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.

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.

 

Slotting People Into Place

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.

posh table
Eating with the respectable burghers

An Encounter

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.

 

Half Past Christmas

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.

Christmas Tree

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A Festive Picture Blog

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.

Bruges Festive Pic
Capturing the magic of Bruges at Christmas time.

 

 

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 Dessert Apocalypse

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.

dessert of the apocalypse
Pavlova – one of the four desserts of the Apocalypse.

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.’

Dessert-Liqueur Axis

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 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.

On Being An Aunt

We all know Jane Austen as a great writer. But to her family, she was Aunt Jane, and that was how she liked it. She thought it was far more important to be a brilliant aunt than a brilliant writer. And you know what? She’s dead right.

An Unlikely Aunt

I never thought of myself as aunt material. The sound of small children makes me want to put my fingers in my ears. In younger years, when they invaded my mother’s house, I barricaded myself in my room.

Even now, if there’s a baby sitting near me in a café, you will not find me cooing at it. Instead, I’ll be praying that it stays silent long enough for me to enjoy my brew in peace. And they’re conversation killers. Once they enter a room, they draw all the oxygen towards them.

When my sister announced that she was going to make me an aunt, I burst into tears. But when the baby arrived and she placed him in my arms, I fell in love. Even though he spewed all over me. As he grew, so did our relationship. With a little guidance, I got the hang of how to play with him. All you had to do was get down on the floor. Meet him at his level. Ask him what he was up to. And give him lots of cuddles.

Aunts Then and Now

In my own childhood, aunts didn’t get down on the floor. They patted you on the head and said, ‘Aren’t you after getting tall. We’ll have to put a pot on your head to stop you growing. What class are you in at school now? And who’s your teacher?’

Duty done, they disappeared to the kitchen to chat to your mother. Or they’d issue you with instructions, usually ending with the words: like a good little girl. Like, ‘Would you ever go in and get me my handbag, like a good little girl.’ When they re-emerged at the end of the visit, they palmed coins into your hand and told you to, ‘go and buy an ice-cream for yourself.’

The Aunt Template

But I did have an aunt template that I could follow. I had one aunt with no children, who happened to be my godmother. She filled my life with trips to the pantomime, excursions to castles and exotic food. She took me on shopping trips and I came home laden with clothes and books. She showed me that aunts could bring a little fairy dust into a child’s life.

Aunts can do the things that parents are too stressed to do. They don’t carry that weight of responsibility, and have full licence to act the maggot. I have perfected the art of blowing the perfect raspberry.

I roll down hills. I bump down stairs, bum first. I watch contraptions being built. When my nephew visits, I fill him with hot fat, sugar and caffeine, all the things he’s not allowed eat at home. I make myself slightly sick on the hurdy gurdies (fairground rides for non-Irish readers). And I give myself bum burn on the water slides.

Mad Aunt on Bumpers
Bumping around on the hurdie gurdies

A Thoroughly Modern Aunt

In the past, parents could rely on a council of elders to help them raise their children. But the modern aunt is not cast in that role. They give no instructions to do things like a good little girl. If I did, I doubt my nephews would listen. I’ve made far too many snorting sounds and danced too many crazy dances to ever be taken seriously. Still, it’s a privilege to watch them grow up from the sidelines. And it’s a privilege that I’ve been allowed a small role in shaping them as people.

I’m now an aunt twice over, and with the changing shape of our family, I’m expecting more additions to the brood in the coming years. And I hope to make auntship, as Jane Austen called it, an artform. The presence of these babies will be all-consuming, and my relationships with my siblings will go on the back burner.

But there will be new people in my life to fill the gap. And I know I need to have children in my life, to stop me going vinegary in my later years. And I won’t be the aunt who tells them how tall they’ve grown. I’ll be too busy rolling down hills and dancing silly dances, laughing all the while.

Sunday Swimming Ritual

First, there is the fear. It curls around me as I edge my way down the steps to the water. My brain plays showreel of images: a seal taking a bite of my belly, my body being dashed against the rocks, sucked down by a whirlpool of water. I push on towards the ladder, knowing that the images will evaporate once I hit the water.

 Shock and Awe

Then comes the shock. As I lower myself down the ladder, rung by precarious rung, the water begins to bite. When I run out of rung, I push myself into the water and all the breath leaves my body. I keep pushing, out, out into the open sea. And surrender myself to awe, at the expanse of sky above me, at the expanse of sea all around me. And my body floating in it. I am privileged to be cradled by water, to float on the edge of vastness.

Guillamene Cove
The place where I do my Sunday ritual. Image from http://www.outdoorswimming.ie

Then the thread snaps, and it’s time to go in. A sense of urgency returns as I make for the ladder, for the steps that blur into each other, with a handrail so low that it’s submerged by water. But now is the time for warmth, as life returns to my numbed limbs. I wrap myself in the blanket of my towelling robe. And I wrap myself in a blanket of banter. 

Sea Swimming Community

I am surrounded by a community of people brought together by water: some to swim, some to dive and some just to watch. They bat remarks back and forth, about the water temperature, the weather, the state of the nature. Laughter breaks out often. No names are needed: the language of water is enough. This is not a place of worship, yet I fancy I can hear a whisper of the divine.