Twenty-First Century Quest

Once upon a time, I embarked on a quest. This quest did not involve the laying 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 tackle 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 to meet 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 other 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 at me.’

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.

No Escape

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.

hot coals
Completing this quest was akin to walking on hot coals for my husband and I.

 

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 wig 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.

A Lazy Writer Complains to Irish Rail

To the Irish Rail Management

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.

passengers on train
No opportunities for eavesdropping on trains. Photo taken from Irish Rail Website, http://www.irishrail.ie

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.

Yours in disgust.

A lazy writer in search of inspiration.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Seating

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.

table and chairs
People scramble for seats at restaurants. Pic from Pixabay.

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.

 

Getting In My Hair

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.

 The Delay

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?’

Hairdresser
A tricky hair-drying manoeuvre.

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.

The Storm Cycle

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.

Storm Denial

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.

Storm Excitement

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Infected with storm excitement during the early stages of Ophelia.

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.

Storm Humour
Irish response to storm.

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.

The Aftermath

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.