October 8th – Botanic Gardens
During the summer holidays of my university years I took a job as companion to an elderly lady who lived on the Malone Road. This lady was in her early nineties and, due to her inability to climb even one of the twenty something steps between her hall and landing, confined to the first floor of her home. She slept in a hospital bed situated in the study and spent her days upright, or occasionally reclining, in a large La-Z-Boy armchair which I’d positioned in front of her television.
Her name was Margaret. She would not permit the use of any derivative: (Maggie, Meg, Marge). She wished to be read to, and paid me to do so. A home help had been hired to attend to all her other needs. Money, as you can imagine, was not an issue for Margaret.
“What would you like me to read you?” I asked on my first visit and Margaret replied, “all Agatha Christie’s crime novels in chronological order.” She did not say please.
I had a working library card. I borrowed ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ and began reading, finding myself affecting a kind of Hugh Grant Englishness when tackling the dialogue. We completed the sixty sixth and final novel halfway through the summer of my third university year. The next week Margaret died. This was very convenient as we had nothing left to read and I, having recently graduated, was in the market for a proper job.
October 9th – Belmont Road
There is a hole in the dining room floor from where my late wife once leaned too heavily on her stiletto heels. I can picture the incident now. Maureen coming into the room suddenly from the hall, her hair caught up in a kind of hill and held together with gallons of Silvikrin hair lacquer. Her going out dress: the one without sleeves. Her mother’s pearls swung low around her neck. The smell of Charlie perfume arriving in the room a few seconds before her. I can see it all in detail; smell it, even still. I, in the kitchen doorway, glass of whiskey in hand, and cigarette, the year being 1973. The way Maureen stepped abruptly back, leaning hard on her heels as if struck by the shock of me, dressed for staying in rather than heading out. The twiggy crunch of wood, splintering and, afterwards, the sound of her raised voice, like a hand coming down hard against my cheek.
Sometimes the toe of my walking stick catches on the hole in the dining room floor and I think about my late wife and all those evenings when she left the house without me in high stiletto heels and black, taxi cabs. And I tell myself to regret nothing. Yet I still keep catching on the hole she left behind.
October 10th – Andersonstown Leisure Centre
“We can manage,” they said. “We are made of stronger stuff than the old folk on the Mainland.” And so they were. But the morning after the last cup of tea in Ireland had been poured none of the older ladies could muster any such triumphalism.
“Without tea,” they said, “we won’t be able to talk, and without talk, how will we be able to laugh or properly cry, or keep one minute ticking into the next? How will we ever know who we are without a cup of tea to warm it out of us?”
Down they went, into the little streets and great, rifling bins and hastily abandoned bin liners for used tea bags and loose leaves; anything which could be squeezed or heated or stewed for a single drop of liquid truth. The worst of them tried coffee and found it wanting. The best refused to try anything, sat themselves down at their kitchen tables and quietly wept. “Punjana. Barries. Tetley. Nambari,” they howled, invoking the names of all the local gods with no small effect.
Thereafter, the old people of Belfast seemed older, duller, more inclined to stay home and contemplate the walls. They were like cars or other motorized vehicles suddenly run out of petrol.
October 11th – Grosvenor Hall
Lately I have begun to pull a small suitcase behind me every time I leave the house. It is black in colour, (for black goes well with almost every outfit I own), and roughly the size of a microwave oven – the kind of suitcase which counts as hand luggage on Easyjet, (though Ryan Air probably wouldn’t allow anything so substantial to ride up top).
I have not always pulled a suitcase behind me. As a child I carried nothing but my hands and, where my hands would not suffice, cardigan pockets. As a young lady I graduated on to handbags and watched these handbags swell to matronly proportions as I progressed towards middle age. Then I made the move to tote bags, Tesco carriers, a shopping bag on wheels in jolly, red tartan, until finally even this was too small to contain everything they expected me to carry and I purchased my pull-on suitcase with its stout, little wheels and it extendable handle and its wrap around zipper which can be unzipped to allow for an extra inch or two of excess baggage.
October 12th – Templemore Avenue
By the time the youngest of Kathleen’s three daughters turned forty five she was finally able to accept that she would not be a grandmother. This was a tremendous disappoint to her and, an even greater disappointment to discover, after contacting the relevant authorities, that grandchildren could not be adopted or even fostered like regular children.
“What if I was willing to pay a small fee?” Kathleen asked.
The relevant authorities did not reply directly but asked her to leave the premises immediately and never return.
Kathleen was devastated. While she’d never entertained a specific notion for children, grandchildren had always appealed to her for they seemed to possess all the benefits of children yet required significantly smaller Christmas and Birthday presents.
She got out her knitting needles and, following a pattern entirely made up in her head, knit three fat, little grandchildren and a series of grandchild-sized jumpers for them to wear. She called the grandchildren Stephen, Richard and Kathleen, (who had plaits and was named after herself). She made them watch The Antiques Roadshow with her, and play Connect 4, and sit outside in the early afternoon sunshine with the cat. And, when Stephen got lippy over a second episode of The Antiques Roadshow, unraveled all three of her grandchildren and knit them into cushions.
October 13th – Palm Houses, Botanic Gardens
Alan the gardener is both showing and telling us how to take a cutting from a big plant.
“Cut the stem neatly at the first nodule,” he says. “Peel away all the excess leaves. Stick it in some muck and wait a week or two. It can’t fail to root.”
Everyone watches. Everyone has a go for themself, holding the professional secateurs like they might, at any second, bite.
“What sort of plants do you grow?” asks the older lady next to me.
“Artificial plants,” I say, “from Ikea.”
She grows one hundred and twenty two different varieties of cherry tomato. She has more than one greenhouse. She does not own a single plastic plant from Ikea. I feel sorry for her.
I have a go with the secateurs. I do not cut my own finger off. This is a relief to me. I plant my little slip of a seedling in three inches of muck.
“That plant’s indestructible,” says Alan the gardener. “Even you won’t be able to kill it.”
I picture myself six months from now with real plants instead of fake ones. I feel uncharacteristically optimistic about gardening. I walk out of the Palm House, trip over the step and drop my plant. The four leaves of it look up at me from the footpath. They are ruined. They are wishing they could have gone home with the tomato lady.
October 14th – City Hall
“We need to know where you are, Mum,” say the children. “We need to be able to get the hold of you in an emergency.”
Emily knows that the children have got this the wrong way round. They anticipate that it will be her experiencing the emergency –falling, slipping, taking a stroke in the check out line at Poundland- and they, who will be contacted at the most inconvenient moment.
Emily consents to carrying a mobile phone.
She keeps it in the zippered section of her handbag and takes an absolute age to get to it every time it rings. Her ringtone is ‘Mamma Mia’ by the Swedish pop group, ABBA. At first Emily finds this music jolly. After the fifth or sixth call it begins to feel like eating too much chocolate every time she hears it. She means to ask her grandson how to change the ringtone and always forgets.
Emily forgets to turn her phone to silent in the cinema. She rings people –the doctors, her youngest son, Susan who does her hair once a fortnight- accidentally with her hip and though they are patient in their words, their voices are thin as rubbed paper. She does not know her phone is also a camera and takes picture of her own cheek. Afterwards she wonders why the screen is full of soft, petaled peach.
She says, “I don’t really want a phone,” and the children say, “we need to know where you are, Mum.” Emily resists the urge to say, “right here, where I’ve alwys been, if you only took the time to visit.”