Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Friday, May 29, 2009


Mater rarely sits long enough to watch a film, but I still insist, anyhow, on recommending she do so. Sit, I say, sit and take the time; ignore the telephone; ignore me if I call to check that you are watching it; immerse yourself in the film.
This evening she promised to try. But sitting for a whole two hours? Mater was wary.
I suggested the idea of a twenty minute interval where, mid-way through the show, Mater would pause the film, brew a cup of tea and have a biscuit.
It all sounded rather hopeful, but then I was struck by an all-too familiar vision of my mother: in my vision she becomes flustered in the dim light of the living room, squinting desperately at the remote control and making significant efforts to find the pause button which must be either too miniscule to identify or has been moved to another part of the device by magical means.
No sooner would she have the button located than it would be time to restart the feature. How terribly tragic to spend all of one's interval embroiled in a battle to find that rascally pause button!

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I met B. and M. nine years ago. B. was all by himself, an American tourist eating his meals in the restaurant I worked in. M. was in a hospital near to the restaurant.
The couple's flight home to the United States had been diverted when M. suffered a heart attack on board, and an emergency landing placed them in Ireland.
They were far from home and family, and the threads of comfort were sparse; I gave B. a get-well card along with the evening menu.
Soon B. invited me to visit M. I walked to the hospital after an evening shift and spent a little time. When I said goodbye I promised to stay in touch. On the back of that single chance encounter we write letters to one another, have maintained correspondence for almost a decade even after I moved to the United States.
So I was understandably thunderstruck last week when I glanced up from my meal in a restaurant in Maine and observed two diners that I thought were my old friends.
Maine is not my habitat. Neither is it theirs- but it looked for all the world like the pair I met once, years ago. I have never had a photograph of B. and M. and I rely on my visual memory in order to picture them.
My plate was soon clean and the moment to leave drew closer. I agonised over what to do. If I was wrong, how utterly humiliating! If I was right, it would provide the most perfect moment imaginable. I weighed the risks:
"It is them. What a waste if I don't stop and say hello!"
"It isn't them. They'll give me ugly stares and reduce me to a foolish scrap if I dare to think the world could be so conveniently small and tidy."
"Are you B.?" I imagined myself saying as I swept past the table. "Are you M.? It's me!"
And how fitting that I would once again approach B. in a restaurant!
Before I knew what was happening I was on the street outside the restaurant. The opportunity had shrivelled and I had exited the building without pausing to take my chances.
"What am I doing out here?" I wailed, but too late.
It might have been my friends, and it might not. But this I am sure of: after going to enormous lengths to avoid embarrassment, it was all for naught- I still suffered every pang of foolishness I dreaded.
I will have to write to M. and ask her directly- and wield my pen with all the bravery I could not muster when it mattered.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Lick and a Promise

My sibling, on his way last evening to give a guitar lesson, observed the signs of a brand new election season: politicians' images were pasted to walls everywhere he looked. Wordy assurances dangled under the chin of each grinning candidate.
And then there was a fellow with a microphone- no doubt broadcasting pledges on behalf of some politician or other, as is the custom in Ireland when the speaker has a crowd of reasonable proportions.
My brother approached the crossroads and wondered what would compel any man to stand on a corner as the light dimmed, and bellow political discourse to the clouds. There was no audience, and the fellow was alone with his microphone.
My brother, brimming with curiosity, slowed a little as he went past; he soon saw that there was no microphone at all. The chap was only licking contentedly at an ice cream cone. My sibling rolled away, having arranged to share his knowledge of guitars with an eager student.
Ice cream and music and encounters at sunset, and promises kept: to these we ought to devote entire seasons.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bird Hair

Spouse's unruly beard looked like a bird's nest, and then it became one.
Spouse, who was unable to shave for the better part of three months, unable to trim his enormous head of hair, relinquished his disheveled appearance on Sunday.
Our friend took the shorn curls and gave them to the birds. She scattered to the wind the reminders of terrible days and urged the birds to take the remnants and weave homes and draw comfort from the strands.
Now somewhere up a tree there is either a beard shaped like a nest or a nest shaped like a beard.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Mater could not attend her uncle's birthday party last week when he turned eighty. She sent her regrets and hoped for a fine evening nonetheless.
The reports that poured in after the event were favourable: everybody had danced until the wee hours and much entertainment had been had before the conclusion near sunrise.
Then one guest confessed. They had all stayed awake so long because the birthday uncle danced, because he would not cease to spin and waltz, and because he moved as though at somebody else's four-score celebration.
As long as the hearty old fellow's lively routine carried on, none could face the shame of being the first to quit and retire. He out-danced all of them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Two years ago Spouse and I attended our own second wedding, courtesy of friends who had missed the first.
In their garden after the ceremony I learned how to climb into a child's swing without disturbing my finery and the traditional Indian dress I wore. My jewellery rattled as I soared. Spouse, in similarly exotic and complicated attire, sailed too.
Everybody was surprised when a flash streaked across the garden; I thought at first that the sun had snagged one of my bracelets.
Our friends' new neighbours were entertaining their own guests at a simultaneous outdoor gathering and one of the visitors, lacking a healthy measure of stealth and subtlety, captured an unsolicited image. I was particularly perturbed by the fact that nobody offered a smile over the fence or indicated the slightest acknowledgment of a rather peculiar action.
Somewhere out there, in the possession of people who know people who live next door to people we know, there is a snapshot of the second wedding of two people who are friends with the people who happen to live next door to people they know.
The world just keeps shrinking, does it not? Perhaps one day we will all be enveloped in one another's photograph albums, unfamiliar faces beaming brightly as strangers turn the pages.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Errors Great and Small

The Mole had been spring-cleaning his little home, and his back was itching.
To be accurate, his back was aching; but I was reading aloud from a book that was on the curriculum for twelve year olds, and I was five. Burdening poor Mole with an itch was my only error.
Two teachers- one of whom was the headmistress- paid attention while I obliged them with a private reading from the first pages of Kenneth Graham's seminal countryside adventure. The pair lauded my efforts and whispered to one another about, I imagine, all the possibilities.
Just when I had become thoroughly absorbed in the antics of Toad and his furry friends, the bell signalled that it was time to pack up. The book was closed; the teachers went home. I too went on my way. Not another word was ever said about the matter of my ability to read well; it did not survive beyond the novelty of one sparkling moment.
Teaching is not an undertaking that fits neatly between the bell chimes of a work day: in this my tutors erred.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Bird in the Hand

For months after I went to live with Spouse he was obliged to do the cooking- all morning, noon and evening's worth of it. I was reluctant to lay my hands on a foreign stove, toaster or utensil for fear of causing a culinary mishap.
But I relented eventually and one evening said, "I can help you cook," as a wifely gesture of compromise.
My first task, as delegated by Spouse, was to wash the chicken pieces under running water. I planted the meat in the sink. Accustomed to the inert, narrow drains of Irish sinks, I forgot about the gaping mouth of the garbage disposal. Before I knew it, the pieces of poultry began to slide: they slithered one by one, in awful slow motion that was not slow enough, in the direction of the chute and that nasty, slick cavern of writhing bacteria. I blinked; the drain gave a gulp and swallowed half the precious meat.
I called for assistance as the other slippery pieces, errant rascals, lunged closer to the drain. Spouse appeared, swooped down and rescued the remaining mouthfuls of our dinner from certain doom.
One of us was livid. The other thought it hysterically funny.
It was well worth every cent paid for the chicken we never tasted: it has given Spouse seven years of jocularity and hilarity.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Gift Eater

Then there was the Christmas Eve when all our presents got eaten.
I was twelve years old. We had been out for the evening at the village church and had hurried home to tear apart the parcels that waited under the tree.
When we stepped into the living room the air was suspiciously strawberry-sweet. The carpet was littered with the pitiful remains of wrapping paper and chewed rainbow pieces. All the gifts, plastic or paper, were in tatters: even the books had been nibbled at.
The fairy that sat atop the tree was old, far older than I, and a cherished part of our decorating tradition. But during the evening, for reasons quite unknown, she had made her way to the base of the tree- perhaps to scold the culprit- and was subsequently eaten. Her time as Chief Decoration was at a sad end. Mater was furious.
We knew exactly where to find the the gift eater.
He cowered in misery under a chair, scraps of shiny tinsel in his long white hair and waxy clots of perfumed soap wedged between his teeth. The anguished demeanour of the dog suggested he had learned that the fruit soaps were more soap, less fruit, and not suitable for canine consumption. He learned his lesson, and was soon forgiven and encouraged to emerge from his lonely hiding place: he never again poked his nose under the Christmas tree or ate another bar of soap.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cats and Dogs

A new friend, wise to the healing properties of animals, brought Spouse and I to an animal shelter. I had not been to such an institution and was unprepared for all the pleading eyes that met me, burned me, through the bars of each cage.
"I'd love to bring you home, but I can't," I murmured to the cat I would have chosen, a fine slinky creature who stood up and stretched to her full length as I approached- either an instinctive greeting or a party trick to win my heart. I looked past the pedigrees, the special breeds, the Persian cats, and gave her all of my attention.
"I'd love to bring you home, but I can't," I said to a dog who held my gaze, held it even as he bounced about in unfettered excitement; a gentle, non-descript but utterly charming fellow with long limbs and a tail that would not be still.
Our friend would have liked, I suspect, for Spouse and I to adopt, but that afternoon visit was exclusively for medicinal purposes.
I said farewell to the cat and the dog in their respective corners of the building, and to the rest of the chattering menagerie.
As we exited, our friend made a revelatory remark. The two animals I set my sights on were, she noticed, almost identical in marking: black coats splashed with here-and-there white. The comment came as a surprise to me: all I remembered were the eyes, and what I read in them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Coal Crumble

We ought to celebrate our new oven, I said. So I made a rhubarb crumble, having successfully procured some fine red stalks from the store- the last time I ventured out for rhubarb the store assistant wandered around looking for a colleague called Rupert and ruined all my culinary plans.
Into the oven with the dish, then; and one hour later when the crumble had not metamorphosed into the golden-brown that all recipe books boast of, Spouse and I collectively opted to set the oven to an extremely high temperature for an extremely short time.
We ought to celebrate fresh air, we said, twenty minutes later when smoke billowed out.
"Where are you?" I called out, unable to see Spouse through the swirling grey clouds of cremated crumble.
When I could see the dish I nicknamed it Coal Crumble, for good measure.
An hour later I stood by the living room window listening to an endless shriek of sirens passing by our home.
"Do you smell smoke?" I asked Spouse.
He did, of course, the hint of Coal Crumble being all around us, but there was a new scent on the air.
One of the apartments next door was blazing and half the street's population was standing outside to have a look. Off we went, to celebrate curiosity and coincidence and just in case we needed to evacuate.
I spoke to Mater later; she had, earlier, wisely advised me on the crumble and wished to know how it turned out and if we were enjoying the new appliance.
"It's a great oven," I said, "I think we'll be very happy."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


My first job was in a clothing store. I was fifteen. My boss, a lady from Pakistan, hired me to tend to the cash register, clean the store and keep an eye on the customers. She was a shrewd, calculating businesswoman and my untrained eye was never wary enough to please her. I was her only assistant.
"Follow them," she would whisper when customers wandered in. I of course obliged, and with some measure of stealth pretended to dust the racks of dresses while the oblivious patrons explored.
My boss was, I suspect to an unhealthy degree, concerned about shoplifters, and she would prickle whenever the dressing rooms were occupied and she could not see what was happening to her inventory.
I drew the line at tailing my own neighbours. The clothing store was in a large city and my boss did not know anybody from my village. Still, I wager she ought to have listened when I protested that I knew those little old ladies and that I would not, could not bring myself to follow them. She flared up many a time and insisted that I did not know them so well; she insinuated that they were probably crooks underneath the cardigans and blue-rinse hair.
If I did step close to my neighbours I would gently whisper that I was being paid to observe, that my boss was watching me watching them, and I would urge the ladies not to take it personally.
There were a number of clothing stores in close proximity but they might as well have been hostile territories for the disparaging remarks my boss made about their presence. She wanted always to know details about the other stores which, to the best of my knowledge, she never ventured into: what new items were they selling? What fashion pieces were most popular with teenagers? At what prices were they sold? Were they busy at certain hours? Busier than her store?
"God forgive me," she would mutter, shaking her head in furious indignation at the audacity of another soul to set up a store that sold skirts and jumpers.
Once in a while a girl would come in for a browse, and I found myself subjected to a barrage of whispered comments.
"She works for such and such a store, I think she does. Her face is familiar. Look at her, she's scouting out our prices! She's working for them! She wants to know what we have and how we're doing! God forgive me!"
Faced with such soul-shattering double-standards I was further horrified when, some months into my job, she began a routine of propelling me into the street at certain hours: my sole objective was to visit the competing stores and surreptitiously find answers to the questions my boss posed. I was to return with news that she could craftily use to her financial benefit.
After weeks of shuffling in misery up and down the streets in the wholly unethical role of clothing detective, I hit upon a cunning plan that would make both of us very pleased.
"They're not as busy as you," I'd proclaim when I got back to the store, "and they don't have any new lines of clothing this week."
I would make my way to the back room to hang up my coat and bag and to take a fond glance at the fine selection of books I had just purchased; and nobody was any the wiser.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Math Murder

During my last year of school, as I suffered desperately in my math class, I sat next to a fellow whose numerical struggles superseded mine only by a hair. On occasion he called upon me to assist him, but I suspected it was more about getting through the class unscathed than about learning anything: in our school, as long as one filled notebooks and gave the impression of making an effort, eviction from class was unlikely.
During the odd day here and there that he was actually present in the classroom, I detected an unsettling air of vacancy about my classmate that stretched beyond a lack of worry. He wore a perpetual expression of amusement and mockery, and his requests for help with this problem or that were so vague and nonchalant that it hardly mattered I was in the same boat as he, academically speaking. He accepted my answers to various questions and scribbled them in his dirty, broken notebook, shrugging off criticism when the teacher slashed red ink all over them: at least it looked as though he had tried.
For my part, it made me feel less hopeless to aid a fellow worse off than myself; and I considered it wise, too, not to refuse the strange, disquieting character that occupied the adjacent seat.
Two years later I saw a familiar name in a local newspaper: the fellow had been jailed for a grisly murder.
I do wonder at times how his life, and mine, and the life of the victim might have turned out had I taken a seat on the other side of the classroom.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Popping the Question

Spouse well anticipates my reaction to foolishness. I suspect, in the latest case, that my lip curled or I emitted a low growl. Anyhow, Spouse gallantly took up a position between myself and a presumably well-meaning but dull-witted lady in the physical therapy clinic.
She stepped out of an office, this trim blonde person, and said to me, "does he speak English?"
Spouse, who sat next to me, saved the day. Before I could either lunge or regain the gift of speech, he said pointedly, "he does, he does indeed speak English. In fact, what would we do if he didn't?"
Then she was flushing a most desperate hue, tripping over apologies as they spilled out one after the other. The pair strode away around a corner.
I was still wedged into my seat. I caught her explanation: "so many people who come in here don't speak English, so I thought..."
That may be what she thought, but it is assuredly beneficial to try to talk to a fellow in the common language of the country that both happen to be living and working and attending physical therapy in.
The worst that could happen- well, he might turn to his wife, baffled, seeking her linguistic assistance; but the odds are that he would tremendously appreciate the effort of directing the question at him.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Spouse had begged for somebody to fetch his wife as he lay injured on the road. One person listened and ran to find me, knocked on my door and urged me to hurry.
She sat on our couch some days later and we remarked on the miracle that Spouse was sufficiently coherent to give details so that I could be summoned.
She stared at us, said to Spouse, "but you didn't. You gave me the wrong address."
We both said that we did not understand.
"You actually told me the wrong address- you must have been confused, with the concussion. You had the right street, but the wrong number."
I gasped, "but how did you find me?"
She shrugged.
"I ran up and down the street, and I couldn't find that number anywhere. But I felt you were nearby. So I thought I'd try this place, and there you were."
And there I was.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hunting For Pens

The truck that held all our belongings was on its way from California, from the foothill town Spouse and I had cherished and vacated, to our new home in Texas. For a week it had trailed the highways and mountains and the ever-stretching landscape, and it was presently due at our door. And riding along with the possessions were the spaces between, the stowaway air of home, the breath of California.
The telephone rang; the driver had arrived and was circling the neighbourhood, and he needed directions.
As Spouse was better than I at navigating, but unable to come to the telephone just then, I suggested that the fellow tell me his number so that we could call him back in a minute or two.
I hurried off to fetch a pen.
He waited while I scrambled in drawers, while I tore through my handbag, emptied a nearby box of its contents. The driver was patient on the other end of the line.
"I'm sorry," I said at last, unable to contain the thought that struck me, "but you've got all my pens!"
The fellow was ten streets away but I caught echoes of his thunder-laughter on the wind, and it brought that hint of the home we had left behind.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Dream Factory

I once had occasion to share a film, a particular favourite of mine, with friends.
As the conclusion approached I sank deeper into my seat, squirmed a bit and waited for the inevitable. I wholly expected that something- a shoe, perhaps, or the disk itself- would be hurled at me in fury.
I felt obliged to clarify the ending.
"It was a dream," I mumbled, judging the distance between my chair and the front door in case a hasty exit became necessary.
"He wakes up in his armchair at the end; he dreamed it all. He didn't kill anybody."
Stunned, they were: their eyes burned into my skin like hot coals as I tried to explain and to justify both my thoughts and the director's curious decision.
Later, I found myself examining the reaction of my companions to a bewildering curve in the hitherto comfortable formula of cinema.
What was so unsettling about a fictional character- a reasonable, respectable fellow whom one really cannot help but have pity for- emerging into the light to discover that his worst nightmare had not taken place? He was granted a second chance and learned a significant lesson at no expense of life. The bitter regrets at the core of the film had been consigned to the archives of a troubling dream: most of us have at one awful time or another imagined that our sorrow must be nothing more than the threads of a nightmare, and that we might wake soon.
One feels cheated at such a flimsy escape, that the rug was pulled from underneath in a terribly unfair manner. One expects the rules to be constant, the structure to be familiar, and whether it ends on a note of hope or despair one reasonably assumes a measure of reality within the confines of a fabricated tale- forgets, indeed, that it is a fabrication, and follows the path of a film as one might peer through a stranger's window.
It is disconcerting to realise that the window frame is as much an illusion as the room which lies beyond it.
I know this because I was there once, for one long, numb moment after I watched that film for the first time and tried to make sense of what had just happened. I thought it was a cruel trick and a lazy, vague way to end an otherwise fine film. Almost every line of dialogue between the opening and closing scenes was a figment of the fellow's fevered imagination and I was outraged at the deception.
But the bones of the film spun in my mind as the hours and days passed. I could not quite shake the notion that I had missed some essential element. I sat again to watch the film from beginning to end with new eyes and a mind that was, if not wide open to the concept, then slightly ajar.
I found, this time around, a film within a film, a dream within a dream. I was forced to behold that the hero had never existed to begin with; he was conceived as an artist's dream and thereafter committed to celluloid. The lines became blurred; my indignation faded and turned to awe.
I observed the layers that might be peeled away inside a film- one deception, one trick within another until a viewer is forced to concede that maybe all cinematic experience is an enormous dream factory in which magic and apparitions are bound together in the spirit of entertainment and beautiful escape.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lemonade Lady

When I was little I used to accompany my mother on neighbourhood visits, and we frequented the cottage of an old widow.
Unfailingly the latter would offer me a glass of lemonade. I always resisted; Mater always urged me to be polite. Our neighbour never listened to either of us. Instead she would pull open rickety cupboard doors, extract a bottle and a glass, and proceed to pour.
The cupboards of our solitary neighbour rarely saw the light of day: indeed, natural light shied away in terror. Whenever the old woman rooted among the cobwebs and the deep, grey layers of dust, I thought she could not possibly find what she was looking for, hoped she would not.
But she did.
Countless times throughout my childhood I perched on the edge of a kitchen chair, shivered, stared into the lemonade and made a wish to be away over the hills.
As my mother and neighbour sank into the sharing of local news I noted with dismay the flecks, the awful floating flecks that were not lemonade and were not meant for human consumption. Hair, dust and tiny, terrible objects I could not identify: they swam and swirled and danced in the liquid; they mocked me, and I was helpless. I could only make futile guesses as to how long the bottle had been squatting on the shelf, how long since the glass had been under a tap.
I was obliged to swallow all of the mixture, but I did so with exaggerated slowness for fear of being offered another.
Only once in all the years was I able to fling the lemonade out of a window into the flower bed below; but the window was so rarely opened that it was hopeless to depend upon it as a means of escape.
My eventual escape route was adulthood; and now the old lady is gone, along with her dusty, humble offerings, her precious fragments of gossip, and the abject loneliness, invisible to the very young, that enveloped an entire house.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Loss, Gain

Spouse mourns his bicep, notes his wasted arm and vanished strength: "look- it's turned into a unicep."
One loses muscle but gains a striking new vocabulary.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not Watching

In the stale, stifled air of our car, which had been idle for seven weeks, Spouse and I sat and gathered our thoughts.
I was sobered to note that the digital clock had been flickering relentlessly from one second to the next all the while, though we were not watching, through each intense, sharp-edged moment as though nothing untoward had happened to us.
I snapped down the front-passenger visor: for the record, chocolate fingerprints remain in place even when one's life might have fallen apart. Years ago Spouse joined a volunteer organisation and became a Big Brother to a little boy who happened to tug one day at that same visor as he chewed on a sugary snack.
The pair spoke on the telephone recently about Spouse's recent trauma: the younger one asked questions; old times were resurrected. Too many months and years had passed since the last occasion.
"You were eight when I met you," Spouse laughed.
"And I'll be eighteen in a month," was the reply that startled the sparrows right out of their trees, that left Spouse momentarily mute.
Children march from one year to another even if we are not watching. Especially if we are not watching.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Against the Odds

Years ago when I was an avid writer of letters, with a list of penpals longer than my arm, I struck up a correspondence with a young lady from Montana. Her name was Anna.
Our acquaintance lasted a brief time only: Anna's accounts of her sixteen unruly siblings unsettled my nerves in a vague but particularly effective manner.
I suspect, however, that I was most disturbed by an offhand comment regarding my penpal's Irish ancestors.
The village of their origin was two miles from my own.
The casual air with which the familiar name was written, the utter lack of surprise or reference to my own locality struck me as most singular- as I read the latest letter I had the distinct impression that Anna from Montana was behind me.
But I was quite alone, save for innumerable goosebumps.
I never again wrote to Anna from Montana, thoroughly uneasy as I was about her far-reaching geographical knowledge.
I confessed my fears to another penpal, who lived in the United States and who simultaneously sympathised and expressed relief that she no longer had to share me: we were becoming closer with each new letter and I had previously indicated to her my doubts about Anna from Montana. Eventually, as one penpal after another slipped off my radar, she took priority and we became friends. Soon we increased the frequency of communication by sending e-mails as well as letters, and contact was regular.
Shortly after, around the time that Anna must have understood that I terminated the correspondence, my house began to suffer many a power cut that switched off the computer and caused a half-composed e-mail to be forfeited forever; my friend suffered just the same when attempting to send me a note.
Either my telephone was functioning poorly or hers was at any given time; we would find ourselves disconnected abruptly from a lively discussion.
Packages sent between us would take longer than necessary to reach their destination and we would grow anxious.
My friend had this to say each and every time, and I went along with it: "Anna from Montana is at it again. She's trying to keep us apart."
Nine years later we have done quite well: my penpal in Maine has become my dearest friend, has named both her sons on my recommendation, has introduced me to her loved ones, has adopted Spouse and I as neighbours, has shared with us secret family recipes, has comforted us in times of deep sorrow, embarked on her first and only airplane flight to see us in California, and made us guests of honour on her wedding day.
And once in a while an e-mail will still be lost along the way, or a meeting will not happen as planned, or the electricity will disconnect and plunge us into darkness in which we can write nothing- and we invariably blame Anna from Montana, poor thing, for the inconvenience.
Please look around, explore my writing, leave a crumb:
I welcome comments and thoughts.