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.





Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Keeping Going

The month since Rex’s death has passed almost in a blur. We have been functioning at the bare bones of normality. Between waking and sleeping we have been getting by as best we can. During the day we have been distracting ourselves, rather than getting on with what we needed to do. Thankfully it has been holiday time so there have been few demands that couldn’t be postponed.

My main distraction has been cycling. I’ve always loved the feel of fresh air on my face. I started off on the Newry to Portadown towpath. I would drive to Scarva with the bike on the car. Typically, I would first head north, turning at the point where the canal meets the Bann and head back down to Poyntzpass, where I would stop for lunch at the excellent Petty Sessions. My favourite delicacy would be Mrs Copeland’s rhubarb pie with ice cream. Afterwards I would continue on to Newry, turning at the end of the towpath and returning to Scarva. The entire trip is a flattish 38 miles.

After a while I wanted to try something a bit more challenging. From our house, I set out on backroads through the drumlins towards the Mournes, turning just before Lough Island Reavy and heading across country before Hilltown to loop around to the west of Rathfriland. This is a ride of a similar length but it feels much harder as you are regularly going up and down short steep hills. I call this route the Tour of Rathfriland and it has about 1600 feet of climbing, according to my cycle computer.

Then I tried some longer rides, taking the bike on the car down to Meath and Louth. One of my favourite rides starts at Ardee and travels on backroads to Kells, where there is a great lunch stop. It is a cafe and a second hand bookshop called the Book Market. They are very obliging and have plenty of interesting books. The first time I went there I had the all day breakfast, but with white and black pudding as well as all of the trimmings, it was a bit too heavy for cycling and I found myself belching for the next twenty miles.

Another good ride starts at Castlebellingham and follows the coast road to Termonfeckin. Yes, this is a real village and not a place out of Father Ted.  It has a high cross and a good cafe in the garden centre. Afterwards the route goes on through Drogheda, on fairly busy roads, to the Battle of the Boyne site. Then the hills begin. You ascend King William’s Glen and then you keep on climbing, until dropping steeply down to Mellifont. The first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, founded in 1142, built beside a steam at the end of a narrow valley. Then it is on to Monasterboice, with its round tower and high crosses, and back across undulating country to Dromiskin and Castlebellingham. This is a hard ride, 57 miles and 2200 feet of climbing.

With so little rain and plenty of sunshine, this has been a great summer for the bike. My knees and arms have turned dark brown. I’m fitter, having lost fat and gained muscle. Old trousers now fit me again, but I’ve stayed at roughly the same weight. T has chosen a different path. She has lost herself in studying for her evening class, spending day after day reading for and writing assignments. They are to be handed in soon, I’m sure she will get good marks.

Whatever we have been doing during the day, we take it in turns to make the evening meal. Afterwards we always walk together down the lane. We hold hands and remember Rex’s favourite spots, talking about him as if he was with us. We began this a couple of days after he died. It is helpful and reassuring. We keep going together.




Saturday, 28 July 2018

At Your Side

Death walks beside us throughout our lives. We don’t notice nor pay much heed to this constant dark companion. After a dangerous scrape or a serious illness, we breathe a deep sigh of relief and go on. ‘There but for the grace of God’, we say. When someone close to us dies, we grieve and ponder on our own lives. But, after this hesitation, we carry on. ‘What choice do we have?’ we say.

Rex’s death remains deeply shocking to us. It has been the closest and most painful of a recent series of reminders of our mortality. Nothing can bring him back from his terrible death. And there is no antidote to grief. It has to be lived through. Yet, a shock to the system also gives us something else. The opportunity to not carry on in the same way. Our natural desire is to simply re-establish all of the routines that we previously had. But they don’t fit anymore, our normality feels empty and fractured, someone (and something) important is missing.

I have had such reminders before. My first wife died in an accident thirty one years ago, several weeks after we moved in to our first house together. I contracted cancer seven years ago and was given a very poor prognosis. Looking back, I can see that after each of these shocks my life changed significantly. At the time I didn’t see either of these events as an opportunity, just as severe threats that I had to struggle to survive. But they were both catalysts and through a very painful process, akin to the shedding of a skin or a shell, I came to see myself and my way ahead differently. And the course of my life changed.

Oddly enough, the benefits of these changes have been considerable. After Gill’s sudden death, I kept a series of promises to her. She was often reminding me to get on with my Ph.D. I’d always say, I’ll do it next weekend, let’s go away this weekend. She would give in and we would go away, often to the mountains, and next weekend rarely came. A year after she died, I did knuckle down and finish my Ph.D. Through this I came to value my intellect more highly, I then gained a new lectureship in Scotland, worked very hard and was promoted to Professor within nine years (the job at QUB that brought me here twenty years ago).

I got cancer around the time I left academia. After years of dispute and disillusion, I took early retirement to focus on my own creative work. Just a couple of months after my first collection was launched, I was brought in to Belfast City Hospital via A & E and then told the bad news. Four major operations and two recurrences later, I am almost two years clear of the disease (after being given that long to live, seven eventful years ago).

I’ve written in earlier blog posts about the changes that cancer has made in how I try and live my life. Essentially, they are: living in the here and now, living wholeheartedly, doing what matters as well as you can and not wasting time and energy on what (and who) doesn’t. Rex’s death gives a powerful reminder of their significance, for dogs do all of these things naturally.  We couldn’t wish for a better example.



Tuesday, 17 July 2018

A Death in the Family

I’m writing this with a very heavy heart. Our dear dog, young Rex, is dead. We found him the other morning. He had died in the night. His lifeless body was hanging from the low fork of an ash sapling in the hedge at the corner of the garden near his kennel. He might have been pursuing a rabbit or barking at a fox or a badger some five feet below in the ditch of the adjoining field. He must have overbalanced from his vantage point and fallen to be hung by his own collar. It was a terrible sight, one that has come back again and again in our nightmares since.

Rex had been with us for almost a year. He was a little over two years old. Although he was a rescue dog, he had a marvellous temperament. He was highly affectionate, extremely patient but also very alert. He made an excellent guard dog. He also loved to hunt and chase. He wanted to run after every animal he saw, except sheep and cattle which he was afraid of. Unfortunately this also included cars and bicycles, so we had learnt to keep him on a lead during walks and tethered at home.

Rex bonded with us equally. We formed a small family. There is now a huge empty space in our lives. Whenever he saw you, Rex would prick up his ears and wag his tail and come over and rub himself against you. With his thick black fur with a white ruff around his neck, he was very warm.  He was also strong and weighty, underneath the fur he was all muscle and bone. There is not a moment in the day that we do not miss him. Our life seems all the poorer now. We are hurting very much.

Because of the threats that had been made against Rex by the old farmer down the lane we called the police after we found his body. They came and examined the scene carefully. We also checked the night vision camera with motion sensor that we had installed beside his kennel. There was no evidence of suspicious activity. It had been a terrible accident.

The two policemen returned his body to us wrapped in an old sheet. They were animal lovers and clearly affected by his death. When they had gone we went out and unrolled the sheet. Rex lay there peacefully. We stroked him and talked to him, just like we would have done any day. Then I dug a grave in the corner of the garden and we laid him to rest. We gave him his favourite treats for the journey and placed a plain wooden cross above his head.

After this we had to go out. We drove around aimlessly for a good while. On the way back home we kept to country lanes. We didn’t really want to see anyone. Then T spotted an animal in the road some distance ahead. We approached steadily trying to make out what it was. Coming over a small rise we saw it was a young hare sitting in the middle of the road. He appeared to be waiting for us. Amazed, we stopped and stared at him. He gazed calmly at us. Then he loped into the adjoining field and away. It was surely a sign from a spirit animal. Rex was running free.