An Unexpected Gift

(Broadcast on Sunday Miscellany RTE RADIO 1  January 2011)

The recent December snowfall, which caused such travel chaos, also brought with it some unexpected and beautiful gifts, which was very appropriate in the run up to Christmas.

The uncommon arrival of such deep snow inserted a large comma into the normally manic days preceding Christmas.  The kid’s school was closed, I wouldn’t drive and so life took on a whole new way of being.  Lighting an afternoon fire and making bedtime hot water bottles became essential and were reminders of a previous, simpler way of life.  As Christmas neared, I made two shopping excursions facilitated by my husband and his jeep.  Knowing I wouldn’t be venturing forth again forced me to focus on essentials as opposed to striving to create festive perfection.  It was the most relaxed Christmas week ever.  Trudging through snow to Mass on Christmas Eve was an added magical bonus of the arctic weather.

But more than all that, I just loved the special quiet that a thick blanket of snow brings.  That uniquely snowy hush as the earth is wrapped up in frozen whiteness.  I was tucking my children into bed one night when my youngest said “mom, listen.  What’s that sound?”

I stopped and listened.  As I whispered “that’s the fog horn on the end of Dun Laoghaire pier” I was whisked back over forty years to my own childhood bedroom in Blackrock, about a mile from the sea.

How many nights did I lie in my bed listening to that very same, regular sound as it floated out over Dublin Bay? If I listened very closely, way off in the distance, the Dun Laoghaire fog horn was answered by the one on Howth Head.  I used to wonder about what ships might be in the bay, hearing the low drone of the fog horns.  Who were on these ships?  Where were they going?  Where they safe?  Was the sound of the fog horn reassuring to them or did it sound an ominous warning.

I used to imagine a young deck hand, a boy perhaps a little older than me, onboard one of these ghost ships of my imagination.  Was he wishing he could be home, tucked up safely in his bed as I was?

Back then I was in national school in Monkstown where I was very lucky to have a wonderful teacher who was steeped in local history and folklore.  She often told us the stories of 18th century shipwrecks that occurred just off the coast of Dun Laoghaire and Dalkey.  Her stories were vivid and totally captivated my childish imagination.  She told us that many of the victims of these tragedies were buried in the old graveyard on Carrickbrennan Road.  So as I lay there on those winter nights, my mind also wandered to their ancient headstones and I wondered if these lost souls could hear the mournful tune of the fog horn. Perhaps if they had been able to hear a fog horn, back on the night their ships sank, their lives could have been saved.  According to my teacher, many of them perished because in the foggy confusion they did not realise just how close to the shore they were.

“What are you thinking mom” brings me back to my daughter’s bedroom.  “I’m thinking about how much I love the sound of the fog horn and how we have never heard it here before.”

What a wonderful gift the snow delivered – a last chance to fall asleep to the comforting, regular, heartbeat of the fog horn on Dun Laoghaire Pier.

Next Tuesday, 11th of January, Ireland’s fog horns, having outlived their usefulness, will be switched off for good.  I doubt I will be alone in missing their lonely yet comforting call on winter nights.

‘UNTIL THE NEXT TIME

I have been getting a huge reaction to my piece ‘Until The Next Time’ which was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1 last Sunday 21st April.

You can listen to the podcast of the programme by clicking the link here.  My piece is about 31 minutes in.

Here is the script of the piece…..

“Well, that’s about it I suppose…. no more news.”
I hate these words as they usually signal that our conversation on Skype is coming to its natural conclusion.  Except that there is nothing natural about Skype.  It’s contrived and forced and virtual.  It’s the best thing we have when we are 9,000 miles apart but it’s not real. 
We finally hang up… after the lengthy ‘bye so, ok bye, ok love you, ok bye, bye, bye’ thing we do, as my cursor hovers over the red ‘hang up call’ button on screen.  Then there’s that horrible noise that sounds like something being sucked down a drain and she’s gone.
The picture of her, dressed in her pink PJs lying on her bed stays with me as I imagine her jumping up to head off to brush her teeth.  A few moments later and she will return to climb into bed under the lightest of cotton sheets, her beloved black cat settling down beside her.  I sit staring at my laptop and curse that yet again I have nothing interesting in for lunch.
Then I curse the bloody weather and freezing temperatures, I curse Enda Kenny and his entire cabinet, I curse Fianna Fail before them and finally curse the gaping huge distance that separates me from my first born. 
I allow myself a few minutes to wallow in the frustration of not being able to give her a hug….. or to receive one of hers.  I desperately want to be able to smell her hair and wonder at glow of her beautiful skin.  I want feel the air around her shimmer as she laughs.  I want to  savour the sound as it falls all around me.   
Then I get cross with myself for feeling sorry for myself when I know so many in this country are suffering fates much worse than mine.
I bang cups and plates around in the kitchen and the dog looks at me with his doleful eyes, sensing that there is violence and anger bubbling gently somewhere just beyond his perception. 
I make a cup of tea and sit at my kitchen table.  The dog settles at my feet.  And for the hundredth time I realise that right now what I want more than anything else is to have her sit opposite me and to talk rubbish and gossip and giggle.  Hell, I would even take an argument with her if it meant being able to share her space, to be in her energy. 
I want to look around me and see the imprint of her life in mine.  A handbag here, a scarf there, shoes abandoned by the front door.  I miss her always, but sometimes desperately.
She is probably sleeping now in the heat of the Perth night, under the languid movement of a ceiling fan.  I think of all the nights when she was little and I would check her room before I retired to bed.  Bending down to stroke her hair and pull the duvet up higher. I didn’t know then how precious those days were.  Perhaps it’s just as well.
I don’t know when I will see her again and perhaps that also is just as well.  Because right now all that is keeping me sane is the vague hope that somehow, in the not too distant future, the possibility of making the trip to the other side of the world will suddenly reveal itself.
 I drain my tea.  “Come on dog, let’s go for a walk”.  The pain has passed.  Till the next time.

SUNDAY MISCELLANY – FINALLY

There are many of us, writing away in our own homes, most days of the week because that is what we love to do. We write stories, start (and some of us finish) novels and muse about life in general. We write because it is what we do.
But many of us, your truly included, resist calling ourselves writers because we have not had anything published yet. So we down play our writing. We mutter “well, I dabble a bit with writing”, or “when I have time, I scribble bits and pieces”. But if we write then we are writers. But few of us believe that. We feel we are not writers until someone, be it a publisher, newspaper, magazine or radio station says ‘we like what you have written and we would like to use it.’ Wow – what a difference that makes. There is nothing like professional recognition of your words to suddenly make you feel that you might actually be a writer after all. Coupled with the knowledge that this will lead to many people being able to read/hear your carefully crafted words is the completion of the process. Writers write to be read.
Over the last two years or so, I have sent in a few submissions to Sunday Miscellany which is a programme which is broadcast on Sunday mornings on the national broadcaster, RTE Radio 1. So far I have had no success. But on Wednesday the email that all of us ‘writers’ love to get landed into my inbox. Yep – the very one that says “we like what you have written and we would like to use it” and the great thing about radio is that you get a chance to record your work yourself.
So my turn finally arrived today and off I went in to Radio Centre in Donnybrook to record my piece which is called ‘Dad and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance’. The process was fun and very enjoyable. But most important of all, it made me feel like a real writer!
So – if you are in Ireland still lounging in the bed on Sunday morning, tune into RTE Radio 1 just after the 9am news and have a listen. I hope my Dad likes it. It’s a fitting and affectionate memory of a man whose 8th anniversary occurs the day beforehand.
The text of my radio essay, Dad and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance is now up on my creative writing blog My Word Songs

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