At a one-day conference I attended recently, the MC told a story, as they do in their effort to fill the gaps. She told the crowd that in her determination to find the perfect dress for her brother’s wedding, she had parked on a double yellow line in front of her favourite clothes shop. She was heavily pregnant and due to be induced. The wedding was to take place a week after she gave birth.
I knew the clothing shop she was talking about, so I knew that there would only have been a narrow strip of footpath between her car and the buildings. As she spoke, and the crowd applauded her determination, I envisioned a few scenarios which I believe could have unfolded while she was in the shop.
A blind man taps his way up to the car. His stick encounters the back tyre. He gauges the distance between car and wall and judges that there is not enough space between the car and the buildings. He taps his way around the car and steps out onto the road. Air currents swirled around his ankles, as cars whooshed past.
A woman approaches the car, pushing a three-wheeled buggy, the kind that can carry everything but the kitchen sink. The wheels jam in the space between the car and the wall. She can’t move forward. She has no choice but to go out on the road, inches from the cars.
An older woman comes up to the car, leaning on a crutch. She too finds that there isn’t enough room to pass. Out on the road, she holds her breath, hoping she’ll be able to move away quick enough if a car came up behind her.
A Victimless Crime?
People think that parking on a double yellow line is a victimless crime. I’ll only be two minutes, they tell themselves. But a lot can happen in two minutes. And it only takes seconds to mow someone down.
If I were a driver, I might well be seduced by double yellow lines. Let’s face it – parking is a pain in the butt. And it takes extra minutes we may not feel we have. But we don’t live in bubbles. What we do does impact on other people.
How much extra time does it really take to find a parking spot? Maybe an extra couple of minutes. If you take those couple of minutes, it’ll mean one less obstacle for a stick user to negotiate. Nobody will have to hold their breath. And the buggy users, the MC’s fellow mothers-in-arms, won’t have to worry about the safety of their children.
This week, snow blotted out the familiar landscape of the town where I live. It’s a seaside town, and it seldom sees snow. On the radio, voices of authority urged us to stay indoors. Red alerts blared from TV screens. But beneath the worries about skidding cars, frozen pipes and power-outs, we felt a childlike glee. And this propelled us out of doors. We wanted to taste the snow on our lips, to feel our cheeks glow in the cold air.
Having an eye condition which makes my steps wobbly, I was a little wary about venturing outside. But armed with a strong husband and a strong stick, modern feminist principles cheerfully abandoned, I felt I was up to the challenge. The snow was firm; the satin squelch underfoot was thrilling.
To get to our gate, we had to manoeuvre around snowdrifts. Outside our gate, the street was silent. It was hard to tell where road ended and footpath began. The speedbumps were now tiny hillocks. The roundabout at the end of the road was submerged. Snow formed crosses on the poles.
We made our way along the strand. Snow had crept all the way to the top of the strand, touching the stones that nestled under the wall. As we reached the main street, the ground became firmer, as the footpaths had been gritted.
At the top of the street, our favourite coffee shop was lit like a beacon. Warm air caressed our faces as we opened the door, and we wrapped ourselves in coffee, cake and conversation. When I got up, I discovered a mudslide of grit under my feet. The owner swept it up without fuss and smiled when I left a tip.
Now we were fortified for the downhill journey, which was a slightly different proposition. The town is full of vertiginous hills, and now they were mini-ski slopes. As we picked our way down, a reporter from the local radio station approached us, to find out why we had braved the elements in spite of the warnings.
As a former journalist, I knew what it was to be a slave to the almighty deadline, so I was happy to oblige. And in his best broadcasting voice, my husband told of trudging through the snow with crates of glass milk bottles in his former life as a milkman.
When we finished talking to her, we slid onwards, our feet touching patches of black ice. As we passed a pub, we heard a creak, and the double doors began to peel back. A smiling bar woman stood behind the doors.
‘Have you extra cider brought in,’ we quipped.
When we reached the promenade, we saw brave, foolhardy souls inching their way along in cars. People were walking their dogs, who leapt around in the snow.
‘Are we mad?’ we asked each other, secretly congratulating ourselves at our daring.
As I took a picture of the action, two dogs bounded forward, dragging their owners with them.
‘’Sorry,’ they called, when they saw me with my phone.
‘You added colour to my picture,’ I replied.
When we arrived at the front gate, we stood back and looked around. Our garden was a frosted paradise. The branches of the willow tree were spider legs. We marvelled at how snow had turned our town into a place of mystery and wonder, a routine walk into an epic journey full of challenge, beauty, and ultimately triumph.
In recent days, news of a mass school shooting in Florida sent shockwaves around the world, putting America’s gun laws in the spotlight once again. At times like this, headlines scream numbers at us: 17 shot dead in Florida, 58 shot dead in Las Vegas, 20 shot dead in Sandy Hook.
It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around such figures. Tragedies like this are best understood, if that’s even possible, by zoning in on one single life. This was something journalist Gary Younge instinctively understood when he wrote his book on American gun culture, Another Day in the Death of America
Younge looked at the impact of gun crime through the lens of ten lives. The lives of ten children who were killed in ten separate shooting incidents throughout the United States. In one day. Every day, between seven children are killed by guns in the United States. It’s become so commonplace that their deaths barely make a blip in the media.
Bringing Them to Life
Younge picked a random day and traced the names of ten children who had been shot dead on that day. He then set about telling their stories. The story of their lives and the story of the day they died. They were all boys, aged from nine to nineteen. They lived in towns, cities and rural areas. Seven were black, two were Latinos and one was white.
Younge visited the cities and towns where the boys had lived. In all but two cases, he spoke to their friends and families. He looked at their social media profiles. He researched police reports into their death. And from this, he created vivid portraits of their lives, using symbols that represented who they were. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A recording of a rap. A T-shirt.
A Troubled Society
On a wider level, Younge gets under the skin of a society where guns are rife, where social structures have broken down, where poverty is a weight that is almost impossible to shrug off. He speaks to community workers and quotes from a rich variety of literature, from novels to research from sociologists.
As you read Another Day in the Death of America, you can hear the guns go off in your head. You can feel Younge’s quiet outrage pulsing through the pages. With these ten tender portraits, Younge reclaims the lives of these boys, so that they are no longer defined by the terrible acts that ended their lives. He shows us that their lives mattered. But he also makes you feel the real impact of gun crime, more effectively than any screaming headline.
Once upon a time, I embarked on a quest. This quest did not involve the slaying of dragons or men in metal suits bashing each other over the head with shields. There were no princesses in towers. But there was gold – of a kind. In this century we live in, our quests pit us against threats that are unseen and unknown. My quest was a battle with technology.
My quest also involved a journey – no good quest is complete without one. Not the kinds of journeys we go on these days – writing journeys or motherhood journeys or cancer journeys. This was an actual journey, on a train. The train would take me to Dublin, in pursuit of gold – well, it was actually a business meeting with people who wanted me to write a big wedge of content for them.
The day we settled on was the day before I embarked on my annual ski odyssey. It seemed like a dynamic, executive powerhouse thing to do, arrange a business meeting, then jet out foreign. On the appointed day, I set off for Waterford train station with my trusty suitcase, full of free egg McMuffin and a sense of smug satisfaction that all the items on my to-do list were ticked off. If this were a proper quest narrative, I’d be telling you at this point that the day was set fair for adventure.
I boarded the train, stowed away my suitcase and settled on a suitable perch for my journey, across from a woman too young to prospect strangers for conversation and too old to be in thrall to a constantly bleeping phone. I took out my oracle (a glossy magazine) and began to consult it. I let myself be enveloped by a sense of peace and wellbeing. And then the phone rang.
The Quest Begins
It was one of my paymasters. What could they want? Hadn’t I sent them the required document with a satisfying click of my mouse a mere twenty-four hours earlier? Indeed I had, but now it was floating in cyberspace, and they were unable to retrieve it. Could I find a way to send it to them again? I explained that I was on holidays, sure that this would be the end of the tale. But no, they were adamant that they wanted me to retrieve it.
I jabbed my phone a few times. Nothing happened. Then I got a brainwave. I would consult my IT guru, my right-hand woman when I was in a jam. Straight away, she was on the case. Why didn’t the paymaster send her the email and she would see if she could open it. Confident that the problem was now in capable hands, I sank back in my seat.
An Interesting Seatmate
Throughout this flurry of phone calls, I could feel the eyes of my seatmate on me.
‘You’re good with phones,’ she declared. ‘Can you see have I any missed calls on this yoke.’
She thrust an ancient phone at me. I jabbed at the buttons, this time with more success. As I was about to impart the information the phone had revealed to me, the refreshments trolley appeared. She ordered a cup of hot water. And a vodka. It was 11.20am.
When she had arranged her refreshments around the table, I gave her the contents of her missed calls list. She picked up the phone and began speaking into it, something about a hospital appointment. And then she began to cry. And say, ‘Don’t want to die.’ It was not clear whether she meant herself or somebody else. Either way, I was quite rattled. When the train drew into the next station, I gathered my things and bolted to the next carriage.
But my troubles were far from over. The IT guru rang with the bad news that she was unable to sprinkle her usual magic on the document. She could not open it. I rang the paymasters again to beg for mercy. Surely they would be satisfied that I had done what I could, given that I was away from the seat of power – my computer. But they were under instructions from the mothership, and the mothership wanted the document that day. Was there someone at my house who could send it?
I thought of my husband, for whom computers were the devil. He was at work, and Fridays were his busiest days. He would be safely out of the way. No need to plague him with my troubles. I told the paymasters this and they appeared to accept the situation. I hoped now I would have my reprieve. But it was not to be.
A Gargantuan Task
I got a phone call from the head paymaster. The mothership were insisting on having the document to them by four o’clock that day. They would not wait for another writer to be sourced. Was there any way my husband could be prevailed upon to source the document? There was nothing else for it. I had to throw myself upon my sword (or my husband’s sword)
I texted Husband. He replied that he would be finished work shortly, and was willing to try and source the file. He who hated computers. I, who hated having to tackle computer problems, particularly with an audience present. For both of us, this would be the equivalent of walking on a bed of hot coals. But we would do it. And we would do it together.
And so it was that when I arrived at the fancy doodle hotel where the meeting was to take place, I did not apply my armour for the meeting (makeup). Nor did I seek sustenance in the form of a hipster sandwich containing either beetroot, goats cheese or avocado, as my heart desired. Instead I began the long walk across the hot coals.
The Trial By Fire
The first stage of this trial by fire was The Turning On of the Computer. This required the issuing of a secret password. It’s Y. Not I. Y. Why? After a few false starts (and a quick text message), Husband managed to type in the correct password and we were on our way.
The next stage was the Opening of the Email. Husband had never sent an email in his life. I issued a set of highly technical instructions. Click on that thing that looks like a blue e. At the bottom. To the left of the thing that looks like a W. Now type in Gmail in that thing that looks like a ribbon at the top of the page. No, not G-spot. Gmail. Now click on the red box that says Compose Mail. The box appeared. Progress indeed.
Now it was time for a delicate manoeuvre that required some skill. The insertion of the attachment. First, the file had to be located. Click on that safety pin yoke at the bottom of the box. Nothing. Click on it again. Again, nothing. I allowed full-scale panic to bloom. My breath came in ragged gasps. ‘Calm down,’ said Husband. Words designed to set the flames dancing.
But all was not lost. There was a way, though it would take longer, and it was fraught with risk. The Cut and Paste. First of all, we needed to open the window. You see that W? Where is it? The one next to the blue E. I see it. Click on it. He clicked and the window opened. The coals began to burn a little less.
Now click on file. Over on the left. No, the left, not the right. Top left, not bottom. The coals began to burn bright again. But at last he found it. See the list of files? See the one with the gobbledygook name? Move the mouse down and click on it. You’ll see a tonne of writing. The writing appeared.
The Final Moves
And now it was time for the Cut and Paste to begin. To achieve it, Husband would need to master the Control Moves. Click Control and A. Not at the same time. And not separately. Sort of one after the other while holding onto the control. A blue square appeared around the text. Result.
The next Control Move was truly a high-wire act. At any moment, the swathe of text could disappear. It was time for Control and C. The same again, only this time, you press C. The text stayed intact. But would it transfer to the waiting email box? Go back to the blue E. You’re in Gmail. Click on the email box. Now for the final Control Move. Control and V. This would reveal all. Husband pressed Control and V. And the text appeared in the email box.
In any challenge, there is always one final task to be done, when you are exhausted and you just want the whole thing over. It can be the twig that you trip on, the Rubicon that you drown in. This was The Sending of the Email. This task required Husband to type in an email address. Complete with the use of the @ symbol. A move that involved a shift. I called out the letters, and Husband managed to make that shift.
At long last, I told him to click on the blue send button, winking invitingly at him from the bottom of the screen. He did so, and the magic words appeared. Message Sent. We had made it through the bed of coals. Forty five minutes had passed. My stomach grumbled. My face lacked armour. There was 1% battery left on my phone. I used the 1% to tell the paymasters that the mission had been accomplished. As I hung up, the people I was to meet came in the door.
This is the part of the story where I’m meant to tell you that I learned something from the quest, that I tested my wits and triumphed, that I discovered hidden strengths within myself. I realised that I needed to get a new computer when I returned from my ski odyssey. And that my husband is a hero.
I always associated herbal tea with illness. When chemotherapy drugs were introduced to my father’s veins, rooibos tea arrived into our house. The teapot, centrepiece of our table, wrapped in a tea cosy my sister had knitted in primary school, was replaced by fat wet blobs, islands floating in mugs.
As a weapon in the fight against enemy cells, rooibos tea proved useless. But after my father died, it lived on in our house. Soon, only my mug contained what I called “honest to Jaysus chemical laden tea.’ I refused to become the sort of person who brings their own teabags into establishments or demands strange brews in tiny country pubs where you were lucky to get more than one alcoholic drink, let alone a selection of teas.
Dodging Metal Teapots
But when I tried to celebrate this love of chemical-laden tea outside the home, I found myself thwarted, by metal teapots. These are the teapots of choice for many cafes, and I regard them as an insult to the name and palates of good tea drinkers everywhere. They infuse the tea with metal. And no matter how carefully or how straight you pour, they leak precious golden droplets of tea.
To avoid such a scenario, I turned myself into a coffee drinker. This went well at first. I allowed myself to be seduced by the froth of cappuccino, the sprinkling of chocolate on the surface. Then a spoilsport told me about the piles of calories lurking in the froth. So I switched to Americanos, a straightforward black brew. Until I began to find the brews too bitter for my taste.
Now I flirt with many different drinks. In some establishments, I go for an exotic chai latte. In others, I say, ‘feck the calories. Mine’s a cappuccino.’ Young fogey that I am, I will go for traditional tea in places where the tea comes in china teapots or with china cups. And now, from time to time, I will add herbal tea to the mix.
How did such a metamorphosis come about? It was certainly a slow one. Ten years ago, at a beachside restaurant in Australia, I got my first inkling that herbal tea could be a sensual experience. I ordered Japanese tea and it came in a sea-green teapot with a matching sea-green cup, both delicate enough to snap at any moment.
A neat arc of green liquid poured into my cup. It tasted warm and refreshing, and reached the place in your soul that all the best drinks reach. Unfortunately, my mother and sister had ordered flat whites and finished them as if under starter’s orders, so I didn’t have the chance to savour my tea.
But it planted a seed in my mind. And finally, after years of lacklustre teapots, I confessed to my brother and his girlfriend, both seasoned tea drinkers, that I was fed up with indifferent tea. They recommended a range of herbal teas supplied by a large German supermarket. They assured me that the teas were delicious, and helped with sleep too.
So I began to explore. I bought a lemon and ginger tea. And I began to notice that these metal-teapot loving cafes also stocked a range of herbal teas. New flavours began to tickle my tastebuds. I started to have eager discussions with serving staff about the merits of blood orange tea over wild berry tea. I enjoyed exploring the world of new flavours that had opened up to me. And I found that I felt just as refreshed after those brews as I did after my frothy cappuccinos.
I haven’t forsaken my chemical laden tea. I still regard the first cup of tea in the morning as essential to my survival. And I still see my father washing down his four slices of teatime bread with scalding tea from a silver teapot. But I have reclaimed herbal tea from the cloud of illness. I now see it as a delight for the senses. My two loves can now happily exist side by side.
I took this picture at St Patrick’s Well near Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in Southern Ireland. It has been a place of worship for Christians and pagans for thousands of years, and there’s a real bang of sacredness off it. When I visit it, I leave cleansed, and connected to the essence of life.
I am writing to express my disgust at the dearth of interesting conversations among the passengers on your trains. I have been told by extremely reputable sources that people on your trains regularly pour out the intimate details of their lives, providing excellent opportunities for eavesdropping and rich material for stories. However, I have let to experience this.
All I hear are beeps coming from phones, the tinny electronic sound of video games and music of questionable quality. From time to time, I may hear a request to be picked up at a particular train station or a remark about the weather. But I hear no evidence of this rich eavesdropping potential my sources have told me about. No declarations of love. No details of a clandestine affair? No rip-roaring rows.
I feel that I have been seriously misled as to the quality of the passenger conversations on your trains, and I suggest that if you want to provide an entertaining and immersive experience for your train passengers, you will need to start attracting a more colourful and loose-lipped type of passenger. I’m happy to start the ball rolling with some lurid conversations of my own, though as a fiction writer, I cannot guarantee the truth of these.
If you were to provide such an eavesdropping service, it would be of great benefit to writers like me, who are in search of stories, or to any passenger looking for diversion from their own dull loves. Since you are always complaining that your train services are losing money, I am sure you will be willing to consider any idea that will boost yoru ailing finances.
I always end up sitting in the wrong seat. When they were handing out the rulebook on how to master the art of seating, I was dossing down the back of the room. Some people are able to glide towards a seat as if they were born to do it it. I usually end up flailing.
For example, I never grasped the rule about women taking the inside seat. I was staying at a B&B once and the owner was getting a table ready for a couple who were due to come down. He was pushing the table away from the wall, because he maintained that the woman would want to sit on the inside seat, closest to the wall.
Lo and behold, the woman sat on the inside. I thought he had magical divining powers, but Husband shrugged.
‘Women always sit on the inside.’ he said.
Well, I don’t. When you take the inside seat, you’re always having to lean out to where the conversation is. And that’s not my style. I want to sit on the outside, at the beating heart of the conversation.
Seating Large Numbers
Then there’s the restaurant seat scramble. When a large group of people is going to a restaurant or pub, the most mild-mannered people become ruthless scrum-halves, in a bid to bag the prime seating, away from the table bore. I find myself paralysed. My feet won’t propel me forward, and I end up in no-man’s land. It’s possible that I’m the table bore they’re looking to avoid, but I flatter myself that this isn’t so.
Or there’s the peculiar hell inflicted on wedding guests, when the bride and groom places them at a table with an odd assortment of human beings, After a few hours at a wedding table, wading through the treacle of small talk, you start to think that a few hours in a holding cell would have been preferable.
Seating at Venues
When I go to the cinema or theatre, I’m careful to position myself at the centre of the row. If I sit at the edge, I’ll constantly have to be getting up for people. I fancy I leave enough seats on either side of me for groups to sit down. Yet these groups will insist on passing me to go to the seats on the other side, so I have to get up anyway. Leaving me to wonder what’s wrong with the seats on either side of me.
Then there’s the seating magnet at restaurants. This is the magnet that compels restaurant staff to place you and your partner a hair’s breadth away from the next table, despite the fact that the restaurant is almost deserted, and there are vast acres of space where you could eat your meal in private. Do they fear we may need to huddle together for warmth? Or do they feel the walk between tables would be too great?
We scramble for seating because we’re eager to conquer the space around us. Unfortunately, we have to share that space with other human beings, and this brings out the competitive urge in us. Hence the scramble for prime seating. I’m hoping there’s a catch-up class I can take so I can acquaint myself with that rulebook on the art of seating, so I can one day be that person who glides up to a seat as if born to it.
The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.
Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.
Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.
I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.
Selling Your Wares
I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.
It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’
Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.
One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.
Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.
The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.
As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.
‘And who is this?’ she asked.
My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’
‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.
I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.
‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.
‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’
Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.
What’s In A Name
You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.
It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.
Making a Connection
In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.
If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.
But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.