You wouldn’t sell your hen on a wet day

From the kitchen, the Irish language channel shouts down the everyday English hemorrhaging from the TV across the hall through perpetually open doors. Between the deteriorating hearing of the older residents, and their obsessive, high-pitched, fear these will provide a passage way for A Terrible Draft, a Siberian dog has its paws permanently shoved in its ears.

Between impassioned pleas from Gaelgeoiri to rescue our native language, and raised brows from others at the dead-horse approach to same, a third language is quietly under attack. One that is lively, expressive, and economic: the mongrel tongue of colonial English and sideways Irish. A combination producing an index of euphemisms readily deployed to elegantly ridicule a person, lampoon a notion, or nail a nugget of wisdom in less than 140 characters.

Say that again?

Would you lock the back door please

Lock? The back door? Whad’ya mean?

Yeah, the keys are on the kitchen window 

The kitchen window?

We’ve reached the point of our stay in a predominately euphemism-speaking area of Ireland when the most straight-up assembly of words is fast becoming a challenge. But I want to stay here and luxuriate it in a while longer before returning to the Real World.

Between excessive flexing of intellectual muscles, and casually revealing mental muffin tops on social media, the Plain People of Ireland mutter on from the sidelines; sometimes seeming to occupy the more sophisticated and least self-regarding high tables of chat of all. Many of them know the value of silence. And the importance of not selling their hen on a wet day.

A different corner

I don’t have any problem moving house. It’s the staying put that gives me jip. I used to think it was down to a restless gypsy soul. Therefore conferring a certain romantic status on invisible voids strewn across my sense of self.

On closer inspection, roaming between destinations within a few hundred mile radius of each other hints less at a wanderer than a fidgety fugitive. From what? Heartbreak? Conformity? Boredom? Prison? If life’s continuum is a process of breaking free towards the next point of the present, then surely it pays to stop and look around every once in a while to see how it measures up against the brochure.

But flicking forwards and backwards to the other glossy pages became a habit. Until the habit became a pathology. Until the pathology had me sitting cross-legged and leaning over kitchen tables, weekend papers, bar counters, pillows, cinema seats, my own pointed fingers, and steering wheels, weighing up the pros and cons of moving to anywhere-but-here.

And now I’m about to give all that up when we make the permanent move next week…to a mile from here. No longer will I be able to luxuriate in fabricated futures that were never going to be anyway. Just rogue horizons on the shoreline of segregated schools and communities. Rusting fire escapes leaning against hardened vowels beneath tribal flags flapping in the stillness of political ineptitude.

Would it be different elsewhere? Probably not. There would just be different windows through which I could day-dream my way into a new existence. A new job. A new me. The elusive mysterious me I can’t quite pin down. Because when push comes to shove, she’d probably prefer a ground-hog Saturday evening to something anything but.

The 40s are a strange time. The game is up in many respects, but getting used to some things that are so right still takes getting used to.

The universal and the particular

Name the odd one out: James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Patrick MacGill. All have literary summer schools held in their honour except Seamus Heaney. Only a matter of time. One will likely have been set up by the time I hit publish on this post.

My knowledge of Patrick MacGill is limited to occasional pauses before his memorial statue, and accidental glances at rarely leafed-through books lining a shelf in my parents’ house. “The Navvy Poet”. Journalist. Poet. Novelist. Looks like my cousin Declan. Glenties man.

My Dad. History addict. Through the kitchen window day-dreamer. ‘Pullover’ wearer. Retiree. Looks like his sister. Glenties man.

One as enigmatic as the other. Any child who annually agonises before the array of imported emotional porn lining the greeting card sections of Ireland will understand. So too will those who cling to repetitious small-talk as subtitles for love and affection. That’s just our way.

Glenties. Keeper of both their secrets. And every summer the scene of burning debates on the great national questions of the day. Over the coming week, Very Important People will stride through the doors of the hotel where Meryl Streep stayed during the Irish premier of Dancing at Lunaghsa. Taoisigh and presidents can come and go, she’ll always be their Queen.

Based on the play by Brian Friel, the film captures a summer of upheaval in the lives of the five Mundy sisters in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It is loosely based on Friel’s Mother and Aunts who lived in Glenties. Aunts my Father remembered along with the occasional visit from the young playwright in his boyhood. Like Friel, his was a house of five women. My Mother tells me my Dad tells her I ‘took’ after one. It’s the hair, apparently, and the spirit. She legged it as soon as she could, too. But none of them made it near middle age. TB wiped out their vitality along with the ability of their brother to talk about them much. Buried trauma. That was just the way.

On the corner rounding into town stands his old school. My Mother tells me that my Father told her that the reason he was so keen to attend the funeral of a former teacher recently was because this teacher defended him when he was threatened with demotion from altar boy after his sister had an “illegitimate child”. She kept the child. That just wasn’t the way.

The same school features in the work of poet, Paul Durcan. Inspired during his visit to the MacGill Summer School with a fellow poet, it doubled up as the stage for a duel on meditations on parenting and writing. What scholars would probably call the universal and the particular, while I try to understand what they mean. I can’t claim to know too much about poetry, but I just have to read this one poem to get exactly what they mean.

My Dad.  Former pupil. Table tennis enthusiast. One-time proud altar boy. Brother. Uncle. Survivor. Glenties man.

A Spin in the Rain with Seamus Heaney

You had to drive across to Donegal town
To drop off a friend at the Dublin bus
So I said I’d come along for the spin –

A spin in the rain.
Bales of rain
But you did not alter your method of driving,

Which is to sit right down under the steering wheel
And to maintain an upwards-peering posture
Treating the road as part of the sky,

A method which motoring correspondents call
Horizontal-to-the-vertical.
The hills of Donegal put down their heads

As you circled upwards past their solitary farmhouses,
All those aged couples drenched over firesides,
Who once were courting couples in parked cars.

You parked the car in Donegal town and we walked the shops –
Magee’s Emporium and The Four Masters Bookshop.
You bought ice-cream cones. I bought women’s magazines.

We drove on up through the hills past Mountcharles
And Bruckless and Ardara.
There was a traffic jam in Ardara,

Out of which you extricated yourself
With a jack-knife U-turn on a hairpin bend
With all the bashful panache of a cattle farmer –

A cattle farmer who is not an egotist
But who is a snail of magnanimity,
A verbal source of calm.

Back in the Glenties you parked outside the National School
Through whose silent classrooms we strayed,
Silent with population maps of the world.

Standing with our backs to a deserted table-tennis table
We picked up a pair of table-tennis bats
And, without being particularly conscious of what we were at,

We began to bat the ball one to the other
Until a knock-up was in progress,
Holding our bats in pen grips.

So here we are playing a game of ping-pong
Which is a backdrop to our conversation
While our conversation is a backdrop to our game.

We are talking about our children and you speak
Of the consolation of children when they grow up
To become our most trusted of all companions.

I could listen to you speak along these lines
For the rest of the day and I dare say
You could listen to me also speak along my lines:

I have always thought that ping-pong balls –
Static spheres fleet as thoughts –
Have flight textures similar to souls’.

I note that we are both of us
No mean strikers of the ball and that, although
We have different ways of addressing the table –

Myself standing back and leaping about,
Yourself standing close and scarcely moving –
What chiefly preoccupies us both is spin.

As darkness drops, the rain clears.
I take my leave of you to prepare my soul
For tonight’s public recital. Wishing each other well.

Poetry. To be able to look a bullet in the eye,
With a whiff of the bat to return it spinning to drop
Down scarcely over the lapped net; to stand still; to stop.

Checkmate

It used to be that visits were so infrequent, I was convinced they’d changed the carpet in my absence. The longer the gap, the odder it looked. Are you sure?, I’d casually interrogate, looking down at a previously unregistered row of flowers snaking under the glass table. From there it zigzagged towards another buoying up an assortment of exhibits proudly wearing their counties of origin like a status-tag.

Waterford still borders Belleek despite the arrival of Galway and other Rocha-come-latelies. Well, something’s different, I mumbled the other evening, ignoring the dust no longer visible to the octogenarian eye. Who’s that making his own tea in the kitchen? “Your Father”.

By the third day, our one wondered when we were going home. This could only have meant one of two things: 1. She was having an enjoyable time 2. She was having such a good time she was growing ever anxious about the inevitable Sunday-night-like Fear. Or (I’m gathering momentum here so feel it necessary to add a third) most likely 3. She was experiencing a disturbing combination of 1. and 2. We’ve all been there. In receipt of unfettered treats knowing there’s a comedown at the bottom of the next empty wrapper and a return to front-seat issued orders about bed-time. They get you into a confined space where you can’t move for two hours and set all sorts of conditions. You hate it now, I smiled sympathetically, but will learn to master it by the time you’re in a serious relationship.

By the fourth day, I was beginning to feel at home. This could only have meant one of two things 1. I was at home 2. I was at home, but it was my home. Or (work with me) 3. I was experiencing a disturbing inner conflict between rejection and romanticising of 1. and 2. We’ve all been there. In receipt of unwavering hospitality from one, and from the other a raised brow at the level of oil usage. They get you into a confined space where you can’t move for two days and set all sorts of unspoken conditions for keeping it civil. You hate it now, she smiled up at me sympathetically, but just think what all’s ahead of me.

I thought better of sticking my tongue out at her, so robbed a Curly Wurly instead.

waterford crystal

Seeing through each other

Small, far away

It’s on the tip of my tongue to chalk my collapsed defenses up to the potentially lengthy gap between this ritual and the next. But I don’t. I go on craning my neck as strenuously as my neighbour engaging me in parental small-talk . Enthusiastically we strain to nab a glimpse of little ones tucked under gowns and mortar boards. Defeated by the cuteness of it all, I quietly roll thought balls to toss indiscriminately overhead.

You have to hand it to the Church for pilfering the critical glass-clinking moments from cradle to grave. And Hallmark for making the most of the spaces in between. Cousin’s Day is an opportunity to pause and reflect, and remember how your parents would’ve preferred you had turned out. While nothing says ‘I Love You, Daddy’ quite like a little bear fridge magnet and a bottle opener in the shape of a football. It’s the small things that matter.

But it’s the big things that deceptively give the appearance of being small when really they’re just far away. It’s this apparent insignificance that continues to ripen.  Always for the taking by the Cardinal sinned ever since they first flash-mobbed the corridors of our newborn sovereignty. And it’s this insignificance that’s the last cornerstone of Catholicism standing stoic as the once dominant moral policeforce lie dying in all but one Green Field.

It could’ve been worse. Posing as a bride of Christ pales in comparison to digging up the dead every few years for a boogie. And becoming one of God’s foot soldiers at 12 in exchange for a judiciously chosen name beats being drafted into the local militia. He who rules the world rocks the ritual. Those immune to the inherent need for celebration are not indigenous to this world. Let those who never felt a lump in their throat cast the first spray of confetti. Oh no, wait, they banned that a few years back. Sorry. Dems the man-made rules.

For many, the processional outings of their children are only days, far away. For others, far away days are weightless without context. Eventually we discover they’re neither. When they do come round, we find ourselves squaring reason with emotion before reconciling both with whatever ritualistic apparatus is available to us. The machinery that enables us to come together to raise a toast. And boast of unexpected enjoyment from it afterall.

Not for our one a bridal gownette, nor name-taking coercion further on. Perhaps a mild twinge of envy from her parents at the guaranteed calendar of events laid out for others. Meanwhile, nothing demonstrates the transition from nursery to primary school quite like the deafening rendition of I Can See a Rainbow and an inexhaustible supply of Monster Munch. Such hypocrisy. The parents don’t believe in giving children junk. But it’s just one day, right?

graaduation

Class of 2016

Hardy perennials

Summer time. And being dragged around various ‘nice’ respectable events like Bloom and Taste of Dublin won’t be easy. The organisers were obviously up all night thinking of those awe-inspiring titles. How can a garden show consider itself a festival? Unless someone relieves themselves up against an exhibit. At least the Ploughing Championships don’t bother with such pretensions and are undoubtedly twice the laugh.

These excursions come courtesy of my folks who were given tickets as ‘prizes’ when they crossed the final frontier of respectability the other week into the audience of The Late Late Show. Admittedly, I enjoyed telling my in-laws that one. But their patio is still bigger. Ah, well.

Apparently Ryan Tubridy really is so thin he only needs the one eye. And the audience have to exit through a gift shop where a branded mug is theirs for the price of a small internal organ on the black market.

We gathered round the box with The Fear my Da would be caught picking his nose on camera. Or my Ma would be caught nudging him right after said offence with him clearly mystified as to why he’s been attacked on live TV. Following a few tense minutes of crowd-scanning, I heard her unmistakable laugh at Jason Byrne’s irreverent bouncy castle Jesus joke. She had made it on to the front row following a generous helping of wine. We all settled down after that. But are paying dearly for it now in concept gardens and ingredients we can’t pronounce.  And I’ll be forced to issue a report to the in-laws, who’ll force themselves to pretend they care.

I’ll leave out the bit where my mother missed The Undertones in the flesh by watching them on the studio monitor, and verified her own laugh at the Jesus joke when it was repeated two days later. They’d never have done something so sacrilegious. Like ignore The Undertones.

gaarden

What’s the Latin for “where’s the bar?”

Random

On a railway platform somewhere between Boston and Philadelphia, the shoulders of a young woman droop in defeat as the train pulls away from her. All her belongings shrink inside as it rounds the corner out of sight. She aims the string of curses away from herself towards a train she can no longer see. The mutherfuckin”train.

An aggressive window-knock forces her eyes to dart across the tracks. From the stationary carriage she can make out a smiling stranger pointing enthusiastically to the seat opposite. Except it is not a stranger but the bloke she had been flirting poorly with on the train that just pulled away. Except it wasn’t the train; she turned left onto the opposite platform on her return from the bathroom.

Her belongings are exactly the same size as before; her complexion a little more flushed as she composes herself.

*****

“Did you enjoy your day then?”, he asks, holding the prosseco bottle up to the light (empty).

“Surely. It was very relaxed”, she replies, sniffing the glass twice to make sure it’s hers. It is the only one on the table.

By relaxed, they both mean the successful suspension of mutual hostilities. And the absence of political ‘debate’.

“Courtesy and civility assured at all times, as Mary used to say”

“There was plenty of food to go round, too”

“And what about the speech?”

She arches a brow before looking away.

“Ah, Ma”

“For a moment I thought of interrupting him to ask if I was dead. And you seemed a bit emotional”

The accusatory tone is a reliable indicator that the thick wall of the garage suceeded in concealing the cracks in civility; his crimson face chalked up to investment in the moment. The moment his father’s rehearsed words tumbled out feet first masking the sincerity of thanks for the sacrifices she made down the decades.

Not the moment his twelve year old self lost it with his ten year old sister minutes before he handed toasting duties over to him. When he rashly pulled her pride until it hurt as much as it once did her pigtails. He instantly regretted it but, like cranberry sauce, sorry isn’t something ever known to be brought into the house. Like all juvenile combat, it will lie forgotten until next time a land-mine is unwittingly trodded on.

“Aye. I guess so. I’d just never heard him talk that way before”

His overriding memory from today will tumble out in correct incorrect order. He will always be glad to have been of third party service: to have enabled one of them to say things to the other the soundproofing of a long marriage prevents them from hearing when alone.

*****

“What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?”

“There is not always an answer to every question”

“No, I mean -“

“No, that’s the best piece of advice I was ever given”

*****