A Day Out in the Big City

Yesterday, I had to go to Dublin. I drove up and I drove back again. I hadn’t much to do but it had to be done all the same. As a result of that, from 2.00pm until 10.30pm, I had nothing at all to do and the city was at my beck and call.

So what did I do?

Imagine if somebody had put a private detective on me for the day. “Follow him, wherever he goes, whatever he does. I want a full report on my desk…” 

What a shock she would have had, my detective-follower (yeah, I made her a ‘She’, it’s my imagination) and how very tired she would have been at the end of the day.

So what did I do on my lost eight-and-a-half hours in Dublin? What’s in that report sitting on the P.I.’s desk? Two words, that’s all.

“He Walked.”

Lots of people use those little devices for measuring how many footsteps they take in a day. If I had one, I wonder what mine would have reported yesterday? Lots and lots of steps. From two to ten, with a little break here and there, I walked the city. How many steps would that have been?

It’s a thing I do, when I go to cities, if I have some time. I love to walk. Hours and hours of walking around, looking into corners, finding streets and buildings I never saw before, watching people go by. I’ve done it in Boston and San Francisco and Auckland and Sydney and Bangkok… all over the place. Paris. I only had four hours in Paris, spat out of the Gare du Lyon at eight on a Sunday morning. I spent my fours hours walking around, even though I had an enormous backpack on my back. 

A manic-walker me, when I get the bit between my teeth.

There might even be some people who might read this and be momentarily annoyed. “He was in Dublin, doing nothing, for eight flamin’ hours and he wouldn’t even ring up and have a coffee or something.” I must confess, I’m a bit shy about that sort of thing. I don’t like to impose on people. If we meet, we meet and I love it but I don’t tend to seek people out to organise rendezvous. I won’t tend to call to your house either. Let’s face it, I’m a bit odd.

I’ve just been tracing, on a map, the walk I did yesterday. It’s fairly astonishing. My legs are tired today and a bit stiff, as a result. Of course, I didn’t walk all of the time, I stopped for a coffee and a bun and I watched some rugby in a pub too with a Coke. But there was a lot of walking, six hours of it at least.

So what did I learn, from all this walking and looking? What did I see?

Nothing really.

I learned that the locksmith's shop is closed on Saturdays, that surprised me a bit. I reminded myself that it’s entirely possible to be ensconced in a crowd and simultaneously be utterly alone – that’s a good thing to remember. As always, I was a bit shocked at the high levels of people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin. 

Nothing insightful, really, nothing new.

But then it’s not really about learning stuff and figuring stuff out. It’s much more about soaking stuff up. Letting the city seep in for an hour or six. I used to be a city boy and I’m not any more but cities are a bit like accents, you may lose them when you move away but they soon come back strong when you reacquaint yourself.

“So that’s it? That’s what I get for my twenty bucks an hour plus expenses? “He Walked”?”

“Sorry, chief, that’s all he did.”

“And what’s this five bucks for, here at the bottom?”

“Oh, that? That’s shoe leather."

The Post That Couldn't Be Written Until the DIY Got Done

I wanted to tell you this little story today but I couldn’t get into it until the DIY got done. So I ran to the hardware shop yesterday and bought what I needed. Now it’s done so I can tell all.

It ain’t much, really, I did something stupid late on Christmas Eve and it was quite messy for a little while. Messy in that way that seems quite comical in retrospect but which wasn’t even a teeny bit amusing at the time.

Trish was working all day on Christmas Eve last so I spent the day getting the house in fine festive shape and, um, tweeting a bit. When she arrived home at about four, the house was looking all nice and 'food-ey' and present-ridden and welcoming and good. We were going out for an hour or so as we usually do on Christmas Eve and that was something we looked forward to. Now. the coming back to this nice house was also something to anticipate.

We go over to our friend’s house and have a touch of mulled wine and some cake and gently dissect the year. It’s always a special visit. Out in the town, the shops are all closing up and the poor harassed retail people finally get to think about their own holidays. The roads are thinning of traffic and the world is generally settling down to a little well-earned time off.

So Trish and me (I hate ‘myself’) and the two boys headed out the front door of our seasonal house, looking forward to our seasonal visit.

All was well.

Even as the front door was swinging shut behind me, I sensed something was amiss. Even before it clicked into place, I knew exactly what it was but I was too late to stop it. The momentum was too great.

“Trish… you brought your house keys with you, yeah?”

“No. They’re in my other coat.”



Sam doesn’t carry keys.

I looked at the bunch of keys in my hand. The wrong keys. The heavens opened and a huge shower of hail came down on us. It was suddenly dark and cold and distinctly unseasonable.

I had the wrong set of keys in my hand.

We were locked out of our house. 

There is always a spare key available close by. I won’t say where, for fairly obvious reasons. It’s always there… except for now. A man had been in to fix the heating in the previous week. I had given him that key. He hadn’t given it back. He lived in another town…

We were right-royally locked out.

All the windows were locked shut. They were all doubled–glazed too so even breaking one wasn’t going to be the easiest business. There was also the consideration of which window I could even try to break. There would be no glazing-repair men around in the next week or so. Whatever I did not would consign us to a draughty insecure house for the entire holiday.

I had tuned out during all this reckoning. Now I noticed my family shivering and looking rather despairingly at me in the rapidly-increasing hail storm.

“Into the car,” I said, a bit like a sodden Batman. Whatever I was going to do, it was best done without my family as an audience. I drove them to the friend’s house, explained the situation, refused all offers of help, and then rushed back and stood looking at the house in the pitch dark and wondered what the hell to do.

I have a pretty good brain, even if I say so myself, and I’m quite proud of what I came up with. I had the relative liberation of knowing I could pick up a rock and smash my way in anytime I wanted but was there a neater way? Was there anything else to try before I resorted to this. 

I knew the key was in the lock of the back door and I was aware of the old Famous Five trick of pushing the key out onto a piece of newspaper and then sliding it out the gap under the door. But there was no gap under that door. I was also aware of the James Bond, 'On Her Majesty’s Secret Service', ploy of slipping the night latch with a credit card but the hard fact is that you need a pretty silly door jamb for that to ever work in real life. So it was a ‘no’ to both of those.

Our bathroom window is on the side of the house on the ground floor (everything is ground floor) and it is high up and about 2 foot deep. It is held with a simple window handle on the bottom, the kind with two holes and two prongs sitting up through them. I pictured it in my head, rather like a rugby kicker must do before taking a shot at goal. If I could grab the opening part of the window on the outside and wrench it hard enough, then the simple handle might pop up out of its two pronged resting place and the window might swing upward and open.

I inched around to the side of the house in the hail and the darkness with a step ladder I somehow found in the pitch-black shed. Across the side garden wall, I could see my neighbours in their kitchen, three generations of family toasting each other and smiling. I got on the ladder and climbed the few steps required to get me level with the bathroom window. I grabbed each side of the opening light, closed my eyes, and pulled with all my might.

The window opened. 

Just like that. It opened.

I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had been entirely making this eventuality up in my head out of desperation and, here, it had worked.

But the night’s work wasn’t over yet. This window was tight, very tight, and it dropped down on the inside into the bath. I still had to get my ass through it without damaging myself.

I tried one leg, then the other but it was far too dodgy. Something was bound to go wrong. I climbed over the garden wall and called on my neighbour to come and please help me out. I felt I needed someone nearby to phone an ambulance after I had broken my neck.

Let’s call my neighbour ‘John’, because that’s his name. John has helped me out many times over the years that we have been neighbours and, to the best of my recollection, I have never helped him out with anything in return.

John willingly left the bosom of his family and came to see what could be done. He brought his own step ladder over. We inched his ladder through the window and managed to erect it inside the bathroom, rather precariously in the bath. Now all I had to do was climb up my ladder, through the window, down John’s ladder, hop out of the bath and run down the hall to open my front door.

Nothing to it.

John is retired. Fit as a fiddle but this was no job for him. It had to be me.

I went up the first ladder and stuck my leg through the window. The window was top-hinged so I had to hold it up as I tried to climb in. I started to roll through, one leg in, one leg out... and I got stuck. Not terribly stuck, just enough to envisage getting more stuck and having to call the Fire Service to come and butter me up and ease me back out. This thought scared me sufficiently that I withdrew hastily to the outside again.

“You’re not as small as you think you are,” John observed and his three generations of family seemed to nod agreement from behind their own double glazing. 

I did note there were small children in that kitchen over there but it seemed too much to ask – too Dickensian – to ask to push one of them into my toilet on Christmas Eve. 

“It’s my glasses,” I said, “they’re getting in the way. Obvious crap but it was buying me a moment to get my nerve up before the next attempt on the window. “I’ll leave them on top of your car for a minute, John.” I stepped over the garden wall into John’s domain and placed my glasses on the roof of his car. Then I saw myself forgetting the glasses and John driving off in the morning and me losing them forever so I quickly took them off and walked over to leave them on John’s window cill, waving to all of the three generations of family so cosy within, all enjoying the unexpected free show. 

Then I turned to face the window again.

All this had only taken a few seconds but, in that time, John must have nipped up the first ladder, through the window and down the second ladder and into my bath. He was inside, smiling and waving out at me.

John must be sixty-five if he’s a day but he nipped in that window when my back was turned like the coolest of cat burglars. It was amazing.

John padded though the darkened house and opened my front door. I was in again. No glass had been broken, no damage done. 

I wish you all had a good neighbour like that.

John went back home to his family and I collapsed in a heap on the couch. The joy, the utter relief of being back in my own house for Christmas was vast. I forgot how hail-drenched and sodden I was. I drove back to my family and friends but not before secreting front door keys all over the exterior of the house.

Of course, I couldn’t tell you this until I had secured the bathroom window so that it could never be opened in that rudimentary way again. So don’t be treating this as a guide to how to break into my house. There’s very little of value to you in here anyway and that window is totally secure now…

I only hope I don’t ever get locked out again. 

They just change their name

Monday, Tuesday
Skies dark and grey
Wednesday passes, passes away
Thursday lingers, dappled and blue
Friday’s a promise that never comes true.

Sun up, Sun down
Always the same
My days never end
They just change their name

Sunday morning
Saturday night
Nothing is wrong about nothing being right
Mornings and evenings sail into view
Weekends and weekdays from the same brew

Sun up, Sun down
Always the same
My days never end
They just change their name.

The Last Nine Days

There was a small anniversary earlier this week. It was eight years since Mum passed away. 

In other years, there would have been an anniversary mass in or around the day but this year she and Dad will share a mass in March. They are being reunited again in the passing of time, which is rather nice.

I’ve written a little, here and there, about Mum’s latter years in the nursing home, the series of strokes she suffered which meant she needed more care than her own home could provide. 

I’ve covered some of that. But I’ve never typed anything above the very last days before she died. I thought I might try to now. 

Whatever I type though, it will be through a filter. At fifty years of age, I have seen people born into this world and I’ve seen people die away from it. It sometimes strikes me that there are things I could write about either of these processes that I have never seen written anywhere before. There are things about being born and dying that people really never say. And I won’t be saying them either. I can’t. 

I think it’s because those who are witness to a death quickly learn that the experiences they have are not their own to corral and share. These people are mere witnesses to the most defenceless moments in a life. A place where there can be no guile or concealment, when all is laid bare, and some of the truths of these moments must be left in the sole possession of the person in that moment. To do otherwise would seem (to me, at least) to be a betrayal of some sort.

So, yes, whatever words come next, will come through a filter. Everything cannot be told.

I wrote before about how Mum had suffered yet another stroke and how it had laid her lower than she had been before. I told you about an unspoken wish that leaked out of my mind. A wish that she would not continue to be gradually beaten down in this way, a way that suited her so badly. I sometimes feel I got my wish when, just one week later, I got a phone call that I had to come home to Sligo with all speed. A final terrible blow had been struck. 

I arrived – I think it was a Tuesday afternoon – to find Mum in her bed, dressed up for death. She was not conscious and she was still in her ward of six old people. Somebody had lit a candle on her bedside table and given her a crucifix to hold. She was ready for her journey. The family was half-gathered and the rest were on their way. 

The doctor said the latest blow had been too severe, she would never wake up again and it was really only a matter of hours. He was right on one of his points only; Mum never did wake up again but there was more than a few hours left in her. Quite a bit more, as it turned out. 

They moved her to a little room down the corridor. There was hardly room for the bed and a few chairs but it had a nice window and it was private. People started to come, friends and relatives. We sat with her and chatted and drank tea and had biscuits and we stayed through the night, keeping the vigil. 

Mum resided in that little room for the next nine days and, while she did, the world stopped. There was always someone with her (my Dad could hardly ever be prised away) and there was usually quite the crowd.

The point of this little essay is this. If you were making up this scene, you would probably sketch it in shades of weeping and heads held in despair and you would look at your work and reckon you had set it down pretty good. But things don’t pan out in real life as you might expect them too. 

There were too many old friends, too many faces from her life, for it to be an entirely sad time. In truth, there were many evenings around her bed that became hours of story-telling and laughter and warm reminiscences. It seems perverse to write it down but there were good times around that bed.

Also, I got to know my brothers and sisters again. So accustomed to meeting in the set regimes of Christmas or birthdays, this was a revelatory time. We were here together with nothing else to do but to talk and to catch up and to reacquaint ourselves with each other. I feel I know my siblings a lot better since I spent that time with them.

There was an elderly resident in the nursing home who would drop in from her daily perambulations up and down the corridor. “How is Betty today?” She would go right up to her bed and note carefully the way Mum’s breathing would sometimes seem to stop altogether for huge lengths of time. “Ahhh, the ‘Sleep Apnia’,” she would say and then she would shuffle off. She had been a nurse in her younger years, apparently, and she still looked in on her compatriots and pronounced knowledgeably on their symptoms.

After eight days, a nurse took us aside. What she told us didn’t seem to have much to do with science of medicine but it was said with the backing of years of knowledge. She told us that the little room had become so busy and friendly and ‘fun’ that it was difficult for Mum to leave. Perhaps the voices and the stories and laughter were keeping her from her departure. We quieted the room and lessened the amount of people who were there at any one time. And Mum went deeper and deeper much more quickly after that. Whether she had been aware in some way of her people gathered around is a moot point. I don’t know. All I know is that, when they left, she got ready to leave too.

My brother called us out at three am on the Friday, nine days after I had arrived. Mum’s breathing had changed to a type that was indicative of death being close. It was just us then, the basic family, gathered around quietly. 

There was no tangible moment of death. At some point a kindly nurse came in and checked a little and confirmed that Mum had gone. The people who had cared for her in the home came in to see her then and many of them shed a tear for her. A different period began then. A time not for this writing, perhaps another day.

Reading back, I become aware than Mum is not really present in this piece. That is by necessity. But Mum wouldn’t like that. Not at all. She was always too alive, too strong, to be sidelined in any narrative in which she appeared. So these last lines are for you, Mam. You’re still here, as real and as warm and as feisty and as cool as you always were. 

No physical blow could ever spoil that. 

Some Thoughts on Bullying

I was lucky enough not to be bullied as a kid. 

It wasn’t that I was tough or that I could take care of myself or even that I was too crazy to consider messing with. I just got lucky. I dodged those bullets.

For that reason, my thoughts on bullies and bullying have, for many years, been shaped almost exclusively by what I have seen in the movies or read in books. 

Bullies were bad guys who reveled in their badness. They had dominance in some way over others. Maybe it was physical, maybe it was mental. Whatever it was, they used this dominance as a weapon against those who were deemed to be lesser than themselves. They made life a misery for the people they turned their attention to and they loved every goddamn minute of doing it.

I saw these guys all over the movies. There was Biff in Back To The Future, for instance, or Draco Malfoy in Hogwarts, or that blonde jerk from The Karate Kid. There was also Nelson on the Simpsons and Bluto from Popeye. Bullies all.

And, yes, sure, there were bullies like that in real life. Even if they didn’t get to us in school, we still knew who they were and we knew to keep clear of them.

So, yeah, I thought I knew all about bullies. I had them sussed.

Until I found Social Media.

I don’t follow any bullies on Twitter or Facebook, at least I don’t think I do. But, now and again, you can get a hint, second or third hand, of something going on. Somebody has released a little blood into the water, unwittingly, and some sharks have come to circle. If the sharks butt a little harder, some more blood may leak out and than even more sharks may come. Somebody has displayed their weakness and suddenly, as Tom Waits might say, there is ‘Chicken in the Pot’.

People can get themselves bullied on Social Media, of that there is no doubt. What it has meant for me is that I have finally got to see a little bullying at close range. No longer do I have to rely on movies or cartoons or comics to show me what I think a bully should be. Now I can see for myself.

It’s taught me a thing or two about bullies. I would imagine these things are obvious to many of you already. That’s what this blog has become; a record of me discovering obvious things for myself. So forgive me if I am stating the blindingly obvious in what follows. As Hamlet said, “Meet it is I set it down.”

Bullies Often Do Not Know That They Are Bullies: I see this on Social Media and it surprises me. People cannot impose themselves on people with their fists or their feet or their heads. They can only use words and threats and insinuations. But these too can be brutal weapons and they can cut and bruise and damage as effectively as any boot. The difference is that, here, on Social Media, the hurt cannot be seen. A person lashes out into the darkness of the Internet and he cannot know where he has connected or how much damage he has done. Without knowing, he hits out again, harder and harder, mistaking the silence on the other side as resistance rather than pain. Unbeknownst to himself, he becomes the bully. He might even be shocked if he ever realises the truth but that will not change what was been done.

Bullies Are Often Convinced They Are Right: In the movies, the bully knows he is a ‘Bad One’ and he loves it. The bullying I have seen, at second or third remove, so often comes from people who are convinced they have right on their side. Maybe, sometimes, they do. But the fervour with which they pursue their cause can blind them to the hurt they are dishing out, the oppression they are dealing. They see themselves as being in the right and that is all that matters.

Bullies Get Exponentially Worse in Numbers: This is the most obvious one. Even I spotted this one. Bullies back each other up, they make each other worse. But you have to see it in action to really understand it. You can hear about sharks in the water, when that bucket of blood is poured in, but you have to see it to appreciate the harshness of it. To know the mindlessness and the ferocity of what can happen when a group of like-minded people fly in really hard together against someone they do not know. 

Bullies Are Not So Easily Stopped: It’s an important consideration. We have to stand up to bullies. Especially the ones who really don’t realise that’s what they are. But we have to be warned too. In 'Back To The Future’, Marty’s Dad hit Biff one tremendous haymaker and, by that single act, the bully was defeated. After that one act of resistance, the bully became a car-washing simpering loon, completely in thrall of the person who stood up to him.

It doesn't work like that.

The movies have taught us that bullies are cowards and that we can stop them cold with just one brave stand. Perhaps that's a thing that actually happens sometimes, like True Love or a Huge Lottery Win, but not usually. Usually we must expect that there will be blood before the fight is won and that, more than likely, much of that blood will be ours.

That’s not to say we shouldn't stand up though. As much as it may hurt, we have to stand up.

Perhaps the hope lies in that first point. That many of the bullies we see on our computer/phone/tablet screens do not actually know what they have become. Perhaps if we hold a mirror up to them, show them their behavior and how it looks from the other side of the Internet…

Perhaps then some of them, at least, may learn.