I took this picture at St Patrick’s Well near Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in Southern Ireland. It has been a place of worship for Christians and pagans for thousands of years, and there’s a real bang of sacredness off it. When I visit it, I leave cleansed, and connected to the essence of life.
I am writing to express my disgust at the dearth of interesting conversations among the passengers on your trains. I have been told by extremely reputable sources that people on your trains regularly pour out the intimate details of their lives, providing excellent opportunities for eavesdropping and rich material for stories. However, I have let to experience this.
All I hear are beeps coming from phones, the tinny electronic sound of video games and music of questionable quality. From time to time, I may hear a request to be picked up at a particular train station or a remark about the weather. But I hear no evidence of this rich eavesdropping potential my sources have told me about. No declarations of love. No details of a clandestine affair? No rip-roaring rows.
I feel that I have been seriously misled as to the quality of the passenger conversations on your trains, and I suggest that if you want to provide an entertaining and immersive experience for your train passengers, you will need to start attracting a more colourful and loose-lipped type of passenger. I’m happy to start the ball rolling with some lurid conversations of my own, though as a fiction writer, I cannot guarantee the truth of these.
If you were to provide such an eavesdropping service, it would be of great benefit to writers like me, who are in search of stories, or to any passenger looking for diversion from their own dull loves. Since you are always complaining that your train services are losing money, I am sure you will be willing to consider any idea that will boost yoru ailing finances.
I always end up sitting in the wrong seat. When they were handing out the rulebook on how to master the art of seating, I was dossing down the back of the room. Some people are able to glide towards a seat as if they were born to do it it. I usually end up flailing.
For example, I never grasped the rule about women taking the inside seat. I was staying at a B&B once and the owner was getting a table ready for a couple who were due to come down. He was pushing the table away from the wall, because he maintained that the woman would want to sit on the inside seat, closest to the wall.
Lo and behold, the woman sat on the inside. I thought he had magical divining powers, but Husband shrugged.
‘Women always sit on the inside.’ he said.
Well, I don’t. When you take the inside seat, you’re always having to lean out to where the conversation is. And that’s not my style. I want to sit on the outside, at the beating heart of the conversation.
Seating Large Numbers
Then there’s the restaurant seat scramble. When a large group of people is going to a restaurant or pub, the most mild-mannered people become ruthless scrum-halves, in a bid to bag the prime seating, away from the table bore. I find myself paralysed. My feet won’t propel me forward, and I end up in no-man’s land. It’s possible that I’m the table bore they’re looking to avoid, but I flatter myself that this isn’t so.
Or there’s the peculiar hell inflicted on wedding guests, when the bride and groom places them at a table with an odd assortment of human beings, After a few hours at a wedding table, wading through the treacle of small talk, you start to think that a few hours in a holding cell would have been preferable.
Seating at Venues
When I go to the cinema or theatre, I’m careful to position myself at the centre of the row. If I sit at the edge, I’ll constantly have to be getting up for people. I fancy I leave enough seats on either side of me for groups to sit down. Yet these groups will insist on passing me to go to the seats on the other side, so I have to get up anyway. Leaving me to wonder what’s wrong with the seats on either side of me.
Then there’s the seating magnet at restaurants. This is the magnet that compels restaurant staff to place you and your partner a hair’s breadth away from the next table, despite the fact that the restaurant is almost deserted, and there are vast acres of space where you could eat your meal in private. Do they fear we may need to huddle together for warmth? Or do they feel the walk between tables would be too great?
We scramble for seating because we’re eager to conquer the space around us. Unfortunately, we have to share that space with other human beings, and this brings out the competitive urge in us. Hence the scramble for prime seating. I’m hoping there’s a catch-up class I can take so I can acquaint myself with that rulebook on the art of seating, so I can one day be that person who glides up to a seat as if born to it.
The voice was warm. It was a voice that invited you to stop, to help. It broke my stride as I made my way along the street. The voice belonged to a young man wearing a beanie hat, who said he was doing research about people’s favourite things to do in the town.
Thinking he was doing a project as part of a college course, I expounded on the delights of the restaurants. Picking up on his American accent, I said several of them served American food, because as a nation, we Irish were fond of all things American. Then I asked him what the research was for.
Turned out he wasn’t doing research. Turned out he was a missionary for a Christian church.
I didn’t turn tail and run. It would be hard to show that level of disrespect to a man of faith, even if he did have bad teeth. So I heard him out, extracted myself and went on my way.
Selling Your Wares
I couldn’t fault the friendliness of his manner, but as I walked away, my mouth was flooded with the sickly-sweet taste you experience when you realise you’ve been manipulated. He had presented himself as someone looking for help, when in fact he wanted to sell me something, in this case spiritual enlightenment.
It’s easy to come up with a retort in hindsight. I resolved that next time I meet a missionary, I’m going to ask them how long it will be before the Apocalypse comes. And if they say they don’t know. I’ll shake my head sadly and say, ‘You’re no good to me, so.’
Cruel, perhaps. But it’s better than being taken for a mug. Still, I don’t know if I’ll be using that retort. Because it’s likely that I’ll be walking faster from now on. When someone like that stops you on the street, it damages the chances that in the future, you’ll stop for someone who genuinely needs help. And that really does make me sad.
One Sunday, I found myself having lunch in a golf club. It’s not the sort of place I’d expect to find myself in. They’re usually places where the respectable burghers of a town congregate. But I had been invited by a friend whose family qualified as respectable burghers, with roots going back more than one generation.
Whereas I was a ‘blow-in,’ a word we use in Ireland to describe someone who has moved to a town from somewhere else. You can live in a town for thirty years or more and still be considered a blow-in. Having lived in this seaside town for a mere six years, I was definitely still a blow-in, the sweet grass of my native inland place still clinging to my skin.
The golf club was a comfortable, homely place, and despite my blow-in status, I was able to pass through its doors without incident. I sat at a table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and enjoyed a tasty lunch of deep fried Brie, bantering with my friend and her three lively boys.
As our lunch came to an end, a woman approached the table and my friend greeted her by name. I knew of the woman, but hadn’t met her before. After the woman admired my friend’s three boys, she turned her attention to me.
‘And who is this?’ she asked.
My friend, a sunny-side-up kind of person, introduced me as ‘a great writer.’
‘Might I have your surname?’ she asked.
I gave her the required information, while red dots danced across my line of vision.
‘Derbhile was in Toastmasters (a public speaking organisation) with your daughter,’ said my sweet dove of a friend.
‘Oh, you’re one of those,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, grinning. ‘You have me now.’
Satisfied that she had the information she needed, she withdrew.
What’s In A Name
You may wonder why I bristled at the woman’s question. After all, a surname is hardly classified information. My surname is readily available on my official documents, business cards and social media profiles. But I knew why she was asking the question – so that she could slot me into the town’s hierarchy.
It’s human nature to try and define people, to assess how much like us they are. And some people will define you by your place of origin and family name. Such people love to recite a litany of names to each other, and to outline how those names are connected to each other. The problem is that they don’t look beyond the name, to the richness of the person’s story. Once they have placed you, they are satisfied.
Making a Connection
In a situation where we don’t know people, it’s often necessary to ask for a person’s name and where they’re from, to break the ice. But if we really want to connect with people, then couldn’t we use those questions as a springboard that will help you dive into a broader conversation. I’d rather know whether someone has an unhealthy penchant for Club Milks or likes swimming in a cold sea than what town they come from.
If the woman had asked how my friend and I had met, for example, she would still have received the information she wanted. I would have told her how we met in Toastmasters and how this had indirectly brought me to my new hometown. We would have made a connection, no matter how slight.
But afterwards, I remembered what my husband had told me about the woman, that she had arrived in the town as a young school teacher from a windswept coastal town on the other side of the country. Perhaps, all these years later, she was still a little anxious about her own blow-in status. Perhaps she was defining herself by the same narrow criteria. But when you broaden the criteria by which you connect with people, you can put down deeper roots.
I originally published this in 2012 on my other blog, World of Writing, and it also appeared in the WORDS Anthology 2013.
Half Past Christmas is the hushed hour that comes just as Christmas morning breaks, an hour stolen from the Christmas juggernaut. You wake all a-tingle. The sky is the colour of ink, but the clock tells a different story. Something exciting is happening. You fancy you can hear Santa’s footsteps on the rooftop. Your stomach carries the memory of the years when you tumbled down the stairs, in search of Santa’s bounty.
You swaddle yourself in a dressing gown and slipper socks and creep downstairs, taking care to skip the creaky step. A veil shrouds the house. You don’t turn on a light, in case you pierce it.
Defiant embers still burn in the grate. On a table beside the couch, there is a plate strewn with crumbs and a glass with a dribble of milk on the rim, left for an incredulous child to find. You flick on the Christmas tree lights. They begin to dance on the walls, showing off their colours, pink, orange, yellow.
You nestle beside the tree. The lower branches tickle your face. The carpet feels scratchy underneath you. The house murmurs to itself; you listen to the quiet chorus of whirs, grunts and moans. Next to you is a pristine pile of presents. The paper crackles a little, as if quivering with anticipatiodn. You breathe in the smell of pine.
The house begins to stir. You hear doors open, running water, running feet. The veil is torn away. But as the day whirls around you, you hold fast to the memory of Half Past Christmas, the hour when you let yourself believe.
I’m just back from a mini-break in Bruges, Belgium. As a writer, I feel I should be regaling you with amusing anecdotes about the quirky encounters we had, or the little adventures that always arise when you travel.
But let’s be frank. People don’t really want to hear those tales when you come back from holidays, no matter how riveting you think they are. They just want photographs. So here’s a picture I took that I like to think encapsulated the festive vibe of Bruges.
I have heard rumours that many women regard a visit to a hairdresser as a pampering session, a treasured slice of that much-vaunted modern phenomenon, “me time.” They relish the chance to read magazines and drink a cup of tea without interruption. And they love to place their hair in the hands of a particular hairdresser, at a particular hair salon. Only this hairdresser can achieve the miracles they’re hoping for. And while this hairdresser is working her magic, the woman spills out her stories. The confession-box like set-up of a hair salon invites confidences.
Get the Job Done
I, on the other hand, regard going to the hairdresser as maintenance, one of the things you must do to count yourself as a civilised member of society. It’s a couple of rungs up from bills and going to the dentist on the pleasure scale, but it’s still an item to tick off the to-do list. I don’t take the proffered cups of tea, because of the stray hairs that end up floating on the surface. And I can’t really get the benefit out of the magazines, as the hairdresser positions my head in a way that makes them difficult for me to read. After the prescribed set of questions, taken straight from the Book of Hairdresser, I let myself go into a trance and trust their fingers to do the job.
And I’ve never felt the need to hitch myself to a particular hairdresser. I know what way I want my hair cut, and any skilled hairdresser can do it. But in the last couple of years, I did hitch my star to a particular hairdresser. She shaped my hair just the way I liked it. And our chat ventured a little beyond the Book of Hairdresser script. I shared details of family weddings. And she shared her love of hurling. She asked me how I got on at various family occasions. And I asked her how her little girl was settling into school.
And then one day … I went in and saw that she was attending to another lady, drying her hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ she said.
I relaxed when I heard that. Her efficiency was one of the things that drew me to her. And if she was drying the lady’s hair, she was sure to be winding up any minute. Besides, I’d have a chance to read the magazines properly and give myself a crash course on the latest instalments of Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore and Towie. Five minutes went by. Ten. Fifteen. Hmm, I thought. Does drying usually take this long?
The other hairdresser came to my rescue and washed my hair.
‘Won’t be long,’ my hairdresser said again, as she continued to sculpt the other lady’s hair with her dryer.
My reading material ran out and I felt flames starting to leap inside me. The other lady kept up a constant stream of talk while her hair was being dried. She was clearly of the confession box mentality. I didn’t even have the compensation of eavesdropping on her talk, because the hairdryer acted as a noise machine, blotting her voice out.
At length, thirty-five minutes after I had entered the salon, my hairdresser approached me and started to cut my hair.
‘Sorry for keeping you,’ she said.
Fanning the Flames
It sounded like a line delivered straight from the Book of Hairdresser. Not an ounce of contrition did I hear. Then she started asking me about my sister’s wedding. Is that it? I thought. This was not enough to douse the flames. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I asked:
‘What time was that lady’s appointment scheduled for?’
She stepped back, as if my words were bullets. I could hear her swallow.
‘I’m afraid there isn’t anything we can do if appointments run over. It’s out of my hands.’
The flames were dancing now.
‘It’s just that you were at the drying stage. I thought that would be quick.’
‘This lady likes her hair dried a particular way. And I always get you in and out on time, don’t I?’
By this time, the air between us was thick with electricity. For now, I was going to have to climb down. I reassured her that yes, she was normally very quick. And when I was leaving, she apologised again, in a less scripted way. I decided that I had been a little bit fierce, and that she deserved the benefit of the doubt. So when it came time to tame my wild curls again, I went back to her.
A Chance at Redemption?
She was delighted and clearly surprised to see me. I was shown straight to the basin, and then straight to the chair for the haircut. Our flow of chat was easy. All was well. Until the drying stage. A woman came through the door and my hairdresser went to deal with her. Her query was quite detailed, and my hairdresser launched into a lengthy and quite technical explanation of how to resolve her problem. The word “balayage” was mentioned.
I read an article in my trashy magazine. Then another. Then another. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Finally, she came back and resumed drying my hair without a word. Taking the advice of my sister, who has United Nations levels of diplomacy, I opted for a more banterful approach to the situation.
‘Bit of a hair crisis, was there?’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she replied.
She gave a brief description of the woman’s problem, throwing in the word balayage again for good measure. As I was leaving, she said:
‘See you in a few weeks, hopefully.’
But I think we both knew that this was the end of our harmonious relationship.
I have found a new hairdresser home now, which I am quite happy with. And I still see the lady whose hair required complicated drying around town. It’s easy for me to spot her. When you’re waiting as long as I was, you become very familiar with the back of someone’s head. And with a post-breakup pang, I spot the imprint of my old hairdresser.
On a winter’s night, as a light drizzle fell, a cyclist came upon a homeless man as swished through the city streets. He lay in a doorway near a string of fast-food outlets. As the cyclist bent over him, she saw that he had a stash of food beside him, still in his packaging.
He made no movement, but she could detect the rise and fall of breath. She gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. Still there was no response. A knot of people gathered around her. Some of them approached the man and tried to rouse him, but appeared to have travelled to a place beyond sleep.
Alarmed, the cyclist called an ambulance, and the group stayed with the man until it came. As the ambulance approached, the man awoke, blinking in surprise to find lights in his face and a circle of strange faces around him.
Did He Want Help?
When I first heard this story, I saluted the cyclist’s civic conscience. But afterwards, a question formed in my mind. Had this homeless man wanted help? Or was he just happy to have found a perch for the night, his food within easy reach. Perhaps he was sleeping his first real sleep in many nights. And perhaps that sleep had taken him to a place of warmth and light, a place filled with the sound of children’s laughter.
Was he grateful for the intervention of these kind strangers? Or was it a painful reminder that without a home, he could no longer shut out the world, and that he had lost the power to decide what happened to him. I still salute the cyclist’s social conscience. I myself would have picked up my pace, propelled by embarrassment and fear. But I wonder if the homeless man saw it that way. I wonder if ultimately she did the wrong thing, even if it was for the right reasons.
Last week, a man opened fire at a church in Texas and killed 26 people. This was one of the biggest mass shootings in recent times. It’s hard to wrap your head around a figure like this.
Yet every day, up to ten children are shot in America. That’s the equivalent of a Texas shooting every 2.5 days.
In my first blog post, I talked about how you can gain an understanding of major issues through the prism of small stories. Journalist Gary Younge illustrates this point with devastating effect in his book Another Day in the Death of America.
Ten Deaths, One Day
An English journalist living in America, Younge was horrified when he came across this this statistic. He chose a random day, 23 November 2013, and set out to find out which children died on that day. When he tracked down the ten children, he told their stories, one chapter for each child. Ten stories, ten lives.
The children were aged between nine and nineteen. All of them were boys. Seven were black, two were Latino and one was white. Most died in urban areas, but one lived in a country town. One was shot when he opened his front door to his mother’s vengeful ex-boyfriend. Another was shot in a stairwell. And another was shot by his friend at a slumber party.
Little Lives, Big Issues
Younge examines their deaths in the wider context of a culture where guns are rife, a society where young men can slip easily through cracks, where children are brought up without any real community support or a strong family structure. Yet there is no moralism in these pages, no judgement. And because of that, you can feel the full impact of what it’s like to live in a society where the fabric is torn.
As all good journalists should, Younge draws on primary and secondary sources. He interviews community workers and experts and quotes from relevant books. But above all, he uses the testimony of family and friends, and the words of the children themselves, to paint portraits of these children. He does not make saints out of them, but uses small details to bring them to life. A bottle of Hennessy brandy. A used car. A poem to a Valentine. A rap video.
Deaths of children like these garner a few lines in a local news bulletin, but then they’re forgotten because these types of gun deaths so commonplace in America. Younge demonstrated that their lives counted. He encourages us to see beyond the circumstances of their deaths, and to remember the people they were.