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.
I originally published this in 2012 on my other blog, World of Writing, and it also appeared in the WORDS Anthology 2013.
Half Past Christmas is the hushed hour that comes just as Christmas morning breaks, an hour stolen from the Christmas juggernaut. You wake all a-tingle. The sky is the colour of ink, but the clock tells a different story. Something exciting is happening. You fancy you can hear Santa’s footsteps on the rooftop. Your stomach carries the memory of the years when you tumbled down the stairs, in search of Santa’s bounty.
You swaddle yourself in a dressing gown and slipper socks and creep downstairs, taking care to skip the creaky step. A veil shrouds the house. You don’t turn on a light, in case you pierce it.
Defiant embers still burn in the grate. On a table beside the couch, there is a plate strewn with crumbs and a glass with a dribble of milk on the rim, left for an incredulous child to find. You flick on the Christmas tree lights. They begin to dance on the walls, showing off their colours, pink, orange, yellow.
You nestle beside the tree. The lower branches tickle your face. The carpet feels scratchy underneath you. The house murmurs to itself; you listen to the quiet chorus of whirs, grunts and moans. Next to you is a pristine pile of presents. The paper crackles a little, as if quivering with anticipatiodn. You breathe in the smell of pine.
The house begins to stir. You hear doors open, running water, running feet. The veil is torn away. But as the day whirls around you, you hold fast to the memory of Half Past Christmas, the hour when you let yourself believe.
I’m just back from a mini-break in Bruges, Belgium. As a writer, I feel I should be regaling you with amusing anecdotes about the quirky encounters we had, or the little adventures that always arise when you travel.
But let’s be frank. People don’t really want to hear those tales when you come back from holidays, no matter how riveting you think they are. They just want photographs. So here’s a picture I took that I like to think encapsulated the festive vibe of Bruges.
I have heard rumours that many women regard a visit to a hairdresser as a pampering session, a treasured slice of that much-vaunted modern phenomenon, “me time.” They relish the chance to read magazines and drink a cup of tea without interruption. And they love to place their hair in the hands of a particular hairdresser, at a particular hair salon. Only this hairdresser can achieve the miracles they’re hoping for. And while this hairdresser is working her magic, the woman spills out her stories. The confession-box like set-up of a hair salon invites confidences.
Get the Job Done
I, on the other hand, regard going to the hairdresser as maintenance, one of the things you must do to count yourself as a civilised member of society. It’s a couple of rungs up from bills and going to the dentist on the pleasure scale, but it’s still an item to tick off the to-do list. I don’t take the proffered cups of tea, because of the stray hairs that end up floating on the surface. And I can’t really get the benefit out of the magazines, as the hairdresser positions my head in a way that makes them difficult for me to read. After the prescribed set of questions, taken straight from the Book of Hairdresser, I let myself go into a trance and trust their fingers to do the job.
And I’ve never felt the need to hitch myself to a particular hairdresser. I know what way I want my hair cut, and any skilled hairdresser can do it. But in the last couple of years, I did hitch my star to a particular hairdresser. She shaped my hair just the way I liked it. And our chat ventured a little beyond the Book of Hairdresser script. I shared details of family weddings. And she shared her love of hurling. She asked me how I got on at various family occasions. And I asked her how her little girl was settling into school.
And then one day … I went in and saw that she was attending to another lady, drying her hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ she said.
I relaxed when I heard that. Her efficiency was one of the things that drew me to her. And if she was drying the lady’s hair, she was sure to be winding up any minute. Besides, I’d have a chance to read the magazines properly and give myself a crash course on the latest instalments of Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and Towie. Five minutes went by. Ten. Fifteen. Hmm, I thought. Does drying usually take this long?
The other hairdresser came to my rescue and washed my hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ my hairdresser said again, as she continued to sculpt the other lady’s hair with her dryer.
My reading material ran out and I felt flames starting to leap inside me. The other lady kept up a constant stream of talk while her hair was being dried. She was clearly of the confession box mentality. I didn’t even have the compensation of eavesdropping on her talk, because the hairdryer acted as a noise machine, blotting her voice out.
At length, thirty-five minutes after I had entered the salon, my hairdresser approached me and started to cut my hair.
‘Sorry for keeping you,’ she said.
Fanning the Flames
It sounded like a line delivered straight from the Book of Hairdresser. Not an ounce of contrition did I hear. Then she started asking me about my sister’s wedding. Is that it? I thought. This was not enough to douse the flames. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I asked:
‘What time was that lady’s appointment scheduled for?’
She stepped back, as if my words were bullets. I could hear her swallow.
‘I’m afraid there isn’t anything we can do if appointments run over. It’s out of my hands.’
The flames were dancing now.
‘It’s just that you were at the drying stage. I thought that would be quick.’
‘This lady likes her hair dried a particular way. And I always get you in and out on time, don’t I?’
By this time, the air between us was thick with electricity. For now, I was going to have to climb down. I reassured her that yes, she was normally very quick. And when I was leaving, she apologised again, in a less scripted way. I decided that I had been a little bit fierce, and that she deserved the benefit of the doubt. So when it came time to tame my wild curls again, I went back to her.
A Chance at Redemption?
She was delighted and clearly surprised to see me. I was shown straight to the basin, and then straight to the chair for the haircut. Our flow of chat was easy. All was well. Until the drying stage. A woman came through the door and my hairdresser went to deal with her. Her query was quite detailed, and my hairdresser launched into a lengthy and quite technical explanation of how to resolve her problem. The word “balayage” was mentioned.
I read an article in my trashy magazine. Then another. Then another. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Finally, she came back and resumed drying my hair without a word. Taking the advice of my sister, who has United Nations levels of diplomacy, I opted for a more banterful approach to the situation.
‘Bit of a hair crisis, was there?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she replied.
She gave a brief description of the woman’s problem, throwing in the word balayage again for good measure. As I was leaving, she said:
‘See you in a few weeks, hopefully.’
But I think we both knew that this was the end of our harmonious relationship.
I have found a new hairdresser home now, which I am quite happy with. And I still see the lady whose hair required complicated drying around town. It’s easy for me to spot her. When you’re waiting as long as I was, you become very familiar with the back of someone’s head. And with a post-breakup pang, I spot the imprint of my old hairdresser.
On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.
He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.
Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.
Did He Want Help?
When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.
Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.
Last week, a man opened fire at a church in Texas and killed 26 people. This was one of the biggest mass shootings in recent times. It’s hard to wrap your head around a figure like this.
Yet every day, up to ten children are shot in America. That’s the equivalent of a Texas shooting every 2.5 days.
In my first blog post, I talked about how you can gain an understanding of major issues through the prism of small stories. Journalist Gary Younge illustrates this point with devastating effect in his book Another Day in the Death of America.
Ten Deaths, One Day
An English journalist living in America, Younge was horrified when he came across this this statistic. He chose a random day, 23 November 2013, and set out to find out which children died on that day. When he tracked down the ten children, he told their stories, one chapter for each child. Ten stories, ten lives.
The children were aged between nine and nineteen. All of them were boys. Seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. Most died in urban areas, but one lived in a country town. One was shot when he opened his front door to his mother’s vengeful ex-boyfriend. Another was shot in a stairwell. And another was shot by his friend at a slumber party.
Little Lives, Big Issues
Younge examines their deaths in the wider context of a culture where guns are rife, a society where young men can slip easily through cracks, where children are brought up without any real community support or a strong family structure. Yet there is no moralism in these pages, no judgement. And because of that, you can feel the full impact of what it’s like to live in a society where the fabric is torn.
As all good journalists should, Younge draws on primary and secondary sources. He interviews community workers and experts and quotes from relevant books. But above all, he uses the testimony of family and friends, and the words of the children themselves, to paint portraits of these children. He does not make saints out of them, but uses small details to bring them to life. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A used car. A poem to a Valentine. A rap video.
Deaths of children like these garner a few lines in a local news bulletin, but then they’re forgotten because these types of gun deaths so commonplace in America. Younge demonstrated that their lives counted. He encourages us to see beyond the circumstances of their deaths, and to remember the people they were.
Ireland is a dessert first nation. I’m convinced that somewhere in the small print of the the proclamation of the Republic, there is a clause enshrining the right of all Irish people to regular desserts. We Irish are shockingly sweet-toothed, worshipping at monuments of whipped cream, meringue and chocolate.
Ireland is a dessert first nation. I’m convinced that somewhere in the small print of the Proclamation of the Republic, there is a clause enshrining the right of all Irish people to regular desserts. We Irish are shockingly sweet-toothed, worshipping at monuments of whipped cream, meringue and chocolate.
Desserts of the Apocalypse
As I celebrate my birthday, I will confronted with many of these confections. The eyes of my companions will travel straight to the dessert menu. But I’ll feel my heart sink, as I find myself yet again confronted with the Four Desserts of the Apocalypse.
I refer to them this way not just because they’re heart attacks on a plate but because I’m quite tickled by the idea of the Apocalypse coming in the form of dessert. I picture people sinking into vats of sugar, cream and chocolate, and monsoon of meringues pelting down on us from the sky.
What are these four culprits? Banoffee pie, chocolate brownies, Pavlova and tiramisu. I realise many people are fans of these desserts, in which case, worry not. You’ll die happy.
Between Sweet and Savoury
A part of me envies other people their uncomplicated dessert tastes. You see, I inhabit a dessert no-man’s land between sweet and savoury. You might ask: why not have the cheese plate, that traditional sop to the savouries. But being the contrary soul that I am, the one time I don’t want cheese is after a meal. Frankly, I’m lazy, and hacking at bits of cheese with a knife seems too much like hard work.
What I’m after is a refreshing morsel to fill the tiny space left at the top of my belly after my delicious meal. The citrus tang of lemon or orange. The complex challenge of dark chocolate. Or the invigorating bite of raspberries, rhubarb or blackcurrant, the taste of life itself. Such tastes are hard to find. After providing inventive, richly satisfying starters and main courses, it seems as if restaurant chefs shrug and say, ‘Let them eat cake.’
I usually only encounter these tangy treats at high-end restaurants, where the desserts are punctuated with commas. Lemon posset, raspberry coulis, shortbread biscuits. In these sorts of restaurants, I find myself confronted with a problem that I call, ‘the dessert liqueur axis.’ Not only do their menus feature mouthwatering desserts, they also stock an extensive range of liqueurs, which are great at bringing your tongue back to life. To have both would be gluttony, so what to do?
Ordering a liqueur would give me an excuse to use the phrase ‘post-prandial,’ and I could imagine myself retiring with the gentlemen after dinner to discuss the South Sea bubble. But I think of my mother’s French coffees, with a perfect circle of cream floating on a beautifully balanced midnight mixture of coffee, brandy and sugar. And I know that not even the fanciest restaurant can compete. So dessert wins, and I order a zingy dish that makes my tongue sing.
The bus was almost full, but I managed to find a pair of seats near the front. I settled into the window seat and arranged my bags on the other seat. Then I fished out my iPod and untangled the headphones that were wrapped around it. For the next hour, the length of the journey to my mother’s house, I would cocoon myself in music and banish the outside world, letting myself be carried along by the rhythm of the bus.
Then behind me, I heard scuffles and shrieks. Feet pressed against the back of my seat. I swivelled my head. Three children were squashed into a seat for two: two girls aged about ten and a young boy of about five.
They waved at a man whose grew smaller and smaller as the bus inched out of the station. ‘Bye Daddy,’ shouted the boy and one of the girls. Then the man disappeared, and the little boy began to wail.
‘I want Daddy,’ he cried.
‘Be quiet, Jamie,’ said his sister. ‘We’re going home to mammy now.’
‘ I want to go back to Waterford,’ said the boy. ‘I want to go back to Daddy.’
The wails cut through my waves of sound. These weren’t the sounds of a child grandstanding for an audience. These were the sounds of a child in pain. A child who couldn’t understand why he was being shuttled from father to mother. A child who was watching his father disappear.
Unable to Reach Out
I happened to have a vibrating hamster in my bag, a whimsical present from my husband. I pictured myself showing the child that vibrating hamster. Kneeling against the back of my seat and giving the children a reassuring smile. Showing the boy how to make the hamster vibrate by pulling the string. Watching his tears turn to laughter. Pressing the hamster into his hand, a much more useful companion to him than it could be to me. Distracting him from his pain.
But I didn’t. Because I was a stranger, and children are quite rightly taught to fear strangers. Because of the fingers of suspicion that would point at me. Because my actions could be interpreted in a way I never intended, by the children and by other passengers on the bus.
The bus was quite full, full of people who looked as if they had plenty of experience of wiping away the tears of children. But maybe they held the same fear as me, because they didn’t reach out to those children either.
Creating a Different Culture
Is it possible that our efforts to keep children safe, we have put up barriers that prevent us from being kind to them? Barriers that mean a childcare worker can no longer hug a child in their care. That cause men to feel uneasy if they find themselves near a group of children playing in a park. That require people to jump through endless hoops if they want to offer their time and skills to help children.
It is quite right that the culture of covering up crimes against children is beginning to crumble. But are we replacing it with a culture of suspicion? Why don’t we strive instead to create a culture of common sense, of kindness, of balance? A culture that allows us to reach out to a child in distress without fear of pointed fingers.
We Irish love weather. We analyse it constantly, and no conversation is complete without reference to it. Most of the time our weather isn’t very dramatic. It’s just wet, and the wet won’t kill you. But our love of the weather means that when a big weather event happens, we go to town on it.
So last weekend, when the weather mavens started speaking in low, urgent tones about an “ex-hurricane,” “status red weather warnings” and “emergency meetings,” I paid them no heed. We may not have had a hurricane hit our shores in over 50 years, but we’ve had plenty of practise with storms. We would weather the storm, clean up and move on. We felt no need to name them or give them a colour scheme.
The day that the poetically named Storm Ophelia arrived was bright and clear, but the air was charged with a certain electricity. I call it Storm Excitement. It’s what drives people to plunge into the sea or ride waves when a hurricane’s a-brewing. We were infected with a milder dose of it, and headed for the promenade in the seaside town where I live.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining, but a high, whistling wind blew along the prom. It pushed and pulled at me and I hung onto Husband for ballast. The cafes on the seafront were boarded up in anticipation. We went to the slip and watched the waves begin to gather strength. The weather mavens were right. Storm Ophelia was going to be more than just your average storm.
Others in my circle were also infected with Storm Excitement. Messages flew back and forth, as we all urged each other to stay safe. It was a comfort to know that we were all weathering the storm together. But being Irish, we couldn’t resist a bit of humour. Pictures and clips abounded, depicting messianic news reporters, irate weather men, and a hand holding a pint of Guinness as the waters rose higher.
Then the power went off.
‘Never mind,’ Husband and I said to each other. ‘We’ll go down to bed and wait it out.’
A sense of calm descended on me as I slid under the covers, a sense that this was out of my hands and there was nothing I could do. Husband went to sleep and I realised there was nothing to distract me from writing. I brain-dumped onto the page until my navel was red-raw from gazing at it, and I felt cleansed.
Husband woke from his nap when the light went on and the machinery in the house started to hum. Our power was back, far sooner than we had anticipated. When the wind lost some of its rage, Husband ventured out to assess the damage. Only a few minor repairs would be needed. As we listened to the reports of three fatalities brought about by Ophelia, and of families without electricity and water, we felt we had been spared the worst.
And then the next morning, the news reporters gave the name of one of Ophelia’s victims, and we realised that we knew her.
She and her daughter had been regular fixtures in our hillwalking club. Memories flooded into our minds, of her leading a group of walkers along a beach, of us eating pizza at her house, of her looking out the window of my old flat as we watched a colourful parade go by. Most of all, we pictured her smiling face and heard her warm, friendly voice.
There will not be another storm Ophelia, When a storm or hurricane takes lives, its name is not used again, in case it evokes memories. The storm has passed now. We have weathered it and we will clean up after it. But for some people, it will not be possible to move on.