Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Joys of Winter Cycling

Despite the winter weather, I’m still cycling regularly. Two or three times a week, depending on the conditions, I put my layers on: four on my top and feet, three on my legs, two pairs of gloves and a fleece-lined cap that covers my ears. It takes me about a quarter of an hour to get all of this kit on. I feel a little like a medieval knight preparing for a tournament; I wish I had a squire to help me. And why am I doing this? Because, I can.

For each of the past three years I have had a major operation in the autumn. This means that I’ve spent each previous winter in recovery, each spring building up my strength and each summer doing activities, such as cycling and walking. All with the prospect of having to go back into hospital to be cut open and having to cope with the pain and incapacity of it all over again.

I’m delighted to say that I’m still all clear and there is no surgery on the horizon. So this is the first year that the pattern has been broken and I am celebrating that fact by continuing my cycling into the winter. I don’t know how long I will keep going. I’m not masochistic, I’ve only been going out on the bike if the temperature is above 5 degrees and it isn’t raining. But with the relatively mild winter so far, that has made many days possible. I’m very glad to be able to do it and I can feel the strength coming back into my legs.

There is a fellowship of winter bike riders. Even on the busiest routes, such as the Newry Canal Cycleway, you don’t come across many people braving the conditions. We give one another a cheery wave or a greeting and stop to check if we see another rider with a problem. Yesterday on the cycleway I saw only two other riders, one of whom I know well as he is also a member of the Sing for Life Choir. It had been a drizzly morning. I set off at midday, trusting the Norwegian Weather Forecast (which is usually very accurate) that it would soon clear. Unfortunately it didn’t subside until mid-afternoon and by then I was damp and cold, despite it being 8 degrees, having had to go though some shallow flood water on the cyclepath from Scarva to Portadown.

When cycling, you are always colder than the actual air temperature because you are travelling through it at speed and get steadily chilled. In the summer, this is lovely and cooling, particularly when the temperature is above 25 degrees. In the winter, you need to stop regularly and walk around to heat up, or better still go into a warm cafe and have a hot drink or soup. My favourite stopping place is the Petty Sessions cafe in Poyntzpass. Currently they have a very large fir tree in front of the cafe complete with Xmas lights. You always get a warm welcome from Helena Gamble and her helpful staff. The food is great, they do fine soup and Irish Stew as well as fantastic fruit pies (made by Mrs Copeland). Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to motivate yourself to go outside and get on the bike again.





Sunday, 18 November 2018

With John and Yoko in Mayo

We were booked to escape to our favourite West-coast haunt, but I had been in bed for three days with a bad cold. After some debate we decided to go. T did the long drive, whilst I consumed throat lozenges and Lemsips. After a fine evening meal in the Nephin restaurant and a good sleep, I felt I was starting to improve. We spent much of the first day in the leisure centre using the sauna and steam room and relaxing in the heated pool; we pretty much had the facilities to ourselves, it was a stormy November and there were few guests.

The Mulranny Park Hotel was opened in 1897 as a railway hotel on the Westport to Achill line. Unfortunately, the railway line was not a success and was closed in 1937. The building then went through various incarnations, being completely refurbished and reopened as a four star hotel eight years ago. The hotel’s most famous guests were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who spent a weekend there in June 1968 (fans need to ask for room 238).

In 1967 John had bought an island in Clew Bay for £1700 at an auction. He wanted it as a retreat from the pressures of being a Beatle. After this success he came to Mayo with his then wife Cynthia and their son Julian. He bought a Romany caravan, painted it psychedelic colours and got a local man to take it to the island for him. John, Cynthia and Julian went to the island by boat; it is not known how long they stayed in the caravan, or indeed if that was John’s first visit to Mayo. This little bit of local history was the inspiration for a fine recent novel by Kevin Barry called ‘Beatlebone’.

John then left Cynthia for Yoko and after working on what would become the White Album, they flew to Mulranny and then on to the island by helicopter. It seems that John and Yoko didn’t have a good experience there, it was nesting time and the sea-birds that had inhabited the island undisturbed for ages, dive-bombed the new arrivals. Yoko, in particular, took against the place. They returned to Mulranny by helicopter and left for London the next day.

John kept the island for some years, but he never returned. Instead he offered it to a hippy friend, Sid Rawle, who set up a commune there. The Romany caravan was joined by a collection of tepees as around twenty hippies came to live there. But de Valera’s repressive theocratic Ireland was not a hospitable place for them, even in a remote part of Mayo. The commune did not thrive and eventually the island was sold.

For the remainder of our stay at the hotel we split our days between the leisure centre and short walks along the greenway. I think it was the combination of the sauna and the steam room that helped me the most. The fine meals and good sleeps were very important too. By the second day, my sinuses were clearing and my aches began to leave me. On the final day I ventured into the hot-tub. It was great to lie back in the fresh air, watching the clouds scudding in from John Lennon’s erstwhile island and to have warm water bubbling all around me. By the time our wee break was finished, I was fully recovered. Although it didn’t prove to be a sanctuary for John and Yoko, it certainly worked for me.




Saturday, 27 October 2018

Squirrel goes for Treatment

Our semi-feral ginger cat has had a bad eye for a wee while. We wondered if his eye had been injured in a fight, as he often has scratches on his face. But his eye kept weeping and we thought it might be infected. So we decided to take him to the vet. Given that Squirrel is semi-feral and is afraid of being in enclosed spaces, such as a room in our house, this presented us with a challenge.

The vet told us that cats must be brought to the practice in a box. We checked out cat boxes but they were very small. Given his enclosure phobia we decided that we would never get him inside one. But we knew that Squirrel trusted us enough to let us pick him up. In our arms he was quite relaxed for a while and purred as we stroked him. So we thought that I could pick him up and take him to the car and T would drive us to the vet, which was in Banbridge some five miles away. We reckoned that this would probably be the only way that he could get treated, and it was worth a try.

The day of his appointment came and our journey began. I picked Squirrel up and sat in the passenger seat. He didn’t seem troubled. So far so good. T started the car. Squirrel wriggled and tried to find where the noise was coming from. But he settled again. Then T began to reverse out of the drive. Squirrel struggled out of my arms and climbed up onto my shoulder. He was looking through the side window. As we turned into the lane Squirrel leapt onto the back seat and scrambled onto the parcel shelf. He pushed his head against the rear window and clawed at it. He was trying to get out. Then he turned from the back of the car and raced towards the front. Running between the front seats he leapt above the dashboard and tried to get out through the windscreen, emitting the most plaintive howls.

We stopped the car. We had gone only fifty yards. I opened the door. Squirrel jumped out and lay on the ground, rolling around happily. We took him back to the house and gave him some food and milk. The ordeal of the journey to the vet seemed to be quickly forgotten. We rang the practice and apologised.

The problem of his weeping eye remained. I checked the internet and found that a cat’s eye can be treated with lukewarm salty water. I also rang my brother, a cat owner of many years experience, who explained how he had administered eye drops to his cat.

We got a large towel and opened it on the kitchen table. Then T brought in Squirrel and wrapped him in the towel so that only his head was sticking out. He looked a little like a baby in swaddling clothes. I dipped some cotton wool in the saline and dripped several drops into his eye. He scrunched his eyes up but didn’t struggle very much. We gave him food and milk afterwards. The next day we did it again. After only a couple of treatments his eye seemed to improve.



Sunday, 14 October 2018

Apples, Blackberries and Sloes

Today’s autumn sunshine highlighted the red hawthorn berries and rose hips in the hedgerows down the lane. The blackberries were long gone but there is a good crop of navy-blue sloes. You are supposed to pick them after the first frost, which usually happens around the end of October. This year we had the first frost last month. And the sloes look ready to pick now. It is also worthy of note that the humble sloe is the origin of all plums, for these were all bred from this source.

It has been a very variable year of weather, with many cold and stormy periods but redeemed by a long, hot summer. This very variability is what makes the character of this place. You do not usually know, from one day to the next, what the weather will be like. We have to adapt to these changes. I realised this when living in California and in Queensland for a while. There the weather is very stable. Strangely enough, you can get fed up of blue skies every day. It does take a few months. But you are then longing for some winds of change and even for rainclouds to appear.

We picked blackberries from the hedges early and put them in the freezer; the crop was not as good as the previous year. Like the blackberries, our apple crop was also ready several weeks earlier than usual. We had a good crop this year of about six hundred apples from our single tree. This is roughly double what we would get in a normal year, but far short of the record which was over a thousand. The branches were heavily laden and T and I harvested them about a month ago. We laid the apples out on newspapers in the front room. There were so many it was difficult to walk around them. They gave the house a lovely harvest aroma.

I don’t know the variety of the apple, as the tree was planted by a previous owner of the house. They are crisp and juicy but they don’t keep well. We have given away plenty of bagfuls to friends and neighbours. I suppose we might have eaten about a third of them. Latterly they have become somewhat faded and wrinkly so we have been cooking them into apple pies and latterly apple and blackberry crumble (see pic). We only have about fifty apples left.

I make sloe gin each year. I can usually harvest enough sloes from the hedges in and around our garden. The picking of the new crop of sloes is the sign to decant last year’s crop. A year ago I’d filled several large bottles with sloes, sugar and gin and left them to mature, shaking them from time to time. They have been sitting in the hot press since then. I strain the sloe gin through muslin and funnel it into screw-cap wine bottles. Then I reuse the old bottles for the new crop of sloes. Sloe gin is a lovely liqueur. It tastes very akin to tawny port and ages well. It also gives a great flavour to trifle. The new sloe gin is normally ready by Xmas, but I prefer to mature it until autumn comes round again.




Monday, 1 October 2018

Squirrel

We have acquired a cat. Perhaps, I should say, he has acquired us. He is small and ginger and seems to be about a year old. He has identical markings to our previous cat, Cyril, who disappeared just over a year ago. So we have dubbed him Son of Cyril, in short, Squirrel. Over a relatively short time, he has become a fixture in our lives.

We first saw Squirrel around five months ago. We were walking Rex down the lane when he startled a ginger cat in the hedge. The cat climbed up an ash sapling and glared down at us. Then we noticed there was another ginger cat staring at us from a different branch of the same tree. It was an uncanny sight. The cats were identical. They must have been twins. After that we saw a single ginger cat occasionally in the lane. We never saw the ginger twins again; one of them must have moved on.

After Rex died, Squirrel began to come into the garden. One day we noticed him in the back yard. I opened the back door to give him some food but like all the feral cats around here, he ran away at the sight of a human. We left out the food and milk and they disappeared, so he must have returned to eat and drink. We continued doing this and the food and milk continued to be taken.

A few weeks later, I went out with the food and milk and saw that Squirrel was sitting on the back wall. He turned to leave but he didn’t spring way into the shrubbery and hide. I put the food and milk down on the patio. He glanced at them and watched as I went back into the house. Shortly after I had closed the back door, he jumped down and consumed his dinner. After he finished, he sprang back up onto the wall and groomed himself.

As he gained more confidence, Squirrel would jump down from the wall onto the patio as soon as I opened the back door. But he would come no closer than ten feet. He stared inscrutably at me as I put down his food and milk. And would only come and take it when I had retreated a safe distance. One day shortly after that he cried out as I put down the food and milk. It was a feeble and rather squeaky miaow but it was communication.

Over the next few weeks, the safe distance reduced and we were eventually allowed to stand only a step away when he was eating and drinking. One dramatic day, I bent down and stroked him as he was eating. Amazingly, he didn’t stop and run, he kept on eating and even began to purr a little. I turned to T and she smiled back. It was a delicious experience to have gained the trust of a feral animal.

After that Squirrel began to stay in the back yard most of the day. At first he slept on the wall, but then he found an old flowerpot on the patio and curled up on top of it. We called it his tuffet. Quite quickly, he began to enjoy being stroked and would break off from eating to push his back up into your hand as you were stroking him. Shortly after that I picked him up and stroked him. He purred, but did jump down fairly soon.

Not long after that, he began to roll around on his back after eating. He would roll from one side to the other with all four paws in the air. We called it his ‘cat yoga’. He was inviting us to stroke his belly; which, of course, we did. Squirrel got to enjoy this so much that he would take a swipe at you with his forepaw if you stopped stroking before he was ready.

We were astonished at how far we had progressed with him. We reckoned he must have had human contact earlier in his life. None of the local feral cats would allow any human to get within ten feet of them. Squirrel and his sibling were probably raised with a family and then abandoned at an early age. They had learned to fend for themselves the hard way.

Squirrel is very wary of coming inside the house and likes the freedom of the outdoors. But he is small and is regularly beaten up at night by the bigger local feral cats. Each morning he waits, miaowing, to be given his breakfast and we notice new scars on his ear and face. But this hasn’t driven him away. He is staunchly protecting his territory – our back yard.



Monday, 17 September 2018

Return to the Cancer Centre

The four months since my last CT scan had passed and I was again sitting in the waiting room at the Cancer Centre drinking my litre of contrast, one plastic cupful every ten minutes. As usual the room was deathly quiet and no-one made eye contact. Each cancer patient, most accompanied by friends or family, sipped resignedly; the level of contrast in their clear plastic jug showing just how long they had been there. I sipped and read the newspaper, trying not to let my fears overwhelm me in the hour before the scan.  

A radiologist came and called out a name. An elderly man stood up and walked unsteadily towards her. His two younger companions, a man and a woman in their early forties, looked concernedly at him for a short while then returned to their mobile phones. Shortly after he disappeared, the woman began playing video clips on her phone to the man at full volume. Have you seen this one, she howled? He shook his head, grinning. Soon they were both laughing hysterically. What about this one, shouted the man? She eagerly leant over his phone and they were again laughing hysterically. The manic noise of the clips and their braying filled every corner of the room.

I tried to ignore the row, but it grated on my nerves. Soon all the cancer patients were shaking their heads and exchanging disapproving glances with each other. The two were obsessed with their play and oblivious to the rest of us.

Excuse me, I shouted, would you mind turning the volume down?
They both looked up with a start
It wasn’t me, said the man, just like a naughty child.
The woman gave a big sigh and switched off her phone with a flounce of her head.
They both sulked until the older man returned from his scan.

I thought two things. Firstly, in marketing there is a prized category of consumers called ‘kidults’: over 30’s who have substantial disposable income and who share the values and mores of 16-25 year olds. Many of the adverts on mainstream TV are targeted at these consumers. Secondly, I pondered how kidults would try to cope with the painful stress of a parent who has cancer? By immersion in the opposite emotion?

My call came and I lay down in the CT machine, which whirred and whirled around me. In ten minutes it was over and I went home. After two weeks of sleepless nights and worry, I was back in the Cancer Centre to meet my Oncologist. She has a difficult job. Today she appeared more cheerful than usual. On the desk in front of her was what looked like a scan report. The text covered the full page, making it much longer than normal. My worries went up a couple of notches.

She began by asking how I was feeling. I explained my recent symptoms: pain in both hips and groins, stomach still disturbed. She said that the scan had shown that I have a small hiatus hernia and a small inguinal hernia. But apart from that I was all clear of cancer.

An enormous weight left me. I’d now been clear of cancer for two years. So I’d got through the most dangerous time. The risk continued of course, my previous recurrence had come at four years.

The other problems were a consequence of the series of major operations I’d had. They could be dealt with. My next scan would be in January.



Monday, 3 September 2018

Returning to the Auld Country

I lived in Scotland for nine years. My time there concluded very unhappily. My ex left me for another man, who she had been having an affair with whilst I was working away from home. We had been together for the archetypal seven years. I arrived in Belfast newly alone and not knowing anyone. At first I thought I’d made a terrible mistake and began applying for jobs elsewhere. But then I settled down, steadily sorted through my problems and bought a house in the country. Five years ago I met my dearest T. Our trip to Scotland last week was the first time I had been back for twenty years.

We took the ferry to Cairnryan and drove through Dumfries and Galloway on the old coast road. It was very attractive and we marked out some places to come back and explore in more depth. We liked Whithorn and Kirkudbright (the art and crafts town) but didn’t think much of Wigton, the much vaunted book town. It was a pale imitation of Hay on Wye, with a few small bookshops most of which were closed. We visited several ruined abbeys, an unusual round tower and a spectacular Saxon high cross at Ruthwell, where the first savings bank was also founded.

We stopped at Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre to be established in the West (in 1967). It is in a beautiful and peaceful setting in Eskdale, where two rivers meet. Although I’d helped sponsor the Great Stupa, built in 2000, it was the first time I’d been there. T and I walked around the substantial grounds and sat quietly in the great temple. We could have stayed for ages.

We drove on through the uplands on single-track roads to Selkirk, where the statue of Sir Walter Scott looks down on the town square. We were staying in an Airbnb nearby, and taking the train into Edinburgh. It was a comfortable journey of 50 minutes into Waverley. My reading was at the Scottish Poetry Library on The Royal Mile. I read poems from my new collection which were well received. There was a full house of about 40 people. Pretty good considering there were 2500 other shows on in the Fringe Festival.

The city was buzzing with creativity and very crowded. The pavements of the Old Town weren’t wide enough for everyone. Going between shows was a bit of an ordeal. We saw two plays at the Summerhall, the best of which was Midnight Soup, a play in which the audience of 12 sit around a dinner table and cut vegetables for soup whilst offering memories. The play was devised by a Frenchman in homage to his grandmother and the frame for it was a series of readings from her diary. I found it very affecting and enjoyable. And in the end we ate the soup we made.

The most excellent show we saw was Reversible by The 7 Fingers, a company from Montreal. It was a fantastic blend of physical theatre, dance, acrobatics and circus skills, put together with a brilliantly simple set of three movable walls with doors and windows. The theme was memory and migration. The highly skilled performers flew through the air and in time, accompanied by great sound and light design. It was one of the very best shows I’ve seen in 40 years of going to fringe theatre.

Next we went to Roslyn Chapel with its very impressive and ornate stone carvings. It is a living example of something good that has come from Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code has increased the visitors tenfold and provided funds for the waterproofing and restoration of the chapel. We carried on to Stirling via the Kelpies, two 100 feet high horses heads. Kelpies are Scottish water spirits that often take the form of horses. These are spectacular.

I worked in Stirling for seven years. We visited some old stamping grounds, looked up places I lived and caught up with several people I was still in touch with. One of whom had taken early retirement and become a sheepdog trainer. She took us out on the moors with two of her seven collies who rounded up a flock of sheep most effectively. We, of course, wanted to take one of the dogs home with us.

On our last full day we went to Glasgow by train. We walked along Sauchiehall St, had tea in the Willow Tea Rooms and visited the Mackintosh House, walking past the blackened ruin of the Art College. We found a vegan cafe with 80 different types of tea next door to a splendid second hand bookshop.

My last act was to visit the place where I had lived with my ex. It was a flat on the top floor of a red sandstone tenement building in the West End. As I walked apprehensively up the steps of the building, a young woman was about to go in through the front security door (which hadn’t been there 20 years ago). I explained that I was coming back to see the place after 20 years. She let us in and went on ahead up the stairs. We dawdled along behind her; I noticed that the hall tiles were brown, not green. As we approached the top floor, the young woman was about to go into the flat in which I used to live.

Is this where you lived, she asked?
Yes, it is, I said.
Would you like to see inside?
Yes please, I said, just for a minute.

She opened the door and ushered us in. Memories came flooding back. It was the same flat but filled with someone else’s furniture and things it looked completely different. She showed us around all five rooms. She was renting the flat with her husband. They were expecting their first child. T and I smiled at each other. I felt I had come full circle and the unhappy ending that I experienced there was completely gone.