Slightly Better Than I Think

I got a new phone recently. Wait, rephrase. I had to get a new phone recently.

I hate changing phones. It never seems to work out easily for me. Despite all assurances, people’s numbers get lost along the way, things go missing. It’s awful. In fact, I hate the entire process so much that I hold on to my old phones far longer than I should. I hang in there until they are on their last legs. 

When I showed up in the shop last month to get my new phone, the lady in the shop was bemused.

“You could have had a lovely new phone for free two years ago.”

I channeled the guy from a Foster Grants sunglasses advert from several decades ago. You won't remember him but I do. 

“I know about that,” I said, “I know.”

So, my new phone is lovely and shiny and hi tech and everything but…

It has a defect.

I’ve been in denial about this for the last number of weeks but it’s there all right. In every call I make, at some point the person on the other end will say something like, “No, I’ve lost you, you’re gone… oh, wait, you’re back again.”

For a while I thought it was me. Perhaps I was somehow holding the phone the wrong way, covering the microphone with my finger or something. But it's gone on and on. It’s still going on now, I’m going to get it fixed soon. I went into the shop with it, but they were a model of absolute disinterest, which rather set my teeth on edge when I remembered how fawning they were when I first got the bloody thing.

“All we can do is send it off for repair and you’ll need to find a temporary replacement phone for yourself while its gone. No, we don’t have any.”

Aftercare my arse. 

I’ve found an old phone belonging to my son so I’m charging that up now and will use it while my brand spanking new one hopefully gets fixed.

But that’s not the point. None of that is the point.

Last week, while in work, I looked at my phone and I wondered how can I prove there was an actual fault with the microphone? I could call up someone in the phone shop and talk to them until the fault kicks in but what on earth would we talk about? I’m not good on football. Plus, the fault probably wouldn’t ever kick in on a call like that because that’s how my life generally works.

I had an idea. I would set the phone to record while I was working at my computer and I would play some music on my Spotify then play it back and see when and if the sound dropout happened. So that’s what I did. After five attempts, I got a lovely recording of the sound level going down by 95% and then coming back up again. So now I’m getting all dressed up to go to the shop to get it all sorted out. Good, eh?

But that’s not the point either.

Here’s the actual point.

As I was playing back those recordings, I was enjoying the music all over again. Sometimes when working I listen to a playlist called ‘Peaceful Piano – American Songbook’ and I know every note of it so well that it doesn’t distract me or anything, it just helps me flow along. Anyway, I was listening to the recording of the piano stuff when I became aware of this other strange noise in the background of the track. It was an incessant clicking and mechanical whirring, incredibly fast and non-stop. I was puzzled by it for a few seconds. Was this the fault in the phone, the making of these noises? For a moment I really wasn’t sure.

Then I realised what it was. It was me.

While letting the phone record the piano, I had kept working on my computer. I was doing a little CAD stuff, as I often do. Drawing, editing, you know the kind of thing. That noise I was hearing was me clicking on my mouse and using the little wheel in the middle of it for paging up and down and selecting stuff. It was me all along.

And, man, I sounded fast.

I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I was just easing along, doing what I do, passably good but not by any means brilliant. On that recording, though, I was even a little bit amazing to myself. I was really flying.

It got me thinking.

Is it possible that we’re all a little bit better than we think we are? I generally tend to believe that I’m quite a bit worse than I think I am. I reckon I big myself up a bit and that I’m just pretty average overall.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m actually better than I think. 

I know. Probably not.

But thanks, faulty phone, for at least raising the possibility.

Books Hit Different

It’s nothing really. A mere bagatelle in the overall scheme of things. How I read a book or don’t read a book will not stop the Earth from spinning anytime soon, it will not save the bees.

But here’s the thing.

I’m always reading a book. Like a big smoker, I can’t get by for long without having one on the go. Mostly, I read at night and I value my reading time as an important thing. But, this year, it’s been a little different.

Books are hitting me a little harder. That’s all. No more, no less. A little harder… and I wonder why.

I guess it’s a lockdown/pandemic thing. One of many. Or maybe it’s just the particular ones I’ve read. Maybe if I’d read those ones at any time, the effect would have been the same.

I don’t think so though. These times we live in, they’re almost certainly playing their part.

I suppose I have been taking a little bit more time to read. Whereas, previously, it was bedtime reading, I will now sit on the couch and read if I get the chance. As a result, I’m getting through my books a little more quickly than I normally would. But that seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You would think I would have less reaction to the books if I were racing through them faster than usual. And, as I said, that’s simply not the case. They hit harder.

Here’s some of the books I’ve been reading and what they’ve been doing to me:

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion. This was one of the most recent books I’ve read. It’s our current book club book and written by a person with strong Sligo connections. I thought I knew what I was going to get here, from the back cover and the word of mouth and the first chapter. I thought I was on firm ground. But the book went somewhere else, I won’t say too much about where. Suffice to say, it became a larger portrait of adrift family than I was expecting. In this case, it was the ending that hit hard. As the book progressed, I became aware that there was something I wanted to see happen. As the possibility of it happening (or not) drew nearer I became more and more involved such that the resolution moved me quite a bit. In normal times, would I have just read it and nodded sagely and moved on? I’m not sure.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was an earlier read this year. I didn’t think it was for me. It was all a bit bleak and dour. But a new character coming into the setting brought me along with her and I became immersed in the fervour and ambition and hatred and cruelty of it all. I came away from it having been touched by it.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Well, I mean, who wouldn’t get hit by this one? Even in normal times, the story of Shuggie and his troubled Ma would mess anybody up a little bit; and me? Well, I was no exception.

Esther Waters by George Moore. This is when I really knew I was in trouble. Another book club selection. There is nothing like being in a good book club to keep you reading things you would never read in a blue fit and it is an immensely rewarding thing. We chose Esther Waters because we were reconnecting with a lovely book club in Boston, who like to read Irish Writers, so we chose Moore ‘cos he only lived over the road (so to speak) and the title was easy to access in our hard lockdown. In regular times, this one wouldn’t have touched me at all. There was a rough-and-ready aspect to the prose and an overall unedited quality which would have thrown me out of the story completely. Plus, the writer seemed much more interested in driving home his societal points than in keeping me, the reader, on-board engaged. Nonetheless, the trials of Esther and her roguish husband, who turned out to be all right really, caught my heart a little when normally it never-ever would have.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. I've just finished this one. I bought it for Patricia for Christmas after deliberately going looking for a book I've never heard of but which is much admired in online reviews. This seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I really liked this though I had a reservation or two. As a West of Ireland person, I found those parts rather suggested the experience of a writer who had visited there rather than actually lived there. It's a subtle thing. But, overall, the vision of a near-future world, where so much has been casually lost to us, was troublng and moving. 

Why is this happening: this increased involvement with the books I read? Lockdown? Old Age?

I think it’s a little bit of all those things… plus one other.

The ‘other’ bit is the book that hit particularly hard, right when I least expected something to do that.

A little background to that. I watched the TV series on the BBC when it first aired a few years ago. Then, when it was repeated over a few nights in the lockdown, I recorded it on impulse in case I fancied watching it again. Then I did indeed watch it again, by myself, and liked it even better the second time around. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell told with the man himself at the very centre of the tale.

When I finished the series of Wolf Hall for the second time, I still wanted more. I knew that the series had covered the first two books of the trilogy, so I got hold of the third novel and launched straight into it. Slightly cheeky, perhaps, not reading the first two first, but I just wanted to continue the narrative and to go on spending time with the enormous central character, Thomas Cromwell himself. Kudos must be given here to Mark Rylance, who brought Cromwell to life for me and stayed with me for everything that followed. 

Immediately upon starting the third book, I was fully immersed. I knew the characters very well now and had strong images of them based on the TV I had watched. It’s a big book and a heavy book. I had a bit of a hard time reading the first quarter of it in bed and elsewhere. It kept toppling over. But after the quarter mark was reached, the physical book gained a manageable equilibrium and on I went.

The experience of reading the book was... odd, and I think it’s coloured my reading since. I just became heavily involved and, when it came to the latter part of the book, a time of abandonment and betrayal, it was almost too much to bear. This is a compliment to the extraordinary writing of Hilary Mantel, who kept me front and centre in her extraordinary vision of Cromwell’s mind. But I have little doubt that the times we are living in added an extra drop of vitriol to the pot. The entire thing read like a vast metaphor for how we invest ourselves in things in our lives and how we hope for the best in doing that. We nail our colours to some mast or another and hope they don't fall in some future storm. When Cromwell came towards the end of his tale, I travelled his road with him and felt ever-so-slightly and inexplicably bereft when I closed the book for the last time.

Was it the writing, was it my fecked-up brain or was it just the times we live in? Who knows?

All I know is that I’ve gone back now to the first novel and am walking the earlier parts of Cromwell’s road again. A scheming British muscle man of the monarchy has become a bit of a friend to me. God only knows how that happened. I’ll let you know how the journey progresses, this time.

And, if you are on the lookout for a good read, most of the books I’ve mentioned above might serve you well, except possibly Esther Waters. You mightn’t thank me for that one.

Happy Easter 2021.

Must find some eggs.

Désenchanté par le Chat

This happened last weekend, but it was simply too raw to write about then. I had quite a bit of processing to do before I could even attempt to set it all down. But here I am now, so brace yourself.

It seems like only a short year ago that I was singing the praises of the garden cats here on the blog. Hell, I even recorded a video blog, sprawled on our redundant trampoline like some beached whale. 

“I speak French to them.” I purred, perhaps trying to give myself a modicum of gravitas that I never did earn, “Aren’t I feckin’ great altogether?”

Well not anymore, sunshine. As the man said, we’ve all passed a lot of water since then and those days are firmly gone. Poorly executed Gallic phrases have given way to openly hostile stares across the back garden wasteland.

The party is definitely over, pussycat.

It all started, as things so often do, with the Friday Night Takeaway. This is a bi-weekly event involving a well-established menu of fish, chips, chicken fillet burgers, garlic sauce and coleslaw. I invariably make the journey and, oddly enough, it’s one of my most favourite things. I feel like a hunter-gatherer, heading out into the woods to bag some dinner for my family, except the wilderness is ceramic-tiled and aluminium-clad and the bounty is heavily battered.

There are several traditions or routines attached to the Friday Night Takeaway, not least of which is that John opens the front door for me when I get home. This is kind of a running gag, based on the thought that nobody would open the door for me in normal circumstances but, when there’s food at stake, the door opens, and the food is hastened inside. I usually hand John the bag full of food and let him go ahead to the kitchen but this particular Friday, the one before last, was different. For some reason, I held on to the bag. I think it was how inviting the front door and the hall door looked, how clear a run I had through to the kitchen, how it would expedite the distribution of the food without any further gratuitous loss of heat in the merchandise. Whatever the reason, I dispensed with tradition and bailed straight down the hallway, leaving John to secure the front door behind me, which he did.

The food was great, the single bottle of beer that went with it was great. Everything was great.

Well… almost everything.

In altering the front door ritual, something has been lost, some small thing had been overlooked and that small thing would come back to haunt me with a vengeance.

The next morning.

It had rained all night. I had lain in bed for a while, before sleep came, and listened to it pelting down on the roof. I think I felt a bit self-satisfied that the rain couldn’t touch me here inside my house. Pride/fall etc. Where was I? Oh yes…

The next morning dawned bright and clear; well, I imagine it did. Dawn was well-over by the time I got up but it was bright and clear then so I can imagine it started out that way too. I got ready to hit the shop and get the paper and some freshly baked rolls perhaps, it being Saturday and all. I got my coat and left my house and…


The passenger door of the car was open, wide open.

For a moment, I thought I’d been burgled. Then the running order of the evening before played out in my head. The change to the routine. The straight run to the kitchen. When I would normally have been closing the passenger side door, having taken the food out, I had instead broke for the kitchen, John had closed the front door behind me. The passenger door was ignored and the damage was done. Nobody’s fault but my own.

I examined the damage. The rain that I had laughed so heartily at, the night before, had been doing its work while I snickered in my bed. The floor below the passenger seat was a soggy carpet-puddle. The passenger seat was drenched. The little storage wells on the inside of the passenger door were brim-full of rainwater. As a mess, it was more than enough to have to deal with. But, of course, it wasn’t all there was to deal with. Not by a long shot.

The cat had gone in and had a piss.

Relations between this particular cat and me had been rapidly deteriorating over the past few months. A large, predominantly white Tom, he had always been predisposed to fix me with his hostile ‘who da hell are u?’ stare while occupying my garden but then he upped the ante by finding some way into my shed, across the high garden wall, and through a gap in the eaves. He had taken to hiding in there and startling me when I went in to retrieve a peat briquette or two. In return, I would loudly ask him to vacate the place, with cursory swear words thrown in for good measure. It was, at best, a tenuous relationship. And yes, he would like to mark his territory in there, converting my tatty but passable shed into a cat scented unpleasant place to have to go.

So, there we were, this cat and me, in a tense ongoing standoff where I never for a single moment felt that I had the upper hand.

“Maybe it was another cat who pissed in your car,” you might say, in defence of this cat. My response is as graphic and it is unfortunate. It was this cat and only this cat. How do I know? Alas, I know his smell.

So, I’ve worked at it. I’ve dry hoovered, wet hoovered, newspapered, towelled, Fabrezed, Fabrezed and Fabrezed some more. “Why didn’t you leave the car doors open so it could air?” you might now say. My reply, “easy, because the cat would have gone in and pissed some more.”

Now, exactly a week on, the smell has been largely expunged, the damp eradicated, normality resumes. The cat stayed away for most of last week. He knew what he had done. He was on the back doorstep yesterday when I came home from work, giving me the old stink-eye. I pointed at him.

“You know what you’ve done,” I simply said, and not in French either, and I knew that he knew what I meant from the look he gave me.

This cat will come to no harm on my watch. He is, after all, just one of God’s creatures and his instinct to piss in my car is a natural one and thus, logically, a forgivable one. Live and let live.

But I can bear a grudge just as well as this cat evidently can, and it will be some time before him and me can sit down and break bread together.

For now, it’s a standoff. A Moggyton Standoff.

And I must remember to keep that car door shut.