I think they've crept onto the menu from truck stops in the U.K., where long-distance lorry drivers combined breakfast, lunch, and tea in one meal. Beans are more an evening meal for me and I can't do them justice in the morning.

Pork sausages come in so many guises these days as well, that it's difficult to buy the "perfect" breakfast. Hafners are my sausage of choice in the breakfast department, but they're not stocked by the local supermarkets any more. (They used to be available back in the days of H. Williams supermarket, long since departed from Tallaght Village). I'm sure a butcher or two must still sell them.

These days the shop-bought sausages of "Everyday" brand, fill the gap in the frying pan. I'm not so fond of the "Denny" varieties, unless very well cooked they tend to have a softer filling.

Puddings are again a matter of individual taste. The black rings of puddings made by Walshes and filled with white veins of suet are the favourite in my book. You can keep yer aul dry Clonakiltys as far as I'm concerned. Likewise the white puds, which should be browned and accompanied by the shrivelled skins they came in.

Last but not least is the fried egg, which has so many ways to go wrong it's amazing that it stays on the menu at all these days. To give evolution its due, I've stopped frying my foods in the traditional lards (or cooking fats, if they're of slightly different origin). I now use vegetable oils. The egg tends to fry reasonably well in these, and I'm a soft yoke man myself. Not that I send back an egg that has a slightly hardened yoke. Burst the yoke, though, and half the breakfast ritual of dipping toast, fried bread, or bread and butter in it is sadly lost.

I hope your croissants tasted nice this morning. I'm off for a real breakfast.

When no-body knows where they are it's a great conversation starter

From the Dublin South-West Forum on May 10th, 2005

I was on a bus yesterday evening where no-one knew where they were going.

An elderly, though fit woman hopped on ahead of me and asked the driver if the bus went past "The Old Mill" (a local pub... as you may know, Irish people navigate by the locations of pubs), and he answered, confusedly, "In about ten minutes." As this seemed acceptable, she asked how much the fare was, paid and sat down.

I was next, and popped my 90 cent into the slot. The driver, as is not unusual these days, was a foreign gentleman and he nodded his thanks while I yanked the ticket from the machine and went to my seat.

One stop outside The Square, where the multistorey whatumaycallit is under construction, a crowd of workers jumped on, including two young Indian women, one brandishing what I took at first to be another bus ticket. (There was another bus stopped ahead of us, and I thought perhaps it had broken down and she was taking this bus... you get the idea).

After a short conversation with the driver, they popped those day-pass things into the reader, which beeped agreeably, then sat down two seats ahead of me. A few words in their own language and one shyly showed the paper to the elderly woman in the seat behind her. Printed on it was a Knocklyon address.

"No. I'm sorry." she said. "I'm not sure where that is. Perhaps..?" She motioned to a girl sitting opposite. The Indian girl swayed over with the movement of the bus and showed her the paper.

"No. I'm not from here." She said, in a country accent.

As I thought might happen, the elderly woman and the country girl struck up a slightly shouted conversation (there were foreigners present, after all, and English speakers the world over know that shouting every so slightly makes English sound like any foreign person's native tongue) across the aisle.

"I don't know where I am either," said the older woman, good-humouredly. "I used to know Tallaght, but it's all changed now."

"You're in Tallaght now," was the reply.

"I know that. I need to get off at The Old Mill."

"Oh that's a few stops away yet."

By this stage the Indian visitors had departed to sit near the front of the bus. As people got on and off they talked quietly, but didn't ask anyone else for directions. I wondered how to draw a diagram for someone who doesn't speak English. I took out an old envelope and started drawing bus-stops and roadways and (of course) pubs, but then I gave up. How to explain they needed to get off six stops after the Old Mill pub...??

"Is this the stop for The Old Mill?" the woman who used to know Tallaght asked another girl as we were at the Seskin View crossroads.

"No... I think it's the one after. Yes. Sorry. It's definitely the one after."

In a flurry of parcels and shopping bags, the woman got off the bus at The Old Mill.

As I was about to step off in Firhouse, I said to the driver that the two girls needed to get off two stops from there.

"I know." He said, nodding.

"And Knocklyon is over that way," I said, pointing. I was talking just a little too loud.

"I know."

I wonder if they ended up back in town...

Lost Property and finding it

From The Dublin South-West Forum on February 1st 2005

I remember when I was in my late teens and the victim of a continual thirst I boarded the 54 bus for town and raced the bus conductor to a wad of banknotes lying in the middle of the upstairs aisle. I figured the powers that be had put some drinking money my way. The bus conductor thought the same as I handed him a share of the notes. At least he did until I said:

"I don't suppose they're yours to begin with?"

He looked aghast and started patting pockets. He seemed satisfied that his float was intact. Finally he rolled me a ticket and went on his way. Neither of us gave a thought to who might have lost the cash.

Once while walking through Firhouse late at night I found a small black faux leather purse which contained one moped key and a £20 note. My conscience about the earlier incident must have pricked, because I handed the whole thing into the Garda station in Tallaght the next day and thought no more about it. A statutory year and a day later I received a postcard to say it had been transferred in the interim to the Lost Property office in Kevin Street (I think) station. As non-one had claimed it, it was mine. Otherwise, it would go to charity. I suppose it must have done so, because I wasn't bothered to go look for it then.

The other evening one of our household lost his wallet, much to his chagrin as it contained a student pass and a bus ticket as well as the remainder of a week's money. After pulling the house apart he went for his bus and the driver, who knew him from coming and going, said "There you are", passed him the missing wallet. It had been handed up, liberated of its cash contents somewhere along the line. He was glad to get it even so.

This afternoon on another Tallaght bus I had just sat down when the man in front spied a brown leather wallet stuck down the edge of the seat. Someone had put it in their pocket, only it wasn't the pocket it had lodged in. I wondered what he'd do.

He was elderly, so I thought a little social experiment would prove the honesty of the older generation. I sat impassively a seat behind as he riffled through the contents. He nonchalantly put the wallet in his pocket.

You could almost *see* his conscience working. As the bus wound its way from The Square he came to a decision. (What was my experiement going to prove?) He reached into his pocket, pulled out maybe three €20 notes from the wallet (I was watching in the reflection of the window) and folded them neatly into the pocket of his coat. Then he approached the driver like a good citizen and handed up the remains of the lost property.

When the bus stopped outside the Technical College in Tallaght he obviously was struck again because he suddenly jumped up from his seat. Not to hand over the money though: he got off instead at the Village Green stop and the last I saw of him he was almost at the bookies. Maybe he was on his way to put a few bets on some horses -- his luck was in, after all -- or he could have walked on and gone into Molloys pub to do what I did with my luck: pour it down a drain.

Human nature, do you think?


First written, 26th July 1994
We sat recently watching people on skis; little children growing up on prairies, in towns with straight streets and wooden houses; men and boys in baseball caps; proud hunters with guns and grisly trophies; skimming across lagoons in hovercraft; holidaying in low, broad, tail-finned 1950's cars; visiting snow-capped stony peaks with endless trees, white waters, blue lakes, foreign and fascinating. Images of uncles, aunts and cousins on a screen -- old-style silent cine-films transferred to video.

I first remember standing on a rough, wooden floor, looking through the glass at a world of green fields and hedgerows, with ambitions of school, outdoor play, and summer days. I recall, later, black-and-cream buses open at the rear, conductors who swung down from mysterious, smoky upper decks like circus acrobats; the whirling of ticket machines, old pennies and ringing bells; the vast, coloured episodes of town, stalls, and shops that bound goods in knotted string and brown paper.

And there it suddenly all was, like a waking dream, a mere minute or two on screen -- stuffed in between Canadian memories -- 1968, and a trip home for my Aunt and her husband -- and their new cine-camera. A miracle. A fright. And completely unexpected.

Edmondstown appeared on film, the grey, streaked walls of the factory flowing by. The broken, crumbling boundaries of the golf club to the left; lamp standards ending before the last bend at the school.

Then, a seeming dreamscape with my brother, aged 12, posing with a golf stick in the front field; cousin Phillip, his sidekick, scurrying out of shot. My mother, sisters, aunt, strolling through the door onto the path, 1960's teenage fashions. And then...!

A child, two years old, led by an older sister, warily eyeing the camera, making for the safety of the great outdoors... Me...

A moving, living, breathing Me, from days before family photographs were affordable. A Me I'd never seen. A child before letters or numbers or school; before much speech even.

And though I knew them well, here, somehow made more real, for all to see, were my green fields and hedgerows, thistles, the middle gate we swore was haunted, the land rising beyond the road to blue horizons. Here were the whitewashed walls, the rendering flaked and weathered, the path at that time a mere track across the grass to the granite doorstep, concrete posts strung with wire to keep out sheep, the yard with its iron gates and byres.

The film moved to dead relations smiling for the camera; the scenery of mountains, strangely devoid of trees; hay-cocks nestled in fields yet to see a tractor; a gathering of Sunday families at picnics, the cars long since turned to scrap or rusted in sheds; a vision of Dublin in 1968; a garda in long, white gloves directing traffic; buses in brown and cream livery jostling along; the square, plastic shop-signs overhead; crowds with short skirts, platform shoes, impossible hair-do's, horn-rimmed spectacles, flared suits and trousers, the women in hats; the colours, shapes and visions of earliest memory. A time machine; a window to my past; a scene no less startling than if someone were to project images directly from my mind onto a screen overdubbed with music. I sat there, enthralled to the end.

Visiting that time, those early years I recall in sights and sounds, in smells of kitchens and cowsheds, I feel again the textures of the time; the crawling playground path that was my home; the outer world an unknown thing; I think of the wide-eyed journeys to the city; the strange sounds of traffic and hawkers; the hand-held, child's-eye view of things I alone keep. To see them come alive on film is a wonder indeed, unsettling as a half-remembered dream -- a dream that can be rewound and played; stilled; examined. Is that the ghost we see on film by the gate? Or are they all ghosts, those times, fondly remembered, the faults hidden away in hope of forgetfulness, but shivering somewhere in darkness someday to be forever gone?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

One Out of Three Ain't Bad

Published on the Internet

Once, a lifestyle acquired me. When I began drinking (in a hostelry not too close to home), two pints of ale was my limit, and each was hard-won enough, I thought, when, under-aged and pimpled, I swayed to the counter and made a mumbling order to a sarcastic, culchie barman.
The pub was well-known to us teens as a spot where you'd get a drink -- or a summons, if the Guards raided, which wasn't uncommon either -- until you'd had your limit, at which time you were tipped, unceremoniously, out a back door to wander, crabwise, for a bus.

Its interior was dark and smelly; its carpets threadbare; its floors treacherously uneven; the seating, if you could call it that, had ripped, brown leatherette coverings with cigarette burns, a leftover 70s working-man's pub, about to realise, grudgingly and late, that the 80s had come and were marching on and that the presence of youth meant money.

I only drank in that Terenure dive a short while before I heard about another place, one in which the young buck about town could enjoy his favourite poison, not hunched in a corner of the suburbs, one eye on the door, avoiding the baleful glances of his near-locals, but wrapped in city anonymity, in a perpetual fog of nicotine; overpowering heat; the primal smell of genuine leather; rich, oily perfumes, and the ear-splitting din of a bass-heavy, basement jukebox.

'Lead on,' I said, and lost the next eight years, underground...

Bruxelles of Harry Street was my spiritual and temporal home for most of the latter part of the 1980s. Out on the pavement, short rows of motorcycles tried to huddle inconspicuously away from the traffic wardens and gardai that from time to time wandered by, ticket-books in hand. As a customer, one tended to enter furtively, (even when of legal age... old habits die hard), and, if possible, early, before the bouncers came on and started making noises about I.D. and other inconveniences.

Inside were two lounges: one a street-level, would-be café-bar, whose decor fitted the Euro theme with flags and newspaper mastheads from many countries. A non-working mannequin pis threatened everyone who went to the counter with a good dousing. On busy evenings, it was only marginally slower than the service.

Below street level, accessed by a winding stair, was the deliberately seamy underbelly, a study in economic diversification. While the 'upstairs' catered for the 30-somethings and the passing lunchtime trade of tourists between the nearby, fasionable Grafton Street and the next-door-but-one Westbury Hotel, the basement attracted rebellious teens and would-be-teens again, who, (if they were like me) adopted denim or leather bikers' gear and stood self-consciously at bus stops.

The first time I entered Bruxelles' dark basement was a gloomy Autumn evening, the half-deserted city streets were rain-dampened and slick with motor oil, the shops were mostly closed and shuttered, a few late-workers hurried home under umbrellas, their collars up. A newspaper seller on the corner of Suffolk Street, shuffled from foot to foot.

The zodiac mirror on the lower landing reflected John's and my attempt to look older and cooler than we were or felt as we passed beneath the pavement slabs into unknown territory. In our nervousness, the descent seemed dizzying, disorientating, though only two short flights. They stopped, abruptly, outside a toilet door.

Left and right were murky bars, pale lamps cast an uncertain light at intervals through the smoke. Rock music from a generation removed blared out from unseen speakers, smothering the noise of the packed punters whose numbers spilled over into the entryway. Pint glasses perched precariously on shoulder-high mouldings of the panelled walls, or crouched, like their owners, on the sand-coloured floor underfoot. Long-haired, hard-bitten drinkers glanced at us in disinterest, or, it seemed, in near hostility. Somewhere in the distance, a glass toppled and smashed to the sound of raucous cheers. Motorcycle helmets piled like the trophies of some ancient, bloody conquerer filled one whole corner. But we'd come this far... Alcohol and the slight possibility of female company were too close now for us to turn tail. We took a deep breath, sucked in balls and bellies (the one for courage; the other for the look of the thing) and wound through the press to the nearest counter. A dog-faced, hump-backed barman filled our order wordlessly. We counted our change. There wasn't much; town was expensive. But we'd arrived! And we planned to stay.

Our first evening wore on. Those who couldn't find seats, us included, stood where best we could. The stairs became choked, and the bar staff and the bouncers cleared them. The pay phone that lived beneath the steps, rang unanswered. It was useless to pick it up; the place had no public address system for one thing, and finding a stranger in the throng was impossible. It was likewise foolish to try to make a call; the taped music over-powered even the sharpest ears.

People left for other pubs. New people filled their places. Occasional troublemakers or the over-emotional were hauled out of the crowd or the pub toilets by solemn door men. The cigarette smoke was blinding. Drink flowed, was stolen, spilled. I was terrified. It was great.

For every dog-rough, wall-eyed, pot-bellied, gnarlly, sour-pussed fella, there was a gorgeous girl. In fact, we noticed, the more pug-ugly a man was, the more likely to be accompanied by an amateur, fragrant, beauty queen. Naturally that was disheartening, for such handsome chaps as we.

And the women actually spoke! Not like in school, where your simplest greeting was answered by a silent, withering glare. These girls asked the time, looked for a light, posed nearby as if in anticipation of some effort on our part. The one failing was their tendency to move in shoals, like something predatory... I was a long way from the shore and knew it. John, more outgoing than me, chatted easily with one and all. I gulped my beer and stayed silent for the most part.

Closing time came surprisingly fast. The crowd barely thinned, until barmen started shouting at the top of their voices, "Guys and girls! Are yis right now, please?" Then, the last chance of refills gone, the tape-player unceremoniously unplugged in mid beat, staff buzzing about like angry bees, grabbing the empty glasses and stacking up the stools, sweeping around the fallen, we climbed out into the night chill and breathed in the fresh, cold air. Night One was over. There would be many more.

There's something about the smell of Dublin city on a cold evening. If you're lucky, and the wind is right, the James's Gate brewery fills High Street and Christchurch with the odour of new porter cooking, the air good enough to eat. If the breeze is the other way, the faint taste of salt comes in from the Bay, fresh and invigorating, chopping waves up in the muddy grey river, chapping dry lips. And often, in the vicinity of a pub, the warm smell of smoke and beer colliding in the open air is an alluring perfume. In this town, any way the wind blows is an excuse for a pint.

Ritual is important to the beer drinker. On Saturday, when the day had worn down to dusky twilight, I'd take the 54 bus from the long, lonely Tymon North road, stuck into a corner seat at the rear, upstairs, over the rattling heater. The bus bounced along the peaks of Greenhills to Walkinstown, took the roundabout in a wide swerve to Cromwell's Fort, stopped at the lights by the K.C.R, braked heavily on the sharp, Kimmage Manor bend, and joined the steadily decreasing flow of traffic at the Harold's Cross junction. It reached over the canal bridge before Clanbrassil Street, then wound itself up Christchuch Hill to the cathedral, until, as if knowing that the end of its journey was near, it rushed down through Dame Street to a brief halt outside the Central Bank before it disappeared in a cloud of diesel fumes at College Green on its way to the quayside terminus. When the smoke cleared, I'd be standing on the pavement, like the product of some magician's trick.

Then it was the quick step across the traffic, gingerly on wet pavement slabs to Andrew Street, quiet in the evening; half along Wicklow Street, scuttling by hidden Clarendon Street chapel at the back of Switzers department store; down the alleyway beside and in through the Westbury's new shopping mall, out of the rain, before emerging like a king in Harry Street, opposite the Weights & Measures, and Brendan Behan's old pub, to the finish line. Such a race developed the thirst.

In Bruxelles' dark corners lurked strangeness and comedy: wry street vendors, complaining about profits; buskers, rich on pennies and tuppences; apprentices piling in, grubby from work or tech; builders' mates from the few working sites in 80s' Dublin with tales of near calamity; rock-band members, who made sure everyone saw their leather pants and guitars; prim office girls who wore denim in the evenings; long-haired lotharios with winning smiles and disappearing tricks; performers all, whose enthusiasm would sometimes spill over into long, loud, drinking sessions; scenes of breaking glass or table-top, bar-stool sing-alongs.

Within a few months of my first Bruxelles visit, I considered myself a regular. That is to say, I had the right to look down my nose at the 'kids' that came in, trying to get served at the bar. I could nod sagely at the improvement a new jukebox would make to the general ambience, and race, knowingly, to the selection buttons when the timer cut off Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar" before its end. I approved Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" as the unofficial anthem of the place, and glared, disapprovingly at the trendies that inhabited a new disco bar in one end of the pub.

Actually, I seldom really disapproved of anyone, but the neon blue lights of the trendy bar (as we called it), and the fact that we would not be served in it made it a natural target of general hostility. Whether rocker's bar or disco bar, the punter's money inevitably ended up in one place. When we lads lined up at the urinals, conversations were struck up and, generally -- even the refugees from the trendy bar -- strangers proved to be just ordinary Joe Soaps like the rest of us.... if a little better dressed.

"Once upon a time was the backbeat.
Once upon a time all the poets came to life
And the angels had guitars even before they had wings.
If you hold onto a chorus you can get through the night..."
--Jim Steinman,
"Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through".

I woke this morning from dreams about guitars. I was a player, and I played well, effortlessly in fact. I just thought, and the sounds came, like Eric Clapton does in real life. A huge jamming session was in progress, myself and a half-dozen heads from Bruxelles, years ago. We played and played and played.

I should have known I was dreaming. The fact that we were outdoors, walking from Merchant's Arch along the Quays and across a misplaced Ha'penny Bridge was one clue. And, of course, the fact that I could never get guitar strings to make anything other than tuneless twanging noises while awake was another. I never wanted to learn how, just to play. In the end, I didn't know a single chord. Still don't.

In Bruxelles were two tabletop video games, one of which I don't remember too well, (probably Pac Man), but I liked the other one, Asteroids.

The idea was simple. Take your money and put it into the slot, then steer your tiny ship from left to right across a screen, dodging or blasting huge rocks that came your way. You sped off one side and reappeared on the other. The trick was to avoid getting unexpectedly splatted. Collisions could be avoided, if you moved in time, but the game had a slick, slippery quality, that got out of control easily.

No matter how well you planned ahead, or thought you'd planned ahead, you inevitably got your comeupance, your money was lost, and someone bumped the table and spilled half your beer anyway. It was the kind of game you knew wasn't good for you, but when money was a little more plentiful, when I had sold something to an American editor or to an Irish one, common sense and fifty-pence pieces were all lost one after another. I'd be Ready Player One, career my little ship headlong into trouble, turbo full-on, Game Over. Then the demo would start up, bright lights and action luring you in again, tempting you to get your name up there in its three-character roll of honour.

John introduced me to two girls one evening. After our initial first-impressions of the pub, we noticed that it was (and I presume still is) a fact that girls (and boys too) tended to travel in mismatched pairs. One would be whom we called "the good looking one"; the other was her friend.

The friend, this time, turned out to be nicer (at least I thought so), and, when sufficient courage had been swallowed, at £1.85 a pint, I experienced my first kiss from my first girlfriend. I was nineteen. She, I think, was seventeen. She was a Leaving Cert student, whose father happened to be a school teacher, which meant that boys and booze over books was a no-no in his book. Still, we met a few times "in secret" – she even managed to keep me out of the pub for a while – until reality and her impending exams got the better of us and we ended. I was broken-hearted; she, being of the maturer sex, was upset. We’d lasted maybe two months.

There's a saying that you shouldn't wish for things: you might get them. And that was my experience from the time I first walked into the pub scene until I all but crawled back out, years later. "Romance" was my chief interest in visiting Bruxelles, with booze (that is, getting mindlessly drunk) a close second. It wasn't long before I was having more of a "romance" with the booze, than the intended targets, the young women who passed through its narrow double doors and into the gloomy cavern of Flanders Bar.

Long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, ones with ginger heads, unpronouncable names... I drank them all. Sometimes, when I was lucky, I also had a girlfriend in tow. I shed my tears and drank my beers and met someone else at the video-games table. A dozen roses couldn't keep her from another guy, and later a child that ended her Bruxelles days rather too soon. A nurse's aide gave me six months of laughter; an arts student kept me off the streets for a couple of weeks; a wild, mountainy woman shared her passion for nature.

Someone introduced me to a drink called "snakebite" as a cure for each of the heartbreaks of lost love... Part lager beer, part cider, it looked like used dishwater and tasted much the same, but it kicked muleishly and rotted the teeth and guts and brain.

Plenty of people had a higher capacity for booze than me, and I never envied them. I always thought it was stupid to drink until you were incapable of getting to a place of safety (not necessarily home), and I still maintain that margin for movement. Nonetheless, on occasion John, or another kind soul, had to drag me bodily up the road.

I remember, one time, being too ill to travel further on the last bus home. I don't think John was too impressed by my getting off about five stops into the journey, with the prospect of a four hour walk (or five-hour drag) ahead of him, but to give him his due he didn't abandon me. We ended up inside an Indian takeaway in Harold's Cross. "Have you got any Alka-Seltzer?" he asked the man behind the counter. The guy looked carefully at the printed menu above him then mutely shook his head. Despite my condition we both roared with laughter, stumbling tearfully for the door, poor Will clutching the stomach he'd just emptied further down the road as he went.

Foreign food was best for lining the guts after a night's overindulgence, and you'd find one or other of us (sometimes both) stuck in an alley behind a pizza place, or draped over a canal bridge eating curry from a tinfoil container, sometimes slobbering doner kebab all over the place in the early hours.

By the middle and end of the 1980s, we'd expanded our activities to include two or three different watering holes within striking distance of Grafton Street. I enjoyed "The Pink Elephant" in the afternoons, when its "happy hour" served expensive cocktails at pint-prices. "Bartley Dunnes", which had a reputation as a gay bar, had that dingy quality and dim lighting that had disappeared from Bruxelles. Across the street, "The William Tell" had interesting nooks and crannies, a couple of pool tables, and sometimes an open fire in the fireplace.

But as the 90s approached, I was struggling. The marathon was unrelenting, and I was hitting my personal "wall". John and I moved in different circles, doing our own things, and, frankly, life was lonely, despite the crowds. I didn't see my family for days at a time; slept in damp bedsits on concrete floors, spare rooms or sofas lent out to me by fellow boozers. My self-destruct button had been pressed and I didn't know the whys and the wherefores of it all, nor could I see a future. I searched the bottoms of pint glasses in vain until, at last, I walked up the stairs and went home from there for the last time. I think, maybe, I was growing up. Bruxelles, for me, was over.