It’s Time

IMG_0170‘I’ve only ever seen you in a denim jacket’ he says. I stand before him, this, my second child, wondering what he thinks. He has an aesthetic eye and whether coral pink is a runner with a jet black jacket is a quandary that he might be able to solve. But he seems to have no interest in solving it. What the hell is his mother doing dressing as if there is  a boardroom somewhere out there shouting at her to hurry on up and join in?

‘It’s for an interview, and black is a little too severe but the coral is a little too soft.’ I tell him or myself. Mixed messages. I’m bound to give off mixed messages. And he’s right. The denim jacket would be much better with the top. But he’s smiling. Smiling and nodding.

‘Yep. They go really well’.

Phew. One less thing to worry about. It’s time, you see.

The weather whips in helping to contextualise day to day stresses and concerns. We get into survival mode as our world turns white backed by a red alert. When I say we I mean the kids. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they’ve emerged with insights into how to best handle a tricky bout of weather. Starting with their shoes. Us parents look at one another wondering if we ever did manage to buy wellingtons while the kids find their father’s old doc marten boots, lace them up their skinny teenage legs and attach snow grips to them. Then they offer to trudge to the supermarket for the essentials that someone around here should’ve bought yesterday – only she was busy being interviewed a day early on account of the country closing down. We don’t even need suitable footwear what with all these adept kids with their young supple joints. We can send them out to forage without fear of a slip and a dislocated hip – and climb back under the duvet for the duration. Which is what we do. Marque 1 checks the car and reports that it does indeed have a bit of life in it. Not that we’d be going anywhere. Marque 4 powers up torches and dots tea lights all around. 

‘I hope we have a power cut’ he declares. Which flips the adrenal glands into fight mode.

‘Oh god, don’t wish that upon us, we’d have no heat, no way to cook or anything…’

‘We would, we’d have the fire and we could all bring our covers down to the sitting room and…’

‘Great. What about cooking?’

That should put a stop to this. He’s ravenous most of the time.

‘Yes, I thought of that’ he says, waving a disposable barbecue under my nose. 

‘We can set this up on the hearth and cook whatever we like. Even boil some water for a nice cup of tea’. 

Where did these kids come from? 

They summon their father out into the white. We ponder the shoe theme once again. 

‘Hang on a second, don’t you have your Dad’s hiking boots?’ I say, climbing on a chair to root in our top cupboard and there they are, as if by magic, perfect for the snow. He’d like that, we both think. We both know. Then the symmetry of it. All the sons in their father’s boots, to brace whatever will come their way. 

Day three of the kids showing us how to survive and I’ve got in on their vibe. I’ve scrounged around and gathered an array of vegetables that would otherwise be off to the compost. Eyes have been chopped off potatoes – organic ones sprout them super quick , I swear – and limp celery is in with a chance to pump a few vital vitamins into us. I’m chopping away, onions stinging my eyes and I stop for a moment to check my e-mail. A call to a second interview. Traction in the snow. I will not say that a primary thought flashing by was the possibility of wearing the coral pink top and black jacket for a second time. No. A frisson of delight. A validation. This could actually be happening and like I said, it’s time. 

We skim through the second snow in and this time I drive marque 1 in peak bleak blizzard all the way to his weekend work. We slide and skid and he worries about me getting back safely and I worry about him freezing in his semi-outdoor workplace, but overall I bubble with pride. He’s working. Keen to get there despite the conditions. My boy. I hope to be like him.

The traction builds. The long awaited awards night is upon us and it is such an honour to be nominated. I block out the fact that I haven’t heard back about the second interview. This is an occasion to be savoured. A rarity. A peak. I cook a chili con carne for my mother to dish out to the kids. I’m boiling the rice when I check my mail. It’s good. Very good. A job offer. I’m stunned. But I have to run upstairs and transform into a smart casual person, double-quick, so that I can leave for town. In my delight and surprise  – a job offer and an awards ceremony on the spring equinox – I manage to forget about the rice. It burns dry. A taste of things to come. But it’s time. 

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Knock on wood

TreeI look around for wood to touch each time. Just a little knock to stave it off. The fact that we sailed through December and early January bug free (apart from the old parasitic eye) is something of a miracle which needs to be guarded. I’m hell-bent on guarding it. I try not to tell anyone that the bugs have eluded us – the lack of a solid piece of wood nearby to stroke to ensure our good fortune is usually the reason. If I have to mention it, like I did the other day to an elderly neighbour when she asked, then I search for wood to touch without being noticed. There was no wood nearby. I’d have to have left her standing in the middle of the road, talking about how she burst both eardrums the last time she had it – such was the force of the cough. It was tempting. Lovely old pine trees a short trot up the road, branches swaying in the breeze, beckoning. So even as I said it, as I admitted we had escaped and I touched the car in case there’s any wood lurking in the ancient metal, I knew I had blown it. 

In the pharmacy later that day to pick up my ultra expensive eye drops (€180 per week, thank god for the DPS) I dance away from anyone who is coughing. They all seem to be coughing. Not a tissue over a mouth in sight. So I dance up and down the aisles pretending to be searching for something and wait until the coast is clear. Then I waltz up and claim the drops that will save my eye. 

It’s that very day that I begin to know. I send an important text message. It’s to elicit support from a teacher for a slightly bruised son. I compose it carefully. It’s crucial that it be understood in the way it is intended. I press send. My eyes well up and spill over. It’s then that I know it’s brewing. A super supportive text is fired straight back to me. Exactly what I had been looking for. A great result.  Not something to weep over yet weep I do. I’m getting the bloody flu. 

There’s one person in the house who cannot get the flu, under any circumstance, and he has had the vaccine, just. Five days before my symptoms show. I remember the acuteness of the attack from the last time I had it three years ago. Back pain, muscle aches in legs, mild to moderate delirium, dry cough, sore ribs, fever and chills, wiped out unable to move. I’m the only person in the house who should not bring this upon us. I’m not meandering about in big crowds like the kids in school or himself squished on the dart at rush hour, or on a packed office floor, or at the 3,000 peopled Pendulum Summit. No. I’m knocking around pretty solo, ducking and diving away from anything that sounds like a cough. How could this have come my way?

In my delirium I blame him. He had the vaccine on the Friday. On the Sunday there was, how should one put it, a passionate exchange. Can snogging someone after they’ve had the flu jab give you the flu? It seems utterly plausible and vaguely scientific. In a social science sort of way. The inactive virus in the flu jabbed host becomes super excited and hyper-active when it comes into contact with a stranger’s saliva. I google it and convince myself that this is exactly what has taken place. There’s an article that backs it up. At least that’s how I’m reading it. He won’t get it from me now which is some consolation. I’m taking the hit for him. Phew. Or was it the little girl who sat beside me in Starbucks, also on the Sunday. I was sitting there writing, early in the morning while everyone else slept. The last lie on of the holidays. Just me. Until a father shunted his two kids in my direction, despite the rest of the place being empty, and they sat beside me. They were loud and I could’ve moved, but I like kids and I’m used to working in noise. Besides, if I had moved I’d most likely have stopped writing altogether and gone home instead. Then she started to sneeze. I should’ve moved, but I was mid creative thought, coming up with an ending and feeling exceptionally good. In the zone. A little kid’s sneeze wasn’t going to throw me off. I might’ve shot a glance in her direction, taken in the florid cheeks and the sickly eyes. Which might’ve alerted the father to tell her to put her hand over her mouth when sneezing. A little late. He knew what was coming my way. 

I try to steer clear of my own kids. There’s a big birthday looming for marque 3, tipping the balance in favour of the teenagers in the house. I don’t want to be the cause of it being a damp squib. They come in to see me and I dismiss them, waving my aching hand to shoo them away. There’s a dog on my bed minding me. He won’t leave. He’s ensuring a speedier recovery than would otherwise be possible. Every time I see his little face sprigs of joy tickle my brain, ensuring the release of some chemical or other fighting the virus head on. Next year I’m getting the flu jab and I won’t snog anyone to pass it on. I swear.

Smudge on Sick Day

Blind-sided

A5F3239A-0B37-4441-8FB0-767D88D0F30ASky news is on but the words don’t match. The volume is right down and a radio blasts instead. It takes me a minute to work this out. Why Prince Harry’s lips are moving to the news that a body has been found. He’s there with his fiancée, all smiles and beauty, scripted and sculpted, while the death of a man in Meath is reported. These pain killers are slowing me right down. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to work out the silence of the TV news and the mismatching blast of the radio.

The waiting room is as packed as it was yesterday but it’s all moving much more slowly. One doctor for the whole A & E department. It’s a Saturday. You’re not supposed to have an emergency with your eye or your ear on a Saturday.

Things morph into perspective as the eye sight blurs. The fact that we’ve managed not to have done a single thing for Christmas is no longer quite the stress that it was two days ago. That evening, after a day of list making and thinking about firing off my CV double quick to help with the impending Christmas bill, my right eye began to tingle. Helped along by crying laughing at a hilariously apt YouTube video put onto a school mum’s Whatsapp group – when doing the homework sends you to breaking point. Marque 5 had watched me switch from trying to hammer a verse of Trasna na dTonnta into him for a test the following day, to hot tears streaming down my face watching a skit of other mothers going nuts with homework.

‘You’re laughing and crying’ he says, enjoying the idea of it, laughing at the video himself.

‘I am. Forget the Irish verse. We’ve tried. It’s still gobbledygook’.

The next morning I knew. Straight into the eye and ear. Catch and treat early. It’s similar to the last time, not as painful though. I probably haven’t scratched my cornea with a chipped lens this time. I’m much more careful now. I never doze with the lenses in, never swim with them on, never shower with them. I steep them in fresh solution at night. Wash my hands before putting them in. A slight threat to your sight will do that to you. Ups the vigilance all round. Why the hell I’m off to the same hospital with similar symptoms a year later I’ve no idea. It’s minor. Bound to be.

My mother was having a small procedure in the same hospital on the same morning. Before I knew about me, I was going to collect her. Drive her home. Then she ended up sitting in the waiting room with me instead.

The eye is examined by someone who wants a second opinion from the top. A word I don’t know nor understand is bandied about. Acanthamoeba. The top person sees the same thing.

‘I hope I’m wrong’ she says reassuringly, rubbing my arm.

She scrapes my eye for the lab.

‘It will be extremely painful later when the anaesthetic wears off. Like someone is poking a finger in your eye. I’ll give you some very strong painkillers’.

Marvellous. I press her for information. She thinks it’s an infection caused by an amoeba. No-one ever wants to hear that. I wouldn’t even have to google it. I know it’s not good. We try to locate it, discuss swimming, which I love – no I don’t wear the lenses. I think of my lovely relaxing swim on Tuesday. The timing is right. I definitely wasn’t wearing the lenses though. Do I ever wash the lenses in water? Certainly not. Clean the lenses case with water? Kettle water, yes, then wipe it dry with fresh tissue. It would have to be boiling at the time, the kettle water, I’m told. Nope. I’ve done it when it has cooled down a little. Silly me.

She writes scripts, a sick note for work (I hope the kids understand that I’ll be off duty) and an appointment for first thing Monday morning. If it’s what she thinks and she doesn’t ‘like the look of it’ she’ll ship me into the cornea clinic. It’s all a bit much. I had insisted on driving in to town so I’d be out for the kids school collection on time. Now the pain is really kicking in and I reverse out of the parking spot with a hand over my eye. The sun is gloriously strong for this freezing day which should be wonderful. Bright, crisp and cold. Just how I like the winter. But every ray near the amoeba eye is excruciating. He was going to cancel his two o’clock to collect the kids when he knew I was going in, in case the eye deteriorated. Don’t be silly, it’s not an emergency, I’m grand, I had said. Driving down the dual carriageway with all the frenzy of Christmas shoppers out and about, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the eye I thought he’s right. Again. I should be pulled over.

The preparations for the Late Late Toy show had taken place earlier in the week. Christmas PJs, drinking chocolate, marshmallows, mince pies, briquettes, logs, Prosecco. The evening goes ahead with me out cold on my super duper pain killers, wearing sunglasses to stave off the flickering joyful light of the show, slurping sporadically on ginger ale. My alarm chimes merrily every hour for me to wake up and put in drops. I rise up, zombie like, after one such call to make the hot chocolates, bung the mince pies in the oven. They all want to help but no, this is my gig, they must watch on.

Today I wake to the vision so blurred in my right eye it’s as if there’s a net curtain over it. I have an appointment for Monday, but having not been able to not google I imagine this needs a little looking into. Words that I certainly should pay no attention to thrum in me. Rare. Serious. Devastating. Blindness. Corneal transplant. I would like very much to pull the covers over my head for the day and hope it will go away. The heating flicks on and I doze for a bit. Then I gather myself to do the necessary. Back into A & E. To the silent TV and loud radio. To the glaring fluorescent lights that punish even the un-sore eye. To a woman sitting beside me who has to keep popping out to feed the €2.90 per hour meter. It’s her husband she’s in with. She’s laughing as she tells me I really don’t want to know how many hours she’s been here already. Her husband has a scratch on his cornea, she says. Oh yes, I had one of those last year I join in. It’s different this time though. This time they think it’s an amoeba thing. Her lit up jolly eyes switch mode. Maybe I shouldn’t mention that again.

The young doctor manning the fort calls another doctor from the hospital.

‘How would you feel about staying in?’ he asks me as we wait.

Say what now? I’m squinting at him with my good eye.

The young doctor thinks I need to be admitted. The vision was 20/20 yesterday he tells me. Today it’s 6/20. But that can happen with keratitis, can’t it, I say. Yes, but it’s dramatic and we can’t let it get any worse. The next up doctor talks admission also. Images flit by. Sending him home to pack a bag for me. What the hell will I tell him to bring? The kids. Cancelling things. Pulling in the sheets. I really, really don’t want to be admitted.

‘Whatever’s best for the vision’ I hear myself say.

Then the second up doctor consults a consultant who, he reports back, takes a logical approach. We like logic. Stops the mind from whirring forward to the certainty of being a one-eyed granny. The logic says to swap the current drops for a viral ointment. There’s still a sliver of hope that it’s viral rather than amoebic. They look similar and they really won’t know until the swab results come back from the UK. As it seems to be worsening on the amoeba/bacterial treatment front they advise to ditch that, try an antiviral attack and report back in first thing on Monday. The relief of not being admitted combined with the hope that it’s viral spins me into a Saturday night high. We stop off at a late night chemist for the ointment. The jolly Australian pharmacist asks if I’ve ever used this before. I tell him I haven’t and in fact they’re not sure that it’s viral, it could be an amoeba thing. Oh god, he says, let’s hope it’s viral. Amoeba and eye are two words that should never be combined, it seems. If it turns out that’s what it is, the treatment will be anything from six months to two years. It’s difficult and tricky to treat. Success rates are variable. It’s contact lens wearers that can get it, and so if that’s what I have it’s a ticket to a life time of beating myself up. I knew from the last time that they are not fans of contact lenses in the eye hospital. It seems frivolous, my answer, when they ask, time and again, do you wear contacts. Yes I say with a shudder. I want to say no. No, of course not. Sure I wouldn’t want to mess around with my sight. Dailies or monthlies? Monthlies. Acute shuddering. Wrong answer, again.

But for tonight, sharp relief catapults us into celebratory mode and we stop by Tesco Express to pick up two chicken tikka masalas, briquettes, and a viennetta ice-cream log. We head back to the haven of the kids. They’ve ordered take-aways in our absence. Paid for out of their own resources. Survivors, fair play to them. We light the fire. Pop the cork on the un-drunk Prosecco from last night. I almost get to the end of a glass before I’m dozing again. Before we’ve had a chance to heat the curries. It’s 9.30 on Saturday night and I take myself off to bed, to the promise of soft dreams about lovely viruses instead of angry nightmares about an amoebic invasion.

 

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The Launch

IMG_9933‘You’re not to giggle when I’m reading. Breasts will be mentioned, in the context of breastfeeding, remember that? So nothing funny about it, okay?’ I’m addressing marque 5, a committed giggler, with an infectious laugh which gets all the others going. It’s a tricky parental moment. A warning with the undertow of a guilt trip. I breast fed you. Don’t dare laugh about it. It could go very wrong though. Drawing attention to it, the breast thing. He may not have even noticed. Now he’ll be waiting for the moment when he is, under no circumstances, allowed to giggle. Even I’d find that a hard one to do. 

‘I’ll just concentrate on a bottle of wine, stare at it, then I won’t giggle’ he says, staring at the bottle of wine on the kitchen table, pressing his lips hard together, trying to stifle the laugh. Great. 

I had been busy talking myself out of it, this attending the launch and reading my story. It just seemed so tricky, travelling with everyone, making them sit quietly and appreciate all the readers, someone off elsewhere with the dog, in the car, as he displays signs of acute separation anxiety and barks the town down. And then travelling on, in the dead of night, off out to Connemara. Dangerous and tricky and exhausting. Until marque 1 asked if there’s any way we could just stay over in Galway and I said of course not, we have a dog, remember? But the wheels had begun to turn, even as I spoke. This could be a little adventure instead of a little torture. I googled hotels and booked one at a good rate for the night. It could be cancelled up until the day before. Then I contacted the lovely lady we bought the dog from asking if she was around for the bank-holiday weekend and whether she could take him. Barely any time went by when she texted back with a yes, no problem. It was all falling into place with supreme ease. Can we afford to do it, we asked one another. Can we afford not to, I heard myself say. Memories. We’re big into creating memories for them. How many shots do we get at something like this?

The dog thing still niggled a bit though. Fair enough the night of the launch and in the hotel. But then we’d be off out on the wild beaches without him, pining. It niggled away until we told the boys the plan just the night before and they whooped at the idea of him going back to his siblings and other relatives for a little holiday, as they saw it. Then I was fine. Once again, the children lighting the way. 

‘You need to practise Mum’ marque 3 said. He’s read the story before. Helped with some editing even.

‘Get it now and read it to me’ he said, more than once as I made excuses, said I would, soon, very soon, just a little tired right now. 

‘Mu-um’.

The day came and with marque 5 warned about the seriousness of the evening, giggling prohibited, we set off. They were so excited about the prospect of the hotel that we hit the road much earlier than usual, getting to Galway with time to kill before check in. We shopped in Dealz, snacks for the room mainly. Oh and a Halloween costume for the dog, ah god, where is he, and a squeaky skull for him to play with. 

The hotel was super, outside the city, complete with pool, steam room, hot tub, sauna and jacuzzi. We got to the rooms – yes we had to book two family rooms for our lot – and they were fine. Apart from the melting heat. I looked around and we had all peeled off our shoes and socks, feet on fire. We threw open the windows and lay down on the bed, luxuriating. If only I could just stay here I thought and he read my mind. ‘You okay?’ 

We brought them for a dip, watching them rather than joining. Later we thought. After the launch. Marque 1 came over to us pointing to outside. ‘You should get in the hot tub later, with a couple of glasses of bubbly’ he said. Later. I couldn’t wait.

Up in the launch room above the pub we are greeted by the editorial team and a copy of the journal is given to me along with a list of readers. Poets and short story writers. The room is decorated for Halloween, skeletons dancing from the ceiling, balloons, the number 15 in a large purple. We find a nice corner, line the boys up on seats, buy the cidonas, a pint of Guinness, a fizzy ballygowan. In the centre of the floor a video camera stands. The room is atmospherically dark. Will I even be able to see the words? Should I read from my own script, large A4 pages in a nerdy folder, or should I read from the publication? Other writers meander in, smiling, nodding, knowing this space. The women are colourfully clad, flowing. I run my hands along my black tight denims. No one else has brought a clatter of children, it seems. We are standing out here, big time. The welcome and the announcement. It is also a celebration of the 15th birthday of the publication. The microphone isn’t working. Readers will have to project. The nauseous feeling goes up, another notch. No problem at all for the first few readers who perform their work, acting it out for the audience. Different accents for different characters, a lot of the script off by heart, eye contact all around, pulling the room in. As if we are at the Gaiety theatre. I could run I think. Just get up and flee. There’s no way I’m going to be able to do it that well. I should’ve practised like marque 3 said. The room isn’t all that quiet for the readers, and it’s not only my lot, moving their bums on the wooden chairs letting out loud creaks that match the Halloween decorations perfectly. I shoot them disappointed daggers, the same look my aunt used to shoot us as little girls when my Dad would play the banjo and sing loud Spanish songs and we were supposed to be quiet and appreciative but instead we’d be giggling away, her furious face making it knicker wettingly funny. The boys hang their heads now trying not to catch my eye. They’ll all be in fits by the time I get up there. An editor is announcing a poet, a guy who is to read just before me, and then there’s a hum as it’s discovered that he’s not actually here – fair play to him – and the editor moves on to me, calling out biographical details that I can’t remember submitting, but it’s me alright and I’m walking towards him thanking him, trying not to keel over. I begin expecting the low thrum of noise to accompany me, cushioning me, but it’s not there. The silence is deafening as I chime out the words, my words, how silly is this? Then I notice that I’m starting to enjoy it because I can feel that they are, the audience in front of me, silent, some with eyes closed, listening. There are gasps in places too as they are drawn into the story, realising what is taking place. I slow the pace down, take my time delivering it, wanting them to enjoy it all the more. Fifteen minutes is a long time to be reading for, and yet it didn’t feel like it, once I knew they got it. I finish to whistles and whoops and they’re not all coming from my corner. I get it now, how the other readers were enjoying themselves. Some lovely sincere exchanges afterwards with writers, listeners and editors. I float out of there so very glad that I came, took part, and shared in an evening which I hope will become a magical memory for my clan. 

P.S. Thanks to the editors at Crannog for selecting the story for this excellent publication. A treat indeed to be in print alongside the others we met as well as those we didn’t – so many great stories and poems. Copies available at 

www.crannogmagazine.com

Ellen Reading Crannog

False Widow

7FFF9E96-7BA9-453D-B171-DDB264FCB80EThe suggestion of a child being almost deficient in a key vitamin could send an otherwise occasionally calm mother into a state of mania. Which may well be what has happened. A blood test carried out in order to answer a specific question about marque 2 has done its job. Vitamin B9. Otherwise known as folate. His levels were very low which can cause an anemia, different from a lack of iron anemia. Which is perhaps why he didn’t feel too hot after the blood letting session. Why he had to lie down on the Doc’s couch, raise his legs and hope that by the time he went to stand up again he wouldn’t keel over. Oh the guilt. The Doc is quick to try to assuage it. He’s seeing a lot of this since the powers that be decided to end the bolstering of breads and cereals with this vitamin. A leafy green veg lover marque 2 is not. How didn’t I know?

Super-duper strong folic acid is prescribed and the bloods will be retested in a month. But seeing as I have failed at a very basic parenting level and sent my child off fainting to face the world, supplements won’t do. Oh no. I have discovered that I can make vitamin laden soup from scratch and they all eat it. I have also discovered that tomato soup, a favourite, isn’t just made out of tomatoes. You can bung just about any vegetable you like in, then over power it with tomatoes and call it tomato soup. Which they all happen to love. Oh the joy.

‘Have you taken your tablet today?’

‘Yes Mum’.

‘Great now here’s a bowl of soup, just to be sure to be sure’.

The zeal with which I’ve taken to the late onset daily chopping, cooking and blending session can, at times, be a little frightening. And not only for me.

‘I’ve made some delicious soup for you all’.

‘Oh no, not again, can we please just have one day without soup?’

Then, a few weeks into it, the blade gets stuck on an undercooked carrot and burns the motor out. Is this the end? Is it the gods telling me to get out of the kitchen and sit my arse back down at the laptop? Throw some more key ingredients into the developing novel, bloody quick? Probably. The kids think they are off the hook, finally, and a non liquid diet will re-emerge. Oh no. Not a day passes and there’s a newer better blender, 550 watts, sitting proud on the counter top. No carrot will defeat this beauty. What was I thinking attempting this life saving task with a silly little 200 watt one?

The 180 degree change to the diet has prompted other changes too. Extreme decluttering. A room which we could ill afford to have out of use was a designated junk room for more time than I’d care to admit. Floor to ceiling style. What else are we supposed to do with all the books already read, the beds that have been replaced, the many many shoes. My idea of attacking it involved pushing the door open with all my might, climbing up and standing there, on top of the mattresses in a vacant stare for half an hour, and then returning to the safety of the brewing soup. His idea of attack involved an actual attack. Removing things. Leaving them outside on the landing so they could no longer be ignored. Floor emerged, slowly, beautifully. We discovered the joy of Ballyogan dump. My excitement kicked in and I joined his efforts, putting in final touches such as new curtains, which grabbed all the attention from him and his brute force weekends of sweat and labour. A neat trick. Marque 4 and 5 have moved in, a tad prematurely, but are loving it. Stripping wallpaper and painting is yet to be done. I’m sure I can dab a bit of gloss about and make it all seem like my own hard work.

He moved on to attack another room downstairs, the garage conversion, which may not have been properly converted and could do with a few structural changes to make it feel less like an outside room. As a committed arachnophobe and having successfully passed this on to all my children, he unwittingly divorced himself from any chance of further help when he emerged saying he was pretty sure he was holding, upon a lovely old cushion, a false widow spider. Small and innocent looking with a bubble tummy area, I dismissed it with a laugh at first. Not a hardy laugh. A laugh which indicated that he has, perhaps, been overdoing it and should sit down and have a cup of tea. Then I googled. The pictures were a great match. A school in England closed temporarily due to an infestation. Whop de do.

Words spin as I stir the soup. Venom. False widow. Black widow. Hell. I google again. We are experiencing a great increase in false widow spiders in the UK and Ireland. Dublin, Cork and Wexford are particular hubs. It’s not all bad though. They are competitive and fast breeding, fair play to them. Their bites are not fatal. Goodie. Their venom is currently being tested for potential therapies – for cancer and certain bacterial infections. And their name. I really like their name. I’m pretty sure I’m going to write a short story and call it False Widow some day soon. If only I can pull myself away from the blender.

I sit on the couch at night, satisfied in the glow of the fire, that essential vitamins are pulsing hard through the bodies of all my boys. Marque 4 joins me. Then he runs his little fingers up my back, expertly mimicking a False Widow, and I leap up and scream and everyone laughs, especially him in the corner chair. He laughs hard, tears stream down his face and he thanks marque 4. He thanks him, he says, because he’d never be let away with the delight of inducing that fright himself.

You think? Revenge is coming, my sweet.

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Resilience sparks

First Pic

‘It’s like an episode of The Middle’ marque 2 declares as our holiday falters and shudders to an end. Ah yes, The Middle, how I used to love to sit and watch that with the kids. The excuse was that a baby or toddler or somebody around the place needed to be breastfed just as an episode was starting. Any takers? Then we’d all sit down and laugh our way through the all too familiar chaos of quirky family life, the topsy- turveyness of it, the high octane domino effect when some small little thing goes wrong. Sadly my excuse days are over, no one seems willing to be breast fed any longer, and I’m not sure if the show still runs, but my identification with the ever ascending cortisol levels of the mother is alive and well. There’s a twist now though. Now, for some unknown reason I can see every little thing that goes wrong as a lesson. A resilience building lesson. I’ve no idea what’s fuelling this, but I’m going to run with it. The kids may already be getting a little tired of my evolving mantras which seem to navigate around the idea that, while this may seem bad, just imagine if it had happened when…

It seems to have begun in the middle of the summer. There are a couple of really good Irish short story competitions I like to enter. I don’t have the time to focus on shorts much at the moment, the bigger project has to take precedence, but entering the odd short keeps it all fresh and exciting. There’s an immediate adrenaline hit when you press send. I was super organised this year, entering my favourite competition – RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland – a full week ahead of the deadline. Then some weeks later, mid summer, I couldn’t remember whether I had used the second or third person voice for the story – the you voice or the he/she. Often when a story is almost working but something undefinable is niggling, a change of voice, a change in the point of view from which it is told, can make all the difference. I went to my sent mail box to check. No sign of the story. Maybe it sent from Outlook instead of Gmail? Nope. I did a complete search and found it, in the end – and if you’re a fellow writer you may need to stop reading now, such is the pain – in Junk. Yes, there it was, utterly unsent, in my Junk box. I waited for the panic to strike. For the scream to come. Nothing. Instead I walked calmly upstairs and accosted a couple of computer whizzes to confirm what I had seen. 

‘Is there any way that it did actually go and also ended up in junk?’ I enquired with a low serene voice as if it didn’t much matter at all.

‘There is no way, no, sorry’ one of them said, waiting for the fallout.

‘Well, that’ll teach me not to check my sent box at the time’ I heard myself say in a slightly out of body ish way.

‘There’s always next year’ I continued, waiting along with everyone else for the real me to step forward. I didn’t arrive. Instead I came up with another plan. I submitted it to a literary magazine – something I’ve never dared to do, the chances of publication being depressingly slim. If it isn’t selected by this one, I’ll just send it in to another, I thought. I was behaving very much more like my husband than myself, a person who sees every mistake as an opportunity to learn something and turns things to the good when others would throw in the towel. Perhaps I’m morphing into him or I’m being hypnotised or drugged  by him – whatever it is, I think I like it.

So it came to the end of the holiday and we had been rained in for three days solid and we needed, desperately, to get down to the beautiful bay for one last swim. We shopped, we tidied, we packed the togs and towels, we timed high tide so they could all jump in off the rocks. A last blast. We went to unlock the car and noticed how the lock was slow, stiff, not responding. We put the keys in the ignition and turned. Nothing. Nada. Dead. We called the AA and two hours later we were told there was nothing for it but a new battery, otherwise we would not be returning home to Dublin for the new school year. This notion held some considerable appeal. There was one battery in a garage which was closing ‘out the road’ and he took off on the 30km trip with marque 1 and marque 4, clasping the end of the holiday budget brown notes. 

My resilience lessons with the disappointed ocean-bound jumpers were about to begin.

‘I was so looking forward to that last jumping in at high tide’ marque 3 declared. 

‘It would’ve finished off the summer so well, and now, now, it’s just so disappointing’.

‘Yes I know it is, but imagine if that had happened, if the car had broken down while we were miles off over the commonage, stuck out there we would have been. Or if it happened on the journey home, or…’

‘But Mum, I’ve had the anticipation of the adrenalin all day and…’

‘The what of the what?’

‘Looking forward to the jumping and swimming, there’s a build up to it Mum, and when it’s suddenly gone, well it’s hard to explain, it’s more than disappointment’.

Uh-oh. Think brain, think. Maybe tell him how lucky we are that there is a battery ‘out the road’ because tomorrow is Sunday and we’d have to wait until Monday, when Daddy is supposed to be at work, to get it sorted. Or maybe say nothing, nothing at all. Acknowledge it with a nod. Permit him to feel it. Revisit later, if needs be. 

On Sunday morning I whisk around, packing and cleaning with a bit of extra zeal with the luck we’ve had. There’s a car that can now take us home, after all. With a couple of hours before we’re set to leave I decide to wash some of the bedding. Yes I’ll wash it and drape it around – one less chore for next time. It is then as we stand in the kitchen and watch the smoke curling out of the powder drawer on the machine that marque 2 declares that it’s like an episode of The Middle. I open the door to the drum and the smoke billows out. Smoke perfumed with poisonous burnt rubber. I haul the sodden lead-heavy bedding, complete with suds, out onto the balcony and drape it around in the rain.

‘Isn’t is just as well that this happened while we were here, not out somewhere, the place busy being set alight. Or while we were asleep. And now at least we know. At least we know for the next time that we will need a new machine’.

A collective vibe of ‘yeah Mum, whatever’ seems to permeate the air. 

(P.S. Just received the magical e-mail below. More fuel for the burgeoning resilience fire.) 

Last Pic

Holiday Quandaries 

AnchorThe sirens blast through the town and then, some minutes later, the roar of the helicopter. It circles your house, getting louder and then fading, then louder again. You catch a glimpse of it. A great big dark military style yoke. Something is brewing. Your kids run out to see it, clasping cameras. You let them go. It gets a little quieter, the roar, but it’s still there. Somebody shouts ‘it’s landed’ and you look out the window to see your youngest child, laces untied, running around the corner, following the others. You must run too because you’ve no idea what they are running towards. There’s a road to be crossed. Will they just run straight out, the sound of the cars silenced by the whirr of the blades, the shout for them to stop drowned out? You run, faster than is respectable for a woman your age wearing flip flops. You see his new Messi football boots first, all luminous orange and black. He is across the road, upright, kind of, but bending now to tie. You breathe. They are all there because the massive helicopter has landed in the field where the pony show usually takes place. Your children are on a collective whoop of a high. It’s like the moment when you set the Christmas pudding on fire, only now it goes on and on. They snap and they video it. An army guy stands guard. It is then that you see the police car. Then the ambulance. Somebody is very ill or very injured you think. Others have gathered now too for this spectacle but what do you do? Do you turn your own away now, ask them to stop with the excitement and the pictures of the copter because some poor soul is to be airlifted out of here? The doors of the ambulance open. Tears sting your eyes. You cannot look and you say a little prayer of sorts for whoever it is. Then something breaks the tension, little murmurs all around. He’s talking and breathing, the man. Heart, somebody says. But he looks okay. Arms crossed over his chest as if to protect him. A young woman comes over to your husband to stroke the dog. Smiling now. She knows him. This man to be airlifted. And he’s talking so she can talk now too and talking to your dog is perfect relief. Her boyfriend joins her, stroking and talking. It’s going to be alright now. More than alright for your own kids. A highlight. 

The funfair has been spotted in another village at the set up stage. It begins. You know you’ll not get away with it now. It’s Friday and you’re heading home on Sunday and it’s going to rain between now and then. Do you take your kids to the funfair in the rain? You sit in the bar consulting the forecast, again. The bar man offers you a drink. You decline. You tell him you’d love one, but the kids think they’re off to the funfair. He looks out the window, raises a brow, laughs. It’s to be worse again tomorrow you say. 

You get there at night in the persistent soft drizzle. The potholed carpark ground is all puddles with a grey concrete milky mix. You must step into these puddles, too numerous to avoid, to get at the rides. Your dog’s white paws turn grey. You think about electricity and rain. Safety tests. How it’s only really you and your kids mad enough to come along. Your kids are the safety tests. You watch as they are spun on the waltzer for far too long. No one else waits. Then as the three older ones go to the big attraction. The Terminator. The one that spins them up into the air. You watch as they use a cloth to wipe it down for themselves. It’s only after they are raised up that you notice the duct tape holding the hinge beside your child. You see him notice it too. What do you do? 

The money flitters through your fingers. You stand beside a woman at the bumper cars. She has a dog that could swallow your one whole. She looks fumingly on as her husband and child collide with yours sending them crashing into the step where you are. They smile at you with a pinch of terror in their eyes. Keep your hands in, you think but try not to shout out. You are hating every minute of this as you knew you would. You put your thumbs up to them. The woman points to her feet. Destroyed she tells you. You look at her formerly white plimsolls, fully soaked grey. 

You pick your wet shivering dog up and wrap him in your hoodie. The youngest has noticed a ball throwing game and you wander over. Toilet lids flap at you. Get the balls into the toilet and win a prize. His aim is good. All balls in. Which prize would you like? The goldfish he says, eyes lit like stars. A brother tries to tell him there’s no such thing as winning a goldfish, maybe in the olden days or in the movies but sure enough there they are. Little fish shimmering in translucent buckets. You widen your eyes and shake your head at the woman, conspiratorially. You do not want one at all, at all. You’d have to play twice and win twice to get a goldfish she tells him. Phew. Good woman. Okay then, I’ll play again he says. Or what about me, his next up brother says. If I play we can combine and win the fish. He hasn’t gone on many rides, this child. He’s due a turn at something. It is somehow agreed. Everyone gathers. His left handed aim is not along the lines of his younger brother’s right. The pressure is on. The brothers will him along as the flapping lids trick him each time, just. Awww. There will be no fish (phew, but your heart sinks for him too, maybe you should not have set him up for this fall). Then the woman reaches behind her, grabs a bucket, hands them a fish anyway, and winks at you. What do you do?

You buy five rounds of pink fluffy candy floss, which dissolves efficiently in the misty rain, and you listen to the squawks of delight as they place a name upon their prize. Then you drive back to your own holiday town, a little faster than you should, hitting the supermarket just as it closes. You emerge clutching a half decent bottle of red along with the little tub of fish food. That’s what you do. 

Fish

Matmata


The decks have been hit running and I think I like it. Most summers kick off with a compulsory week at home recovering from the wicked routines of the school year. It takes this week to refocus the lens. To wash and hide all the nasty little uniform pieces. To stash lunch boxes on top of presses. To empty school bags with unread notes crumpled and mixed up with pencil shavings at the bottom of them. To realise and allow ourselves to wallow in the glory of another good year, done and dusted. This year we hopped over the unwinding week and took off like the clappers the day after the school broke up. I grumbled, most uncharacteristically, about the poor person who had to switch violently from organising and stashing and hiding, to finding and cleaning and packing. For seven. Oh and yes, for the last chance saloon prep for the NCT on the day the school broke. Hoovering and cleaning and dipatening and revving the smoke out of the lungs of the tired old jeep. Twenty she is now. As knackered as I am. At 5.10pm she passed and this gave a lift to the self-pitying grumbler. If she could do it, rise to this critical test, then so could I. And if I collapsed altogether in the middle of packing we could always go on Sunday instead. Which gave me the added juice to get on with it. Despite my mother visiting to bid us adieu and telling me how frighteningly tired I looked. It had been a big week, I reminded her, with marque 3 graduating from primary and marque 4’s birthday. She knew, of course, but seeing it all in action, the busyness of it, seemed to startle her. A protective streak in her called out for me to put my feet up and have a cup of tea. I had to say no. If I sat down I’d never get back up. A mother of four herself, she has no memory of being as busy as this. Hopefully I’ll be the same down the line. There’s a reason for the premature departure. Of course there is. I jiggle it in my mind. But no. There is no other way. 

We arrive and it all begins to fade, gloriously. How could it have been only this time last week that we were standing in the school car park for the guard of honour for marque 3 and his year? The sun stinging the shoulders of parents taken by surprise by its intensity. The stifled gasps of emotion. The damp eyes behind the sunglasses. I won’t, I told myself and a school gate Mum friend. Not this time. I won’t get upset, because it’s our third and we’ve done this before and he’s ready to go. He’s happy and looking forward to embracing the newness of secondary. So I won’t. Certainly not. I glance around at the parents for whom this is a first experience. Poor things, I think. All the stingy surprises. Then I see them. The boys. Walking for the last time through the glass encased corridors and I am gone. Taken away on a puff of emotion. I will never again see him walk that walk. They emerge. The clapping and high fives from their younger schoolmates begins. They pass proudly wearing their class-mate autographed yellow P.E. tops. He approaches. Beaming. Slapping the hands of the fifth class boys, those next in line. He’s ready, you see, I tell myself. Ah god, I hear myself say. 

This day last week. How is that possible? The emotions of it receding now into sepia. Here they all are moulding an entire village into life. Team working. Delegating. All five. Burying themselves with fervent digging. Disappearing. Half bodies. Underground systems and living spaces. Overground bridges and roads. It reminds us of Matmata, a village in southern Tunisia. We travelled there – pre marriage and kids, naturally – on an overnight bus for the thrill of sleeping in a sand cave underground. They were built in a bid to escape the intense heat, and are known to many as the filming location of the Bar scene in Star Wars. We stare into their creation and we remember. The freedom and the dangers. The day-time hike into desert scrubland, ascending a scree filled hill in terror. The pack of wild white dogs – wolves or hyenas – running yowling towards us. Arming ourselves with stones while backing further up the hill. Is this how it will end? Missing a train and hitching a lift instead with a local in his clapped out front seated van into the middle of nowhere, in search of the ancient Roman city of Dougga, and him telling me, whispering, while my boyfriend stepped out and consulted the map, that I’d be better off with him. Is this how it will end? 

The brothers collaborate and encourage their own Matmata into life while ignoring my pleas to rest for their ham rolls. Take a break, lads, for goodness sake. They strip, bare chests, while I search for a second hoodie of theirs to put on. My fingertips are becoming numb. A freezing summer’s day. 

‘Why don’t you buy us spades any more Mum, this would be so much easier with spades’ marque 4 pipes up from his cave. Because you’re too bloody big for spades, I do not say. I hadn’t actually noticed. It’s true, we no longer need buckets and spades. Perhaps I should be emotional about this too. But I’m not. The dog keeps a watchful eye. Barks relentlessly at a cow trying to join us on the beach. No. This beach is just for me and my crew, he says. Quite right too. The cow backs away. The dog accepts bits of ham from the unclaimed rolls. When will all this team work lark be done? Do we want it to be done? In years to come, we know, they will not be having this sort of fun together. They mould on, trying to force a canal up to it, and then one of them shouts that it’s time to swim. Swim? It’s grey and cold and there’s a drizzle set to descend any moment now. They screech and laugh into the ice as if at an alcohol infused stag party. I dance a jig to keep the blood circulating on the shore, while thinking this time last week. This time last week I was ironing a white shirt and polishing black shoes for the evening graduation Mass. We are in a whole other country now. Thankfully. 

Quilting

Quilt

We set ourselves up for it, I suppose. Quite early on along the parenting road we decided to create our very own family traditions. We thought of it as a sort of identity quilting. Stitching and layering us colourfully together. Creating bonds and memories. This is our particular quilt. Look at how it wraps us up, keeps us warm. 

The kids have taken over now though. Remembering how we always do certain things on certain days. How we are never allowed to break these traditions, even if we beg. 

It’s a scorcher. It’s Father’s Day, but it is also my mother’s birthday. I have been sweating away trying to work out how to juggle the two things. When marque 4 pipes up with the suggestion of a barbecue. The idea marinates for a while. It is perfect. Everyone agrees. Just the shopping to be done so. Until marque 3 pipes up.

‘What time are we going into town?’

‘Town?’

‘Yeah, you know the way we always go into town for Father’s Day?’

‘We do?’

‘Yes Mum, every single year for as long as I can remember. It’s a tradition. We go in and get brunch and we go to Stephen’s Green, you know, for the photograph we always take in the bandstand’.

‘We do?’

Crap. We do. Every year. 

‘But it’s too hot today for that and it’s my mother’s birthday, we have to get ready for that, you know, shopping, tidying…’

‘We have to do it Mum’ he says. I look at the time. Midday. We’ve been having a lovely leisurely present giving morning. No-one is dressed. I run it by the Father. He agrees with marque 3. There’s simply no choice in the matter. 

They are right, of course. Town is a soft mellow buzz of celebratory delight. We get pizzas and sit on the grass in Stephen’s Green to eat them. We ask a tourist to take a snap of us. Then we hot tail it around to the bandstand for the compulsory annual pic. Although today the Green is so full of people lolling about in the sun that there are some self conscious grunts of dissent coming from the teenage department. One does not wish to be seen actively posing for a picture with one’s family. The smile is not quite forming. This tradition may fracture yet. 

‘Ah go on’ his Dad says.

‘Do it for me. Sure I’ll be dead someday’ – a better guilt trip than even I could muster – and he laughs as he takes the picture. We finish off with ice creams on Grafton Street and then we are done. For another year. 

We scoot out to the suburban shops to get the barbecue food and discover that everyone is a lot more organised that we are. Of course they are.

‘Sold out’ we are told repeatedly. Four shops later and we burst into the house with some bits and pieces. All the tidying and prepping still to be done. But hey, it was worth it. Kind of. 

Now a little tradition curve ball hits marque 3. He is sailing his way towards graduation day from primary school. There’s a talent show on the final evening after the Mass. I overhear his older brothers talking to him.

‘You’ll have to do something’ marque 1 says.

‘It’s a family tradition’. 

I’m laughing behind the door. Sure enough both of his brothers did something for their talent shows, despite us trying gently to dissuade them. Marque 1 played a solo guitar piece and marque 2 sang. Terrifying and beautiful all at once, for us parents at least. 

‘It’s your turn, you can’t break the tradition’ one of them says.

He comes to us parents about it and we listen. He does not want to sing. He has a treat of a voice but he’s clear that that won’t be happening. He has taught himself a piano piece from YouTube. He loves it and could do that. Our gentle dissuasion works on him. There will be people who go for lessons who might play. Maybe something else? His passions lie in technology and also tricks. His teacher has suggested, jokingly, that he performs a hacking trick. He considers it. He could ask for a phone from the audience and hack into it without the password. Nah. Not really how he would wish to be remembered. Another trick comes to mind also, some sort of a physics illusion. He’d love to do it. It involves foam and an arm and blood as far as I understand. But it could go wrong. It’s a bit too risky. Nah. His teacher suggests something else that he has a flair for – a call my bluff word game. He’s super at the bluff (a little worrying perhaps for the teenage years yet to greet us). He did that with class pals for another celebratory evening earlier in the year. It went down a storm. All the boys were great. He doesn’t want to detract from that high, as it were. Also, he argues, it’s not really a talent. It’s a game. Someone else can take his spot. So he’s making a great play to break the tradition created by his brothers. Maybe we’ll be let off the hook with some of the compulsory traditions we’ve created over the years too. 

‘Eh Mum, it’s the summer solstice. We have to go for our night-time sun going down swim’.

‘We do?’

Yeah, we do. 

Leo and Myles High Five at Seapoint

Talks

img_0253It’s time to elicit a pep talk from someone. I shall choose my victim carefully. Tell them exactly what I need to hear. Ask them to drum it into me any which way they can. Tie me up and blind fold me and loud speaker it in. For a fee, naturally. 

There are swings to be contended with in this whole parenting a big brood thing. Great swathes of feelings of achievement having navigated them narrowly through a hectic, demanding May. Then the foot comes off the pedal in June just a tad and with it all the niggly doubts swarm in. What if I’m just not doing a good enough job? They seem happy though, don’t they, but should they seem happier? Any free moment I get, shouldn’t I be trying to improve things for them, hoovering a little more, pairing up a few more socks, baking something, blending a smoothie? Instead of hiding somewhere trying to scratch out some writing. Am I, in fact, quite absent from them as in my mind I’m off with the characters I’m eking out and carving into existence? Is there something perverse about this, creating people and worlds, while the real people in your real world might be crying out for you? 

These thoughts are cyclical and can be prompted by any little random thing. Like marque 3 asking me to sign a piece of paper about ‘the talk’.

‘What talk?’

‘You know, the talk Mum, in school, about, you know, well you have to sign it otherwise I’ll have to do science all day instead’.

One of us is blushing. Not the one that should be though.

‘Did we do that with you?’

‘What?’

‘Tell me that we already had a little chat with you about, you know, that your Dad took you out for breakfast and you know…’

‘No Mum, that never happened’.

You see, I tell myself, just not bloody good enough.

‘But I googled the one for a ten year old’.

‘The what for a ten year old?’

‘The talk’.

Hell, can they do that? 

‘Is there one for a twelve year old? We can do it together. Look it up. We’ll do a crash course before the one in school so as you’re up to speed’.

‘I’m up to speed Mum, don’t worry about it. Just sign here’. 

Hell.

‘Any questions, sweetheart, just shoot, we’re always here, kind of, you know, and your Dad owes you a breakfast out for anything you might want to chat with him about, instead. Okay?’

‘Okay. I’ll definitely go for the breakfast. Can I go to Sweet Moments afterwards too?’ Sweets. Yes. Give the children lots of sweets and forget to cover the basics with them. Well done you. 

‘When can I have my breakfast chat?’ marque 4 pipes up.

‘What age are you?’

‘Ten, nearly eleven’.

Christ.

‘Soon. Very soon. Maybe Dad will do a bumper pack chat. Take the two of you out. Or maybe even three…’

There are ways to make up for areas of neglect in big broods after all. A three-way Christening in 2010 comes to mind – yes we got three of our sons Christened on the same day, only the greatly disorganised can manage a feat like that – with marque 3 and marque 4 standing together as water is dripped down onto their copiously coated blonde heads and only marque 5 is small enough to actually wear the robes. It was a magical day remembered far too well by all.

On an up swing, such as it was on the last day of May, I can be heard calling out things that seem a little surreal.

‘You’ll have to all get your homework done super quick this afternoon. I won’t be able to supervise it later. I’m meeting my agent’.

‘Your what?’ Marque 5 asks.

‘My agent, you know, for my writing’.

‘Oh yeah, your agent. What?’

Exactly.

‘Can I come too?’

‘No you cannot’. 

‘Awww, please?’

I sail off with no one in tow, thrilling enough in itself, briefcase swaying in hand – a little uncalled for, but hey, it makes it seem a little more real – and talk about the book and the characters in the making as if it’s all perfectly normal, everyday work. Then I go back to the unfinished homework. Which doesn’t seem to bother me at all anymore.

So my own pep talk person, when selected, will boom out that parenthood is full of swings, it always will be, and accepting them, going with them, ignoring the niggly doubts, is the trick to surviving. Maybe even thriving. In the meantime, this luckily chosen person will be asked to pin me down and tell me to keep carving and scratching away. I will do my best to listen. There is someone in my corner now, after all.

Christening