Keywords – For Us

There were two apparently unrelated occurrences this week which got me thinking about the uncanny connection between them. Then I drew a conclusion and then I discounted the conclusion as being overly sentimental. Then I went and revised that opinion too.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy old week, here in Ken’s head.

First thing: That box of photo albums in the corner.

They’ve been there a few years now. They were Dad’s so I thought I’d better look after them. In his later years, he collected all the old snaps in these albums. They come in all shapes and sizes and there’s no theme or chronological sense to the contents. Random photo beside random photo. The Sixties right up close to the Two Thousands. I glanced through one or two the other day. Everybody was much, much younger than I thought they were at the time. Some of them evoked memories but the ones that did not were perhaps the most interesting. 

That’s me there, what was I doing? Why can’t I remember that? A beach, a picnic, Sunday afternoon. Wait, how do I know it was Sunday afternoon? I must remember something of it after all.

Second thing: Being side swiped by an old song on the CD player in the car.

My pal John makes me a compilation CD of old songs now and again, just for fun. I keep them in the car, and, after initial plays, I give one a random rerun now and again. John has an uncanny knack for landing on old songs that I like.

The other day, driving somewhere and fed up with golf controversy and general whataboutery, I stuck one of the CDs on. What did I get? ‘Run for Home’ by Lindisfarne. And, suddenly and quite remarkably, there I was, on the beach from the photograph. Sunday afternoon, Lissadell House, Sligo. Drive one road into the house estate, drive out the other. Never going near the house itself, straight to the small quiet beach. I had my beloved transistor radio and as I walked in between the dunes, that song was playing. No question, a strong memory evoked. It was in the charts in 1978 so I was close to fifteen years old. That surprises me. I must have been a reluctant participant in the beach excursion by then, the little radio my saviour. I was probably sulkily listening to some chart show and wishing I was anywhere else. The details are sketchy, as you can tell, but the song and the location are clearly bound together. In truth, the strongest memory I have of it all is how far out the tide was and how grey and light blue everything was coloured. Mum and Dad were there, of course, and it was nice to see them again, quite clearly, if only in my mind’s eye.


Reliving the memory as the song played, trying to interrogate it for more information, I concluded what I often do and what many have done before: that we keep our departed loved ones alive through our memories of them and, when we remember them, they live again for a little while in that memory.

Not a new or original thought but not a bad one either.

Discounting the conclusion:

But wait. You’ve lapsed into sentimentality, Ken, and perhaps it’s not wise to let it stand. Imagine when you are dead and gone, Ken, and someone remembers you fondly and smiles, as we can hope that someone occasionally will. Do you then magically spring back to life and move around and think and feel and love again? Alas, no. And what is life? Most of the definitions I’ve looked up are too scientific or too philosophical to entertain here. Let’s just settle for something like this: Life involves an element of doing stuff. When someone thinks of me after I’m gone, will I hop up and start doing some stuff? 

Don’t think so.

So, therefore, this notion of bringing people back to life by remembering them is sentimental at best. I saw a photo and heard a song and that was nice, but nobody was resurrected, were they? So, get a grip, Ken, keep at least one foot on the floor.

Revised opinion:

Having coldly ‘logic’ed it all away, I felt a bit like I had lost something in the wash. Some little bit of sentimental comfort, perhaps. But, no, more than that. I can be cool and sensible about all this, but I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There is something to this, whatever it is. When we think of our loved ones who have ventured on ahead, they do come back. They may not rush out and fill the coal bucket, but they are still back, in some way in some respect.

Thinking about it some more, I think the words ‘For Us’ might be the keywords here.

When we think our friends and family who have died, when a song evokes them, or when a photo imprints their image once more on our retina, they come back. They come back ‘For Us’. This is undeniably true. Since the photo and the song, my Dad has been riding shotgun with me in the car, pointing out landmarks, suggesting possible alternate routes.

And so, pushing the idea a bit further, there is perhaps some comfort, too, for those who have gone. They may well be beyond such earthly considerations as the ones we speak of but there could still be a sort of comfort to be had. It is the comfort they take before they go. The knowledge that they will continue to be evoked in conversations and stories and memories and, yes, in photos and in songs as well.

Whether there is comfort to be had beyond that, we cannot know. But if it comforts us to think there might be (and there might be) then why not have a little of that too?

It’s almost too hard to get a grip on all this stuff in regular words and sentences. It’s complicated and a bit messy too.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing that poetry is for.

Sunlight Through Dust

There’s a smell that I smelled once when I was very small. In my head I call it 'Sunlight Through Dust'. Now and again, I may catch an olfactory glimpse of it in some odd corner. Not very often though. Mostly it was just that one time, back when I was small.

Memories like these are wispy at best. It’s possible that very little of them are true and that the rest is built up from other ideas and memories that were gathered around them as the years went by.

Here’s what I remember from this one anyway.

Back then, we didn’t have a car and sometimes, on fine days, we would get the bus to Rosses Point. The place to get on the bus was at the low stone wall across from where the statue to WB Yeats is now. I just had a look on Google Streetview and the wall is still there, just like it was, and, damn, there’s still a bus stop there too. Fifty years on, it hasn’t changed much.

Anyway, we’d get the bus there, Mum and me and some of the others, I guess. Though my memory just has Mum and me in it. Dad would have been at work. We had a bag with a blanket to lay out on the sand and I imagine we had biccies and diluted orange too. Once, I remember, we were out at the Point and it started to rain really heavily, and one of Dad's work colleagues gave us a lift home in his car. I remember this because, on the drive in, there was a place on the road where it just wasn’t raining anymore. You looked back and it was still raining but, in front, it was sunny and clear. Mum called it a ‘cloud break’ and I think she said it was only a sun shower after all. 

It's funny, the things we remember.

This smell that I remember came to me when I was getting on to the bus. You climbed up the steps towards the driver and I know that I must have been really small because the steps seemed very big and the interior of the bus did not reveal itself until I was right at the top step. Mum paid the driver and then you worked your way down the aisle to a seat (like you don’t know this already).

What about this smell though? What was it? 

How do you describe a smell? It was like the bright warm sunshine, magnified through the bus windscreen, had heated up some of the dust on the steps up to the driver. It was warm and musty and not overtly special and not particularly pleasant. Why do I like it then? Why do I remember it so well? I think it contained a promise of the day to come, the beach, the sea, the sandy biscuits, the pale orange drink. I think that’s it. It was the smell of a promise of a good day.

I can’t reproduce it. There’s no place I can go to breathe deeply of this ancient essence. Perhaps it's lurking there still in the stairwell of some sunny bus but I don’t do buses as much as I used to. I have done plenty in my time though and never found that smell there again.

As I said right at the start: once in a blue moon, I’ll think I catch a hint of it on a breeze. “That’s it,” I might say to myself, “that’s the bus smell.” But, by the time I’ve thought that it’s gone again, whisked away to wherever it goes.

The smell is tied up with memory, as so many scents are. It evokes a feeling more than a picture or a soundscape. A feeling of warm sunny days, adventuring out, family and safety.

I wish it were in a bottle.

Massive Fry Up

I like a Saturday sausage at the best of times. There’s no denying it.

But lockdown and all the related stuff has brought that once humble banger to a whole new level. The massive Saturday lunchtime fry up is now a thing and long may it last. All hail the conquering hero. 

Truth? It’s not all that massive. Not in actual scale, at least. It’s more massive in its social context, the importance of its role as a marker for where we are in any given week.

If it were just me and Patricia here, it would still be the humble sausage on its own. All instigated by me. Patricia is good and would not look to overdo it on the sausage front, but I would eat the little beggars all the livelong day. But it’s not just me and Trish, not since March when it all kicked off. The two boys-to-men are returned from university and we are a full family unit again. Some more truth? It’s been totally great. We love having our guys here at the best of times and being able to revisit the idea of our happy foursome settled under one roof continues to be a joy. Of course, in an ideal version of this world, it wouldn’t be happening. Not for so long at least. But it is and it’s no hardship.

I went through a phase of grilling my sausages. It’s okay. But look, you can’t beat a fried one. You just can’t. I like to fry them quite gentle over a low flame. I do them on their own. Let’s not crowd the pan. Get all those suckers brown all over, not too crispy, before you do anything else. I heat a big plate under the grill and the sausages go in there under some tinfoil. I learned that from seeing Mum do it for Saturday evening fry ups years ago. Everybody probably does it, but I like to pretend it’s only me. The hot plate will keep those sausage nice and warm while the bacon gets a solo run in the pan. Maple bacon cut nice and thick. Actually, I tell a lie about the solitary pan. The black pudding is sometimes allowed in with the bacon, sometimes with the sausages. It doesn’t take up too much space and it fries up pretty quickly and it imbibes everything else with a nice black-pudding vibe.

Bacon is done. Not too crispy but well cooked all the same. On to the hot plate with the sausages. There’s a sheet or two of kitchen roll in under all the sausage and bacon to take a little of the excess oil away.

Time to get some eggs on. Nice fresh ones. Crack them on the side of the pan, turn the cracked side up to the ceiling, open the shell up and let them glide on to the pan. They’ll be coloured a bit with the essence of the things that have been on there before. So they may not be as aesthetically pleasing as an egg fried in pristine oil but, again, the borrowed flavours are worth the trade off of the slightly unsightly end result. Nice to leave a little bit of runny yolk in there too.

Meanwhile, toast is being toasted. Tea is being brewed in the Bewley’s pot with real Barry’s tea leaves. Coffee is being brought along in the large cafetiere. There are cosies for both to keep them piping hot until they’re needed. The tea cosy fits perfectly. It’s like a little hat with ts own bobble on top and all. Someone knitted it for Patricia and it’s as old fashioned looking as it is treasured. The cosy for the coffee is another teapot cosy and it doesn’t fit well at all. But still it serves.

French baguettes from the shop, sliced end to end and buttered. J likes to construct an elaborate roll with everything laid mathematically inside. S hasn’t been up terribly long and settles for a roll with sausage in and a piece of bacon and black pudding on the side. Patricia likes eggs on toast, easy on the sausage, well cooked bacon, and tea. J and me have coffee. S and Patricia have tea.

Big white plates. Bigger than needed. You need room to move stuff around.

I’m sure Patricia would not be annoyed to see more of a veggie presence in the offering. Sometimes there’s a tomato or two but that’s it. Mushrooms don’t fit into this plan and beans always seem gauche and out of place. It’s a little meat feast.

I don’t eat an awful lot myself. A couple of sausages, a single slice of bacon, a single slice of black pud, occasionally an egg. I enjoy it but I get the most fun out of putting it together. Landing it all at once. It helps me remember it’s Saturday. I particularly enjoy the coffee.

It happens every Saturday at about half past one though usually running a little late. It’s lunchtime in the Armstrong household.

 We’re okay being here together. We’re doing fine.

Another sausage?