Sunday, 25 September 2016

Tiny stories 4: Grace Hill, fox and dove

A paper found in the prayer book of the accused, Grace Hill.

I tend my flowers dutifully.

This side of the wall, they're sheltered from the chill Antrim wind. The soil is dug to a fine tilth. Rain is plentiful and sun sufficient. They flourish.

Sometimes, though, they grow too high.

They become vulnerable.

I have been watching you carefully.

Behind this linen armour I'm a dove of a girl with the eyes of a fox. I've been cherished, preserved and indulged. They cosset and dote. But I can see through the knots of the lace, my own fine work.

I see you. It does not suit me to become vulnerable.

Testimony from Annie Hedley, a friend of Miss Hill.

Grace thought she were better than us. On account of her being the doctor's daughter. Jack Moore had an understanding with our Susan, but Grace saw him that afternoon and decided he were hers.

No, Sir, Jack were not at fault. He called for our Susan as usual. Susan were anxious-like, and said to Jack that Grace had set her eye on him. Jack said to Susan that Grace's nose were too long for his tastes. He took it all in light heart.

Susan is still abed. Likely she will be for some time more. She has wore her eyes raw with weeping.

Belladonna. Grace said it meant Beautiful Lady. In a lovely bottle, it were, on her dresser.

Report from the Belfast Evening Telegraph, September 25th, 1883

Miss Grace Hill, aged seventeen years, appeared in the dock accused of the murder of Jack Moore, twenty, of Ballykennedy, County Antrim. Mr Donnelly, prosecuting, said that the prisoner had taken against Mr Moore when it appeared that he did not return her affections, and had obtained a Poison from the surgery of her Father, Doctor Hill, having read of its effects in his papers, with the intention of punishing the young gentleman.

Report from The Lancet, 1881, presented in evidence by Mr Donnelly

On September 1st September 2 , 1881, Mrs K__ , a highly nervous patient, suffering from chronic metritis, inadvertently swallowed from half an ounce to an ounce of belladonna liniment…I visited her at 2pm, when she was insensible, with wild, scared, and pinched features, anaemic, with lips blue and pale, the pupils being fully dilated..pain in the pit of the stomach…frequent retching and still incoherent...

Statement of the accused, Grace Hill, on hearing the evidence presented against her

Beautiful blooms, beautiful ladies, beautiful freedom. I hold my dove head high and pure. The linen lace knots round my throat and my body passes on the sisters' path.

Grace Hill was found not guilty of murder by virtue of Lunacy but instead remanded into the custody of the local Hospital for the Insane. She remains there to this day, tending the Flowers within the Walled Garden.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Tiny stories 3: Lost boys

I love going to events like this. Finding out about how people lived in the past is so interesting, and the old leisure centre, corners of it untouched for decades, is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of what's not there any more.

Toby loves it too. He pays careful attention to everything our tour guide says. I can tell that he's drinking in the atmosphere. He's sensitive that way. Always has been.

The guide leads us from the worn brick foyer, which was once the second class entrance, into a corridor next to the abandoned pool. This is what I've been most looking forward to seeing. I can actually feel my heart beating a bit faster. I hold tighter to Toby's hand. The woman beside me steps further away.

Our little group squeezes through the doorway and emerges into a wide, sombre space, glazed white and trembling with memories. The floor of the empty pool gleams a little, despite the dust. Toby shivers.

"Everything all right, madam?" asks the guide. I nod and smile. His frown relaxes a little.

He tells us about the pool's glory days, details as vivid as the cobalt tiles. I can almost see the swimmers in their red council-provided trunks, laughing and chasing each other, shouts echoing up to the arched windows.

We hear about the McKenna twins, who trained here as children and went on to compete for their country. About Sammy Murdock, who took forever to learn to swim but turned out to be a very successful actor. Right enough, I've seen him in a few old films.

And we hear about Sol Franklin. He was a friend of Sammy Murdock's, but he was a great swimmer, in here all the time. A kind boy, helping the younger ones, always good-natured. His mam said he was too good to be true, laughing like it was a joke, but really as proud as punch.

Until one day when he went for his evening swim and didn't come home. Everyone remembered him in the pool that night, trying yet again to teach Sammy to kick his feet out properly, pushing Tom McKenna's head under the water and getting a clout round the ear for his boldness, singing a Peggy Lee song and making everyone laugh. But they didn't remember seeing him afterwards, in the changing room or the corridor or the street.

His mam never saw him again. There was no trace of him at all. At first the streets were full of talk about him going off to meet someone or to perform in London. Betty McCavery said she'd seen him with a girl from across the town. Mad old Annie Dornan was convinced it was the fairies who took him. Everyone had a theory, but it didn't bring Sol back. Ever.

There's a moment of silence as we all think about Sol Franklin and his mam. 

I wonder what's going through Toby's mind. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

The group is quieter now, and the guide gives us a few minutes to look round. I'm drawn to the pale blue door in the corner, light just visible behind it. 

And to the steps, down into the water that's long drained away. 

The way things do when they're too good to be true.

We leave the pool by a different door and are ambushed by a Brownie pack armed with lemon drizzle cake and cups of tea. I take a plate for myself and a plate for Toby. I set his plate on the window ledge and look at it for a long moment.

The rest of the group has moved away, but our guide comes across to me.

"You enjoyed that? I was a bit concerned about you."

"Yes, fantastic! No, really, I'm fine."

"Sad story, that, about the lost boy, eh?"

The lost boys. Sol, and Toby.

The echoes impale my heart.

"Sorry, if you'll excuse me..."

I abandon my cake plate, and Toby's, push through the Brownies and the group members and out into the street. It's cold outside.

I unchain my bike from the railings and pedal fast down the avenue.

Sunday, 11 September 2016


In my last post, I wrote about my blue start-of-term moments at Kilkeel harbour. They happen, but being outside, by the sea, in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, means that sooner or later you're going to see something that will lift your spirits again.

The boats themselves help, and so did the takeaway van. But what cheered me up the most was the opportunity to photograph all the nets, cages, chains and other fishing paraphernalia stacked neatly round the harbour.

These have their own colour scheme - I don't know if the blues and oranges are universal, or local.... And, viewed through my big lens, they form their own abstract art pieces. Nothing is ordinary.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Harbour blues

I'm at Kilkeel harbour. This might be my favourite Northern Ireland harbour, for its busyness and its golden dusky light. Or maybe the best one is Portavogie, for its scruffy optimism.... But whichever it is, here in Kilkeel it's a beautiful Friday evening.

Half of me feels calm and happy, here with the light, the weathered trawlers and my camera, and the prospect of something tasty from the food van later. Half feels too much the end-of-summer sadness that's pervading everything I do for these few days.

I love the long days, the feeling that there are hours still to go.

My stomach clenches when I see someone shake their head and comment darkly on how the nights are drawing in.

All we have is the days we live, and if the days are short, I feel I'm living less.

The new school year begins, the wheel turns on to the next revolution.

The blues of the harbour seem more saturated than ever. I collect them to match my half-mood.