The Ties of Friendship

Last Easter, I went back to my hometown for a good old catch-up, not just with my family, but with various friends. I rang one friend to arrange a coffee date. I would step off the bus and straight into a coffee shop for our chin wag. With another set of friends, I arranged a lunch to take place a couple of hours later, via our WhatsApp group.

Friends Drinking Coffee
Friendship: a commitment I freely choose.

I was to meet them on the Saturday, and both social arrangements had been made by the Tuesday. For some people, this would be the stuff of nightmares. ‘I hate to be tied,’ I hear such people say, as if an invite to have coffee at eleven on a Friday were a court summons. I have to say, this kind of talk saddens me, with its implication that friendship is a burden to be borne.

The Privileges of Friendship

I get a thrill when my phone pings with a message asking me to meet at eleven on a Friday, or with a reply that yes, my friend would love to meet me on a Friday. When I get a message like that, it tells me that someone is thinking of me, and that gives me a warm glow. I feel lucky that people think enough of me to want to make arrangements to meet me.

And I feel privileged to even have friends in the first place, because there are plenty of people who have none. Loneliness has become so endemic that the UK Government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness. We have never had more technology to communicate with, yet I wonder if this technology has turned us into tectonic plates, drifting further apart from each other.

Leaving Friendship to Chance

I could have left my arrangements to chance, turned up on the Saturday and sent messages to see who was around. Some people thrive on this. But I know that if I make concrete arrangements with my friends, they’re more likely to happen. Once I’ve made the arrangements, I can slot the rest of my schedule around them. For me, that’s freedom of a kind.

Yes, it’s a commitment. It means carving out time away from my work and family schedules. But it’s a commitment I freely choose to make. Rather than seeing the arrangements as an obligation, I see them as a beacon on the landscape, something warm and inviting to move towards. And I reap the reward for that effort in the form of laughter, support and a sense of belonging.

 

A Day of Days

Some days have a special, shining quality. Colours are sharper, food explodes with flavour, and conversation flows. There is an ease to the day; everything you do feels just right. It’s a day when you feel fully alive. When a day like this comes along, I call it a Day of Days.

I was lucky enough to have a Day of Days just last week, when I jaunted up to Dublin, Ireland’s capital city, on a literary road trip with a friend of mine. On a Day of Days, it’s a bonus to have good weather to set the scene. After weeks of cold, rain and even snow, spring put in a brief appearance. There was proper warmth from the sun, and the sky was the sort of blue you’d find in an artist’s palette.

For me, travel plans that go like clockwork are an essential ingredient in a Day of Days. Thanks to the speed and efficiency of my friend, the jour was smooth. The motorway was free of traffic, and we arrived at our destination with time to spare. Enough time to tuck into various sweet and savoury treats, washed down with frothycinos.

Conversations and Connections

We were booked in for two events at the literary festival. The first gave us a chance to hear Gail Honeyman in conversation. Gail is the author of the runaway bestseller novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (link). It’s a novel that makes an art form of everyday life. Gail spoke to a packed theatre, but managed to make us feel we were all enjoying one big coffee morning together.

Gail’s laugh could be heart frequently as she talked, a warm, rich laugh that belly-rippled through her. When it came to question time, she was determined to make a personal connection with every questioner. After I asked my question, I was started when she asked if I could raise my hand to show her where I was. She wanted to make sure she answered me directly. She was, to use a popular Irish saying, ‘a real dote.’

After the event finished, we had a generous window of time to enjoy our surroundings and linger over lunch. We were in a picturesque part of Dublin by the sea, and we strolled along the pier, watching the sun sparkle on the sea and posing for pictures at the bandstand.

 

Dun Laoighre Pier
The perfect setting for a day of days. Pic taken by moi.

 

Food is a cornerstone of a Day of Days. We found an Asian restaurant and were served colourful bowls of Thai food, a feast of reds, blues and greens. Mine was washed down with a crisp glass of white wine.

Interesting Conversations

Then it was on to the second event. This event was a little more cerebral in town, with a panel of authors engaged in an earnest discussion about depictions of love in their novels. There were fewer questions. One of the authors was a little bolshy. He slouched in his chair and made a stream of dry comments. And he pulled up the moderator when she stumbled over the title of his book. I felt it added a certain frisson to the occasion. After all, blandness is the enemy of creativity.

It took me a little time to immerse myself in this event, so I was pleasantly surprised when the moderator said it was time for the last question, and to discover that an hour had passed. It was time to head for home, and the homeward journey was just as smooth as the first. It flashed by in a torrent of talk.

Normally, time with this friend only happens when I can snatch her away from the treadmill of childcare. Now we had space to talk, to share the special moments of each other’s lives, to share humorous observations about the onset of middle age. We were able to learn more about each other’s quirks, likes and dislikes. We discovered that neither of have a taste for 99 cones, those mountains of whipped ice cream that have formed part of so many Irish childhoods.

This Day of Days was rounded off by the sight of my husband waiting at the gate, hot buttered toast and the rather excellent children’s movie Inside Out, which I referenced in a previous blog post.

On a Day of Days, I am released from the steel trap that holds my brain down. I feel reunited with myself, and with this colourful, scarred, yet beautiful world we live in. I would love to hear about what a Day of Days is for you, what releases you from your steel trap. Feel free to share yours.

 

Talking to Strangers in Cafes

I am wary of cafes with sharing tables. I believe some café owners have an idealistic vision of strangers coming together around these large tables and finding new friends. What it often results in is enforced closeness. Conversations are circumscribed because you don’t want others to hear.

Or you can feel as if you’re drowning in other people’s noise, like the time when my friend and I were forced to share a table with a gang of clacking Spanish students. In trying to bring people together, these tables can take away your sense of personal space.

Last week, my mother and I found ourselves in a café called The Wooden Spoon in Co Clare, in the west of Ireland. The only space free was at a large sharing table, my heart sank. There was one woman at the table, and she waved us over with extravagant gestures when she saw us looking for a spot. ‘There were loads of people here a minute ago,’ she explained, ‘but they’re all gone now, so you might as well sit here.’

The table was actually a door, laid flat and propped on table legs. It was painted pale green, and a pane of glass protected it from food spillages. Wood shavings were artfully placed around the door panels. We sat on one bench and the woman sat opposite.

 

Sharing Table
The sharing table where we met the nurse at the Wooden Spoon Café. Photo taken from Wooden Spoon Facebook Page.

An Entertaining Monologue

Without preamble, she launched into the tale of the job interview she had just attended at a local nursing home. There were various twists to the tale, as many twists as there had been on the road to the interview. There was her reluctant return to nursing after a career break, the dance she had been to the night before, the fear that the makeup on her shirt collar might have interfered with her chances of landing the job.

Along the way, we heard about the food that she wasn’t allowed to eat and the tablets she was on. Every so often, she hurled questions at us, but she didn’t wait for the answers. It was quite restful – all we had to do was sit back and listen.

Beside her, there was a paper bag bulging with clothes. It had a floral design and the name of a local boutique printed on it. She nurse treated us to a fashion show, pulling out a handsome black dress coat and a white shirt.

While she spoke, the nurse ate a bowl of beef stew. She used wedges of brown bread to dig into the gravy. She dug into the brown depths with such vigour that I feared for her orange nail varnish. ‘I won’t eat for two days now after this,’ she declared.

In the Boutique

When the nurse finished her food, she left in a whirl of bags and coats. In the vacuum that she left, we decided to visit the boutique with the floral bags. As we tried on an array of colourful tops, the nurse reappeared, to put a deposit on another black coat. While she was speaking to the owner, her phone went off.

Her phone was on speaker, so I soon realised that the phone call was from the nursing home. I  tried to eavesdrop to find out the outcome of the interview, but the clothes called, and I became immersed in trying them on. I wasn’t kept in suspense long though. Through the curtain of the changing room, I heard her say, ‘Ladies, I got the job.’

I’m not a Bible-basher, but a couple of days after we met the nurse, I came across this quote from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Now I’m starting to see the wisdom of the sharing table. They remind you of how enlivening conversations with strangers can be.

 

An Epic Walk

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.

 

Snow Crosses
The snow formed crosses on the poles. All pictures in this post taken by moi.

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.

Human Comforts

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.

Media Fame

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.

Onward Journey

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.

Snowy Promenade
A few souls braved the snow on the promenade.

 

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.

Willow Spider
Our garden became a frosted paradise.

Twenty-First Century Quest

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.

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 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.

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.