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The Birds and Me

I hate Winter. Who doesn’t? But I really, really hate it.  I loathe and despise it possibly more than anything else and this is not a good thing considering that I live in Ireland and Winter is seemingly endless here.  The rain, the wind, the cold, the frost, the snow, the hail.  You name it, if it is cold and miserable, we get it. Our Summer is fleeting and disappointing although we should be used to it by now.  We are teased by a few sunny days and the remaining few weeks are overcast and dull and often very cold.

When it is really bad, and there is no predicting when that might be, I can only afford to keep my house heated during the half of each week that my daughter spends with me.  Once she is gone back to her dad’s house I just layer up with clothing, put on two pairs of thick, warm socks and sit on the sofa with the dog on top of me and a duvet on top of both of us while we sit shivering as we watch T.V. I am not mean.  I just don’t have the money to keep the gas running all the time and to keep the stove lighting with solid fuel because it is so expensive to so.  I would say I suffer from ‘S.A.D. Syndrome’ (Seasonal affective disorder) which causes depression in people when the seasons change, usually when it is the change from Autumn to Winter, except that we basically only have two seasons. One, is the Winter which takes up 90% of the year and the other miserable 10% is Summer.

Well anyway, the reason for my very depressing introduction is because as bad as it is, every year, irrespective of the weather or the temperature, there is something that happens without fail that brings me great joy.  Around the end of April, when the days are marginally longer in terms of light, the Swallows who have five nests in one of my sheds,return from sunny South Africa to this godforsaken ice box of a country to re-occupy those same nests and lay their eggs and hatch their chicks.  Now, there have been some years when only two or three of the nests have been used but since they often have two lots of chicks there are always quite a few of them up and flying well before they set off on their 9,500 kilometer journey at three months old.

When the Swallows come, many changes take place in me and around me.  Because this is something that has been happening since I was a small child and I still live in the same house, it is a nostalgic time in the best way.  I have also long had a habit of opening my back door during the day and leaving it open as soon as they arrive.  It is a kind of nutty way of me telling the weather that I don’t care what it does because the Swallows are here and that means it is Summer and Summer means the back door gets left open during the day.  Only a very deranged person has a personal vendetta against the weather to the point that she will let rain pour into the house rather than give in and close the door. Just giving you a quick heads-up on who you’re dealing with here lest you hadn’t already guessed.

Along with the aforementioned madness, I also do my best to spend as much time sitting outside as I can during this brief few weeks of hail-free rain.  Now, since I have been divorced for several years the absence of a strong man on the premises has resulted in my very large back garden turning into a jungle.  This used to bother me but doesn’t anymore because as ungainly as it looks, it has, in it’s wildness, turned into a natural habitat for a wide variety of birds and wildlife.  Most of this is welcome although I have had a couple of surprises that sort of gave me the creeps. For instance, I walked into my yard one morning to find two Stoats trying to knaw their way into my bin eeeeeeyikes! Boy did they move quickly when they saw me.  I guess they were thinking about me what I was thinking about them!

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This is one angle of my manicured garden. Oh Look! Is that blue I see in the sky?

But anyway, there is a kind of order to the chaos, or at least there was until this year.  First the Swallows come.  Then the Starlings who nest under my roof tiles.  They are harmless and lovely and do not cause damage so they don’t bother me.  Next comes the Jackdaws who have cunningly found a way to squeeze through the chimney guards so they can nest in my chimneys.  Not good in a house where you light fires most of the year round.  Note to self: Come up with a better way of keeping the Jackdaws out.  Then, all hell breaks loose as all the other birds begin to nest in their chosen spaces and along come the Cuckoos.  Oh yes, how lovely they are until they lay their eggs in another birds nest and when that darling little Cuckoo hatches out with the other chicks, he or she will promptly toss them out of the nest so that the ‘foster mother’ can give all the food and attention to it alone.  Nature is strange to say the least. Generally though it is a lovely time when the garden is full of birdsong and the sound of young chicks calling out and the busyness of nest building and chick feeding and it is more or less the same every year.

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Lots of room for all kinds of shenanigans to go on in there wouldn’t you agree?

This year was different.  For a start we had a dreadful snow storm in March which is much later than we ever have heavy snow and it is the only reason I can think of as to why the Swallows did not arrive on time.  They were about three weeks late getting here and when they did there was only about four adults and from what I can tell, only two of the nests are being used by them.  Then a really unusual thing happened which was the arrival of wrens in the garden for the first time ever but what was really strange was that they took up residence in one of the smaller swallow’s nests. Go figure.  Lazy wrens? I can hear tiny tweets coming from that nest now so it was a good house choice so far for the wrens.  Must find out who their agent is.

Next came the fighting.  I have never before seen so many birds going for each other and giving it their best shot.  My daughter and I were astonished to see a female blackbird take on a cuckoo on the roof of the house.  The cuckoo was a little bigger and meaner but the blackbird just kept taking shots at her until she finally got her to back off to the edge of the roof and when there was nowhere left to go the cuckoo finally gave up.  There were feathers flying.  Also, as a result of my ‘open door’ policy, there is a chaffinch who has been using a basin with water in it as a bird bath just outside the door and when she is finished, instead of flying away, she flies into my hallway and the dog goes berserk.  Since she is a smallish dog and the bird flies from one door top to another she is quite safe from the dog who foolishly hurls herself against the doors to try and reach the bird. At first I thought the finch must have been pretty scared with all the to-do and barking and flapping about but she keeps coming back and now I think she is enjoying it and likes taunting the dog.  Either that or she is a very, very stupid bird.

Yesterday, I was leaving in the car to go to the shop and just as I reversed out I saw a Mistle Thrush sitting very still in the grass so I stopped the car to look at her as it was very strange to see a bird sitting in the grass like that.  She never moved a muscle so I presumed there was something the matter with her and I got out of the car to have a closer look.  I walked over beside her and at first wasn’t even sure if it was alive as it was so still but then I saw an eye move and when I went to the other side the other eye moved just a little.  I was a bit upset because as it was Sunday and there was no Vet’s clinic open to bring her to. (This bit sounds really crazy but just in case you didn’t know, when a Vet takes their oath it includes that they will treat all animals in need of help including wild animals that may have been injured.  Sometimes the animal will need to be euthanised but my vet has saved birds for me, a hedgehog and several dogs that I found on the road.  He has had to put some to sleep of course but better that than a long and painful death.) I suppose there are some who would argue that I should let nature take it’s course but nature made me too so if I can help an animal who is suffering I always will.

I am not a religious or holy person and am not given to saying prayers but I decided that the best thing to do would be to go to town as I had planned and see if the bird was still there when I got home which I did but all the way home in the car I was praying and praying to nobody in particular and to anyone who might hear me that she would be gone.  I am so silly that there were tears in my eyes because I was worried about what I would do with her if she was in a bad way.  As I turned into my driveway my eyes searched the patch of grass where she had been but I could not see her.  I parked the car and looked everywhere around where she had been sitting but there wasn’t a sign of her and I was so relieved for both of us – and the dog! Then I heard the most beautiful singing and I looked up to the tallest branch of the tallest tree and there she was, or if it wasn’t her it was her twin, and I felt so happy inside and all because of a little bird.  I think that when the bird was sitting in a frozen pose in the grass it was either out of fear or some kind of self protection like ‘playing dead’ and I should check if birds can do that.

Well, speaking of playing dead, I have a more serious situation on the opposite side of my house which looks out on to the drive and a long row of very, very tall, evergreen trees lining the driveway on one side.  These trees are rich with bird life and as I have a large patio door that looks out on to the trees this is another vantage point for observing what’s happening outdoors.  Much to my horror I appear to have a suicidal blackbird – adult female, on my hands.  I know it is not entirely unusual for birds to fly into glass windows because of the reflection but it is in my house since the windows have not been cleaned in a gazillion years so why, oh why has this beautiful bird taken to throwing herself against the glass with the most awful ‘thudding’ noise every hour or so.  I’m sure if we could just talk about it she would feel better but I don’t speak blackbird.  I am convinced it has to do with a man.  She is clearly suffering from deep, man induced, depression to the point where she is trying to slam herself to death. I am really sorry for her but I would love if she would find a shiny window somewhere else as it is starting to really freak me out.

There have been three sunny days so Summer, as we know it, must be nearing an end although technically (are you listening to me weather?) it does not finish until the end of July so my door remains open until then.  I will bring more news if there is any to bring about the birdies.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have not visited my blog in a very long time but today I felt compelled to come back to tell the story of my swallows and found that I already had, albeit a different and very long story, but a story none the less and sadly, little has changed.

WORDPLAY

There are swallows nesting in the shed where I keep my washing machine. They have been there for weeks. Earlier in the summer a Magpie decimated the swallow’s nest that was outside the door of the shed and under a ledge for more than twenty years. There were chicks in it when the Magpie came. That is what the magpie was after, the chicks. But in its ardour to fill its belly with the tiny chicks, it destroyed the old and much loved nest. The next morning I found it in pieces on the ground with two chicks lying there. One was dead and one was not. I tried to save the one that was alive but I could not and so it was lost too.

I cried because every year the arrival of the swallows around April is a great moment for me. A sign of new beginnings, fresh…

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There are swallows nesting in the shed where I keep my washing machine. They have been there for weeks. Earlier in the summer a Magpie decimated the swallow’s nest that was outside the door of the shed and under a ledge for more than twenty years. There were chicks in it when the Magpie came. That is what the magpie was after, the chicks. But in its ardour to fill its belly with the tiny chicks, it destroyed the old and much loved nest. The next morning I found it in pieces on the ground with two chicks lying there. One was dead and one was not. I tried to save the one that was alive but I could not and so it was lost too.

I cried because every year the arrival of the swallows around April is a great moment for me. A sign of new beginnings, fresh hope and a solid reminder of the value of perseverance. Have you any idea how far those little birds have to fly in order to migrate from one country to another? Do you know how they figure out where they are going? Swallows arriving in Ireland have travelled from South Africa. They travel over 9,500km and manage to find the exact same nesting site every year. Migration is a very hazardous time and many birds die from starvation, exhaustion and in storms. The young Swallows that are born in Ireland make the journey to South Africa at just three months old. With no experience or knowledge of the route, it is estimated that only about 30% of them survive the journey.

I was so angry with the magpies that I had a friend come and bring a magpie trap. An instrument of such cruelty that I had to have it removed after a day. It is not in me to be cruel to any living thing, not even the magpies who I hate with a passion for what they did but they too were simply doing what they had to in order to survive. It’s rough out there.

So, you can see why I have great respect for swallows and why I am now reluctant to disturb the new nest that is in the shed, rather strangely, built on to the long fluorescent light. On the few occasions when I have ventured in with a wash they go into a full scale panic and I am not sure who is more frightened, me or them? In any event, it has come to the stage now that I am spraying Febreze on my clothes and hand-washing my ‘smalls’ in the kitchen sink. I call them ‘smalls’ because I don’t know the plural of humungous. I wonder how long this can go on before I pass out from the smell of myself. I can tell you that the time is drawing near and since these little birdies are not planning to go anywhere until September, something has to give. Here is a picture of the nest that I have just taken and nearly had my eyes plucked out in the process. There is also a shadowy photo of one of the culprits standing guard outside.

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A crazed man showed up outside my patio door this morning. It is quite bizarre really because just last night I was playing a game with my eight year old daughter over dinner called ‘who can make the best scared face’. I was winning because each time she tried to do it she just cracked up laughing so I said to her ‘OK. Imagine you are sitting in a chair in the living room just watching TV and suddenly a strange man, all dressed in black is looking in at you through the patio door’. Then she did a really good scared face. Good job on my part making sure she grows up with at least some kind of neurosis. Well I had to so why not her?? There really was an unthinkably scary monster lurking behind my parent’s bedroom door which was always open and dark inside and which I had to pass in order to get to the bathroom. I reckon I would have done well at the long-jump in the Olympics as I was so well trained at doing it just so I could get to the bathroom without being eaten alive.

Then, this morning, we were both sitting in the living room when our attention was suddenly drawn to the patio door where there was a really scary looking guy, all dressed in black, looking in at us. You couldn’t make it up! As I wasn’t wearing my glasses, at first I reckoned it must have been someone we knew and was about to put on the kettle when my eyes finally focused and I noticed he had the word ‘KILL’ tattooed on his forehead. Not a great sign. I was still in my pyjamas (what? It was only 12.30pm.) I told my daughter not to move, grabbed a hurling stick that I keep handy, and took off running around the house to the driveway where he was. Frankly, I have no idea what I would have done if he had still been there other than perhaps to ask him if he fancied tossing a hurling ball around for a bit. As it was he had absconded from the premises but when I walked out as far as the road I could see him walking away so I swiftly got on the blower to Ireland’s finest, the boys in blue, and told them about our narrow escape. As it happened they had received several reports from good citizens like myself about the guy named ‘KILL’ and that there were several cars out looking for him. I wasted no time in telling them ‘look no more’ and proceeded to give them directions to where he was that no new, fancy- fandangled sat-nav could have provided and within the blink of a turtles eye they had him in the back of the squad where he could no longer appear randomly at patio doors for at least 24 hours. Phew. A full 24 hours to feel safe in my home. You’ve got to hand it to these boys. They sure know all about pinning down the bad guys. It would be great though if they could keep them pinned. There is a good chance that ‘KILL’ will appear again at my patio door before the ink dries on this literary masterpiece.

My daughter and I like to listen to Bob Dylan and have lately taken to adding on additional verses to ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. Today’s Verse was:

Mom said to Chang there is a robber outside
Chang said Mom you must be losin’ you’re mind
Mom said No
Chang said wow
Mom said what are we gonna do right now?
Chang said let me think for a minute Mom
Yeah we need to get rid of that son of a gun
Just send him back down to Highway 61’

Well, then, because my daughter was deeply traumatised by the whole incident (total lie – when I asked her what the guy looked like she said she thought it was a woman) I decided to bring her into town to buy her, well, both of us, an ice-cream cone in our favourite ice-cream shop. It is a sad thing when you are such a regular at an ice-cream shop that when the person who works there sees your car pulling up she prepares the ice-cream in advance of you entering the shop. You would understand more why this is distressing to me if you realised that there is three of me all wrapped up in one person and that I have a tendency to eat my ice-cream with my coat pulled over my head so that no-one will see me. My daughter, on the other hand, is a tiny wee thing and rather annoyingly, can never manage to finish her ice-cream and since it would be a sin to throw good food in the bin I oblige her by finishing it along with my own. You know the drill. Bet you’ve done it yourself thousands of times, I mean, hundreds of times. Whatever!

When we got home I went outside for a cigarette. Yeah, yeah, heard it all before. Leave me alone. I was looking out at my back garden which is actually a back field. I am considering setting it up as a centre for viewing Irish Wildlife (and I’m not talking about ‘KILL’). I have two smallish dogs. Jack Russell Terriers. They are called Prim and Proper, both misnomers of the worst kind. Better that they be named Bad and Worse. I have always had a propensity for giving my dogs ridiculous names which I imagine have been very embarrassing for them. For instance, their predecessors, all Jack Russell’s, in bygone years were called, Sugar and Spice, Fudge and Polo, Kiwi and Jilly, Maxi and Twinky, Bella and Fella and a few more that escape my memory at the moment which is probably just as well.

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Prim and Proper

She has asked me the dreaded question. She wants me to play a board game with her. I would rather saw off my left arm and feed it to the dogs. It is not personal. I have always found board games to be insufferably boring and can’t think of a single reason why anyone should like playing them but clearly I am on my own with that one. Also, I know that if we do end up playing we will have a fight. We end up playing and yes, we have a fight because I catch her cheating repeatedly and so I engage in one of my very, very long lectures. After the first ten minutes I see her eyes glaze over but I am on a roll and there is no stopping me and also it gets me away from the game for a while. I am at my best when I am taking the moral high ground.

Let me tell you about my daughter. She is not the fruit of my ex-husband’s loins or of mine either for that matter. Oh no, it was much more complicated than that. We proved to be a wash-out when it came to making babies so after going down all the usual routes of injecting yourself full of hormones and spending a large proportion of your time with your legs in stirrups while doctors poked and probed and sucked out and injected in to no avail we finally ended up in Vietnam. It took three years of social workers poking and probing (no matter how you go about it, there is always a lot of poking and probing involved in making a baby) before we got there but then, one day, one of those social workers called us into her office at a conference. Naturally I presumed we were going to get the thumbs down for some obscure reason but instead she handed us an envelope and in that envelope there was a photo of a new-born baby and some scant details about her including her name.

We were told that this was going to be our baby and to make ready to go to Vietnam. So that is what we did and went out to Hanoi for 9 weeks during which we got to visit her in the orphanage three times. Each time she was in a deep sleep. We worried. Two other couple who were adopting at the same time saw their baby’s awake and alert at these visits but not our girl. She was just three months old. Finally the time came for the authorities in her province to pass her over to us and she finally woke up and has been wide awake in all the ways that matter ever since. The marriage was not so strong and when she was six we separated. It is ok. I am lonely, especially when she is not here, but things are good and her dad and I are fine with each other (mostly).

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Chang

Getting back to the Dogs. The thing is that my big field of a back garden backs up onto a very big golf course and the lake feature of the golf course is just at the far side of my dividing wall. What this means is that every manner of living creature makes its presence felt in my back garden thus driving my dogs to distraction. But this is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the inconceivable number of rabbits and the obsessive compulsion that one of my dogs has about them. Last summer I had to take her to the vet in the middle of the night for life-saving surgery (which basically cost me my life savings) where her entire abdominal area had to be opened up in order for the vet to remove the remains of three adult rabbits that she had killed and consumed but was unable to digest and pass. She was in a critical condition for about a week and then came home, unable to walk or move, only able to eat specialised recovery food and generally on her last legs. I managed to nurse her through it over about six weeks but no sooner was she back on her feet again when she was back down the garden scouting everywhere for rabbits and not coming back to the house when she was called.

In the end, I found her one day trying to dig her way down into a rabbit hole and nothing I did or said could get her out. I ran back up to the house and grabbed some bacon from the fridge to try and lure her out with that but when I got back, a small rabbit darted out of the hole and she caught it and ate it in front of me. As the original surgery at the vet’s had been very expensive I just could not afford to go down that road again and anyway the vet told me previously that she would never survive a second surgery of the same kind. Anyway, I brought her in to the vet and they were able to give her an injection to induce vomiting (LOVELY!) and promptly threw up the rabbit which was almost in one piece. She was OK but I had seen enough. So, I engaged the services of a good friend to build a picket fence around the perimeter of the patio outside the back door that would prevent her from getting anywhere near any kind of animal that she would be likely to ingest. Apart from rabbits, the list of possible victims include Pine Martens, Frogs, Hedgehogs (she loves them), Water Hens, Foxes, Squirrels, Stoats, Rats, Cats, Ducks, an endless list of birds including Pheasants, which just about covers most of Ireland’s common wild mammals and some of their buddies.

So now both she and her sister are in prison. I find it very hard to be a cruel to be kind sort of person. I just want to be kind and let them roam free in all that lovely grass and the hedgerows like they have done for years but I can’t because it will kill them as they are too stupid to realise that eating these tasty treats is deadly. So they sit at the fence every day, looking through the gaps down at the garden that used to be their daily stomping ground, sniffing the air and not having any clue why they have been sent to prison for life without parole and I just hate myself. I have tried them with muzzles which, although described as the ‘unbreakable muzzle’, they have managed to escape from them even when I fasten them tightly enough to strangle the dogs. My daughter takes them for walks around the garden when she is here. Unfortunately, I am unable to walk very far since I broke my back some years ago.

Late in the afternoon I go outside yet again to smoke. I sit down and look down at the garden, over the picket fence and see three small rabbits playing near the trees some distance away. The dogs are sitting lethargically in their armchair. I’m hoping they don’t follow me out because if they see the rabbits they will go into a barking frenzy and start trying to kill EACH OTHER. My attention is drawn to the Buddleia, very tall and in full bloom and I have a memory of my late father. The Buddleia was planted at the corner of the yard around the time that the house was built in 1963. My late mother loved it because it brought the butterflies. My father took great care of that corner. He was a great gardener. He also had a foul temper that flared up like the flames from the mouth of a massive, angry dragon. One day he was tending to the roses he had planted in that spot when one of the branches of the Buddleia scratched him lightly on the face. My mother and I were inside in the kitchen and we heard him shouting so we looked out the window. He marched into the shed and came back out with a chain saw and got right down to the base of that beautiful, big tree and cut it all down in a flash. ‘Try scratching me now you fucker’ was what he said as he dragged the dead Buddleia out from its place and away down the garden where he dumped it into the garden refuse. My mother and I were horrified. I am sure that within minutes of doing what he did and when his temper had cooled off, he must have felt horrified and ashamed of himself but it was way too late to do anything about it. Well, I suppose all living things have their time to be born and their time to die but despite the vicious way he hacked at the beautiful tree, it evidently was not it’s time to die. Otherwise, I would not be telling you this story because what I see before me now is resplendent with life and beauty and I wonder what he would think about that. He was a very difficult and angry man.

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Real time intervention. It is 9.15pm as I write. My little girl is no longer here. She is in her Dad’s house. We share custody. I have just gone outside to smoke and have heard a blood curdling scream coming from across the fields. Note to self: Ring guards in the morning if someone is found stabbed to death near my home.

I have been outside again. More blood curdling screams except that now I realise they are coming from a poor cow that is calving in agony at a farm nearby. Note to self: Never become a farmer. Bloody hell, the female of the species always gets the short end of the stick. Boy, I was lucky that I got a baby without having to burst every blood vessel in my body trying to push a person out of an insanely small space. Evolution really missed a trick with that one.

Kate rings or perhaps I ring her. We speak on the phone almost every day. Today we are having a rant about the local authorities and the exorbitant rates that they charge to shops and businesses along our streets. The shops in my town are closing down one by one because they are not taking in enough money to pay the rates and make a profit aswell. It would be almost impossible for them to do so. Kate has a jewellery shop in Dublin and she is pissed off big time. These imbeciles do not have the basic vision to realise that if they continue to charge rates that are so high they are putting people out of business, it will not be long before they have no one to charge at all and then what? Will they be walking around without an arse in their trousers like the rest of us? Probably not. They are sure to find another way to screw money out of people that don’t have it. Gobshites. Soon, all that will be missing from one of the two main streets in my town will be the tumbleweeds. Then they will increase the rates on main street number two and it too will go down the drain. Yesterday it was raining and I went online to look up activities in my area for children on a rainy day. There was an impressive list compiled by our Local Authority Tourism Office. There were 56 suggestions, all or them pubs and bars. An ideal environment for a child to hang out in on a wet day. I felt like throttling somebody but there never seems to be anyone available to throttle. I guess they are always very busy cooking up new ways to ensure that our town is eventually erased from the map altogether. Anyway, that was the nature of our rant. We always feel better after we have used up our extensive list of profanity on a deserving cause.

I make dinner. It is something that was frozen and is vile. I never cook properly for myself when Chang is not here. However, it punctuates the day. I am tired.

I am not sure if I have shown a day in my life in the exact order in which it happened but it is close. As for the rest of it, well the mundane and tedious nature of the remainder of my day would have you running for the hills so I will spare you that. I am nobody. Nobody knows or cares about how I spent my day but I do. It has made a difference to me. I am not famous or celebrated. I do not spark any curiosity in the minds of those who take a voyeuristic interest in what goes on behind the closed doors of someone who is famous because she is rich or because he is a footballer. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, my life on this earth is worth exactly the same as any other human being whether they are starving to death or living the high life. In the end we all die and at that precise moment equality is finally restored. We are no more and all that we have really left behind of any value are memories, both good and bad. Just think of all the memories created in the measure of one day!

Not Long Now

It is hard to believe that so much has happened and so much time has passed since I wrote the poem ‘Before you Came’.  Things were so different then. I was one half of a couple and now I am not. The one abiding thing that has remained unchanged however, is the love I feel for my daughter – in fact it has changed as it grows stronger all the time. This is a poem about how I am feeling now.

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NOT LONG NOW

She is eight years old
And I want time to stop.
Now when I hear her converse with Teddy
I feel an unwelcome thought
Pushing its way into my consciousness,
‘Not long now’

The Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus
Are on the cusp of obsolescence.
Maybe one more visit.
Then pretence for a year,
Perhaps two, before it is out in the open.
There was no magic. No squeezing down chimneys.
It was just us.

‘Us’ is already over.
She flits from one to the other.
I falter when she is gone.
So inconceivably alone,
Without her laugh, her voice, her snoring.
It is not what we promised her.
She is hurting but gracious.
I am overwhelmed with loss.

I love that she says ‘occluding’ for ‘including’,
That she says ‘technically’ in the wrong places,
That she still lets me choose her clothes,
That she loves me always.
Even when we quarrel – especially when we quarrel.
She says I am beautiful, that I am skinny.
I am neither.

She is entirely unaware of herself,
Her golden skin and black, almond eyes
Are to her, a given, and quite ordinary.
But they are not.
Her beauty is unsurpassed.
I gaze at it in wonder.
Breathing her in.
And an unwelcome thought
Pushes its way into my consciousness.
‘Not long now’.
I wish time would stop.

Why bother buying a hand crafted necklace? If you are in the market for a necklace now or at any time there are a plethora of options open to you. The first and cheapest option is to pop into Penney’s or Dunne’s and you can pick up something for a few euro. Necklaces like these can be priced as they are because they are mass produced, literally by the millions, usually In Asia and while there is nothing wrong with a trinket like this for a night out, in terms of materials, finish and longevity they are pretty much at the bottom of the scale.

One notch up from this is the jewellery you will find in the array of chain stores that occupy our shopping centres which cost a little more, but again, are seriously mass produced and are lacking in quality. The reason for this is that in order for this type of jewellery to have that super sparkle that catches your eye, it relies on a manufacturing process of placing foil-backed glass stones into base metal claw settings. The two main problems with this type of necklace is that if you have any kind of skin sensitivity to non- precious metals you will almost certainly have an unpleasant reaction wearing these items which often contain Zinc and Nickel (both toxic) and secondly, the claw-set stones invariably fall out very quickly and are not worth replacing because of the cost involved. The base-metals used are also soft and the claws have a tendency to lift and catch in clothing which we all know is a pain.  It is also worth noting that many of these mass produced products are manufactured using Acrylic (plastic) stones which scratch very easily and so lose their sparkle quickly. You may think that if you pay a lot more for this type of jewellery in boutique type stores on the high street that these problems are less prevalent but unfortunately this is not  always so. The retailer is simply making a massive mark-up on this ‘costume’ jewellery but it is still, in all likelihood, mass produced in Asia and is prone to all the same problems as the cheaper versions of the same thing.

When you purchase a hand-crafted necklace from me, first of all you are purchasing a unique piece that will never be replicated. All the elements (beads, pearls, pendants, gemstones, crystal….) used are of the highest quality and are chosen with care after the concept has been settled on and the piece has been designed. Each bead or hand wired drop is strung on to a double length of beading wire for added durability with great care and attention always given to the attaching of the catch and extension chains. I always use sterling silver extension chains and almost always use sterling silver catches unless the piece calls for a very large catch in which case I will use a high quality silver plated catch in an effort to keep costs down. On pieces where I use cord it is always leather or suede. Even on a simple design, from start to finish, it is a time consuming process but to be honest I can’t remember when I last built in costs to cover my time in a piece I made. Last, but not least, by purchasing from me or other local craftspeople and artists you are keeping your money in circulation in your own town. You are providing the local Arts and Crafts community with resources to continue doing what they do. You are purchasing a product that is of a quality you will never find in a mass produced product. This is not going to be something you throw to the kids to play dress-up but rather something you will keep to give to children or grandchildren when they get older.

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At a time when money and expenditure is such a huge issue for people one might question why pay a little more for something when every cent counts but I am very aware of this and it is hugely reflected in how I price my work.  I do not charge for time.  My post and packing charges are at a bare minimum and with some of my complex necklace and earring sets coming in for as little as €35, you can see that I am currently only charging for materials. I am happy to do this for now because to me, it would be invaluable to have a good customer base who could vouch for what I am saying here.  In other words, there has never been a better time to buy from Dearbhla’s Jewellery by design on Facebook or BEADSfromIreland on Etsy (still stocking that shop). By the way, if you would like to help but can’t afford to purchase anything, please ‘like’ Dearbhla’s Jewellery by design on facebook in order to get updates of my listings with special offers, free competitions etc and ‘share’ if you like what you see.

REMEMBERING MY MOTHER

REMEMBERING MY MOTHER
By Dearbhla Egan

Christmas 2012

2012-10-10 11.15.11 (2)

Ah Mam
What am I to do
Without you?
You’d think I would know.
Fifteen years
Trying to cross
The river of tears.
But the stepping stones
Are slippery
And so I fall
Thrashing, gasping
Woman-child drowning
In the salt waters
Of loss.

Where are you Mam?
When need exceeds ability
When love threatens
To wipe me out?
When loneliness
Envelops me
Sadness swallows me
Depression numbs me
Emptyness fills me
And the salt waters
Of loss
Drown me?

There is no forgetting
Your lightness of touch
The smell of your hair
Your need to feed
That sudden laugh
Joy by you
‘Joy’ by Jean Patou
Confiding in you
Conspiring with you
Desiring with you
Loving with you
Living with you
Dying with you.

Take my hand Mam,
I am your child.
Come with me
Lead me safely
Over the ocean
The salt waters of loss
The waves of grief
And into the arms
Of morning
Where you are waiting
Living in me
No longer child
But Mother
Swimming, breathing,
in the fresh waters of life.

This is an excerpt from a novel I have been working on for some time. It is a work of fiction, set in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), and is a family saga spanning five decades. This short excerpt is set during the early 1970’s.

They had carefully packed their things the night before, making sure not to wake Pita or Mama. Noor had found a large old wicker picnic basket under the stairs that closed over like a suitcase. All the picnic things were missing. Like everything that Nainai Chira hoarded under the stairs it was too worthless to keep and too good to throw out. Noor carefully secured her socks and several knickers using the brown leather straps that once held the knives and forks in place. She also packed two pairs of jeans, three pink t-shirts, a toothbrush, a book, a spoon, a small ceramic bowl with “I ♥ Bombay” on it, and a blue and white pyjamas that had once belonged to Aashka but that she liked to wear now. Aashka’s packing was far simpler.

“What are you taking?” Noor asked him.

“Not half the contents of the house like you”, he said. “I like to travel light.”

“What are you talking about? You have never travelled anywhere before in your life. Not overnight.”

Aashka whipped out a bright pink plastic carrier bag from beneath the bed and emptied the contents on to the floor. There were jeans, a t-shirt, underwear, a toothbrush and a fold-up umbrella.

“Is that it?,” Noor asked. “We are going away for ever and that is all you want to bring with you?”

“As I said, I like to travel light and don’t expect me to carry that ridiculous basket of yours when you get tired o.k.”

“O.k., but don’t expect me to lend you my knickers when your only pair of underpants becomes all stinky. Yuk”.

Nainai Chira hoarded cash at various different locations around the house because she mistrusted banks. Aashka knew just about all of her best hiding spots. Although he was usually considered to be the well behaved child, in fact Aashka was quite an accomplished little thief and over many months, long before the attack, he had been filtering small amounts of money from Nainai Chira’s stash. By the time they were ready to leave he had saved almost 5,000 Rupee which he knew was equal to almost 150 US dollars. Nanai Chira had been relentless in teaching them the value of money. 5000 Rupee was a lot of money for a young boy to carry around but necessary, he knew, to keep them fed and safe. He would keep this money wrapped in a muslin purse that tied around his waist and stuffed down into his underpants.

There was only one road in and one road out of Benapur, the main road to Bombay. The next morning, as soon as Pita and Mama had left to collect Nainai Chira, the two children made their way as quickly as they could away from the house and out on to the dusty, busy road. They walked through the village before they started to hitch-hike to avoid drawing attention to themselves. When they were about half a mile beyond the village and there were fewer people about Noor stuck out her arm and started hitching, turning her thumb up and down, up and down. Yes. No. Yes. No. Aashka moved his arm from side to side. This way. This way. Before long a tired and rusty white truck pulled over and a male voice shouted out.

“Now, where are you two little travellers going on this fine day?”

As the truck was high up and they could not see who was speaking, Aashka, being the tallest, pushed himself up on the high step and looked in through the open window. Noor, delighted to have secured a ride, stood behind him with one hand on each of his buttocks pushing him further up. The first thing Aashka noticed was that the man was filthy with protruding yellow teeth and a lurid grin on his face. The second thing he noticed was that he had his dhoti hitched over to one side exposing his penis and his two purple balls hanging there like rotting plums. Noor continued to push Aashka from behind.

“Hurry up and get in Aashka mon. We have a ride,” she shouted.

Aashka turned to her and said loudly.

“Shut up Noor and get your hands off me right now.”

Noor fell back like a jelly person and landed on the ground as though she had been hit.

“No thank you sir,” said Aashka as he jumped down from the step of the truck and the driver took off shouting profanities at the children much of which they didn’t understand. Aashka stood with his hands on his hips, watching as the rusty truck disappeared and said, mostly to himself, “boy, that was close”. It was only then that he noticed Noor in tears sitting in the dust beside him.

“Oh my word, what is the matter bahana?”

Noor looked up at him, her face streaked with dust and tears.

“You shouted at me Aashka. You screamed at me. You have never shouted at me before. What did I do that was so wrong?,” she asked.

“Noor you don’t understand. When I looked through the window of the truck that man had his duzzy sticking out of his dhoti for all to see,” he replied.

“So what’s the big deal? In the market the old men go around with their duzzies flopping about all the time. They piss on the side of the road. I have seen more duzzies than I’ve had hot dinners,” Noor said indignantly, standing up and swiping the tears from her face with her long sleeves.

Aashka looked embarrassed and his face flushed.

“Noor, trust me. No lifts with duzzy men o.k.? It is dangerous. Do you understand?”

“A little bit. Now we are wasting time. We should start to move on.”

After what had just happened Aashka had his doubts. If they could find themselves in such danger a short distance outside Benapur what might be ahead of them in Bombay?

“Come along Aashka mon. Soon they will start looking for us and they will find us in ten minutes if we are standing here on the roadside.”

Noor stuck out her arm, brazenly turning her thumb up and down, up and down. Yes. No. Yes. No. Taking a deep breath Aashka began to move his arm from side to side. This way. This way. Before long a woman driving a shiny blue Toyota pulled up beside the children. She got out of her car and walked over to them. Noor’s mouth dropped open. She had never seen anyone wear such a beautiful sari, turquoise and gold at the top blending into sky blue and silver at the bottom. There were glittering sequins and stones sewn all through the silk and they sparkled brightly in the morning sun. Her arms were covered in gold bangles and around her neck she wore a heavy, flat gold chain which she toyed with in her hand. There was a red Bindi spot on her forehead. She was not young. She was not old. She was almost pretty. She had kind eyes and a gold tooth when she smiled. She told them her name was Jaya and asked how they came to be hitch-hiking alone without an adult. Aashka spluttered.

“We are visiting our grandmother in Bombay. She is not well and our parents are meeting us there you see.”

“I see,” said Jaya. “Well perhaps you better come with me then. You know there are some very dangerous people about. I will deliver you safely to your parents.”

“Yes, yes,” Noor replied. “Only a short while ago a dangerous man tried to attack Aashka with his duzzy.”

Aashka rolled his eyes upwards with embarrassment.

“Come now children. Get into the car before something like that happens to you again,” Jaya said as she smiled at the children while opening the back door of the car. Noor was pleased to get in as her picnic basket was becoming something of an encumbrance and she was glad of the rest. As Jaya started to drive Noor noticed that she wore rings on every finger as well as her thumbs. One of the rings had the letter ‘J’ set out in rubies. Jaya was very inquisitive and Aashka found it difficult to keep up the lying particularly when Noor felt the need to join in and embellish what he was saying making it sound totally unbelievable.

“Where do you both come from?,” Jaya asked.

“Oh we come from the village of Benapur. Our father is a tailor there,” Aashka answered.

“That’s right,” said Noor. “He looks after all the animals with disease of the tail. He is very famous for it.” Aashka cringed and gave her a dig with his elbow and a filthy look. Noor stuck out her tongue at him. After a short while Jaya noticed a man selling bananas on the side of the road and pulled over.

“Noor darling, would you be so good as to hop out and get me a large bunch of bananas? I will wait for you here.” She handed Noor a crumpled note from the bottom of her sparkly purse. Noor did not think twice and jumped out of the car.

“Do you want to come with me Aashka,” she said, but Aashka shook his head. “No, I’m tired, you go on.”

On Growing up in Catholic Ireland and the Freedom of Athiesm

I was born in the early 1960’s in Catholic Ireland and just two months shy of my fourth birthday I was installed in an all-girls primary school that was run by Presentation nuns.  From that moment on my indoctrination into the Catholic faith and Christianity began with vigour.  Nothing on the educational curriculum was regarded with more importance than the teaching of religion. Second to that came the teaching of the Irish language –Gaelic – although the subject was always referred to simply as ‘Irish’.   So, I was automatically signed up for life to a religion that condemned abortion, contraception and homosexuality.  When I was in secondary school the average size of a family in my clasroom was seven siblings.  As an average this was derived from a class of forty children with the largest family having fourteen children and the smallest having three.  I think it is fair to say that by today’s standards, most families could have been considered large and poverty was widespread.  In my town,  there was a woman who had twenty four surviving children during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  She spent the bulk of her adult life in a state of pregnancy and terrible poverty.  The church did nothing to help her and if it was not for the goodwill of her neighbours who were also living in poverty I suspect some of her children would not have survived.  That she survived into old age was quite something.  To this day her family name is the most common surname in my town.

During the course of the 13 years I would spend in the hands of the Presentation, and later, Mercy nuns in all-girl schools they did a fine job in filling my mind with fear and guilt.  There was really very little that you could do that could not be somehow construed as sinful and away from the path of God.  We learned that God was someone to be terrified of because the wrath of God was a mighty force against sin and sinners and cursed were those who drew down that wrath upon themselves by behaving in an ‘ungodly’ way.  The Ten Commandments were the rules by which we were meant to live our lives as good and proper Christians but the commandments left no room for errors or mistakes.  The tiniest slip and your only recourse for redemption was to go to confession and admit your mistakes to a priest in a confession box where he would mutter a few prayers and absolve you of your sins once you had made recompense by saying a couple of decades of the Rosary.  The worse the sin, the more prayers you had to say in order to have a clean slate.   How was a small child meant to understand such a ludicrous concept?  I clearly remember, after having made my ‘first confession’ at about the age of seven, having to ask my parents what I should say to the priest every week during confession as I just could not see through my child’s eyes how I had done anything particularly bad from week to week.  I would then be coached by my mother to tell the priest how I had ‘been unkind to my brother’ or was ‘cheeky to my father’ or ‘failed to share my sweets’. Oh yes, hell and damnation was surely waiting for a child who had committed such ‘wrong doing’ without even being aware of it themselves.

Of course, there was a much darker side to the behaviour of the nuns, priests and brothers of the Catholic Church typified by the extreme cruelty that was used against the innocent children who were unfortunate enough to be at their mercy.  The horrific beatings that were doled out on a daily basis against children whose only sin was to be poor, or intellectually weak or just present, defied description and flew in the face of all the teachings about Christianity that they delivered with such zeal.  As time moved on and the allegations and subsequent proof of rampant sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests and brothers eventually would prove to be the final undoing of the hold that the Catholic Hierarchy had held over the people of Ireland for centuries. Along with the sexual abuse scandals another story emerged.  It was the story of how young, unmarried girls who had become pregnant during the 1950’s and 1960’s had been sent away to the Magdalene Laundry’s  into a life of intolerable mental and physical cruelty, little better than the Nazi work camps that existed during World War II.  Many of these young women died under the harsh conditions even before they gave birth and many more died during childbirth. Those who survived had their babies taken from them before they had a chance to see them and the babies were swiftly delivered into the hands of waiting families who wished to adopt.   The state of fear that was instilled in these women meant that it literally took decades before some of them began to speak out and the horror of life in the Laundry’s became publically known. Is it any wonder that faith in the Catholic Church began to crumble and people who had been staunch Catholics all their lives began to stop attending mass and confession as they learned more and more about the atrocities committed by  members of the institution they had looked to, without question  for Christian guidance. The existence of holy orders of Christian Brothers and Nuns are now almost obselete and the teaching of religion in schools is in the hands of lay teachers. Thankfully the rights of children is now of paramount importance and while the system is still far from perfect it is a long way from the horrific practices of the past.

But one did not have to look at such extremes to witness the capacity for brutality that existed within the Catholic educational system.  All Christian Brothers who taught children were equipped with a handmade implement for beating little boys that was called a ‘leather’.  It was made up of four thick strips of leather that were sewn together with a loop at one end that was used as a grip.  It was about 16 to 18 inches long.  This disgusting instrument was used on a daily basis to beat or ‘leather’ little boys brutally on the hands, arms and legs or any exposed skin.  The brutality of the beatings was meant to corrolate somehow with the extent of the ‘wrongdoing’ that the child had perpetrated but it had a lot more to do with the physical strength of the Brother and his personal zeal for dealing out punishments.  As girls were not educated by Christian Brothers they were spared this particular level of violence.  When children arrived home battered and bruised, parents seldom intervened as they were instilled with a fear of going against the practices of the Church.  On the rare occassions when an enraged father approached an offending Brother and issued a warning or a threat the child in question would subsequently be ignored in every possible way for the remaining time he spent in ‘the care’ of the Christian Brothers.  My own husband who was a small and thin child for his age was regularly ‘leathered’ but fortunately by the time he had completed primary school the first of the technical schools that were run by lay teachers had opened and he went there to complete his schooldays in peace. When I look at photos of him as a small child it breaks my heart to think that anyone could beat and batter him into submission with a leather.  He is still scarred by this experience to this day as are most men of his age in Ireland.  The Brothers, it turned out, were also guilty of rampant sexual abuse against boys who attended institutional schools during the 1950’s and 1960’s before they were shut down.  These crimes against children did not come to light until much later.  It emerged that the Catholic Hierarchy had ‘covered up’ and protected the perpetrators of these crimes against children for years, often moving paedophile priests from one parish to another when complaints were made thus putting yet more innocent children at terrible risk.  When, eventually, the cries of the victims became too loud to ignore, public apologies were made by bishops and archbishops, compensation money was doled out but it was all too little, too late.  No words or money could undo the damage that had been inflicted on the innocents.

By the time I had finished secondary school (high school) and was preparing to go to college I had regularly begun to skip going to Mass every Sunday and the confession box was long gone.  My parents were unhappy about this but they knew enough about me to recognise that trying to force me to comply was futile and that I had made my mind up to abandon the rituals of Catholicism. Abandoning the notion of God was not quite as easy however and I still carried with me the fear and guilt that had been instilled in me since childhood.  I also found myself turning to God regularly when I was in need.  I would pray to him vehemently to please help me out of a difficult situation or to change or undo something that was going wrong.  Despite the fact that God mostly ignored my pleas for help I still had a strong sense that he was out there somewhere, watching and waiting, as I played self-destruction with my life.

Of course one of the main stumbling blocks for any self-respecting Irish Catholic revolved around matters of sex and sexuality. Sex outside the sanctity of marriage was strictly forbidden and while I actively chose to ignore this rule from my twenties onwards, in the aftermath of my exploits, I was always filled with a sense of guilt and regret. God certainly knew how to rain on that particular parade.  Of course life moved along, always with me see-sawing between good-girl/bad-girl, never quite escaping the notion that my behaviour would determine my chances of whether I would finally end up in heaven or hell.  It was taking me rather a long time to shake off all the ridiculous notions and beliefs that had been so successfully instilled in me during the formative years of my life – but why?  Well that is the power of indoctrinating a belief system in children.  Even many years later when you have developed a questioning adult mind it is hard to believe how deeply buried in the psyche that these earlier beliefs can sit.

Occasionally ‘God’ came in handy when the inexplicable happened and the need to blame someone was overwhelming.  Natural disasters, famine, disease and other tragedies that wiped out the poor, the unfortunate, the helpless.  Surely someone had to be held responsible and god took the heat as far as I was concerned.  Of course I would come to realise that the explanation was more complex, a combination of nature, governments, capitalism and neglect by the wider world to mention but a few of the factors that contributed to these catastrophic events.  Blaming god was handy but also a cop-out.

But eventually I did begin to question and it took the death of my mother from cancer and the sadness and anger that the loss evoked to make me start looking at things from a more impartial and scientific point of view.  As much as I longed for it to be true that I would meet my mother in the next life, to somehow believe that her death was merely a pause in time before we would meet again, I just knew that it did not make a shred of sense.  My mother was gone and that was that.  It was not an acceptance that was easy to embrace in those awful months of bereavement following her death but as time passed and my mind filled with more and more questions about the meaning of life I just knew and finally accepted completely that this life is as much as we have and it amounts to a great deal indeed.  What this meant for me was that instead of living each day in fear of how many points I could score or lose with God, I could take each day as it came and live it to the best of my ability, being the best person I could hope to be – warts and all!

It is a very freeing experience to reach this conclusion, to finally be able to shed all the nonsense that has been imposed upon you and to see the environment you live in and the people around you from a fresh and healthy perspective.  For the most part I believe in the idea that we should ‘live and let live’ but I strongly object to the indoctrination of small children into any formal religion.  I abhor religious extremism whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever, simply because it promotes partition, exclusion, war and the suppression of women.  I have seen at first-hand what this kind of thinking can do having lived in a country where war between Catholic and Protestant prevailed for so long and so many lives were lost in what has been referred to as ‘the cause’.  Two days ago a prison warden was shot dead in his car on the way to work by Republican activists.  It is the first shooting of its kind to take place in Northern Ireland in many years of a ceasefire.  The entire Nation has been shocked and horrified and naturally frightened lest a retaliatory killing takes place which is how the war has escalated in the past – an eye for an eye… This is just one example of what religious extremism can do.  Surely this and the wars that go on around the world in the name of God, Allah or other Deities are very, very wrong.

I was overjoyed recently when my six year old daughter returned home from her non-denominational school in a state of heightened excitement to tell her Dad and I that she had learned that we used to be ‘monkeys’ and that we used to have ‘tails’.  I can promise you that there was no room for Darwin’s Theory in the classrooms of my youth. Naturally enough, as it would contradict every ridiculous notion about the Genesis of Mankind and the idea that the earth is less than six thousand years old according toThe Old Testament. Finally I would say that the sense of relief that I have experienced when I finally gave up searching for a spiritual entity in my life that simply did not exist and accepted that this wonderful world I live in is the gift I was searching for – and what a gift it is.  Who could possibly want for more?

Alison’s Summer

  

Alison’s Summer

The new motorway changed everything. Now Ridge Road is a tree-lined suburban street. The only people who go down Ridge Road are people who are going to get on the bus and go to work in the morning. The only people who come up Ridge Road are the people who get off the bus and walk up the road in the evening on their way back home.

Alison lives on Ridge   Road. It is summer time, but the summer has not proved to be all that Alison wanted it to be. Although she plays tennis during the day and goes swimming and hangs around with Tim Davis as much as Tim Davis will allow her to hang around with him since he is a year older than her, she is bored – like, totally.

Her mother has said, ‘Young lady, if I hear you say one more time you’re bored…….’ so, Alison goes into the bathroom, locks the door and looks into the sympathetically listening mirror and says, ‘Boring, boring, boring, boring.’

It was in this frame of mind that our ten-year-old Alison began to plant pennies. She looked around to make sure no one was looking and then went down three houses from her own house and with a yellow chalk drew a large arrow on the footpath and wrote ‘TREASURE AHEAD’.  Three squares farther down the footpath she drew another arrow and wrote ‘TREASURE THIS WAY’.  Then directly in front of her house she drew a sideways arrow and wrote ‘TREASURE NEAR’.  The arrow pointed to a large tree in Alison’s front yard which split about four feet from the ground and in the notch of that tree Alison planted a penny.

Then she ran upstairs to her second floor bedroom window which faced the front lawn and the tree and the footpath and she watched all the people go by.

No two people went by in the same way. Some people just walked on. They never looked down at the arrows at all. Other people walked on by and looked down at the arrows but didn’t stop. They sensed that they were going to be tricked. There were people who got to the sideways arrow and gave it a sideways glance.

There was a woman who went all the way to the tree. She peeked into the notch and found the coin. She flipped it in the air, grabbed it and went on her way. Alison replaced it immediately.

There was a man who went to the tree. He looked in, picked up the penny and looked at it like a rare coin collector and put it back. No, thank you very much.

From her second floor bedroom window, Alison saw them all. She hoped that the hurriers would stop, the stoppers would seek, the seekers would find and the finders would rejoice and she would come down from the second floor and place another coin in the tree.

Alison’s favourite was a tall, thin, young man, with a business suit and briefcase. Although he was dressed like that he didn’t fool Alison for a moment. She knew that when he got home he took off those clothes and put on jeans and a T-shirt and played basketball in the back yard before dinner.

The first day he walked on by and never looked down at those arrows at all. The second day, when he got to the sideways arrow, he did give the tree a sly glance. The third day when he got to the sideways arrow he genuflected to tie his shoe.

From her bedroom window, Alison saw him and thought to herself, ‘He needs help’.  It was late that very night when Alison was thinking about how to help him that she looked out her bedroom window and there through the dark and tangled leaves of the tree approached a tall, thin, young man in jeans and a T-shirt. Instinctively Alison knew it was him and she threw open the window and yelled ‘Go for it!’.

The young man looked up like he had suddenly been drenched by a storm he had not seen coming. In the surprise of having been found out he turned and began to run away from Alison and the treasure she had planted there especially for him. From her second floor bedroom window as she watched him run farther and farther away, his back bobbing off into the darkness, she thought to herself, ‘I’ll get him yet!’.

Summers passed and Alison finally hooked the tall, thin young man.  Strangely, when he found the coin, as she watched from her window, he dug a small hole with his hands in the soft soil under the tree and buried it.  Alison retrieved it the next morning and replaced it in the tree, for a penny is a penny, and not to be wasted.  He never came by again.

Years passed and Alison learned a lot about people as they reacted to her game.  She also learned a lot about waiting. When the time came for her own daughter to complain that she was ‘bored, bored, bored’ Alison told her the story and gave her a penny and some chalk. She, however, found no joy in watching and waiting and used the chalk instead to draw pictures on the pavement.  Sometimes people stopped to look but mostly they just walked on by.  She tossed the penny into a jar, for a penny is only a penny, and what can you do with that?  But Alison knew that in time, her daughter would learn, in her own way, about the thrill of watching and waiting and how something as simple as a humble penny can reveal many things about yourself and others.  She just needed time to become a little more bored.

Raji and Amber Allen in Benapur

I would like to explain that the selection of prose that I have published on my blog are excerpts from a large volume of work that aspires to some day be a completed novel. The excerpts are not published in the order in which they appear in the story and, of course, each excerpt is shown out of context so, unlike a short story, is incomplete and may not make a great deal of ‘sense’ in it’s own right. However I have endeavoured to publish excerpts that are long enough to evoke interest in the characters theirin and perhaps to pique curiosity about the rest of the ‘story’.

Raji and Amber Allen in Benapur

 

One beautiful Spring morning, slightly less than a year after Aashka had disappeared, the early crimson sun cast it’s colour across the perfectly manicured gardens and façade of the old house.  The rainy season had been relentless for several weeks and the results of the endless labour that had been put in by Dalpati  in the gardens, had now reached the peak of its splendour.  The Bougainvillea, Jasmine and Lotus flowers were in full bloom and the garden had a heady scent of perfume.  Surrounded by such beauty and the gentle morning sun even the old house looked quite regal and peaceful where it stood. A passer-by could be forgiven for thinking that they were looking at an idyllic scene of domestic harmony.  How could they know that behind the scenes all hell was breaking loose.

Earlier that day, about two hours before sunrise, a shiny hired car had pulled up outside the gates of the old house.  The driver got out, opened both unlocked gates and proceeded to drive up the avenue, parking directly in front of the main entrance to the house. The driver of the car was Nainai Chira’s older son, Raji, Dalip’s brother, Noor and Aashka’s uncle but of course Aashka didn’t count because he wasn’t there anymore.

Raji had made the trip from New York to Benapur without giving prior notice to his mother.  He was accompanied by his oldest stepdaughter, Amber Allen, who was 13 years old. His wife Elizabeth, stepson Elliot and their own five year old daughter, Melissa had stayed in New York at Elizabeth’s request. Having heard many stories about Nainai Chira and the wrath of her temper and having seen the few letters that had come over the years warning Raji not to appear in Benapur with the ‘American divorcee’ and her children she had no desire to put herself in the firing line. It was only after much begging and gentle persuasion that she agreed to allow Amber, her oldest child to accompany Raji on his trip. He had convinced her that a trip to India would be an invaluable learning experience for Amber especially since she would be with him and therefore completely safe.   Nevertheless, As Elizabeth waved goodbye to them at the airport she instantly developed a knot in her stomach that would not go away.  The knot was telling her that she had made a huge mistake and until she would see Amber again in one piece she would not sleep at night.  Her instincts, as it turned out, were most astute.

Nainai Chira’s displeasure with Raji began when he decided to take up a position as a surgeon at a general hospital in New   York.

“What about all the years you have spent studying here and the cost of it Raji, the cost? Doctors like you are needed in India.  This is where you will make a   name for yourself.  Not in America.  There you will be just one of the black  skinned doctors that they treat like dirt. And what about poor Saadya Phad?  Has she just been a pass-time for you all these months or are you thinking of dragging her half way across the world with you also?  Her father will have  something to say about that Raji.  He is already unhappy with you that  there has not been a wedding  before now.  And the cost Raji, the cost.  I have  barely a few Rupees left between paying for you and now Dalip only for you  to take off the minute you have completed your training.  I will tell you this, if  you go ahead with your plan to leave you will return every single rupee I have   sacrificed for you in good faith.  And what is more, know this, if you leave for   New York you better say all of your goodbyes because you will not be coming      back here to Benapur when it all goes wrong as it will.  Let’s see what a great  man you are now when you do not have your mama to bail you out when the going gets tough.”

And the ranting, conversations and recriminations went on and on but Raji left anyway, knowing, quite correctly, that his mother had enough money to purchase the entire village of Benapur if she should so choose.  Poor Saadya Phad, a beautiful nurse at The Asha Parikh Heart Hospital where Raji worked, cried uncontrollably for weeks after he left and was married off  to a man of her fathers choosing within three months of Raji’s departure. She would never be a happy woman. Raji Adani had stolen her soul as well as her heart.

From the beginning Raji wrote home regularly, sending money and telling uplifting stories about how well things were going for him there. He sometimes mentioned the names of female Hindi staff members with whom he was friendly but there was no one in particular.  Dalip dreaded when the letters came as Nainai Chira’s mood clouded over.  She did not want to hear that Raji was making a success of things making her feel redundant. Dalip would be treated to a long and angry tirade warning him that he better not try and repeat his brother’s stunt when he was qualified. Dalip would have liked nothing more than to get away from her and the old house but he had foolishly promised Raji that he would not leave her alone. How clever of Raji, he thought, to manage his escape and to keep him in captivity at the same time.  The letters that Raji sent were all much the same, talking about work, the friends he was making, where he was living and so on.  Nothing prepared them for the letter they got telling them that he was engaged to be married to an American radiologist who was divorced for several years and had two children and a friendly labrador.  Her name was Elizabeth Allen and according to Raji, although she was a little older than him (eleven years), she was without a doubt the love of his life.

Only after Saashi had finally managed to sit Chira down and plied her with several glasses of brandy and after Dalip had talked himself hoarse trying to placate her,  she eventually asked for a pen and paper and began to write to Raji.

‘Raji,

No words can describe the disappointment and shame I felt on receipt of your  most recent letter and the news it contained. You have taken all the dreams I   had for you and crushed them without a thought for me. To hear that you have decided to turn your back so completely on your faith and your country for the selfish pleasure you get from this divorced American woman and her children breaks my heart. It is absolutely final now that you must never return home.

I must now set about fabricating a story to tell your uncles and aunts and   cousins and all the neighbours about your life.  A tall tale to cover up the shame you are bringing down on the family.  Imagine forcing your own  mother to lie for you. This letter therefore is my final goodbye to you  Raji.  I hope in your life you will never know such pain.

Your Mother, Chira.’

It had been over ten years ago since Raji had received that letter.  In between he had enjoyed a very happy marriage with Elizabeth and they had a child of their own now as well as his stepchildren who he adored and who adored him.  He still wrote occasionally to his mother but never heard a word in reply and he spoke to Dalip on the phone at the hospital. All the same, when asked by strangers where he was from he would always say ‘Bombay’.  Even after ten years without going home it would never occur to him to identify himself as a ‘New Yorker’.

Then, one morning, just as he had completed a complex surgery and was washing up an urgent call came through for him.  Immediately panicking that something had happened to Elizabeth or the children he took up the phone with trembling hands.  He was surprised to hear Dalip’s voice crisp and clear on the line.  Again he panicked thinking that something was wrong with his mother but Dalip reassured him that she was fine.  He then realised that the problem lay with Dalip as he became aware of the tone of his brother’s voice.  Dalip hesitantly began to tell Raji about the ‘terrible thing’. Dalip broke down as he relayed the little information he had about the abduction of little Aashka.  The fact that this incident had occurred over six months previously and that he was only hearing about it now made Raji feel very excluded.  He was horrified by the story and told Dalip that he would be coming home straight away.  Dalip begged him not to.  Nainai Chira was not doing well.  Naheem was in very bad shape too and in the end there was nothing he could do that the police had not already done.

For almost four months Raji spoke to Dalip on the phone every day.  There was never any news of Aashka.  Naheem, apparently, had fallen in to a deep and all consuming depression and was very ill both physically and mentally.  However, just prior to Raji making a decision to return to Benapur, Dr Solomon Plant had intervened in Naheem’s situation and her health and wellbeing had slowly started to pick up. Of course, none of them could have known then why Solomon Plant took such an interest in Naheem.  Only time itself would reveal his motives.

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