Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kilcloud: ten things and two creatures

When I close my eyes and recall Kilcloud a hundred years ago, these are the things I see.

Not so much the street and the roofs and the sky. More the things inside. Little things, like my mother's endless balls of wool. The precious clock on the mantelpiece. A piece of crockery, glaze worn with proud use. And things that turned out to be bigger, like the rectory bookshelf, with its complete set of Charles Dickens.

And it's always lit like this, shafts of cold sunlight in dark rooms. Dust motes despite the hours spent dusting. Sudden still lifes burning in memory with every stitch and wrinkle clear.

And Bridget and Betty.

Kilcloud, imagined village of the heart.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


This morning at a quarter to eight I was bundling along High Street, wrapped for the Siberian weather. My Aran hat was angled for comfort rather than style, like Mary Ann McCracken's bonnet. I was wearing two scarves.

This was a triumph of self-discipline from a woman who prefers not to see daylight before nine, though she is forced to do so five days a week by the need to earn an honest living. But last night I attended a talk on the photography of Father Francis Browne, most famous for his images taken on board the Titanic. If Father Browne could sail on doomed ships, become the most decorated non-combatant in the First World War, fly planes as an old man and never complain about the lingering effects of mustard gas, all the while taking beautifully composed photographs of compelling social interest, perhaps I could rise from my blankets to shoot the city sunrise in the darkest quarter of the year.

I was half hoping I'd come upon something amazing. A picturesque old man in a hat emerging backlit from Crown Entry. A couple kissing under the skeleton trees on Donegall Street. A rufty-tufty little dog posing outside a mildly seedy shop in Smithfield. Some beautiful reward for my iron will, anyway.

Those things didn't happen.

The light, however, was worth the effort. The night-time lights, like the quadruplet faces of the Albert Clock, were pretty against the pale purple sky. The Cathedral Quarter warrens were dark but washed clean, with puffs of steam highlighting the brick walls. Then, passing the end of scruffy North Street, I saw the first glow of sunrise. And emerging onto Donegall Place, my heart lifted as the taller east-facing buildings were suddenly lit with pink and gold. The stopped clock of the Bank of Ireland glowed.

It didn't last. The rain come on, as it does here. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The instrument store

Actually, I like playing scales. There's nothing like a nice long one to show off my delicately different shadings of timbre and phenomenal smoothness. I think we'd all agree that I have a very special lower range. But I had to suffer Shirley, Edna, Rodney, Roger, and Pauline before I got Caroline, who appreciated that. Sometimes she had Jackie magazine on the music stand as she practised, but I forgave her every time because I sounded so beautiful. 

The Carnival of the Animals.  Don't remind me. Betty Avery could only play in tune in first position, so when we got to the donkey section she just played the "Aws". Susan McMullan beside us was soaring away on the "Ees", E string, appropriately enough, high as anything. Mortifying.

Janet Osborne was sent into the store because she wouldn't stop laughing. Frankly, the laughing was fair enough. Had he even looked in a mirror that morning? She broke us off when she got bored. It was a bit of a relief. We had done one too many Grade Ones by that point.

Gillian Stanfield was my favourite. She kept me wrapped in a silk scarf and she always wiped the resin dust off.

I still feel bitter about Mrs Schulmeyer, who persuaded her to switch to the viola. I mean, the viola?

Please don't send me to be mended, unless Mr Broadway has retired now. Is there not something you could do with a cotton bud and some white spirit?

Everyone was in high spirits for that rehearsal. The concert was the next evening, and for once, for a school orchestra, it sounded, I suppose, acceptable. Malcolm Brown was showing off when he threw his mallet up in the air. Girls always seemed to go for percussion players, and he knew that all the fourth formers were watching. But his aim was terrible. I had never felt pain like that. You know what the worst thing was? Even Daisy laughed. Please don't photograph the scar.

He had his problems. OCD, certainly. Depression, probably. Possibly an undiagnosed alcoholic. We could see right through him. Anyone who spent that much time in the store?

14 March 1984, the best night of my life. We were playing the second part in the Bach double. The stars must have been specially aligned. Julie's right hand didn't shake, for once, and we blended together as smoothly as a dream.

When the movement ended, there was a moment of silence, like a sigh.

He was gathering his things together to go on the orchestra tour to Germany. That suitcase had taken all week to pack. For a boy, he certainly planned his outfits in detail. And I suppose the tour was successful on the romantic front. I hear they have a third baby on the way.

But he got into the car without me. They arrived back ten minutes later, laughing and joking about getting priorities straight and what would Mr Pugh say, and threw me in the back seat. That hurt. 

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Long distance

I spent last Friday evening here on the shore at New Smyrna Beach, on Central Florida's Atlantic coast. It was the last night of my holiday, and we've learned through long experience to do something lovely and enjoyable at this point, rather than just packing and feeling sad.

Though I've packed and felt sad plenty of times. I've been in this long distance relationship for so many years that it just feels normal now, but it still never gets easier to leave. It's bad being the one walking through security at the airport to fly away. It's bad to be the one left waving goodbye. I am quite an expert on waterproof mascaras.

I'm writing this lying on the sofa in the living room of the house where I live on my own most of the time. The time difference means that J is still at work, so we can't speak on the phone. When I go out at the weekend, I go on my own and return on my own. When I get my hair done on Saturday morning, no-one will admire how pretty it is. (Though that may not be a complaint unique to people in long distance relationships.) I pay my own bills. I put out my own bins. I particularly don't enjoy the bins.

And yet....

When we are together, we are much nicer to each other than most couples I know. It's a thrill every time we meet at the airport. We appreciate each other's company. We're slow to argue because it's wasting our best time, and when we do disagree, we sort it out quickly. We take nothing for granted.

And there are benefits to time on our own as well. J rarely sees my cross, stressed, just-home-from-work face or hears me address him like a teenage pupil, which could happen all too easily. He's messy and I'm kind of average, so we keep our own spaces how we like them. Technology makes it easy to communicate through the day. We send photographs of ordinary things to stay connected. I've learned to position the computer to get the most flattering Skype angle for my cross stressed face.

You can't be needy in this sort of relationship. You have to be independent, self-reliant and patient, happy to do your own thing. You mustn't fall into the trap of counting the days till the next trip - treasure the days together when they happen instead.

Maybe everyone thinks I have an imaginary friend, and occasionally it feels a bit like that. But most of the time I'm thankful for what we have, happily looking forward to the next meeting and enjoying my life in the mean time. Also thinking that I might soon have enough air miles to upgrade to a higher class on a transatlantic flight...