I've just blown out the number 39 on a gorgeous chocolate cake! That's right, candles shaped as numbers are far easier than having all those individual little fires on top of a cake, especially when you get past a certain age!
As you can see in the photo above, someone caught me in action at a party we had on Friday night - I know, two days before my actual birthday, which apparently is not a wise thing to do. So, yes, I'm a scorpion, born on the 28th of October, 1968. Actually, I've decided that I may just stick with that number. I think things have gone far enough. I don't see why this counter needs to go up any further. No, 39 will be just fine whenever anyone asks in the future.
Of course, news of my birth was overshadowed by this bit of news on 28/10/1968:
A woman has given birth to six babies in what is being hailed as the first recorded case of live sextuplets in Britain. Sheila Thorns from Birmingham underwent a Caesarean section early this morning during which six children - four boys and two girls - were delivered.
Apparently the singer/songwriter Ben Harper was also born on the same day as me in 1968. I wonder what he did to celebrate his birthday today. Maybe I should've invited him around to my place on Friday night. As it turned out, we had a pretty nice evening. I was anxious - as usual - that no one would show up and I would be making excuses to three people. Luckily, it never turns out to be the disaster I fear and there ended up being quite a number. Thank goodness the elderly couple downstairs was away and I was able to play the piano, on request, at two in the morning.
Parties like this always throw up all kinds of emotions and questions: where am I? what am I doing? where am I going? what lovely people! where are the people from my past? is there enough food? what am I wearing? are people getting on? I really should go and talk to so and so! where's the cat? etc, etc. Oh, I did make a nice vegetable curry, which is always good for large groups.
By the way, am I the only person who thinks of Virginia Woolf before throwing a party? Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself ... What a lark! What a plunge! No, don't worry, my parties are never as complicated as her story turns out to be. I only ever think of that first line. Hell, my parties are not even remotely like the event that Woolf describes, hosted by a wealthy, fashionable society hostess; mine are simple, wholesome affairs, to gently lead me into each new autumn of my life.
Today, on my actual birthday, after only just recovering from the excesses of Friday night, I had a birthday lunch in this lovely spot in the French Alps: La Clusaz. I forgot to take my camera but I was able to take these shots with my mobile phone. These are the first ever pictures I've taken on the phone and I'm quite surprised that they're even publishable. The quality isn't the best, but you get a general idea of the view from the restaurant where we had lunch. The weather was amazing (for the end of October) and we were able to walk around without jumpers or coats.
I then spoilt myself by buying a fancy new ski outfit for the winter - I saw photos of myself in my old combinaison (ski suit) last year and decided: "That look has got to go, preferably down a black slope, very fast!" La Clusaz in winter is a wonderful ski resort and it'll be nice to go back soon when it's covered in snow. This is such an inspiring part of France, where, during the winter, skiing becomes an important escape, necessary for keeping the creative process lubricated!
Oh, I was also given three new shirts, a token for a 45-minute massage (yes, yes and yes!), some old vinyls (bliss), a great film on DVD (La Vie des Autres/The Lives of Others), plus the French translation of Dinaw Mengestu's book The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears and Horowitz And My Father by Alexis Salatko. My birthday hasn't gone too badly at all; I'm ready to face the next year with a smile and renewed oomph!
The wretched sound began on a Monday morning just before dawn. I'd been sitting up in bed, trying to decide whether I’d done the right thing by unplugging the phone the night before. It began as a scraping noise, as though someone were slowly making their way through the plaster on the other side of the wall. Every now and then I heard faint but distinctive taps. A couple of times it was more like a loud thud, which I could only imagine was an attempt by the person doing the scraping to remove a build-up of dust and debris. It wasn’t until I’d shuffled over to the window to take in the moodiness of the orange sky that the noise struck me as troubling. It suddenly came to me that the flat on the other side of my wall was supposed to be empty, the last family having moved out months before.
I immediately turned my thoughts to something rational. Maybe there were workers in there, getting an early start. Maybe the flat had been let without me knowing, and I’d missed the noise of the new tenants moving in. I checked the clock on top of the fridge to make sure it was indeed well before six o’clock on a Monday morning. I was now absolutely ready to deal with this terrible intrusion.
I took a glass and put it up against the wall, just above the photo of my dear Caroline, whose death nine years before still seemed like just a month earlier. I listened for voices, but there were none. Just that persistent noise. I took a deep breath and then rapped my knuckles on the spot where I thought the sound was coming from. I knocked lightly at first and then more confidently, but the scratching continued, accompanied by the little taps. I knocked on the wall again, louder this time, almost to the point where my knuckles hurt. It seemed absolutely incredible that the scratching continued and my knocking was being ignored.
It didn’t take long for me to start feeling upset and out of breath, so much so that I had to use my inhaler and take a couple of tablets. If I hadn’t been wearing my dressing gown, and forgotten where I’d put my slippers, then I may have just found the nerve to walk out the front door and down the hall. I may very well have picked up the courage to ring the bell on the door of the flat next door.
Of course, I didn’t. I sat there on a stool in the kitchen, resenting the fact that someone could be so inconsiderate. I also hated myself for the state of things, the realisation that I had no strength to even consider making a cup of tea. I stared at the phone again. I’d decided the night before that I no longer wanted Sally, my daughter, to get through to me. It was no longer possible to go on feeling like a burden. She had her own problems, her own life. Everyone did. I could no longer stand the fuss everyone made. I’d decided that if she came ringing the buzzer downstairs I would just refuse to answer, just like I’d been refusing visits from one or two others who felt the need to check in on me. How long had it been since my last visit? Five weeks? Six? I simply told people that I preferred to be left alone.
After two hours, with no let up in the scraping and the tapping, I finally decided to plug the phone back into the socket and fish around amongst my papers for Mrs Lubic’s number.
‘Mrs Lubic? Can you hear me?’
‘Hello, Mister Raymond, Sir.’
‘I keep telling you there’s no need for the sir.’
‘Sorry, Mister Raymond. Are you going for nice walk today? Very good morning with birds ... and good shiny sun.’
Her way of speaking almost brought a smile to my face – she’d moved to London from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s but still had a sweet, child-like grasp of English. Then I remembered why I was calling.
‘There’s a terrible noise. Someone is scraping and knocking on the wall next door. Would you mind coming up here to tell them to stop?’
‘There is nobody, Mister Raymond. There is no one on your floor now. Just you Mister Raymond.’
I sat down on the chair by the phone, my hand shaking as I struggled to keep the receiver up to my ear.
‘Well, that’s very strange indeed,’ I said, as politely as I could, ‘because someone is in there next door doing some kind of work, scraping into the wall, as though they’re slowly making their way into my apartment.’
‘Ha! I don’t think so Mister Raymond. I have all the keys. There is no one. You are safe.’
‘Then who is making that noise, Mrs Lubic?’
I stood up, careful not to raise my voice.
‘I will come and see Mister Raymond. Don’t panic.’
I unplugged the phone, annoyed that I’d had to use it. Ten minutes later I heard her walking past my door, causing the floorboards in the hallway to moan, and then I could hear her struggling with her keys as she opened the neighbouring flat. After just a few minutes she walked back down towards my front door.
‘There is no one, Mister Raymond, Sir.’ She spoke right up close to my door, but I didn’t want to open it and let her see me.
‘Are you sure,’ I said. While I didn’t want to be rude, I couldn’t believe that she’d found nothing. ‘Someone must be there ... if there is all that scraping and thumping.’
‘It is very very empty,’ she said. ‘Maybe it’s a thing in the wall. Mouses maybe?’
‘We say mice ... mice, Mrs Lubic!’ It seemed strange to be yelling through the door, yet I really didn’t feel that I could open it. ‘No mouse would make that kind of tapping sound ... that kind of thud that I’m hearing.’
‘Is it in the roof, Mister Raymond?’
‘I may be old, Mrs Jubic, but I think I can tell the difference between a sound in the roof and a sound that’s coming through the wall.’
‘It also may be the water pipes are chattering,’ she said, obviously moving off now towards the stairs.
I figured she must have picked up that expression from the friendly plumber everyone used to talk about, the Irishman who brought her daffodils and invited her to go on holiday with him. I smiled as I repeated what she said, trying to imitate her accent. ‘Yes, the water pipes are chattering.’
‘I will bring your new groceries on Wednesday, Mister Raymond, Sir. This week you leave me just 20 pounds under the door.’
I stayed where I was for a good few minutes after she left, holding on to the latch, wanting to cry out for her to come back. Had she really checked properly, through all the rooms? I couldn’t think of doing anything else but stay there attached to the door. My feet hurt on the rough lino and I could feel the cold air in the hallway coming in under the door.
No sooner had I made my way back to the bedroom, pulling the curtains together to block out the brightness of the morning, than the scraping started up again, this time louder and faster. I took a small ruler that I’d been using for my latest calculations and hit it hard against the wall, again and again. I think I must have done this for a good 10 minutes, but still the noise continued, and I had visions then of someone standing there covered in dust, hell-bent on getting through into my flat. I think at some point I might have taken a small pot and banged that against the wall as well, hitting and hitting to try to stop the scraping. But, incredibly, nothing seemed to work.
I remember lying on the bed, my inhaler close to my mouth, perspiration turning my pillow into a small marsh. Whenever I felt I had the strength I hit the ruler and the pot up against the wall, expecting any minute to see someone tumbling through on top of me. I must have slept for long periods, waking up every now and then to hear that the noise had become unbearably louder, and then to hear it later as something quite distant.
The next thing I remember was a mighty cloud of white dust in front of me, as if someone had thrown a big basin of flour into the air. It settled over my body and through my hair, turning to mush on my lips. The low rumble of the falling plaster seemed to go on and on, echoing around me.
I stretched out my arms and moved towards what I could just make out to be a huge collapsed hole in my bedroom wall. A sudden sense of fear made me stop though; I could do nothing but wait to see who might emerge through the veil of dust. I was overwhelmed with emotion, petrified that I was about to be attacked by the person who’d been scraping and bashing his way through my wall. My dressing gown had swung open and I could feel pieces of sharp debris beneath my feet. I closed my eyes when I heard the sound of someone scrambling over the plaster and bricks.
I instantly recognised her voice. Sally’s head came through the opening in the wall, her hand up over her mouth, apparently in shock, her eyes darting all over the place.
‘I can’t believe you’ve done something like this!’ I said, taking a few steps forward, relieved deep down to see it was a familiar face. ‘Have you completely lost your mind, my child? What would push you to do something like this?’
Sally didn’t say anything. She just came forward and put her arms around me. I could hear her sobbing, which I thought was pretty weird for a woman who’d just smashed her way into her father’s flat. As I tried to get my dressing gown closed and shake the dust from my hair, I caught sight of Mrs Lubic’s round, concerned face through the hole.
Later that night, after being checked over by a doctor whom Sally had called, and then sleeping for a good number of hours, I was given some astonishing information. I’d insisted that Sally tell me what was troubling her and what all this craziness had been about, even though she said I needed to get some more rest.
She told me, in a low, steady voice, that Mrs Lubic hadn’t received my call earlier that morning as I’d explained. My phone call, which had prompted Mrs Lubic to inspect the flat next door, had actually been three days earlier. She’d left the groceries on the landing on the Wednesday, as arranged, but hadn’t been up since. It was now Thursday. A whole three days had passed since that call? I’d been putting up with that terrible scraping and bashing for all that time? I didn’t have any answer for Sally.
When she eventually took me over to the opening in the wall, giving me a seat to sit down on, I hoped that she would finally tell me why she’d found it necessary to go to such drastic measures to see her father. I told her that I understood how she might’ve been upset at not being able to ring me or see me for all those weeks.
‘Dad, take a look over here.’
She crouched down beside the hole, pointing to various bits of debris.
‘Have you not noticed which way the plaster and bricks have fallen?' she asked. 'Have you not noticed the direction of this broken plaster up here around the edge of the hole? It’s pointing outwards, not inwards. The hole was started in here and you’ve busted your way through to the next flat. It was Mrs Lubic who rang me to say you were breaking your way through the wall. You’ve taken three days, apparently using that hammer and spanner over there. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but it’s bloody amazing, considering the condition you’re in.’
It seemed absolutely silly what she was saying. I wanted to laugh. I wanted her to tell me that the whole thing was some mighty joke. Mrs Lubic came in at that point, through the front door, followed by her two teenage sons. The Irish plumber appeared next and then Sally’s husband and children made an entrance. I felt even more embarrassed when two of my old chums from The Mathematicians’ Guild appeared as well, all trying very politely to ignore the gaping hole in my bedroom wall. The boys quickly got to work sweeping up the dust and plaster and stacking the bricks into a pile.
I waited until the shock from what Sally had told me eased before I spoke. I got up and stood by the hole, and then looked everyone in the eye, one after the other, causing some of them to look down into their laps.
‘I don’t think it was me,’ I said. ‘I don’t know who it was and I can’t explain the fact there was only me in here, but I can only say to you here and now that it wasn’t me. How could I do this? Why would I do this?’
Then, before anyone had a chance to respond, my eyes settled on the portrait of Caroline, and it almost seemed as though a slight twitch was visible in her upper lip, as if she were about to break out in a smile. I went and sat down again in the chair, remembering how Caroline used to enjoy it so much when she invited people around for afternoon tea.
‘Actually, I think I need to put the kettle on,’ I said. ‘What would Caroline say if she saw me now, eh? This awful state I’m in, all cooped up here, blocking all of you out. I think she would’ve been quite shocked. I think she would’ve been capable of actually resorting to something quite brazen.’
I didn’t stop to see the looks on their faces; I had tea and biscuits in the kitchen to sort out.
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.
It's only recently that I noticed something very odd about my reading behaviour. I don't know whether something has shifted in my brain, but I find that nowadays I always tend to read a newspaper or magazine from back to front.
I don't know when this started, and it must have been gradual, but I now find it almost impossible to start at the front and turn the pages from left to right. I tried tonight to read a newspaper from front to back and it felt very uncomfortable, as if I were trying to write with the wrong hand, as if I were being forced to do something against my natural instinct. But don't worry; I'm not so bonkers yet that I'm reading novels from back to front!
Is my way of reading papers and magazines normal? Is my mind rebelling against years of reading from front to back? Was I Japanese in my last life?
It's not even as if I like to follow sports, which would explain why someone starts reading the back of the paper first. It might have something to do with the fact that I'm a general news journalist and I don't want to overload my mind with too much news. Starting at the back means that after I've quickly dashed through the sport, stopping at the odd article or photo that catches my interest, I'm diving straight away into columns, opinion pieces, features and "softer news".
It's true that reading a paper from front to back requires a lot of strength these days. It's no fun getting through all the hard, depressing news, only to find there is little energy left for the lighter stuff, which is generally found between the middle and the back. Maybe my mind has automatically worked out how to maintain my reading stamina, to save myself for the lighter bits that are better for my health.
Could that really be the reason? Does anyone else read from back to front? Does it matter that I'm right-handed? Is it because one side of my brain is becoming more dominant over the other? Or is it just one of those quirky things we pick up with age? Of course, it may just be further proof that I'm well and truly backward!
Oh, and don't forget to check out The Shameless Lions Writing Circle, where Grace's universe is being created. Instalment eight is now up.
I believe it is so true what they say about how the title of a book is extremely important in terms of whether it goes on to become a commercial success. Serious thought must go into the decision about "the name over the door of the shop" and everyone involved in the process must be aware of what's at stake. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney is one of those novels that probably found a place on my bookshelf simply on the strength of the title. Is it just me who finds it intriguing and embracing? Before buying the book I hadn't actually heard about the story or the writing. I don't even think I paid attention to the reviews I came across. The title alone - the catchiness and the warmth of it - echoed in my upper-floors and then obviously hung around. And that was enough for me to buy it. I even looked past the fact that this book is 450 pages long and is set in 1867 in Canada, a time and place that I don't consciously chase - and that's not to say there is any reason not to. The title alone drew me in.
It is funny then how the title became a bit of an issue as I made my way through this book. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually had expected to read a little bit more about wolves. I had expected to at least come across something of substance that linked wolves to the main story. An analogy? Symbolism? Something between the lines? Something at all? Was I wrong to have these expectations? Yes, there are a few scenes - like the opening scene - where wolves are talked about. But the tenderness of wolves? It almost felt as though wolves were written in as bit parts after the novel had been written, to justify the title. Did I miss something? Did something not get published in my version? Maybe this is what happens when a reader buys a book because he likes the title. He's invested in it; he wants some kind of reward.
That's not to say that I was only focused on discovering how the tenderness of wolves comes into things. The story in itself was reasonably gripping. A mother tries to prove that her son is not guilty of a terrible crime. There are many possible suspects. There is harsh, unforgiving terrain. There are mysterious twists and turns. It's actually a whodunnit when you boil it all down. The writing starts out as something quite complex and "literary" but is then snipped down to something I found to be quite ordinary once the plot took over.
But it's not just the plot that made this ordinary for me. There are so many points of view in this book that you really have to keep your wits about you. I counted at least 12 characters who are each given their own points of view in separate passages. It was very hard to keep up with everyone and to get close to them. Thank goodness there were separate sections to give each person their own space to express their point of view, otherwise the head-hopping would have left me quite exhausted. I actually started to doubt that I was following the right protagonist. Was I supposed to be considering one person as the main character? The author did try to make this clear by putting the passages of the crusading mother into the first person and the other sections into the third person. Again, there was obviously an attempt to keep things digestible, but in the end I did feel overwhelmed and dizzy. At the end of the day I spent so much time in more than 12 different heads that I didn't get close enough to anyone to care about the ending. The actual discovery of "whodunnit" turned out to be a damp squib. It was someone introduced late, who had no real role to play in the story and there was no great surprise or clever stitching of the plot.
This was a readable enough escape into the snow, for those who like trying to work out who the bad guy or bad gal is - never mind that you aren't rewarded after the search. There are certainly no fireworks and you don't want to howl at the moon afterwards. The title was great but I don't think the novel matched it. It goes without saying that I am still none the wiser about the tenderness of wolves, but then maybe that wasn't supposed to be the point; it was merely the title, after all.
Forget all the stresses of the day; get a cuppa, turn up the speakers on your computer and put your feet up. Fly with me on a short trip to Venice! I have chosen my best photos from a recent trip and set them to an original piece of piano music.
Just click twice on the play button for The Mysteries of Venice:
Please feel free to pass this on to someone who might appreciate a little escape. The link to send in an email is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L01dUJyRbMg
two moons will manifest,
medallions in a purple sky,
so while one illuminates
a country lane, the other
guides a stray fisherman
back to familiar shores.
there’ll be two willows,
laughing in the breeze,
so while one protects
delicate baby finches,
the limbs of the other
become climbing ropes.
two flowers will rise,
burgeoning with colour,
so while one is plucked
to offer some comfort,
the other willingly
surrenders to bees.
there’ll be two rivers,
forging their own paths,
so while one might slow
down to broaden and
explore, the other gives
way to vital rapids.
© Copyright, 2008. Seamus Kearney. "There'll be two - a poem for identical twins". This may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, but only when Seamus Kearney is identified as the author.
We didn't manage to organise a mini blogmoot in such short notice, but I did manage to find a trace of Barbara Smith (Cailleach) in a Dublin bookshop. This poetry book of hers, Kairos, is gorgeous, with nuggets of gold behind that dreamy picture. What a delight. An explosion of something pleasant on the tongue. These are definitely for reading aloud. It has now taken pride of place in my living room.
It was my fault we didn't meet up; it didn't even occur to me that it could be a possibility. The next time I am in Dublin, maybe in November or December, we will definitely try to arrange it.
My regular visits to that charming city always involve something to do with books. I love to drink a large latté in my favourite cafés, which just happen to be close to my favourite bookshops, which all blur into one after a five-day visit. Barbara also told me about the Chapters bookshop, which was a wonderful place, with new and second-hand books. This is where I found some good bargains on new hardbacks. All in all I ended up buying ten books while in Dublin ... and I wrote a fair amount towards my own novel, even a few pages while sitting on those café terraces. The main character is from Dublin, so it's nice to visit his place and remember all the little things about our stock.
Here are the titles I bought, so you can kind of tell what mood/state of mind I'm in at the moment:
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Roddy Doyle (Irish author)
The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore (Irish author)
This Human Season, Louise Dean
The Sea, John Banville (Irish author)
On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
Blindness, José Saramago
Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
My Life As A Fake, Peter Carey
Now, of course, who knows when I will get round to these, given there's already a big backlog. But I do love swaying in front of the bookshelf, letting my fingers run over the spines, deciding almost at random what my next book will be. A lucky literary dip. That way I move between different authors, styles, years. I also love to read books that I've bought in a place I've visited. I write the date and the city inside the cover, so I remember the trip when I finally get round to reading the book.
It's so exciting! There are THREE new instalments of the collective short story happening over at The Shameless Lions Writing Circle. Wanderlust, Minx and Absolutely Vanilla have done the other members proud. Verilion at A Wanderer in Paris is the next nominated writer. What is going to happen to Grace? What's going on with this? Spread the word.