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.

Take it to the bridge

We’ve hit the instrumental section of the season here at my folks’. The middle eight of Christmas when my Father’s daily quest to get us out for a walk revs up the morning with all the subtlety of an Animal drum solo. It’s less an attempt at a family bonding manoeuvre than a central heating cost saving exercise. He has already started to feel up the radiators while exclaiming the house has exceeded tropical temperatures as another icicle falls from his nose, crash landing on an empty Pringles tube.  He could put someone’s eye out with that. It’s traditional.

untitled

Hey! Would you like to go for a walk?

No Christmas would be complete either without his progeny reverting to their teenage default settings. This year, we’ve applied some efficiency of our own to the random insults. Gone are the unwarranted dead arms, and any valid reasons for accusing each other of being annoying. ‘You’re so annoying’ is a perfectly workable stand alone English sentence. Like a Christmas induced tourette’s outburst. Gone too is any appetite for resurrecting twenty year old gripes for shoehorning into an already ridiculous argument. I haven’t once heard anyone remark “what exactly do you mean by that remark?”, and the only response I got to my bleating at Bono’s exchange with Michael D was a Mexican eye-roll and the offer of a Celebration. I’m not sure middle age agrees with us.

Thankfully, this outrageous display of civility is compensated by the impressive juvenile pursuits of our respective children. The bickering baton has been enthusiastically grabbed by sticky hands, which they use to cheerfully beat each other up. Oh no wait, that’s a breadstick. Was a breadstick.

I don’t remember either of our parents calmly meeting us at eye-level to theorise on the origin of the other’s mickey fits and appeal to our inner rational adult. Plausible reasons offered for having a melt-down include: tiredness, playfulness, “their age”, or, to quote my own toddler, “an intensifying sense of injustice over perceived uneven turn-taking”. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Here, have a milky bar, kid, and eat it gloatingly right in front of your cousins’ faces. Their Dad administered the worst Chinese burns to me as a child, and wouldn’t take me to see The Smiths when they played our home town in 1985. Not that I harbour festering grudges. The fucker.

Frankly, and I never say frankly, so I mean it forcefully, the endless polite intervening and over-rationalising gets fucking exhausting so I knocked on the doors of bathrooms and bedrooms where their parents were hiding out from their own off-spring and suggested I take them to the cinema. And, if they spared me excruciating levels of social shame, if they were really good, I might throw in a trip to the other Michael D’s.

I interpreted the time delay in their answers as horror at the suggestion of going to McDonald’s, and fully expected exaggerated disgust and nauseatingly emphatic pronouncements about their children’s nutritional habits. Not really. These are my people. So, right on cue, doors enthusiastically swung open, and we cranked our newly fledged maturity up a gear with a potentially violent argument over who would pay for the privilege.

“No, I insist”.

“No, it’s MY treat”.

“Take that back” *flings €50 note*

Etc.

Etc.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Smorgasbord

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the day the IRA interrupted me cleaning a Danish hotel room. My best mate and I stopped whatever we were doing and stood jaw-dropped in front of the television. We looked at each other in disbelief. Oh. My. God. At last. Someone speaking English.

I don’t remember a job interview, but I recall precisely how we landed on the idea of Copenhagen. We stuck a pin in a map the previous May. That’s how fast and loose we played with earning our college keep back then. Oh yeah. Get us. Backpacking our way to one of the most expensive cities on the planet.  We didn’t bank on pints costing over a fiver a pull (a tenner in today’s dosh), and me accidently flushing my favourite trousers down the toilet on our first night in the youth hostel. Or hostel, as I called it until my eligibility to stay in these bunk-bedded communes expired. Funny how the word ‘youth’ only appears in the lexicon of folk middle-aged and beyond. I digress. How I mourned those trousers. Bought from the erstwhile second-hand shop, Flip, in Temple Bar, which did a respectable line in second-hand silk pyjama bottoms originally designed (and possibly worn by) the more refined older gentleman. I hope. The draught never bothered me anyway.

By the time the IRA was bragging about graciously laying down their arms, we had managed to shave an hour off our working day since our arrival in June.  We were contracted to be paid for twenty-two minutes per double room, eighteen for a single. For the first month, we could be seen shuffling out of the building hours after the others had left, occasionally carrying bags of empties under each arm signalling a good day for leftover bottles from departing guests. The returns on enough of those babies would guarantee us half a beer, or an ice-cream, or one-third of our relentless daily diet of pasta, veg, and sausages. A pair of Irish gombeens among a gang of Filipino women chambermaiding their way towards their respective versions of a more exciting life. Two women unaccustomed to cleaning at any speed other than at their leisure. We needed to get a move on. (Warning: don’t ever drink from a glass in a hotel room).

At some point during the stolen coffee breaks, we learned our colleagues were being exploited by our employer. Underpaid and held to ransom by expired working visas they refused to extend. Memory of the revolutionary meeting with the union is sketchy, and distance and nostalgia has inflated our cameo appearance into a starring role in the re-telling. But looking back, it was a summer of political awakenings for us both in many small but significant ways.

Shortly after Trousergate, we secured a room in the halls of a university campus on the outskirts of town. Here we collided with Somali refugees newly arrived in their host country impressively leading the charge in European immigration and integration. I never required healthcare during my visit, but that my tax bill included a specified amount towards it added up. Recycling, an informal approach to queuing, the lack of vocabulary or need for ‘excuse me’ … all (eventually) made sense.  Everything except The Little Mermaid. Squint or you’ll miss her.

mermaid

“Any chance one of you could get me a BigMac?”

Then there was Greta, a German trainee doctor working as an intern in a city hospital. What we lost in translation and the endurance test otherwise known as her boyfriend (she appeared to find him equally insufferable), we gained from her vivid accounts of life as an East Berliner where she lived her parents, both prominent figures in The Communist Party. Four years on, she still lamented the fall of The Wall, but strangely found solace in The Hoff’s sensitive performance (not really). They had looked after each other there, she sighed, unable to conceive of a lasting fair society under reunification and liberalisation. “Don’t worry”, I whispered solemnly, “Angela Merkel will see yiz right”. (not re..what do you think?)

What they thought of us was anyone’s business but ours. Everyone displayed an interest in knowing more about Northern Ireland. Except us. We found the easiest way to scratch heads and move the chat along was to explain we hailed from the South, but from the most northerly county on the island. In the middle but really on the edge. Neither with them nor against them. Sounding like them but speaking a different language. Sharing a geographical hinterland but not a currency or culture. Shopping in the same places but only we were obliged to hide ours under the car-seat going through customs. A sort of smorgasbord of bits and bobs from one and the other.  A take it or leave it.

The remainder of that day twenty years ago was given over to raising a beer (maybe two) to the most significant event of the day – my best mate’s birthday.

Happy Birthday M xx

Meet The Flockers

On my 21st birthday, my best mate presented me with a bulky card containing an obvious little something. Since it was so long ago  *pipe lip-smacks*, I don’t recall my exact response but no doubt I mentally punched the air at the prospect of being able to get my round in down the pub. This was the early Nineties remember, so German beer and disposable income had yet to make an appearance. “Open it later”, she muttered, or something to that effect.

I still have the two hand-written pages that slid out that evening. ’21 Good Things About You’ is a credit to the list-making community everywhere (you know who we are) with its respectable double-spaced bullet-pointed lay-out, the different coloured pens indicating due care and consideration for the task underpinned by the occasional moment of inspiration when any pen had to do. The free-hand drawn border frames the mirror up to myself. Naturally, I lingered over the ones that sounded most complimentary (“You know a lot about one-hit wonders”) and curled my lip at a few I feel might’ve been used better. For instance, the one about my friends could’ve been dropped in favour of a nod to my parallel parking. I guess with the best parallel park-ups, no-one is ever there to witness them when you pull them off, so I’ll let that one go.

One of those original eye-rollers has grown on me over the years. “You come from a long line of Donegal people”. Original response: Glad we cleared that up. Later response: Yeah? And what did they do when they ran into a spot of bother? Legged it as far as they could. Current response: That, I do.

According to the latest Census figures, Donegal has more sheep than people. You probably already suspected this if you ever watched RTÉ’s result analysis on election night. In 2010, it had 618,447 of them. The photo at the top of this page shows a few of us back in the 70s. That’s me there in front as a nipper beside my Ma plotting my escape route. I managed to run away some months later but they caught me in the newsagents at the bottom of our street before I could make a proper getaway. That’s my Dad behind her. Behind every Donegal mother is a Donegal father relentlessly on the hunt for a cuppa tea, most likely with one already in paw. There’s my Mother’s two sisters further behind her on the right. They’re both dead now. Every old woman I see wearing white cotton socks with high heels reminds me of one; Marks and Spencer’s biscuit collections reminds me of the other. These women had their standards. Behind them again is an array of uncles. All silent men who worked with their hands and shared a passion for car engines and Elvis.

If you squint, you’ll see my aforementioned mate at the very back with her folks. They moved in next door when she was three so I suppose you could say she’s one of my clan, too. All individuals with their own unique stamp, but part of the flock. From a long line of Donegal flocks.

P.S. I have no idea who that guy on the left is.