Knights, Fights and Automobiles

Amongst other stuff…

Yesterday was a grey day. One of those days where there’s no wind. No rain. Just grey. To add to the greyness, I had to head north to Drogheda to do an NCT (National Car Testing) on the car at lunchtime.  So, the weather was the perfect backdrop for such an occasion. I was running a bit late. When I pulled into the test centre there was a queue out the door. Everyone masked up and feeling the cold.  Inside the prefab-like building there were only three seats available to sit on, with the majority of seats marked off with large Xs of yellow and black  tape. It had all the appearance of a crime scene. I sat down. The seat was cold and the door was wide open. I spotted a handwritten sign saying coffee only three doors up.  I didn’t hang around.

Lord Farquaad, Shrek https://images.app.goo.gl/17QUMsguVwr2PBqVA

For all the charm that Drogheda has, as well as its intriguing history, you will not find any of that charm in the Industrial Estate. The Industrial Estate is called the Newgrange Industrial Estate. It doesn’t live up to its great Stone Age namesake, which is only down the road. Anyway, I found the source of the coffee which was a premises that looked like a gym. It had  a small coffee area to the front. I wanted to get in out of the cold and it was a much better option than sitting in the bleak waiting room waiting for news on the car.

I asked the man behind the counter if it was a gym and he told me it was a Mixed Martial Arts gym. He seemed to be the owner and he told me he was previously a professional fighter.  Given my little knowledge (McGregor of course), I made some comment along the lines of it being the ‘heavy stuff’. He told me it was a great outlet for the youth in the area, which I don’t doubt. Anyway, the big decision of the day became which of the selection of protein balls I would choose. The day was already looking up.  So, with the decision made, I sat at the single table with my coffee and took out my book.

The book I was reading came from a box of books that I found when we moved house again two months ago. My late sister-in law, Helen, had asked me to store them in our under-floor storage area of our old home on the beach. On the day I found the box, I was being ruthless.  I was in the mood that anything excess should be either given to charity or sold. I even looked up the price on eBay to see what these books would be worth. Thankfully they weren’t worth much and I’m particularly relieved that I came to my senses when the panic surrounding the move died down. The box was filled with a collection called The Great Writers Library, which pretty much contains all the old classics. Some I’ve read a long time ago, but the majority I haven’t. So, I decided to try and work my way through them in the hope of some enlightenment.

Helen was great for signing up for the collectors editions, that you would see advertised on the 1st of January every year. (There’s a box full of magazines of the Great Artists somewhere too). Helen was also the kind of person who loved giving gifts and I am so grateful to her for the unexpected gift of these books . She was the best aunt to my children and all her nieces and nephews. Cancer took Helen from us far too early.  

So, I’m sitting reading my book and the owner of the Mixed Martial Arts centre asked me what I was reading. I jokingly said that “would you believe I’m actually reading about fighting”. I said that it was a bit before Mixed Martial Arts time. That it was about knights, kings and all that stuff.  But it did get me thinking that fights will always go on, no matter how civilised we would like to think we are. Back in the day it was fighting to the death for the entertainment of the onlookers. Nowadays it’s still entertainment, but not to the death. Well, it’s not supposed to be anyway.   The rules have improved. The book is Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I’m about half-way through and much to my surprise, given the subject matter, I am really enjoying it. When reading about all these duelling knights I can’t help but think of the great line from Lord Farquaad in Shrek “some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

And while I’m on the subject of things not changing that much over the centuries, I read two Thomas Hardy books from Helen’s collection. (Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Harrowing stories of injustice, homelessness, class, privilege, abuse of power, and I’m not talking about last week’s Sunday newspapers – although I could be.

Not long before we left our bungalow (compliments of the receiver not to mention some dodgy planners) I was pulling out of the driveway, and I noticed two large minibuses pulling into the field across the road. Out came a group of, probably foreign vegetable pickers, and for a solid four days they went to work on the field.  I could see them stooped over the vegetables as I came and went. In Hardy’s day, farm labourers walked from farm to farm looking for work. Nowadays they arrive by minibus. I hope they are well paid, with the the cost of housing and all that…. And while I’m on the subject of hard work, there’s also the Polish winkle pickers who park their cars at the White Wall across from my parent’s house. They walk with the tide out to Shenick island and stay overnight on dark Winter nights, coming back in with the next low tide, some twelve hours later.  You can see their torches shining at night, but most people wouldn’t even know they are out there.

It makes me think of a quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles when she was working in the fields of ‘Wessex’;

They worked on, hour after hour, unconscious of the forlorn aspect they bore in the landscape, not thinking of the justice or injustice of their lot.”

Stonehenge
https://images.app.goo.gl/5z1vFpUhkBbBRb3h7

There’s another scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Tess and her husband, Angel, find themselves unexpectedly at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, “a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain”.

I’ve seen Stonehenge from the road. It catches you by surprise and it is a such a wonder for sure, standing proud in the landscape. I would like to return and stop a while some day. Newgrange, is our Stone Age monument. It is one of my favourite places to visit, but it has been a while. When I was a child, we visited it regularly with our parents. I loved the beautiful kerb stones at the front of the passage grave with their concentric patterns and the long cool, musty smelling corridor that leads down to the burial chamber. My favourite part was when the guide turned out the light making it pitch black and then they would recreate the sun coming up the passage-way for the Winter Solstice. All of a sudden, the burial chamber would light up and you could see the corbelled stone roof above and imagine what it was like all those millennia ago. It was breath-taking to think that we were standing in a Neolithic tomb that was even older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

I remember on one occasion, in the late 1970s, my little brother, on his way down the passage way, stuck his hand into a gap in the rocks (as kids do) and pulled out a wad which contained seven old Irish pounds. It was a small fortune at the time. My parents reckoned some wealthy American tourist had made an offering to the Druid Gods and we were the beneficiaries. They went back to the shop to declare the money and the lady smiled and said it was our lucky day. So that was the day we had the take-away from the chipper, compliments of the Stone Age Gods. The following week my aunt and my cousin went to Newgrange but didn’t have our luck, despite checking in every nook and cranny on the way down the passage-way!

When I left the gym, the owner wished me luck with the car test. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The car failed. So, I’m back down on the 17th of December and I’ll pop in for another coffee. I might try and head over to Newgrange afterwards for old time sake. It will be coming up to the Winter Solstice and I hope the sky clears to let the sun light-up the burial chamber.

PS I went for the Reeses protein ball. Highly recommend.  

Newgrange Kerb Stone. https://images.app.goo.gl/ufkfAxavkn8R55np8

A Short Story

Guardian Angel

It was almost midnight and Klara and her grandmother, Ava, were sitting on the veranda overlooking the lake. The midsummer light kept them up later than usual.  The cousins had gone back to Stockholm and they were having a glass of wine from the remnants of the bottle they had opened earlier at dinner. There were some plates and empty glasses on the table.  The clearing up could wait until the morning. The smell of the citronella hung in the air and was coming from a large yellow candle that had begun to flicker.  Klara found the scent of citronella comforting. The mosquitoes always seemed to go for her and she figured  it was the English blood they were after. The heat of the day had dissipated, and it was cooler now.  A light breeze was causing a rustling in the trees and the reeds at the edge of the water were swaying back and forth. The small rowing boat was rocking gently and occasionally hitting against the wooden jetty. Klara always loved the sound of the night birds calling to each other in the darkness. Klara’s grandfather on her father’s side, Farfar, had taught her the names and cries of the birds that visited the lake in the summer. When she was younger, she could recite all their names in both Swedish and English. 

image; farmstaysweden.com

Her grandparents’ summer house was Klara’s favourite place in the world. It was a traditional Swedish wooden house painted a deep red with white surrounds around the windows. Klara’s great grandfather built the original house and Farfar renovated it over the years. He installed the indoor toilet and shower when Klara was around twelve years old.  She remembered how herself and her sister Emily were afraid of the dark and how they used to stand guard for each other when they had to go out to the old compost toilet at night. Klara loved the interior of the house, filled with art and Farmor’s coloured glass ornaments. There were typical Swedish textile rugs on the wooden floors.  The old blue sofa in the lounge, with a big tapestry throw, was the place where Klara and Emily spent their evenings with Farmor, who read them all their favourite Swedish fairy stories when they were little. 

Klara’s father was the only one in the family who had left Sweden, but the family returned each year to celebrate Midsommar.  It was important for Klara’s parents that she and Emily kept their strong Swedish roots and each year they left the girls in Sweden, with Farmor and Farfar, for almost two whole glorious months. At the lake house they had a freedom they couldn’t have in London. Klara and Emily learned to swim fearlessly and rowed from island to island on the lake. Farfar used to call the girls his little Pippi Longstockings.  

Midsommar was special. They decorated the place with lanterns and flowers. Farmor made floral garlands for Klara and Emily to wear in their hair and there was lots of music and dancing. The food was the best part, -the crayfish, fresh salmon, and pickled herrings. And dill. Lots of dill with sour cream and hard bread.  Unfortunately, this year Emily couldn’t make it, but their parents came. Klara had dropped them back to Arlanda airport that morning and she relished the thoughts of the extra few days on her own with Farmor. 

Ava broke the silence. “Did I ever tell you I had a guardian angel?” 

“Like from the Bible or something?” Klara replied, half paying attention. She was used to her grandmother’s stories. She had heard them over and over and she never minded when Ava repeated them.  

“No. A human guardian angel. …..But he died last week.” 

“Really? Oh. Sorry to hear that Farmor.  What did he die from?” Klara wasn’t sure if her grandmother was being serious or not. 

“He had cancer. But old age I suppose.  I often wondered who would go first.” 

Klara wondered if Ava was a bit confused. When Farfar died five years ago, everyone thought Ava would move back to the old apartment in Stockholm with uncle Karl and aunt Astrid; that she wouldn’t want to be on her own. But Ava had insisted on staying on in the Summer house. There was no persuading her and besides, she still was very able to look after herself. She had good neighbours too and uncle Karl was only forty minutes’ drive away in Stockholm. He had fitted the house with every conceivable alarm and Ava had allowed him to. A small sacrifice for her independence. 

The tone of her grandmother’s voice concerned Klara and it struck her that Ava was uncharacteristically emotional. Over the years Klara had never heard any mention of a guardian angel, of all things. She looked over at Ava who was leaning forward and pressing a napkin to her eyes. 

“Are you ok, Farmor?” 

“Yes. Yes Klara. I’m just a bit sad. That’s all.” 

Klara thought about Farmor and Farfar. They always seemed to have a good marraige.

“Who was he, Farmor? Were you and Farfar not happy together?”

“His name was Richard. I met him in London many years ago. And yes Farfar and I had the best life together. We were very happy. But Richard was a glimpse of another good life I could have had.”

“Did you have an affair Farmor?” Klara could always speak freely with Ava. She was her first grandchild. Everyone in the family always said she was a younger version of Ava. 

“No. But maybe my heart did a little bit. It was my honeymoon.”

“Your honeymoon? How could you meet anyone on your honeymoon, Farmor? Surely you were too busy.” Klara was teasing her grandmother. 

“It was 1961 and after the wedding we went to London for five days. The day before we left your grandfather decided he had seen enough art galleries and museums, but you know how much I love art.”

Klara knew alright. She remembered, when she was a child, Farmor dragging her and her sister around art galleries in London and Stockholm. She also thought about the day when she was about sixteen. They stopped at the Anders Zorn Museum in Mora and she refused to get out of the car.  Klara figured she was more like Farfar when it came to art 

“Well, Farfar went to meet his friend Peter who was living in London at the time.  I got a big black taxi to the National Art Gallery.  I remember that day so clearly. I was wearing a beautiful, tailored lemon-yellow suit and I had my hair up. It was the height of fashion at the time. Of course, my hair was as blonde as yours is now. Not this old grey, frizzy hair. Well, I was standing staring at a painting by Piero Della Francesca and this young man was beside me. I didn’t pay him any attention.” 

“Isn’t that the print you have hanging in the dining room? “

“Yes. The Baptism of Christ. As you know there are three angels in the painting. I was puzzled by so much in this painting and he must have noticed because he turned to me and said ‘If you pardon my interrupting, but that angel in the middle reminds me of you. You have the same perplexed expression on your face.’”

“That was a bit cheeky of him Farmor. He was definitely trying to chat you up.”

“Yes. I think he was. I was a bit shocked. But then I looked at him. I cannot say that he was very handsome, in the traditional sense, but he had a smile that lit up his whole face.  He was very tall also.  I said I would not take his comment as a compliment, as that angel looked quite cross, and she doesn’t seem to approve of the baptism going on. He laughed of course.”

“I remember you talked about that painting to me before Farmor.” Klara reminded her grandmother. “The Italian countryside in the background. The walnut tree. The river that stops suddenly. The three funny looking merchants. You gave out to me when I laughed at the man in his underpants in the background.” 

Ava laughed and Klara was glad her mood seemed to improve a little. 

“He joked about that too. Richard did. And how the three angels looked like good friends. His description of the painting was very humorous. In fact, he made me laugh a lot.” 

Klara could see, from her expression, that Ava was back in the National Gallery in London. “We spent hours together looking at all of the main painters. Caravaggio, Rubens, Da Vinci, Michelangelo. So many great paintings. He had a wonderful insight. He was lecturing in one of the universities in London and doing a doctorate on, I think it was Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello.  I remember him telling me that they were both mathematicians.”

“Your own personal guide in the National Gallery. Not bad Farmor.”

“Yes, I suppose it was quite something. When I told him I should get back, he persuaded me to join him for tea in the gallery café. I told him that I was on my honeymoon, and I could see he was upset. He smiled and said it was such bad luck that he should meet me too late.”

“That’s sad Farmor”

“Yes it is, but it’s life Klara.  Well, he wanted to send me a copy of the book he was writing and I wrote the address of the summer house on a piece of paper.  When I finally got up to leave, we shook hands. He held my hand and squeezed it gently. I squeezed his hand too. It was not easy to say goodbye. He looked into my eyes and said “Ava, I will always look out for you in this world.”

“And what did you say, Farmor?”

“Would you believe I said ‘That’s nice. It’s like having a guardian angel’ and he smiled and said ‘Yes. I suppose it is. Think of me as your earthly guardian angel’.” 

Ava was looking out over the lake. “Klara, there was so much I wanted to say but I walked away. I had to. I went back to your grandfather.” 

“But, how do you know he died?” 

“I got a letter last week. From his grandson.” 

Ava pressed the napkin against her eyes again. “I’ve said too much now. It must be the wine. I miss sharing the earth with him, that’s all.  Do you know? There wasn’t one day that went by where I didn’t think about him.”

Klara was moved by what her grandmother had told her. She thought about how you never knew what was going on in other people’s heads and that life can be so messy. It reminded her of the quote she read from Gabriel García Marquez, ‘Everyone has three lives, a public life, a private life and a secret life.’ She knew Ava had loved Farfar and wondered if it had been enough for her. Her thoughts turned to herself and James and how she never brought James to the summer house during their four years. That said a lot.  They had moved out of the flat they shared in Camden only last month and Klara was back living in Greenwich with her parents. For the short term that is.  Until things settle down.

They sat in silence. It was a cloudless night and Klara loved how the stars glistened in the dark sky.  When she was younger, she was convinced that Sweden was much closer to heaven than London because the stars were so clear. The light from the moon was reflecting on the water and the cool breeze was splitting the reflection into hundreds and thousands of shimmering lights dancing on the surface of the water.  Klara could see the silhouettes of the Spruce trees on the two little archipelago islands in the middle of the lake and noticed that the lights were still on in the Nilssons’ house.  

Ava got up to go. “I think I’d better go to bed Klara.”

Klara stood up and gave Ava a hug. “Night Farmor. Sleep well. I’m sure your guardian angel is still doing his job, wherever he is.”

…………

It was a month after Klara returned from Sweden.  She was sitting in her old bedroom in Greenwich surrounded by her collection of posters and books. It had been a long week in work. It always took a few weeks to get back into her London pace of life. Klara was staring at the screen of her lap-top and willing herself to press send on the message. Before she left Sweden, she had asked Ava about the letter. Ava showed it to her. It was short and polite. It just said that Richard had died peacefully. He had cancer and that he’d asked his grandson (the writer) to let Ava know. It was signed by a Richard Davis. Obviously named after his grandfather, Klara thought. It seemed that the original Richard Davis had been big in the art world. When Klara googled him, various publications came up. He had written in the Arts sections of the national newspapers from time to time also. Klara also found the book Richard sent Ava. It was on top of the bookshelf, wrapped in old tissue paper. It was a beautiful book full of rich images but obviously very academic too. Klara felt a wave of emotion on reading the dedication, ‘For Piero’s Angel.’ But Klara found herself now feeling curious about the other Richard Davis. The grandson. Ava’s story had stuck with her, and she wondered if the younger Richard Davis knew anything more than Ava had told her. She found it fascinating that Ava and Richard had only met once, and that the connection lasted their lifetime. 

As soon as Klara got back to London she had checked out Richard Davis’s social media profile, feeling a bit guilty for creeping on him. There were lots of photos of trips abroad. He seemed to be very into the outdoors, hiking, windsurfing. You name it. He had lots of friends and it was clear that he certainly knew how to enjoy himself. Klara figured that he looked like a nice guy.  Over the last few days she had debated whether he would think it was weird to message him, finally concluding that she had nothing to lose. She read through the message for the last time.  

Hi Richard. I hope I have the right Richard. I think you might have sent a letter to my grandmother in Sweden last month. She told me about meeting your grandfather.   I would love to know more if you have any information.  I live in London.  Thanks Klara Lundgren. 

She hit send and much to her shock, a reply came back within a couple of minutes. Her heart was racing as she read his reply.

Hi Klara, yes, you got the right Richard! Seems like my grandfather had a thing for your grandmother…Happy to meet up. Where abouts are you?”

……..

Klara was happy to be back in Sweden again. It was a hot summer evening, and she couldn’t believe how quickly the last year had gone. So much change. So much to tell Farmor. She was so excited to see her. She always worried every time she left Farmor that it might be the last time. As a result, she regarded every year as a bonus.  Farmor was getting on in age. The flight landed in Arlanda airport at 4.30 and getting the rental car had been a smooth process for a change. They were driving along roads flanked by thick green forests. The windows were down. Klara wanted to fill her lungs with the Swedish air. She especially loved the Elk signs on the roadside and the fact that they saw cross country skiers on wheels on more than one occasion. I’m home, she thought to herself. 

It was past seven when they pulled into the driveway of the summer house. The lake was sparkling behind the house and Klara had an urge to run down the jetty and jump straight into the cool water.  There were great smells coming from the kitchen which were a combination of fish and the sweet smell of cinnamon. The sound of classical music was drifting out of the open windows. Klara recognised the piece immediately. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Farmor loved Grieg.

Ava heard the car pull in and came out onto the veranda wearing her old white apron with the traditional orange Dala horse print. Klara noticed that she moved a bit slower than last year, but still with grace.  They got out of the car and Klara ran up to Ava and threw her arms around her. 

“Farmor. Oh my God. It’s so good to be back”.

“Welcome home Klara dear. You look wonderful.”

You look great Farmor. It’s so good to see you. Oh my God I missed you.” Klara turned towards the car. “I brought a friend with me this time. Dad did tell you that my boyfriend was coming?”  

“Yes. Yes he did. He told me you were bringing someone special with you this year.”

Richard had taken the bags out of the car and was walking towards the veranda. Ava was standing watching him. She placed her hand on her heart. She knew that face from long, long ago. 

“Farmor. I would like to introduce you to Richard.” 

Ava smiled, “You are very welcome to Sweden, Richard.” 

“Thank you Mrs Lundgren. It’s lovely to finally meet you. Klara has told me all about you.”

Klara beamed on seeing Ava’s reaction. “Richard has a present for you Farmor.”

“Oh how sweet of you Richard. Please, call me Ava. Come inside. I’m sure you must be thirsty in this heat”

Inside the summer house it was cooler. Richard was looking at the Piero Della Francesca print on the wall above the sideboard. He remembered when he was young his grandfather told him that he’d met the angel in the middle. He believed him of course.  

Ava arrived in from the kitchen with a large glass jug filled with a ruby red liquid that was clinking with ice cubes. She set it down on the table and Klara poured out three large tumblers. 

Klara savoured the bitterness of the juice, “Berry saft. Just what I needed. Richard, give Farmor your gift” 

Richard handed Ava the parcel that was still tucked under his arm. 

“Open it Farmor.”

Klara was watching closely as Ava slowly opened the box and peeled off the many layers of tissue paper. When Ava saw what was inside, tears started to flow down her cheeks. It was a replica of the angel in the Piero Della Francesca. 

“Thank you, Richard. I’m not sad. I promise you. You’ve made an old lady very happy. You are very kind.”

Richard looked over at Klara. He leaned forward and squeezed her hand. He could clearly see the close bond that Klara had with her grandmother. “It was on a shelf above my grandfather’s bed for as long as I can remember. He called it his guardian angel.  I believe it belongs with you Ava.”

End

Baptism of Christ – Piero della Francesca

Cock-a-doodle-doo

I’m in Portugal at the moment and there’s a cockerel nearby and he’s lost his ‘doodle doo’. He makes it as far as the beginning of the ‘doo’ and then his voice cracks to a wheezy sound. Poor fella. I can’t see him, but I envisage a battered looking character that has been pulled through a hedge backwards and is missing a few feathers.

Portuguese Barcelo’s Cockerel

I love the sound of the cockerel. It always evokes hot places and memories of travels abroad. In Spain the cockerel doesn’t say ‘Cock-a-doodle doo’. It says ‘Qui-quiri-qui’. (sounds like; kee- kiri -kee) Seriously!  I’ve heard them in Spain and believe me it’s ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’ all the way. 

Lately I’m feeling a bit like the cockerel in more ways than one.  I’ve lost my voice.  Or I think I’ll call it my ‘doodle-doo’. When you shout out loud and nobody is listening, you just get tired of it all. I can hear it being said. (you see what you do is attack the messenger). ‘That angry woman. She just has sour grapes because she didn’t get her planning’.  Well, here’s my version of it.

‘That angry woman (no apologies) Who is angry because a powerful and conflicted planner, aided by his friends (all subordinates of his), stopped her family’s planning’.

Simple as. Except it’s not really that simple because of the collateral damage which we continue to live with. So, for the sake of our family, I will continue to be angry- if that’s ok. But I won’t get bitter – because that’s on me.

When I look up the symbolism of the cockerel it says “the rooster crows into your life to add to your bravery, pride, prudence, strength and honesty”.  It makes me smile. I especially love the fact that the cockerel (or rooster) is the symbol of Portugal – ‘a symbol of faith, good luck and justice based on the legend of the Old Cock of Barcelos’. I’ll take that too.

In Portugal the cockerel says ‘Co-co-ro-có.’  (beats the Spanish version). So maybe my friend has lost his ‘ro-có’, not his ‘doodle-do.’  But nevertheless, he keeps on trying. I’m inspired….

The Write Club

To save some the effort of reading this blog, it is not about planning. It’s not a true story. It’s fiction.

About two months ago I joined The Sea Road WriteClub and it’s nice to have to make things up for a change. It’s challenging but good fun too. The man behind The Sea Road WriteClub is Gary Quinn, a writer, editor and very patient writing coach. At the end of the course Gary has merged two groups to form, (and I hope you don’t take offence lads), what you might call in our case- a ‘middle age’ short story club (as opposed to a book club). Gary is still at the helm, guiding and maintaining order. It’s early days, but after one meet up on Zoom and a short story each, I can tell it will be a good laugh.

So, encouraged by Gary, I am going out of my comfort zone and putting up my first fiction short story below. I would highly recommend Gary’s writing courses for anyone, anywhere (thanks to Zoom) and of any age!

Way Up High

   “Look Frank. Look, it’s the Eiffel Tower.”

   Danny was shaking Frank’s shoulder to get his attention. Frank kept playing his DS and shrugged him away.

   “Get lost Danny.”

   Frank was just about to get to the next level in Super Mario Bros and Danny’s shaking wasn’t helping his chances. Besides, he was still pissed with Danny. When they had got on the plane Danny got his own way, of course. “I bags the window seat,” he’d said and, of course, Mum let him as usual.

   There’s only two years between them but Danny always got his way. Frank knew it was pointless to argue. He could see his Mum was tense with all the packing and getting to the airport. She said he could sit at the window on the way back. He knew it would be night when they were coming back.  It’s not the same, he thought.

   Frank’s Mum was sitting reading her book beside him in the aisle seat and his Dad was sitting beside the girls, reading the paper with his earphones on. Frank’s big sister Carol had come along on the holiday this time. She was minding Sheila, who was colouring in her Princess colouring book. The food had come and gone. They were all allowed get a sandwich and share a large packet of M&Ms. Of course, Danny dropped some on the ground and had to squeeze down to pick them up. He was so annoying, Frank thought.

   Danny wouldn’t give up and kept shaking Frank’s shoulder. “I swear Frank. it’s the Eiffel Tower.” Frank gave in. “Danny, you just made me lose a life.” He leaned over to look out the window and there it was, the Eiffel Tower.

   “Wow,” was all Frank could say at the sight. All was forgiven.  There it was, the Eiffel Tower way off in the distance below them. It was tiny. A miniature figure standing tall above the morning haze. He looked at it between his thumb and forefinger and studied it carefully. It really was amazing.

   “Mum you got to look at this,” he said, as he nudged his mother. She put down her book and pretty soon the three of them were huddled together looking out at the Eiffel Tower. “Can we go to the Eiffel Tower some day Mum?” Danny piped up.

   “Of course we can,” she replied. Mum never said no, Frank thought. He liked that because he knew that she actually would love to bring them but whether it happened or not was another story. He thought how cool it would be to pop down from the airplane and land on the top of the Eiffel Tower like the kind of thing Super Mario does in his DS game.

#

   Frank could remember that day as if it was yesterday. Their excitement on seeing the Tower, the thrill of the skiing holiday ahead of them. That was back when things were going well at home and when they had their fair share of holidays. How times have changed, Frank thought to himself. Anyway, he was interrailing with the lads now and having a great laugh. He reckoned he’d passed his third-year exams and he was happy to be over half-way through college. The last few days had been full on, especially Antwerp, and last night Frank took it handy compared to the others. He left them, half-comatose in the Airbnb in Montmartre and said he’d meet them all at Gar de L’Este at 2pm to get the train to Stuttgart. His cousin Johnny promised he would get Frank’s rucksack to the station. Without saying anything Johnny knew the significance of the date and that Frank needed to be alone for a bit.

   From the Airbnb Frank figured it would take one change on the Metro. He stood looking at the metro map and decided he would aim for Trocadero Station. That seemed like a good idea. He made his way down the steps, swapping the early morning sunlight for the busy underground world beneath the city. People were rushing by on their daily commute and he watched with a detached interest.       

   Hopefully the pickpockets aren’t up yet, he thought. His Mum had warned him and insisted he took the ‘fanny pack’, as she jokingly referred to it, using an American twang. Her old sense of humour was returning and he was glad he had the money belt.  He checked it for the fifth time already that day. It kept everything safe. Well, so far anyway. Turns out all the lads had one.  The metro pulled in and he squeezed into the corner beside the door, trying not to get in the way. Everyone looked so well dressed around him he thought. No eye-contact. That suited him fine.

   An ad caught his attention on the metro. It was an image of two surfers. Probably Biarritz, he thought. He had tried to get the lads to go there but he was out-voted. They wanted to head east to Germany, Budapest and Croatia. Next on the list, Frank thought, and in fairness Ryanair fly there. He remembered the family holiday when they spent three nights in Biarritz. The surf was awesome. He remembered when they opened the hotel balcony door they could hardly hear with the roar of the waves. Danny turned it into a game. Opening and closing the door to let in the roar. It was like canned laughter where you could turn it on and off. Later in the evening he and Danny had stood out on the promenade watching the surfers riding the waves. He wished he could join in but knew that at the ripe old age of 10 he wouldn’t last a minute with those waves. They would make mincemeat of me, he thought. That day Danny and Frank made a promise that they would come back when they were older.

   He also remembered the day back home when he and Danny took the SUP board out without telling Mum. It was the May before they went to Biarritz and Mum had popped to the shops. The sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea to drag out the SUP board from where it had been lying at the side of the house for the winter.  Frank remembered thinking that they would stay close to the shore so they wouldn’t need the lifejackets. But the water was very cold and Danny fell in and had to cling on to the board. He was making it very hard for Frank to paddle and a cold wind was blowing them further away from the shore. Danny started to cry.

   “I’m scared Frank. I’m freezing.”

Frank thought about what they said in the lifesaving classes. You have to encourage and keep the spirits up.

   “Keep kicking Danny, you’re doing great. We’re nearly there Danny – keep kicking. Well done Danny. Nearly there.”

   It took all their strength to get back to shallow water. Frank jumped in and hauled Danny with the board onto the beach.  They had been dragged way down from opposite their row of houses but were happy to get back on the sand. Frank remembered how scared he was that day. How things could have turned out very differently. He remembers his mother running down the beach towards them and how he played it all down. He could see the look of anxiety on her face. He knew she was angry but too relieved to hold on to it, knowing they had learned a very hard lesson.

   When he finally arrived at his Metro stop Frank was glad to get back out to the sunshine. It was already getting hot and there were more tourists milling about. They all had the same idea obviously. He stood for a long time taking in the sheer scale of the Eiffel Tower, now just across the river from him. A lot bigger than the first time, he thought.

   Never in his life did he expect to be so blown away by something man-made. It looked so modern, yet it wasn’t. His eye followed the iron girders from the latticed arch between the four vast pillars, right up to the pinnacle. Frank couldn’t imagine anything more majestic, where engineering is in complete harmony with art. He figured that Leonardo DaVinci would probably approve.

   Crossing over the bridge, Frank thought about that day exactly five years ago. The mood always changed in the house around this time of year coming up to the anniversary. He was glad he was away, even though he knew it was a bit selfish of him. They all had their way of dealing with it. The girls with their music and Dad getting stuck into his work. Sheila had gone off the rails a bit for a couple of years around the time of her Junior Cert. Getting in trouble in school and he knew she was drinking.  Carol came back for a while and tried to look after everyone until she broke with the pressure of it. They were all broken of course, but thankfully life was gradually getting back to the new normal.

   His father had aged at least ten years over-night, but it was his mother Frank worried about most. Afterall she was there that day. She had to live with the memories in her head. A horror show that must have played out on repeat, over and over.  But in recent months it was getting better. She began to laugh again. Her dark sense of humour has probably kept her alive, Frank reckoned. But there was a time when they all thought they would lose her too. Not just because of the crash. She was broken up pretty badly, but her spirit was shattered. It was the anger and guilt she felt because she was spared and Danny wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t her fault of course, but on a deeper level she blamed herself. Frank thought about that phone call from his father exactly this day five years ago and how when he picked up the phone his father’s voice had taken on a strange tone.  He knew immediately that something terrible had happened.

   “Frank, it’s your Mum. It’s your Mum and Danny. There’s been a terrible accident. I’m heading to the hospital. I’ll ring you when I get there.”

   He knew his father was crying and it frightened him.

   Walking across the bridge towards the Eiffel Tower Frank paused to look down at the river below. He was always drawn towards water. He watched a boat that was taking some tourists along the river. Himself and Danny were saving to buy an Opi that Summer. They were lucky to have the sea at the end of their garden. They were going to sail out to the islands every day. Or so they said. Mum wasn’t too pleased at the thoughts of the garden filling up with yet another boat. Between kayaks, SUP boards, the inflatable dingy and the old Measel, all stored at the side entrance of the house, it was getting very cluttered. But Dad of course was all for it. Frank thought that if he ever had kids, he’d buy an Opi and sail out to the islands with them.

   Making his way to the other side of the bridge, Frank could see the queues beginning to form at the base of the tower. He was glad he got there early. He stopped by a stall and bought a souvenir key-ring.   It caught his attention because the little Eiffel Tower was almost exactly the same size as the first time they had seen it on the plane. He attached it to the loop on his small backpack and headed towards the ticket booth. The cost of the ticket would be a big chunk out of today’s budget Frank thought in amusement. Less beer money. Probably not such a bad thing.

   It was a drunk driver that killed Danny. Mum and Danny were coming back from a physio appointment and one minute they were listening to the radio and the next minute it was lights out. Frank didn’t want to think about it, but he always imagined how it must have been for his mother knowing instantly that Danny was lying dead beside her. The fire brigade had to cut her out of the car. She had a broken leg, a fractured wrist and broken ribs. Danny on the other hand looked totally unscathed but his internal brain injuries were catastrophic. Luckily, he wouldn’t even have been aware of what had happened.

   Frank thought about the days that followed the crash. People coming and going, Dad in and out of the hospital. Relatives and friends dropping dinners, cakes, sandwiches. The day of the funeral. Danny’s team doing the guard of honour and everyone crying. Dad was pushing Mum in the wheelchair behind the coffin with Danny’s favourite ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing in the church. Frank couldn’t think of the singer’s name. He was a big Hawaiian lad, he remembered.  People were so kind and they were heartbroken too. Danny was loved by everyone. He was the joker in the family. It was clear that in his short fourteen years on the planet he’d had a big impact on many people.

   Having stopped off to take in the views half-way up the tower Frank was thinking how he was glad the Eiffel Tower was still standing. He remembered watching the fire at Notre Dame on the news only a few months before and listening to Emmanuel Macron promising to rebuild it in five years. They went to see Notre Dame yesterday. The shell of the cathedral was eerily impressive with the mangled mass of burnt masonry and metal sticking out. Five years was a big ask but, on saying that, the scaffolding was up and restoration was already full steam ahead. Paris had suffered its own share of trauma. The security was evident in the Metro stations. They had nearly cut Paris out of their trip because of the terrorist attacks but they felt a sense of duty to go. It had been their original plan and besides, they got a great deal on an Airbnb. An ill wind that blows and all that, Frank thought to himself.

   When he got out of the lift at the viewing platform at the top it was pretty crowded. He took no notice and found a spot at the edge facing the river. He stood staring out over the city taking in the sight below him. Paris, the city of great art, food, and culture.  He loved the quiet hum of the expanse below.  He admired the way the streets splayed out with a sense of purpose and how the Seine teased this order by beautifully meandering through.

   At times Frank focused on different views of Paris’s landmark buildings. He saw the Sacre Coeur on its hill in the distance. They had spent the evening in Montmartre yesterday, climbing to the top and wandering around the streets looking at the artists. That was before they went for food and then later to the bar down the road from the Airbnb. He saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. He remembered the time his mother had told him how her Grandparents visited the Arc de Triomph but, when they arrived it was closing for the day. Her grandmother had spoken in her flawless French to the concierge, saying something like, “Excuse me. Do you realise that this gentleman (referring to her husband) fought in the battle of the Somme in defence of France.”  With that the concierge stood to attention and saluted the old man and took them on their own personal tour of the Arc de Triomphe. Frank loved that story. He thought about his own grandmother and how she had passed peacefully only months before the accident.

   Staring out over the city, many thoughts were racing through Frank’s mind. I’ll find a bistro, grab a croissant and ring Mum when I’m done here. She’d like to hear that I made it to the Eiffel Tower. She would definitely remember Danny asking if we could come here. They will want to know how the holiday is going and that I’m still alive. I’ll fill them in. Well, a sanitised version, he thought with a chuckle.

   They had gone down with Sheila to visit Carol in Wexford. To get away for these few days. Carol had a new baby and, in all fairness, Frank conceded that he is cute, as babies go.  The baby’s name is Michael Daniel, which was nice. It was great to see how much Mum and Dad doted on him. In fact, Mum jokingly said that grandchildren are much nicer than children. So, she is getting better. Life goes on, I guess. He thought about how lucky he was that he got to share the first part of his life with Danny.

   Looking up at a cloudless blue sky Frank could see the vapour trails of airplanes flying above Paris.  He enjoyed the thought that there was probably someone looking down from way up high. Smiling to himself he quietly said, “Look Danny, Look. It’s the Eiffel Tower.”

Day Trips and Camper Vans

This weekend the camper vans arrived in Skerries. They were lined up all along the South Strand, on the sea-side of the road. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many camper vans in one place. It’s a sure sign of these times, with hotels and guesthouses out of action. And without querying the distances travelled, it is very Covid friendly.

Skerries was full of visitors. The whole of Red Island became a car-park for the two days. There was little grass left free of cars. People were having picnics on the grass tucked in behind their cars, enjoying the sunshine and sheltering from a biting wind. Even on the hottest, calmest days there is always a breeze at Red Island.  

We call it Red Island but it’s not an island really, it used to be way back before the sands silted up over time to connect it to the mainland. Now it is linked to the town by the harbour road with its bars, restaurants and coffee shops. It is the little peninsula that separates the beaches. The sandy south strand with the off-shore islands and our north strand with the deeper water and views along the coastline as far as the Mourne Mountains to the North. If you look at an aerial view of Red Island and the harbour, you will see the outline of St Patrick’s goat; the goat that the Skerries people stole from him many centuries ago. So that’s where it went. It was under his nose all along!

Our youngest, Mike, wanted to get out of Skerries. He has barely set foot outside the town in the last year,  so myself and Michael were happy to indulge him. The sun was shining and we took the top down on the car and headed off, as we say in Skerries, “under the bridge”.  We decided to avoid the coast and make our way into Dublin, using a sort of reverse psychology. If the city was coming to us, we would go to the city.

Dublin’s Docklands with the Pigeon House chimneys in the background

When we came to the end of the motorway, we took the tunnel to the docklands and crossed over the river Liffey. To the left we could see large ferries moored up along the docks and of course the red and white Pigeon House chimneys in the distance marking the mouth of Liffey and Dublin Bay.  Looking right towards town, the bridge designed by Calatrava stands out proud amongst the modern buildings in the Financial Centre. But my son of course was focusing on the Aviva Stadium straight ahead. His favourite view, he proclaimed. It is a striking building on the horizon.  It rises up above the old houses in all its glassy glory.  But it’s the great memories of all those rugby matches that were coming back to him and his father as well as the dream of playing one day in that stadium in a green (or Leinster blue) jersey. We took the old route and drove past the Aviva, for old times sake. Sadly, it is silent for the moment but hopefully it won’t be too long before the roar of the crowd returns to Lansdowne Road.

There was an eerie quiet about the place. Not a good quiet because you can’t help but think about all of the businesses that have their doors closed and the human stories behind this. Our mission was simple really. It was to seek out human life and maybe find somewhere to have lunch. We were half tricking ourselves into thinking that it might be possible to sit down outside a restaurant. Soon. But not yet.

We finally found an open carpark at the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. It was only half full. I felt like an extra in a zombie apocalypse movie walking through the shopping centre in my mask with all the shutters down except for the odd coffee shop and Dunnes Stores supermarket. When we got outside to Stephen’s Green there were people about, wandering around in the sunshine in summer clothes despite the cool breeze funnelling up Grafton Street. There were no buskers dotted along Grafton Street closely guarding the prize busking spots. Sadly there was no music.

We decamped to the park in Stephen’s Green and sat on a bench eating our lunch and looking at the ducks on the pond and people going about their lives. In Stephen’s Green it’s clearly the pigeons that rule the roost. They have developed the art of swooping towards you in the hope that you get a fright and drop what you are eating. It obviously works sometimes because they were all at it. It was a pretty unnerving game of chicken but then again us seasiders are well used to the Seagulls and their antics, so we knew not to show weakness! You would have to admire the pigeons’ ingenuity in their attempts to outwit us. Despite the onslaught it was still good to have a change of scenery. It was nice to see people out in the sunshine. You could momentarily forget you were living through a pandemic.

We drove back to Skerries doing our usual spin around the harbour before heading home. The harbour wall was also busy with people sitting on it and leaning against it, soaking up the sun (and also soaking up plenty of alcohol too). The tide had gone out, so the SUP boarders and swimmers, that were there before we left, had moved on, but the beach was still busy. In fact it was so busy on the harbour that apparently the restaurants had run out of drink! We can’t blame the visitors for this because, of course, the locals were out in full force too.  Our eldest, Sally-Anne, was proud of the fact that at the end of a very busy shift on the harbour, she managed to enjoy the last pint squeezed out of the last keg of Guinness. Well deserved.

When we got back to the South Strand it was about four in the afternoon and the town was beginning to empty out. The camper vans had dwindled in number and we were able to reclaim a parking space outside the house. We had a lovely day, but I think I will wait until Dublin opens up again before I venture back.

Hopefully the fact that everyone was outside will mean that we will not end up paying a price for the taste of freedom we saw playing out this weekend (sad news coming out of India is a worry). But then again someone in this house got his vaccine today and my parents, who are fully vaccinated, got to hold their four and a half month old grandchild yesterday for the first time. (There’s another little grandchild in Australia we are all looking forward to meet soon). Also Mike headed off this evening to play his first nine holes of golf in almost a year. So, no matter what, it is different to this time last year. Things have moved on and there are many reasons to be hopeful.

Busy weekend on Skerries harbour Image- Eibhlín Kearns

The Building Site

I grew up on the Rush Road in Skerries in the Holmpatrick Estate. To the front of our house we had the sea and behind the house we had the building site. That’s what we all called it; the ‘Building Site’. We were the lucky ones (the four semi-detached houses that had the building site over our back walls). The rest of the estate was developed out but the four-house gap behind our house remained a permanent feature of our childhood. We had a ready-made playground.

Two of the houses in the building site had brick walls and concrete bases. The other two houses didn’t make it beyond the foundations, leaving ditches and banks which were covered in a layer of weeds and wild-flowers. I remember, at a very young age, sitting on the banks picking daisies, dandelions, buttercups, poppies and these tiny blue and white flowers. There were lots of ladybirds and bees. We made daisy chains of course. We also used to hold the buttercups to our chins and if you saw a yellow reflection that meant you liked butter- just in case we weren’t sure. However, we were a bit wary of the dandelions. Something to do with wetting the bed. The poppies were my favourites though. Especially the closed ones because you could pop open the pod and gently tease out the petals to make a pink poppy. It was a bit creased and battered looking but I loved them – despite feeling a bit guilty. I often wonder where all those flowers are today.

Wildflowers of the 1970s

Nothing went to waste in the building site. We smashed up the old plasterboard and occasionally prised bricks free and sent them crashing down. We used the wood to make ramps for the bikes and bridges between the mounds. We climbed and ran around on top of the walls and played endless games of chasing and hide and seek. The abandoned JCB was our den. 

My little sister Jenny and her friend took the brick throwing to another level. My father had a call to the door about an incident. Denis and Betty McGlougllin lived in one of the houses beside the building site. If you climbed up on the wall of one of the half-built houses you could look into their garden. A large brick had mysteriously landed in through their downstairs toilet window and broken their toilet bowl. Jenny and her buddy had been spotted in the vicinity. They had history- such as the day they broke into Reddy’s house looking for biscuits and were spotted looking out the upstairs bedroom window. And the day they disappeared for hours only to be found in Bob’s Casino trying to shake down money from the games with the cascading coins. They were like a miniature Bonny and Clyde at the ripe age of 5 or 6 years old. I remember the questioning from my parents “Jenny you don’t happen to know anything about a brick that was thrown in Mr McGloughlin’s window?” ‘No”. (She was very loyal to her friend). “Are you sure”? Again, the picture of innocence “No. Don’t know” My parents continued. “The brick that went into the bathroom window and broke the toilet bowl?” She thought about it for a while and then eventually came out with “Oh! That brick!” The game was up. Guilty as charged. Mr McGloughlin was very understanding. He saw the funny side. Of course, now Jenny is a fine upstanding little sister. She got her wild days out of her system very early on. She still makes us all laugh.  

I also remember the day in the building site when I stopped playing. I’m not sure what age I was, maybe eleven or twelve, but I remember the feeling very clearly. I was playing show jumping with my friend. We were horses, jumping over the ditches.  A thought suddenly hit me that what we were doing was very silly.  I tried to continue but I couldn’t. I felt stupid. It was crystal clear to me that there were no horses and the ditches weren’t fences. I sat down and declared I was bored. We both agreed to call an end to the show jumping. That was the day I stopped playing.

When I got older, I heard that the developer went bankrupt. A decent man according to my parents. Building had stopped overnight and the site came to a standstill. Everything was left where it was, including the JCB. It makes me think of an outdoor version of Miss Havisham’s table where everything was frozen in time.

As children we were oblivious to the human story that we trampled on and trashed in our innocence. There was no malice intended. There’s another story yet to be written about the Rush Road in Skerries. Not about childhood innocence unfortunately. I would call it Great Expectations but I think that’s already taken.

The ‘Why’

I started an online “Write your book” course a couple of weeks back. My friend Margot put me on to it. It’s really interesting. Apparently, the big driving force behind writing is knowing your ‘Why’ and once you have that clear in your head everything else flows from that. It makes sense to me. When I think back to the day I was sitting in the kitchen last June, I remember a very clear ‘Why’ coming to me in terms of writing the blog. I have written on and off since then. It was a beautiful sunny day at the end of June. The kitchen was the usual chaos. Everybody was sorting themselves out for lunch around me. Michael had arrived in with the shopping. I was sitting at the top of the table looking out at the view. There was a full tide and the sea was a greenish blue. The islands were lit up by the sun and ready to receive the visitors that would head out in their boats, kayaks, paddle boards etc. Leo was packing his rucksack to head off to Shenick island on the SUP Board. The others were all heading out to meet their friends. The magnetic pull of the harbour was in full force and not just for the kids in the family.

Skerries Harbour

It was one of those Skerries days when everything that was going to happen would be outside, which was a good thing of course with the pandemic. Things had been relaxed since the first lockdown. The teenagers could now gather in groups (socially distant of course!) and all of the kids who should have been in places like America or Canada on their J1s were still in Skerries.  The grass area at the back of the harbour beside the Sea Pole (or ‘Casa’ as it became known) became the go-to place during the day where groups of kids would sit around in circles chatting with each other. A new game of ‘Spike Ball’ was also a big hit and there were mini tournaments taking place. At night they would decamp to the North Beach. The more beers that were had, as the night went on, the less socially distant it became. But they were outside which was enough to keep Covid at bay. Despite the obvious disappointment of not being able to travel, it was very clear they were all having a great Summer.

I needed help with the technological stuff and I was delaying Leo and testing his patience. WordPress was doing my head in. I was doing Leo’s head in. It just wasn’t making sense and all I wanted to do was to get started. I didn’t care about slick design. If I could only upload the odd photo, that would do. Easier said than done, but we got there in the end. Leo headed off down the field with the SUP Board and I battled away with the laptop. No outdoors for me that day. I was like a dog with a bone.

So, before I ever thought of writing, I was given a ‘Why’. (Thanks very much- some bloody ‘Why’!) But joking aside I am oddly grateful to have been given a ‘Why’. At the beginning, this ‘Why’ was very clear.  There were certain things I needed to say. And I did, up to a point. Nobody has tried to silence me yet, but I guess if they did, they would have to identify themselves- which wouldn’t be such a clever move! I still haven’t given up on the old ‘Why’, but it is evolving.  There’s so much more I could say but do I really want to dwell on the past the whole time? These are questions I find myself asking. Shit happens. Maybe time to move on?

Our friendly gnomes

I’m now sitting at the head of the same table but with a very different view, in more ways than one. The seagulls are creating quite the racket outside.  One of Margery’s garden gnomes is grinning in the window at me, which makes me smile. One of the kids has obviously gone to the trouble of putting the gnomes on the windowsills facing in. I suspect the aim is to freak Alice out.

It’s great to be back in the middle of the town. Moving from our home was far from easy but we are in a good place for the moment. This Summer Leo can cross the road with the SUP Board and head off to the islands. The others can walk around the corner to the harbour, ‘Casa’ and the Springboards and (hopefully) hang out with their friends. Since Monday Alice is walking to school. Happy days. No more fights with her younger brother in the car because she’s making him late for school….again.

I am also grateful to the two Foxes who got me thinking. To Margot who is always encouraging all of her friends to be positive and to Anna Fox who is running the online writing course.

And in the meantime I will keep working on the Why…..the Why Not?…..the Why the hell?…..the Why the hell not?….The Why us?……The Why not us?…So, back to the book. It would be an awful shame to waste a ready-made ‘Why’. Hmm….lots to think about.

It’s An Ill Wind That Blows

An Ill wind that blows.- A loss or misfortune usually benefits someone. For example, They lost everything when that old shed burned down, but they got rid of a lot of junk as well—it’s an ill wind. Dictionary.com

Seagulls at Skerries Pier

Today the wind was blowing from the east and oh boy was it cold! My eldest daughter was up early and walked around The Head with her friends. She came back a shade of purple saying how the wind had got into her bones. As they say here ‘the wind would cut you in two’. The phrase “it’s an ill wind that blows” came to mind.  I could go into the origin of the expression; John Heywood’s book of proverbs in 1546 or Shakespeare’s reference to it in Henry VI, but that would be a bit spoofy since I only looked it up. But I liked the Dictionary.com version above all because of the reference to sheds and junk. You see, sheds and junk is a topic that occupies my mind a lot at the moment, as we are clearing out and moving house again. There has been an ill wind blowing in our direction of late. I wonder who the beneficiaries are…..!

However, today I decided not to go into our shed (the barn) and try and sort out the junk. It was my birthday you see and besides I had much better offers. The breakfast on the harbour from Olive with Michael and my (purple) daughter for example. (Ok, so it was in the car because of Covid-  but it was good all the same). And the message from Jane, (my sister-in law), saying  I should go for a celebratory swim for the day that was in it – the North Strand, freezing temperature……. well, I figured it would be rude not to. “Of course I’ll go for a swim”.

In all honesty never in my life would I have imagined myself swimming in the Irish sea…. on the 11th February… with a group of swimmers around me singing Happy Birthday!  Not something I will easily forget. It was just great. The sea is the easy bit. It’s the numb, aching fingers and toes that linger on for an hour or so after. But I’ve read that cold water swimming augurs well in terms of staving off Alzheimer’s, so I figure it could be a good investment.

It was a birthday punctuated by coffee- Olive coffee, Goat in the Boat coffee with the kids after my swim, Gerry’s coffee at the station with Mary and another coffee on the pier with Michael after work; where we sat and watched the seagulls hovering on the wind gusting over the pier wall.

The seagulls always seem to capture the mood. When the wind is blowing, as it was today, they neatly line up in an orderly fashion on the grass over at Red Island, facing into the wind. They have it all figured out. I also watch them out of the kitchen window facing down the buzzard that has been hanging around of late. I’m so up for the seagulls. When we moved into the bungalow the buzzard paid a visit, perching on the fence outside, looking in the window. I hadn’t noticed him for a long time until recently, where he’s been a daily feature. It’s fascinating to watch him hovering above his prey and then going in for the kill. I can’t help but think that maybe the receiver sent him!

Our friend Pat bought the house which was a good outcome for us and has certainly made moving a lot easier. He is a good friend to us. He is family really and our eldest daughter will remain living in the house with her boyfriend (Pat’s son). We were laughing earlier about the big move she will have to make. She has to cross the corridor! We don’t have too far to go ourselves. We will be moving back down to the South Strand where we will be renting “Aunty’ Margery’s house. (Again, we have good friends who made this happen). I always knew Margery as ‘Aunty’ Margery because she was my friend Schira’s aunty. Schira lived next door to us and and my siblings and I practically grew up in the Reddy’s house. I remember how Margery and her sister ‘Aunty’ Breda would arrive for coffee every Sunday after mass. There was always lots of laughter.

The Buzzard

But back to sheds and junk. I will go back into the barn tomorrow. There’s lots of good stuff in there too. Stuff I didn’t want to deal with the last time we moved house. (Don’t they say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure). I’m hoping the wind will change direction from an easterly and revert to our prevailing westerly wind. When you live on the east coast and the wind blows from the west, it feels as if it has your back.

I will finish with a well known Irish blessing that seems appropriate (that I looked up) “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again…….Think I’ll leave it at that.  

My Grandmother’s Words

On New Years Eve we were driving along in the car listening to Newstalk on the radio. Sean Moncrieff had a guest on called Susie Dent, who had written a book called Word Perfect about words and their origins. I found the conversation really interesting. I wasn’t aware, but I learned that Susie Dent is the word guru on Countdown. One word in particular that she mentioned, that caught my attention, was the word ‘respair’. Apparently, the English language had preferred to hang on to the word ‘despair’ but ‘respair’ had fallen away a long time ago. According to Susie Dent, it means fresh hope and a recovery from despair. When I looked at my phone later on in the day I noticed her name popping up on Twitter. Someone I follow had liked a tweet of hers where she said “My wish is that ‘respair’ will emerge from the forgotten pages of the dictionary and be on everyone’s lips in 2021”. Somehow, I don’t think anyone would argue with that wish. We’ve all had enough of the other word over the last year (and some…).

Tom Ryan and Katherine(Nana) Ryan (Carty)

When I was around sixteen and studying for my Leaving Certificate I would go to my grandmother’s house on Thursdays after school. She was helping me with my French and some Irish too. I preferred French. My grandmother, or Nana as we called her, lived down the end of the Balbriggan Road, only a few minutes from the school. I would knock on the window because most days she would invariably be in the living room watching television. I remember the living room fondly. The mantlepiece was one of those old brown tiled ones that were popular in the 1950s. There was an old clock in the middle, which was flanked by a soapstone monkey carving, (one of the ones where the monkeys are piled up on top of one another) and a little rabbit with a chip out of it. (My father and his younger brother David had bought her the rabbit when he was a child). There was also a shiny brass mortar shell casing that my grandfather had taken as a souvenir during his time on the battlefield of the Somme. Her beloved piano was to the left and her big adjustable chair was in the corner beside the window. The old black telephone was beside her on a small table. On the rare occasion it rang and she would glare at it for disturbing her peace. The Calor heater provided the backdrop smell and sound making the room very cozy.

She had her favourite television shows, Emmerdale Farm and Countdown. I usually had to wait until Countdown finished before we would start our lesson. I thought Countdown was boring and I didn’t like the noise of the Countdown clock so I would go and make the tea for both of us. Nana however was glued to Countdown. She was really good at it.  She had a love of words you see. A love of language, of literature and history.

I had an inkling, even at that age, that Nana wasn’t your ordinary grandmother. She was born in 1904 and in about 1921 she won a scholarship to University College Dublin (UCD). The story was that there was a move in Wexford Corporation to award the scholarship to the highest achieving boy. The father of the late Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister ) Brendan Corish, was chairman or mayor of the Corporation. He stood up at the meeting and said “The girl won it fair and square. She should get the scholarship”. This was how my grandmother became the first woman from Wexford to go to university. She boarded with the Loreto Nuns on Stephen’s Green during her time in UCD. When she graduated from university she didn’t disappoint her benefactors. She came first in her French degree. She got a medal but was disgusted because the money prize was awarded to the boy who came second. As a feminist that didn’t sit very well with her.

She had perfected her French during her university years where she spent her Summers in Concarneau in Brittany and in Coutances in Normandy. She photographed some of the villages destroyed in the First World World War. My father recalls looking at television footage of the Second World War where his mother could tell them who had lived in the bombed-out houses that were shown in the film reels. She would say “ ça c’est la maison de le docteur …Monsieur le …” the names escape him now so many years later.  She told him about the family she stayed with in Coutances where the father, son and grandson had fought in the Franco-Prussian war. They grew hyacinths in the sunroom. One of the plants was growing out of an old German pickelhaube helmet which still contained the skull of the unfortunate previous owner (or the ‘Boche’ as the French man contemptuously referred to him). In later years her daughter, my Aunty Mary and her husband John, took Nana to France with them on their annual family holidays. Nana stayed in the Manoir and joined the family during the day on the adjoining campsite. Mary told us that in the evenings Nana would sit in the square with the old French ladies chatting away like a native and none of them would believe that she was anything but French. In the campsite she was fondly known as Mamie by everyone. When she returned to Ireland off the Rosslare ferry she spent time visiting her sisters Betty and Peg in Wexford before returning to Skerries.

Nana (Mamie) -Summers in France in Seventies and Eighties

Her language lesson had a pattern. We would take a verb and go through all of the conjugations. Having gone through each tense, which she neatly wrote in columns, then it got to her favourite part of the lesson which was to talk about all the words that were related to the verb in question. She would talk at length about the origin of the word and list out reams of words that stemmed from or were related to that particular verb or word. She could also seamlessly cross between languages showing how most languages borrow so many words from each other. This was her passion. She told me once, for example, that the Swedish word for desk is ‘scrivbord’. The word ‘scríobh’ (pronounced the same) means “to write’ in Irish and ‘bord’ is the Irish word for table. Only about five years ago that little nugget came in handy. I was in Uppsala with Michael visiting my Swedish friend Maria and her parents, Gun and Lennart. I, along with my two friends Sinéad and Sheena, had stayed in Sweden for a magical five weeks when we were sixteen years old. (Sinéad stayed with Madeleine and Sheena with Ulrica). Now almost thirty years later I was back visiting the Rubbetoft family.  During the conversation Maria, for some reason, asked me what the English word was for “you know a table that you write at” I jokingly replied with the Swedish word ‘scrivbord” and, considering my knowledge of Swedish- which consists of; ‘jag ålskar dig’ (I love you) my reply took everyone by surprise. Thank you Nana. See, I was listening! Maria became a grandmother last week. Now there’s a lucky grandchild.

Nana had great stories. One of my favourites was the story about the time she saw the ghost when she was a young teacher in the Teacher Preparatory College at Ballyconnell in Falcarragh County Donegal. This was in the late 1920s. She taught languages and music. The director gave her a blank cheque to go to Piggots in Dublin to buy all the instruments for the orchestra. She told me that she was in bed one cold night and she woke up and the room had a very unnatural light. There was an old man in a tartan dressing gown sitting in front of the fire that was lighting in her room. She realised that she could see the flames of the fire through his body. When I asked her what she did she said she ducked under the bed covers and said a decade of the Rosary! The next day she told the nuns what happened and they said she had seen John Olphert, the former owner of the house. The nuns also said that under no circumstances was she to say anything as it wouldn’t do to frighten the young students. Apparently he always appeared around that time of year and there is a gravestone in the garden that reads “here lies John Olphert among the flowers that he loved”.

She cherished her time in Falcarragh and she married my grandfather there. I couldn’t engage her on the topic of her wedding. That was one she kept for herself. It appears that her family weren’t too keen on the idea of her marrying a soldier, so they had eloped and married with the help of the Loreto nuns in Falcarragh.

In 1989, when I was working in London, I came home for a visit. Nana was in Beaumont hospital. She had gallstones and had a series of three operations over one weekend.  Although she had already begun to repeat herself quite a lot as she got older, the operations were obviously just too much for her ageing body to take. Between the medication and the trauma she was confused and quite distressed. With the bright lights and the background noise in the hospital she had convinced herself that she was in Charles de Gaulle airport. I’ll never forget what she said to me …“and there I was in Charles De Gaulle airport, walking around in my slippers like Brian Boru” It was funny. But it was so sad too.  That was when I realised it would never be the same again.

In the years that followed Nana drifted into Alzheimers. She didn’t lose her words but they made less and less sense. It was heartbreaking to witness a great mind gently drift away. Her past came back to her. It was more real than the present she was living in. (Which wasn’t a bad thing). The staff in the nursing home would say that they wouldn’t know which language to expect her to speak. On some days she could be in France and some days back in her beloved Falcarragh speaking Irish. She also talked a lot about Wexford and her siblings and asked for Tom, her husband, when we visited.

I brought my new-born daughter to see Nana not long before she died. She was her first greatgrandchild. She held the baby tight and said “isn’t he a lovely little fella”. A couple of years later we bought our house on the beach. The name of the house was Falcarragh. It was named by the previous owners who were cousins of Michael’s father. Their mother was a Branagan. The Flanagans had a sister who was a nun in Falcarragh who died young from gastroenteritis. They named the house in her memory. Like my grandmother, we too have happy memories of our Falcarragh.

I like to think that Nana’s words live on in her family, in her children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. That they weren’t lost when she passed on in 1998. My father’s novels are evidence of this if any were needed. I am now starting his new novel ‘Landfall’ which is based in Elizabethan times. I never fail to be blown away by his knowledge of history and his way with words. I’m lucky to have him to run things by. He always has interesting insights for me.  He is his mother’s son for sure.

I ordered my copy of Susie Dent’s book “Word Perfect”. It’s a book my Nana would have enjoyed. I now follow Susie Dent  on Twitter.  Yesterday’s word was ‘crambazzled’: 19th Century Yorkshire Dialect for looking prematurely aged from excess drinking. Whilst feeling quite crambazzled myself I  am sure looking forward to a bit of respair in 2021.

The Dryrobe

So 2020 is nearly over. Good. Many storms to weather and they are not over yet. But that’s on a macro level. We are still standing and not everyone can say that. On a micro level we can focus on the nice stuff. We are looking forward to Christmas.

Christmas Greetings from Skerries Springboards! by Niamh Fardey -FARDS CARDS

Santa came early for me with a gift of the ‘must have’ pandemic accessory. (It’s a must have in Skerries anyway). My sister-in law Kathryn had very kindly put my name on a Dryrobe in her swimming group’s bulk order. The group name is “Fair Weather Swimmers”, but it seems Dryrobes were called in because the swimming activity strayed way beyond the fair weather to the positively Baltic weather. Orders of Dryrobes have gone through the roof apparently and there are waiting lists, so I was very lucky to get my hands on one.

I was a bit sheepish at first. The slagging about Dryrobes has taken off big time. There are hilarious sketches on Social Media about the Dryrobe brigade frequenting the coastal coffee shops talking about their “sunrise swims”. Skerries is no different.  Throughout the town you can spot groups in their Dryrobes going for their well-earned hot drinks after their dip in the Irish Sea. It’s like a damper, less glamourous version of apres-ski. It just shows; this pandemic has certainly made us all more resourceful. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that!

One thing I love is the fact that this new-found love for swimming in the Winter seems to attract all ages; from teenagers right up to octogenarians. The original cold-water swimmers in Skerries, “The Frosties,” have had to stagger their swims to avoid the hoard of enthusiastic newbies (like myself) that the high-tide attracts. On occasion the Springboards has been very busy, especially when the sun is shining. But even on the worst of days there is a fair trickle of hardy candidates willing to brave it.  It’s not just the Springboards that is popular. It’s everywhere.  In fact, a week ago we were braving some big waves and an awful lot of seaweed at the entrance to the harbour at the North Strand. And of course, there’s the deep water at the Captains, which is almost always (apart from the odd storm) an option. So, where there’s a will there’s a way.

Sometimes I hook up with the “Fair Weather Swimmers”, especially when Michael makes a guest appearance the odd weekend.  More often than not, I swim with “The Quiddles”.   My school friends, Carol and Margot are founding members and they cajole and encourage me. They even, on occasion, managed to persuade me to get out of my warm bed for a sunrise swim! I confess I was a bit smug when I mentioned it to the younger two when driving them to school, but there was little to no interest shown. Obviously not my target audience.

So back to my new Dryrobe. I got to use it for the first time at the Springboards the other morning.  I sat, after my swim, in the wind and rain on the concrete bench drinking my tea and chatting with the girls. I was completely cocooned and not convulsively shivering as I normally do. I reckon with a Dryrobe I could take on anything…… I could weather many a storm.  I could even handle the slagging that is sure to come my way for wearing a Dryrobe. 2021- Bring it on!

Sunrise Swim!