To See the Train

The recommendations we currently live under, here in Ireland, include one that says we can take some exercise every day, while practicing Social Distancing, but that we shouldn’t stray any further than 2 km from our home.

Wishing to get a walk in, but not really very keen to impose ourselves on anybody else, I hit Google Maps to inspect my vicinity and my boundaries. I happened upon a previously unnoticed slender country lane that continued down the back of a little-used road and seemed to terminate in a wooded area. We resolved to check it out.

We’re now been walking there once a day, every day, for the last week or more. We’ve seen one girl on a bike and a man in his tractor and that’s all. Apart from these brief crossing of paths, the laneway has been ours. It’s not a terribly long laneway, so we go up it and back and then do it all over again and that’s our walk.

It’s nice to have a little space and it’s quite an advantage to not have to be calculating how to best keep clear of other people all of the time. The laneway also has horses in the adjoining fields, quite a lot of them actually. They remain pretty aloof, not really looking to say hello or anything like that. They tend to hang near the gates of the fields, because that’s where their feed is, and they eye us up in a detached fashion, but that’s about it with the equine interaction. This suits me okay, I’m not a horsey person.

There are also rabbits. Their white butts flash regularly in the dull green of the fields and sometimes they move across the lane in front of us. (Sorry about that boring use of the word ‘move’ – ‘walk’ looks wrong and I can’t bloody bring myself to use ‘lollop’.) Once, we saw a pheasant. It’s rather a wildlife jamboree by our usual standards and that all adds a little something to the excursion.

It's not any kind of nirvana, though, our little lane. It's quite heavily littered in places, by fly-tippers, and the views are green and underpopulated but not otherwise inspiring. 

I mentioned that the online map shows the laneway leading into some woodland at the end. This is indeed what happens but, when we got down there, we found that we didn’t get to go in. Just as the woodland commences, the railway track runs perpendicularly across the lane. Of course, I knew this from the map but I thought we might be able to get across. No such luck, though. The track is protected by bright red ‘high vis’ gates and these gates are firmly padlocked. No way through.

Because of this, the wooded path on the other side of the tracks quickly gained the status of an enigma to us. It curves off up into the unseen in such an inviting way that it’s hard not to speculate about what wonders might lie up there. There could be a house made entirely of sweets and candy, an old lady and her wolf, or even (less likely) three pigs in some new-build housing. We stood on our side of the tracks and looked up the inviting lane and wondered what or who was up there.

One day, as we stood and speculated, the rail tracks began to fizzle and sing. The train was coming. We don’t have enough trains in these parts to say, ‘a train was coming’. It was the train and it was on its way. We stood back a little, even though we didn’t need to, and waited. Before long, the train appeared. Four carriages and an engine. We waved to the driver and he waved back and blew his horn. Four completely empty carriages rattled by and that was it, the main Dublin train had passed.

Since then, without really agreeing it, we have timed our daily walk to be down at the gates when the Dublin train comes through. Some days, we’ve missed it and been back up the lane when it clattered through. Yesterday, we stood and waited at the end of the lane for the train to come, just so we could get our wave and our whistle toot. In a matter of two weeks, from being professional people, parents, and active members of our community, we have become the Railway Children.

Not really though. That’s mostly just an attempt at a funny line.

Our waiting to see the train roll through is not any indication of a reversion of sophistication or intelligence. It’s not a sign that we’re losing our marbles. It’s just a small connection in a moment where small connections are rare and valuable. The train may be empty of passengers, but it is still on the move. It is traversing the entire country while we are confined to our homes and our two-kilometer laneway. Seeing the train, waving quietly and getting a toot back, is something. In months and years to come, it may seem naive and even laughable that we did this thing at this time.

But, in truth, I don’t think it will. Perhaps a new family ritual is being instituted, right here and right now, down the littered lane. Perhaps, on some particular marked day, in each of the years to come, we will venture again down the lane just to wave at the driver and to remember all that came to pass in the Spring of 2020.

Who knows if we will or not? Not me, that's for sure.

It’s just too early to tell.

Yard Work

I’m lucky that a have a small-to-reasonably-sized back yard. 

I’m also lucky that’s it’s in a pretty neglected condition.

I wouldn’t normally be saying that, of course. On a normal day, I’d be looking out of the window at my back yard, berating my utter lack of gardening motivation and general uselessness. But these are not normal days, are they?

Yesterday morning, being encouraged to stay at home, I ventured out into the back yard and had a look around. There’s no doubt that I value the idea of being outside much more now that I’ve been told that I shouldn’t leave the house. 

On a normal Saturday morning, I’d be running to the shop for breakfast provisions. I’d probably have some writing workshop thing that my mind would be full of. I’d be a man on the move. But these are not normal Saturdays, are they? So, to get some air, and to get out from under everybody’s feet in the house, I ventured out into the back yard. I figured that a little day-to-day yard work will get me out of the house and into the air and might even wreak a small improvement on my valuable amenity.

Look, don’t get me wrong. My yard is not a disaster area or anything. It’s not like a toxic wasteland where three-eyed froggies freely roam. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant little corner of the world. Me and the cats seem to think so anyway, as last week’s post confirmed.

As I surveyed my tatty domain, I started to get a tiny sneaking ‘what’s the point?’ feeling about the proposed work. The place is just too far gone, what good could old ‘Soft-Hands Ken’ possibly do?

But I reminded myself of a Twitter pal, Josie George, who shared with us how she did a very small bit in her garden regularly and how, day on day, these small endeavours brought about improvements that were both satisfying and rewarding.

So, I gathered my tools.

I don’t have very many tools, as you would expect from a home-boy wuss like me, but I found a secateurs and a spade and a brush and a long-handled snipping-thing that I can already tell will be my ongoing weapon of choice. I WD-40'ed the shit out of the few moving parts and then I picked a corner and started snipping and clipping and dragging and piling.

The ginger cat from last week’s post sat on a flat sun-drenched stone round the back of the trampoline and studiously ignored me, choosing instead to clean itself from head to paw and not even flinching when the oil-drenched clipping tool came out.

I cleared some space around the twirly clothesline area, such that all three sides of it is now accessible where only one-and-a-half sides was before. In the end, I may have done little more than transfer an unclipped area of bramble to a clipped pile of bramble across the yard. But, hey, the sun was shining, and I stopped at unreasonably short intervals to just lean and breathe and watch the cat’s studied cleaning regime.

I realise I’m very lucky man to have a little space that I can go out in without being a hazard to anybody else and I’m not trying to rub anything in either. I suppose I’m just thinking that, as our world closes down for a time and as a great challenge sits ahead of us, we have to do what we can to remain strong and clear in our thinking. We gotta use what we have, be it a book or an open window or a pet who is glad to have you around so much more.

What do I know? I’m off to clip a thorny bush. It’s funny how the bush will always get a little nick out of me before I’m done. That seems fair, somehow.

And hey, Monsieur Cat, isn’t that bit clean enough yet?

Speaking French to the Cats

The first thing to say is this; the cats won't care.

You must always keep that in mind.

We have a reasonable little back garden/yard here at the house but over recent years, if you’ll forgive a highly technical gardening term, it’s been let go to fuck. Every year, there’s a little less grass to mow, as the wild things intrude further and further into the clear space. 

The big trampoline, once the site of offspring lie-outs and junior social scheming circles, now lies fallow, unbounced-upon and quietly rusting, refusing stoically to be whisked away by a convenient high wind.

For a long while, I consoled myself that all this landscaping neglect was good for the environment and great for the bees and I’m sure it probably is. It doesn’t get away from the fact that the garden is closing in on the house and, if there’s any triffids lurking out there in that undergrowth, we could all be in for a time of it.

Into this untamed world, the cats come.

I think I’ve mentioned it here before but there seems to be an inordinate number of cats on our street. In fact, it is hard to throw your eye in any particular direction without it landing on a random moggy of some description. I think most of them have homes that they retire to in times of reflection but, generally, they hang around the street stalking each other and eyeing-up the passers-by. I have a theory that they are fed by some kindly neighbour who mistakenly thinks they are all feral (with their little collars and their tinkly bells) and who feeds them copiously in an unnecessary attempt to keep them alive.

And, yes, my garden may be a bit overgrown but, my, how it catches the sun. Beneath the gently swaying leaves of some immature triffid lie little pockets of sundrenched bliss and it is to here that the cats come.

They don’t come all together, that would be too freaky even for me, but it’s not uncommon to see two of them basking together down the backyard wilderness.

And, yes, I speak French to them.

My French isn’t any good. In fact, it is ‘tres terrible’. I have only the smattering of catchphrases that many a lapsed schoolboy clings onto. As a result, my conversation with the loitering pussies is generally limited and invariable one-sided.

Bonjour, pussie-cats,” I say, “Comment ca va, aujourd'hui?

These chats generally happen when I am taking the washing to the swirly clothesline to hang it out. Have I mentioned that I’m something of a domestic god? Ah, well, I’ll do a special post on it soon and them you’ll shake your head gently in amazement. Sometimes, though, I will even make a special excursion into the garden at lunchtime, to enquire after the cats’ wellbeing.

The cats watch me through heavy-lidded sun-soaked eyes, and one feels that they know what I am saying. At the very least, they know from experience that I am not there to spoil their day. So, although I can’t say that they engage with my exotic parlance on any meaningful level of interest and reciprocity, I can be sure of one thing: they tolerate me.

Why do I speak French to the cats? I really can’t say. It’s just something I do. Perhaps it’s because I tend to see cats as slightly exotic creatures and I feel that they deserve a little extra from my lame conversational ploys. Perhaps (being harsh on myself) it represents some subconscious wish on my part to be overheard by a curious neighbour and judged to be a) offbeat and interesting or b) mentally challenged. I don’t really think that’s the reason though. There are few opportunities for neighbours to overhear my back-garden emissions and that is a good thing. The things I say when the coal bunker won’t co-operate are definitely not for general consumption.

In the coming period, when there might not be many other things to do, I may go to work on the garden. I may try to ease the ancient forest back so that I have some room to sit down out there. If I do, it won’t be an industrial effort. I picture it more like Mr. Miagi snipping minutely at his favourite bonsai tree, expecting that a minimal effort, expended over many days, will reap some wonderful reward.

Whatever I do, I will remain mindful of the cats. I will reserve a warm corner where they can continue to come and visit and bask in the warmth of my yard.

Whatever I do and whatever way I do it one thing will remain true, now and forever more.

The cats won’t care.