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Smashing concrete

Most people I know relax by sitting down having a nice cup of tea. Or maybe stretched out on the sofa with a good book or watching a bit of mindless telly. Exercise can be good too – a bit of fresh air in the lungs is always reviving. For me at the moment however, taking a break means trundling wheelbarrows full of earth around the garden.

As if I didn’t have enough to do I decided to create a new raised bed around at the back door. I know, I know – it’s not exactly a priority – it would be more in my line to spend what little free time I have doing a bit of dusting, or investigating what lies beneath the sofa. But honestly the outdoors seems a far more attractive option.

There are three aspects to the construction of this new raised bed. First of all I needed to break through the existing concrete. I have been contemplating this for some time but as I don’t own a pick-axe I kind of put it on the long finger. To be honest I was saving it up for some weekend when number one son might be in the mood for a bit of concrete smashing.

But as it happens a couple of weeks ago I had work done in another part of the garden and the chap who did it left behind this very heavy lump of metal. It was lurking around the back of the shed for a few days before I took note of it and realised its potential for smashing concrete.

I’ve learned since that it is a ‘half shaft’ of a tractor, but it’s much more useful to me as a yoke that you lift up and just let drop on the concrete. After a few bangs, hey presto, the concrete is broken into small enough bits to be shimmied out with a crow-bar.

The second stage in the process is the building of a small wall around my raised bed. Over the years here as I have dug my way around the garden I have released a lot of rocks back into the wild. I’ve used them in a rockery, to edge my vegetable and flower beds, and – having gone on a course to learn how to do so – to build small dry stone walls.

Building walls with field stones is like a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle for which you have no picture to work from. You have a sort of an idea how long you want the wall to be and how high, but after that it’s totally dependent on the rocks and stones you have to hand. And how it turns out is always a surprise.

And the final stage – the bit where I am up to now – is the filling of the bed with fresh earth. Good topsoil is like brown gold to me. So when about 2 months ago a chap with a digger came to create a new gravel path at the side of the house and wanted to know where would he ‘dump’ the soil, I told him to leave it right where it was and that I had great plans for it.

He gave me a bit of a funny look, but fair play to him he did just that. So now I have a lovely 3 foot high, 10 foot long mound of earth to play with. I’ve been using it to replenish the soil in the oldest flower beds and to add a bit of extra life to the vegetable beds. And the plants in the polytunnell don’t know what’s hit them with all this extra goodness they’re getting.

So when I am sitting at the computer for hours on end – sending emails, designing flyers, writing up class plans – and I need a break, I just stick on my wellies and reach for my wheelbarrow. There is something tremendously satisfying about digging into the earth, filling a barrow and seeing one pile of dirt diminish and another pile take shape.

And having moved a few barrow-loads I can come back to the computer refreshed and renewed and ready to tackle the world again.

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Remembering Lennie

We’ve all been in situations where, when things are all going horribly wrong, someone is bound to say ‘Never mind, some day we’ll get a good laugh out of this’. I was in one of those situations last weekend – but I’m not laughing yet.

On a recent visit to Scotland so many things went haywire that its hard to believe that they all happened to the same person. For starters some weirdo got hold of my mobile phone number and sent me some very odd text messages. A friend’s car broke down on her way to pick me up and I was stranded in Perth for 6 hours with all my luggage and after everything that happened, my flight home was delayed till the wee small hours.

However all these mishaps pale into insignificance by comparison with losing my tickets to the Leonard Cohen concert. I discovered the loss while climbing up the steps of Edinburgh Castle. To say that I was distraught was an understatement – they’d either been stolen or fell out of my pocket between the short journey from hotel to venue. In any case they were gone. Luckily my friend was made of sterner stuff than me and taking matters in hand, she somehow got us both into the box office. Any attempt on my part to explain what had happened only resulted in strangulated incoherent sobs.

I had been guarding the tickets with my life since March, checking every now and again that they were still on the mantelpiece where I had put them. The night before I flew over to Scotland I remembered that I had packed them in my suitcase which was in the car. I got out of bed at 1am to retrieve them in case the car was stolen in the night! That’s how well I minded them. I simply couldn’t believe what had happened.

The nice man in the box office was asking for my name which I managed to retrieve from what was left of my brain. But it transpired that what he was looking for was the name of the person who had booked the tickets. This necessitated a call to my daughter – she had organised them for me. And needless to say once I had her on the phone, the whole drama went up a notch.

As I tried to listen in to what was happening in front of me between the nice man, the security people and a woman with a big folder of stuff, I could also hear the crisis unfolding back in Ireland. Instructions were being shrieked to boyfriend who was booting up the computer. Back and forth it went between them, each trying frantically to remember which name and email address would have the confirmation details.

Meanwhile I was all but giving my daughters date of birth, height, weight and distinguishing features in an effort to convince the nice man, the security people and the woman with the big folder, that I was indeed my daughter’s mother. I showed them my drivers licence which seemed to help. I overheard someone say that perhaps they could put us in the disabled section. I’d have sat on the Portaloos if they just let me in!

They were still scrambling to find receipts in Ireland when the nice man smiled. “It’s OK,” he said, “I’m going to issue you with new tickets.” I still don’t know whether it was my tears and panic or my friend’s calm explanations of our predicament that won the day. All I know is that had he not been well protected by good strong security glass, I’d have been arrested for indecent hugging.

And Lennie? Unbelieveably amazingly wonderfully upliftingly fantastic. A legend. RIP

Other women’s husbands!

For reasons which I won’t elucidate, but are probably obvious, I’ve become better acquainted with the workings of my septic tank lately than I ever wanted to or thought I would be. Although I thoroughly enjoy the delights of living in the country, dealing with septic tanks is not one of those delights.

And while I often pride myself on being a bit of a DIY handywoman, plumbing and electrics are two areas which I leave to the experts. The latter because I fear blowing myself up or setting fire to the house, and the former because, well in truth it always seems to involve something unpleasant and smelly.

So what is a single woman, who is not independently wealthy or a lottery winner, to do in these circumstances. My answer over the years has been to choose my women friends with care. No, I’m only joking! But as it turns out, most of my women friends have managed to marry useful men. Some who have actual qualifications as builders and such, but mostly who are the kind interested in pottering about under the floorboards, or in the attic or under the sink.

So my tactic is to make as much use of other women’s husbands as I can. Take the septic tank incident. I casually dropped it into conversation with Therese that I was concerned that it wasn’t working properly. Since they only live on the other side of the mountain and would be out and about that afternoon, she offered her husband to drop in and take a look. They are in the throes of building their own house, so drains and plumbing, septic tanks and percolation are part of their – well his anyway – vocabulary just now.

So as we finished up the last of the apple tart, I turned casually to him and said ‘So Larry, did you hear I’m having a bit of a problem with my percolation’ – and that was all the invitation he needed. Off we headed down the garden to have a look see.

The quid pro quo in all this is that I have to be interested in the subject too. When you pay a plumber or an electrician or whatever to do a job, you just let them get on with it. You don’t have to be interested in the ins and outs of the problem and how to fix it. But when it’s someone doing you a favour, you feel that you have to show a bit of interest.

So the favour I do for my friends in return is to listen to their husbands rabbiting on about wood pellet boilers versus solar panels, halogen versus LED lighting, external versus internal insulation. I’ve had endless conversations about things I know nothing about – valleys in the roof, looping the wiring, floating the floor. I can throw bits of terminology and jargon in that I have gleaned from talking with other husbands. Enough at least to keep the conversation going until I feel I have given them value for their efforts.

 I then return them to their wives happier men – satisfied with their prowess at having assisted a damsel in distress and content that someone understands and has listened to their dilemmas. It’s a small price to pay for satisfactory percolation!

Born to shop …

I was thinking about my mother on a recent trip to Ikea. It’s not surprising in one way, because it was the 10th anniversary of her death in August, so she has been on my mind. But also because, in that Disneyland for shoppers, my mother would have thrived.

She was a woman born to shop. She understood intuitively what anthropologists have told us – that shopping is part of the communicative process of our age. We shop, not just to buy life’s necessities, but also to take part in the customer/seller relationship, to identify ourselves as practicing and productive members of the society in which we live, sometimes to single ourselves out from the crowd and other times to blend right in.

On a given day, mother would go in to town for the afternoon and come home with an item of clothing. The said item would be modelled for the approval of husband and friends and the relative merits discussed. Other similar items left behind on the rails would be talked about – would it have been better in the blue? a size bigger? will it be warm enough? match anything else in the wardrobe? You get the picture.

Because of their straight forward customer returns policy, Dunnes Stores was one of her favourite shops. Having discussed and mulled over the pros and cons of any outfit – she could go back into town, exchange the goods and do the whole thing over again. So two days shopping value out of the one purchase. Ikea would have blown her mind for scale, choice and value!

As I made the trip with my own daughter, I reflected that even though the outward trappings and mechanics of consumerism are very different nowadays, we are still just mother and daughter on a shopping trip. We know that shopping is not for the faint-hearted. We had studied the catalogue assiduously and had long shopping lists.

We made our way to the city in a 3 tonne van borrowed from a neighbour. It had been a while since I’d driven anything that big and daughter was a bit nervous, but was smart enough to know not to criticise mother. (Mothers are allowed – expected even – to criticise daughters, but it seldom works the other way around!)

We’ve also both inherited the ‘yes I like that, I’ll put it in my trolley, oh no I’ve changed my mind I want the other one’ gene. So there’s no conflict on that front. But it does take a little more time to get around, given the opportunities for changes of mind in a shop the size of Ikea.

As mother and daughter we are also aware of each others foibles and weaknesses. Mine for harking back to my dodgy flower power days, hers for the endless accumulation of picture frames and lime green cushion covers. So we are able to keep an eye on each other and offer tactful interventions like ‘for god’s sake mother, you have enough tacky things on the walls’, or ‘ yes dear it’s very nice, but isn’t it very like the six other frames you have in the trolley?’.

As we lay in a collapsed but satisfied heap in the kitchen many, many hours later with all our goods and chattels around us, I like to think that the spirit of my mother was with us. She’d have been fussing and flapping around, delighting in her prowess as shopper par excellence. She’d be busily creating piles of things to keep and others to return – already planning another foray. Oh Mam we miss you, but you trained us well!

A day at ‘The Show’

One of the things that used to really throw me off when I first moved to the country was the way you would run into, for example, your plumber in the supermarket, or the chap who had just installed your satellite system in the post office.

The first time it happened I was completely flummoxed. I was on my way into the local agricultural show that first summer. As I was absentmindedly handing over my few euro entrance money, a voice enquired as to how were things ‘out in Ballydown’. Taken aback, I looked at the man. He seemed vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough I thought, to know me or where I lived. After a few very pointed hints, I eventually figured out that he was, in fact, my postman! It just goes to show that when you take someone out of their normal milieu – when the postman steps away from his green van, the butcher takes off his apron – it can be hard to place the face. In all my years living in the city, I’d never met my postman anywhere else except on the doorstep.

I was at the agricultural show again this year, but I wasn’t caught out a second time. This time around I recognised the local auctioneer who was directing traffic and the man who owns the menswear shop taking the money. I had a couple of city friends in tow who were well impressed with how well connected I seemed to be with all and sundry!

They were also well impressed, if a little bemused by the goings-on at the show itself. I have to confess that the first time I attended an agricultural show, that I too was somewhat bemused. For one thing, my acquaintance of cattle and sheep at that point was mainly on my dinner plate and not on the hoof. I’ll never forget my first sight of a grown man blow-drying and back-combing a cows ‘hair’. (There may be a more technical term for a ‘hair’ in this context, but I confess I haven’t a notion what it is!)

I still can’t figure out either what the judges are looking for when they walk round and round an animal, shaking and nodding their heads, and giving the poor sheep or cow the odd poke. We watched hoping to learn something as four huge beasts were lined up for the final inspection. My own favourite was a lovely brown and cream cow with a mop of curls running from the top of its head to its pink nose. Catherine fancied the one with the twinkling eyes and broken horn and kind-hearted Viv thought they looked a bit sad and wanted to take them all home.

None the wiser, we moved on to the ‘produce’ section where competition was, if anything, even more fierce. In a celebration of traditional skills, prizes are awarded for baking and preserving, knitting and crochet, as well as outstanding specimens of flowers and vegetables. The precision of the categorisation is a wonder to behold – ‘five tomatoes on a plate’, ‘four sweet pea – one variety’, ‘best handcraft item’. We stopped for a bit of a giggle at the ‘four boiled potatoes’ category, again puzzling as to the judging criteria – taste? appearance? size? In all fairness a plate of cold boiled potatoes isn’t exactly a pretty sight.

And in case anyone’s wondering, we were the three women stood around the four bales of hay in the corner trying to work out what the difference between the bale marked ‘Highly commended’ and ‘1st Prize’ was. Sometimes I despair that I’ll every really get to grips with country living!

Leaving Cert Blues!

It’s that time of year when many young faces are lined with worry. Having been through the wringer of the education system, they must soon start to cough up all they know in one fell swoop of exams and then spend the rest of the summer in an agony of waiting for results.

Straightened family circumstances meant that I left school some months before I was to sit my Leaving Certificate. The prospect of steady employment in the public service was too much for my family to resist. And so at the tender age of 16 years, I left school on Tuesday and started work on Thursday in the Department of Posts & Telegraphs.

What a shock to my system it was. From a convent school where, most of us had our heads down trying to cram those last few nuggets, I went to what seemed like bedlam. A huge room with thirty or so young women from all corners of Ireland, whose main concern was squeezing as much enjoyment as they could from every single moment. I was shell-shocked by their conversations which revolved around boyfriends, drinking, dancing, hangovers, dodgy landlords, clothes, and make-up – a far cry from the algebra, history and geography which had been my milieu.

For the princely sum of ten pounds and one shilling a week our job was to unpack the bags which were sent daily from post offices around the country. We had to sort them into the various pensions and payments– children’s allowance, unemployment benefits and so on. You could put your hand into a bag and never know what might come out. Many of the sub post offices were also shops, so bits of mouldy food, sticky sweet wrappers and so on were often lurking in their depths. Yeuck!

In the middle of all this madness I tried to keep up my studies. I used to bring in my school books and keep them in a drawer for any quiet moments that might arise – which, I might add, were few and far between.

I had been a good student in school. Conscientious, hard-working and reasonably intelligent. Career ambitions weren’t quite formulated in my head beyond wanting ‘to travel’ – there was no career guidance in those days. But a life in the civil service wasn’t what I had imagined for myself and so it was with hope in my heart that I sat for my Leaving Certificate that June.

Taking the time off from work, I rejoined my school mates for that couple of weeks, feeling like a woman of the world. In those short months at work, I had moved on a lifetime. Dressed in my school uniform, which I was obliged to wear for the duration, I felt like I was walking back in time. I had gotten used to the longer days at work, on my feet for most of the day and chatting across the table to my colleagues.

And so that fateful August day came around. The news wasn’t good. Yes I had passed, but I only got one honour – and that was in Domestic Science. Oh the irony of that for my many teachers who had tried to show me how to thread a needle!

And so my escape from the civil service was postponed for a few years. My ‘career’ took a few unusual twists and turns and the world turned up many adventures in my path. The ‘lesson’ if there is one, is that life doesn’t always turn out like you’ve planned – and the sooner you learn that the better. Being able to turn adversity to advantage, overcoming obstacles and seeing the silver lining – these are the skills you need to whip your life into the shape you want it to be. So get cracking!

We’ve all been in situations where, when things are all going horribly wrong, someone is bound to say ‘Never mind, some day we’ll get a good laugh out of this’. This is not always true. I’m still not ready to laugh about the time I lost my tickets to a Leonard Cohen concert.

I had flown to Scotland to attend the concert with a Scottish friend who was just as much a Lennie-nut as I am. I discovered the loss while climbing up the steps of Edinburgh Castle. To say that I was distraught was an understatement – they’d either been stolen or fallen out of my pocket on the short journey between hotel and venue.

In any case they were gone. Luckily my friend was made of sterner stuff than me and taking matters in hand, she somehow hauled me off the road, dragged me up the steps and got us both into the box office. Any attempt on my part to explain what had happened only resulted in strangulated incoherent sobs.

I had been guarding the tickets with my life for the previous three months, checking every now and again that they were still on the mantelpiece where I had put them. The night before I flew to Scotland I remembered that I had packed them in my suitcase which was in the car. I got out of bed at 1am to retrieve them in case the car was stolen in the night! That’s how well I minded them. I simply couldn’t believe what had happened.

The nice man in the box office was asking for my name which I managed to retrieve from what was left of my brain. But it transpired that what he was looking for was the name of the person who had booked the tickets. This necessitated a call to my daughter – she had organised them for me. And needless to say once I had her on the phone, the whole drama went up a notch.

As I tried to listen in to what was happening in front of me between the nice man, the security people and a woman with a big folder of stuff, I could also hear the crisis unfolding back in Ireland. Instructions were being shrieked to boyfriend who was booting up the computer. Back and forth it went between them, each trying frantically to remember which name and email address would have the confirmation details.

Meanwhile I was all but giving my daughter’s date of birth, height, weight and distinguishing features in an effort to convince the nice man, the security people and the woman with the big folder, that I was indeed my daughter’s mother. I showed them my drivers licence which seemed to help. I overheard someone say that perhaps they could put us in the disabled section. I’d have sat on the Portaloos if they just let me in!

They were still scrambling to find receipts in Ireland when the nice man smiled. “It’s OK,” he said, “I’m going to issue you with new tickets.” I still don’t know whether it was my tears and panic or my friend’s calm explanations of our predicament that won the day. All I know is that had he not been well protected by good strong security glass, I’d have been arrested for indecent hugging.

And Lennie? Unbelieveably, amazingly, wonderfully, upliftingly, fantastic. A legend.  Now that’s something that makes me smile!

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