Thursday, 28 July 2016

Savannah shadows

We've just spent a while in Savannah, one of my favourite southern cities. It's at its best in the early evening, with shadows playing across its shutters, Spanish moss drooping from the oak trees in every elegant square.

Like many of the cities I love, there's a strong sense of the past at every turn. I fully expect a genteel nineteenth century woman in a white lawn gown to pull back her shutters as I walk by or to be revealed in the gloom of her window. This is a place where the architecture is designed to keep the light out, not in, and the shadows trapped indoors are old ones.

It's not sweet. There's a scent of wry, beautiful danger floating along with the dust, the jasmine and the sulphury mists from the paper mill. You can see secrets in doorways, under wrought-iron steps, on the taut delicate faces of the ladies of a certain age.

I sip iced tea in a tiny shop. It's served on a silver tray, mildly tarnished, with a glass jug of sugar syrup. I'm slightly tempted by the Outlander tea advertised in sepia handwriting at the counter, but it has too many warring ingredients. Savannah breakfast tea complements the dark interior more perfectly. It's served by a very pale, very slow-moving lady. I daren't hurry her.

We cross the city to Bonaventure Cemetery. We scuff around in the dust admiring stone angels. And in a moment of dark Savannah magic, J finds his own grave. He died in the Civil War, at 19. His full name. Fighting for the correct side. Shivers run down our necks. We drive away before I find mine.

Sunday, 17 July 2016


I've spent the last couple of weeks on the Atlantic coast of central Florida, soaking up the sun (once it loses its flame-grilling edge each day), dodging mosquitoes (grade A for effort, C- for achievement) and enjoying a side of perhaps the world's most cliched holiday destination that I wish more people knew about. Though I kind of don't too, since then it might not be so enjoyable.

Playa Linda beach, near Cape Canaveral, virtually deserted, skies dusted with fleecy clouds, water so warm it feels the same as the air as you slide in.

The back roads in the salt marshes around Oak Hill, a thousand different types of palm tree silhouetted against a saturated sunset, birds of prey wheeling towards the coast.

Eating grits and personalised fried eggs in diners that haven't changed since the 50s. The Moonlight Drive-in in Titusville, where the waitresses roller-skate your malts out to the car window.

Armadillos on the roadsides, barely distinguishable from blown-out tyre fragments. Pretty little snakes, which I should be more scared of. Lucille, the three-foot alligator in the pond in front of our mobile.

Homemade burgers and white corn with Clarke, the Vietnam vet, chain-smoking to The End by the Doors with his pet fish under a patched-together corrugated iron pavilion.

The scents of sulphur, white flowers, burning blacktop, insect repellent, salt and swamp.

I don't miss home just yet.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Sorry, Mary D

Last weekend I was driving through Islandmagee, heading towards the lovely beach at Brown's Bay. I passed the road to Portmuck, and suddenly a memory hit me. 

I have plenty of things from the past to feel bad about, but this one made me feel really terrible.

I was in P4, eight years old. I liked writing and did it very quickly, and my teacher tried to find different things for me to do when I'd completed my work. One day she set me to correcting a little story that one of my classmates had written.

I'll call my classmate Mary D. Mary wasn't my friend. In fact I was quite scared of her. I was timid and quiet; she was loud and boisterous and said whatever came into her head, so I kept my distance. She was in trouble quite often. She had bright blue eyes and wasn't afraid of anything. In many ways, we were opposites. And although I was generally a nice little girl, there was definitely a part of me that was pleased to be in charge of Mary D's work that afternoon.

Mary's story was about what her family did at the weekend. It was full of action, with beaches, picnics, fights and laughs. It was also full of spelling and grammar errors, on which I made liberal use of the teacher's red pen.

And her story was set in "Portmuck". This was clearly another mistake. It looked to me as if she had made it up for a joke. I corrected it to "Portrush" all the way through the story.

Mary D wasn't one bit happy with my feedback on her story. The teacher had an awkward situation to diffuse. I can't remember how that was managed, but I don't think Mary ever forgave me. I didn't understand then exactly what I'd done, but I knew it was bad. At the end of that year, Mary's family moved and she left our school. I felt relieved.

Driving past the Portmuck Road, I do understand. My teacher should never have allowed me to mark another child's work, but I shouldn't have been so arrogant in my corrections. As an adult and a teacher, I cringe and apologise on behalf of my childhood self.

I just looked up Mary D on social media. She's still recognisably her childhood self, her bright blue eyes as wrinkled as mine are now, still having a laugh and enjoying life. But I also see the old photograph she's posted of her own two children on holiday at, of course, Portrush. I look at their faces and hope that they had a better time at school than she did. I hope that their teachers were encouraging and supportive and personally read every word that they wrote. I hope that they were given credit for imagination and laughter and fun and that the red pen wasn't overused. I hope that they had a better time than Mary did.

I'm sorry, Mary.