Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What Mater Saw

Months ago I got a set of stickers that I thought might make a gift for a child. I wanted them this afternoon, and I hunted high and low; but the safe place in which I had put the stickers was extraordinarily safe, and I could not find them.
Given that logic and reasoning and looking in all the normal places had not worked, I decided to ask my mother.
"Do you," I asked, "know where the stickers are?"
Thousands of miles away, Mater hummed a bit, and thought a bit.
"Do you even know what stickers I'm searching for?"
"Shush," Mater said. "I'm looking."
"They are on a shelf," she said slowly.
"A shelf? What sort of a shelf?"
"A shelf with a lot of books," she said.
"We have a few hundred books. Be a trifle more specific, if you don't mind."
"I see a blue book."
"A blue book. Good, good. That helps to narrow it down."
"A blue children's book. Hardback. There you will find the stickers."
I thanked her, and scampered off to have a look see.
I tore out every blue, hardbacked children's book on the shelves. I did not find the stickers.
Sometimes mothers bluff, and sometimes we daughters know that they bluff, but in the meantime, it never does a bit of harm to double check, in case bluff and luck should cross paths and the stickers emerge from the depths of wherever they have been hidden.
In any case, I can always ask again tomorrow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

All a Big Game

We were at the checkout with a small package of bagels and a gallon of drain-cleaning liquid.
The assistant turned to us with a happy grin.
"Looks like you guys are stocking up for the Big Game."
We possess next to no knowledge about sports. We were not even aware there was a Big Game, and we found out later that the event in question was a little something known as Superbowl Sunday.
Spouse and I glanced quickly at the bagels, and the cleaning fluid, and wondered what sort of stocking up he thought we might be doing.
Spouse nodded, simply, one must understand, to be polite.
We only knew this much about the Game: it was Big, and people ate bagels and cleaned their bathrooms in the midst of it. Our embarrassed silence, along with our inability to look him in the eyes, ought to have been a clue.
The fellow, unfortunately, did not take the hint offered to him, and he proceeded to delve into conversation with us about the mysterious Game.
"So, who are you rooting for this time?" And he named two teams, both of which I have since forgotten.
Spouse, not sure whether it was football or baseball or miniature golf or swimming being discussed, promptly concluded the chat by suggesting that it did not really matter who won, as long as great fun would be had while watching it.
The fellow behind the counter was, to say the least, a trifle stunned, until it dawned on him that we probably were making it up as we went along, and that he ought to let us hurry on our way with our bagels and our cleaning supplies.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lace Shoes

I volunteer in a lace museum. I handle lace. I catalogue lace. And nowadays, it seems, I dream about lace.
I dreamed I went into the museum as usual: I was wearing my everyday shoes- but in a peculiar twist, there were additional pieces of lace flapping over the toes. I believe they were glued on.
I asked the other ladies for their opinions. I expected compliments and awe, and that I, a relatively recent arrival to the museum, would be welcomed into the fold on account of my innovative style. A trendsetter. Somebody who could take lace in new directions; somebody who knew how to wear it.
As I glanced down at my feet, I was alarmed to notice how yellow and fragile and grubby the lace really was, and it appeared to be getting yellower and grubbier by the second. It was not attractive.
The others, understandably, were not impressed by my lace-shoes, not a bit. I was mortified and considered running home to change. It dawned on me that I had committed a dreadful error, using lace in a way that was thoroughly tactless.
Fortunately I had the luxury of waking from the scene, donning my regular shoes, and starting over without any remnants of embarrassment.
If only all mistakes, great and small, could be shaken off as easily.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bna's Your Uncle

My mother spent the week with family in an Irish-speaking part of the country, taking in some salt air and brisk winds and staggering cliff tops, and she was cut off from all modern elements.
No, not entirely isolated.
Her friend and neighbour sent a text message, in typically brief text message language, about the glorious weather back at the old homestead, with a remark about how 'even bna was out and about.'
Mater had no inkling of what bna might be, but a quick guess told her that the friend was incorporating Irish words because of Mater's proximity to the Irish-speaking folk. Despite the years in which my brother and I became educated in the ways of Irish grammar, none of it made an impression on Mater, and she emerged from our schooldays knowing only the words for milk and shopping, and an affectionate term for a fool- all of which she uses intermittently to this day.
Mater thought and thought. Bna. What might it be? It was out, whatever it was, because the weather was fine.
It might well be the moon.
She asked her young nephew, as he sat doing his homework, if bna meant the moon.
It was not the moon, he assured her, with a shake of his head.
Worse, he had never heard of a bna.
Mater was lost after that. Her grasp of the Irish language had reached its limits, and her main resource- the nephew- had turned up no answers.
She got another text message a while after the first, with a correction from the friend, whose only mistake was typing while tired.
She had not at all been throwing around Irish words- had not, in fact, made the connection between Mater's visit and the language of the region.
She meant to say Bob.
Bob, a neighbour who had not been out in a while, had gone for a walk because the weather was delightful.
That was all she wanted to say, but it sent Mater off looking for the moon.
There we have it. Bna's your uncle.

*'Bob's your uncle' is a catchphrase used commonly in Britain and Ireland to punctuate an explanation or instruction, usually meaning, 'there you go.'
"You take this road, and then take a left, then a right, and another left- and Bob's your uncle."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Going Out

Mater told me there is a new priest in the village. I call it a village: it consists of a single street, a post office, a school, the church, and two grim, dimly lit, melancholy, dusty pubs.
No matter where one stands in the Street, one can see the doorstep of every house and institution.
It being such a speck of a place, Mater has met the priest once or twice. His presence has offered, so far, little to report.
A group of twenty or so ladies cleans and polishes the church regularly. Their hard work keeps it sparkling, and they were due for a Thank You, which usually, in the best case, means a bus trip to the sea, or, at worst, a fancy meal in a Big City.
The new priest, so Mater informed me, wanted to demonstrate his gratitude, and so he took them Out.
"Where's Out?" I was curious.
"You don't," said Mater, "want to know."
I said that I did want to know, truly. Mater asked me to suggest the one place in the world I could not guess.
I named two upscale restaurants in the nearby city that I used to work in. It turned out to be neither of those.
"A really, really cheap place," trilled Mater.
I lowered my expectations. A fast food restaurant, mayhap?
It was not a fast food restaurant.
"Cheese sandwiches on a river cruise?"
It was not that.
"Could it be his own house?" I was half-joking.
"Getting warmer," Mater said.
I was struck with a thunderbolt of a notion.
"No," I said.
"Yes," Mater said.
"Absolutely not!" I said.
"You got it," said Mater.
"Say that he's not taking them across the road to the pub. Please say that."
Mater was sorry, but she could not say that.
The pub to which they went Out carries not a lick of food, and not a note of music. Nothing ever stirs there, not even the light. What went through the fellow's head when he decided to take the ladies to the pub next door is anybody's guess. In all likelihood, they probably haunt the pub every Friday night anyway. In any case, they see the pub from the church windows while they are cleaning.
I just hope the poor ladies knew the venue when they got dressed and ready that evening.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Squeaky Shoe

My mother was given two copies of the same book for Christmas. She was in fortunate possession of the receipt, and decided to return one of the gifts and exchange it for something else.
Mater told me she would return to Easons' Bookstore as soon as possible. Asked for my supposedly apt suggestions about the Something Else, I told Mater the name of a novel I had particularly enjoyed. A little research told me there was a copy in Eason's; I passed the news to Mater, who set off to find the volume.
Mater made an early-bird trip to the city; the sky had a thunderous look about it, and everything, everywhere, was grey drizzle.
Into Eason's she went, the sole customer of the morning, and her rain-slick shoes gave the game away.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
Mater sloshed and squeaked across the shiny floor, to the customer service desk at the very back, to where two idle assistants were watching the approach with interest.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
Mater reached the desk eventually, and wanted to know if they carried the title she was looking for. They did. And could she make an exchange? Of course. They just needed the receipt.
Mater rustled around in her handbag for a bit, hoping she had not faced the rainy day for nothing.
At last, the crumpled paper.
One of the assistants gently told Mater that she was terribly sorry, but the receipt was for the other chain bookstore in the city, a street or two away, and not for Eason's at all.
It turned out that, contrary to Mater's assumption, the book had come from the other store. There was no arguing with that.
Mater returned the receipt to her handbag, stuck the duplicate novel under her arm, glanced at the pair and said, with a wry grin, "I suppose I'll just have to squeak away then."
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
The assistants were most amused by the curious encounter- and Mater got her book in the end, after an amount of puddle-hopping.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Good Taste

A friend gave us a boxed gift set of two mugs, a canister of loose tea, and a jar of marmalade. The mugs went right into the cupboard. The tea I sampled once and found strangely lacking.
It being English, strong, black tea reminiscent of the brand I drank all my life in Ireland, I expected to find it to my taste. Surprised, I shrugged, fished out my Irish teabags, scraped the new marmalade onto some crisp toast, and forgot all about the loose tea. Spouse and I grew to adore the marmalade, although it possessed less of an orange shade than usual, and, as Spouse said on more than one occasion, a subtle whiskey flavour lingered underneath.
The tea, anyhow, sat on the kitchen table for about a month, until this morning. I picked it up while I waited for my kettle to clatter to tell me that the water had boiled.
I was tempted to give the loose tea another chance. I might, I reasoned, not have been in the appropriate mood that day.
I wavered. The water bubbled and thundered inside the kettle, but, all of a sudden, I was unable to move. I was staring at the label underneath the can, making great efforts to decipher the numbers because, after all, they could not mean what they seemed to mean. The digits swam and swirled before my eyes.
It appeared that the tea had expired in November of 1999, in the decade before last. I had been a teenager; I was in high school. The list was infinite, and my mind was whirling.
No wonder, I said, no wonder I thoroughly disliked the taste.
I carried on making the breakfast. Though startled, I was not so flabbergasted that I had lost my appetite or anything untoward.
And yet. Something, some minor detail was lurking at the back of my mind, bothering me, but it was not until I was pouring the water that the truth wafted to me through the steam. The tea had not been alone in the gift box. There was the set of mugs. No problem there: I had not used them, and they were made of porcelain, hardly a prime candidate for expiration.
But then, oh, then, oh, then, there was the marmalade.
I went to the fridge like a streak of lightning.
My fingers closed around the marmalade jar, the all-too familiar container, now disturbingly half-empty, that we had been using for nigh-on two weeks, daily, slathered thick and brown on our toast.
I wanted to know, did not want to know, but I steeled my nerves and had a glimpse anyway.
There, in tiny, almost-smirking gold letters, was the worst of inscriptions.
I squeezed my eyes shut but all I saw, emblazoned cruelly inside my eyelids, was a number so dreadfully, awfully out of place that I shuddered:
Well, then, no wonder it had an undercurrent of whiskey to it; no wonder it was less than orange: the marmalade was more than twelve years old- and that was just to calculate by the expiration date. Goodness knows when it had been packed and set onto the supermarket shelf. If I were to hazard a guess, I was probably fifteen years old when the marmalade was actually made.
Being a discreet distance from fifteen, I put the jar right back into the fridge and slammed the door on it as though I had trapped a venomous snake in a cupboard.
It is in there yet. One must dispose of such elements with extreme caution. I called Spouse and confessed to him the truth, that we had been consuming marmalade older than a high-school student.
To tell the truth, the new knowledge came as a terrible pity- because for a while there, the marmalade was rather delicious.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brother's Challenge

Spouse was away, I was horribly alone, and our house, unfamiliar as it was back then, seemed vast. Lonely, I telephoned my mother, but she was stifling her yawns, about to turn in for the night. She passed me on to my brother. The sun was beginning to set on my side of the world.
"Why don't you," my brother said to me, as cheerily as though he were suggesting a fairground visit on a sunny afternoon with a crowd of friends, "rent a scary movie tonight?" He named one such frightener that he had lately seen.
"I don't know," I said. But I certainly did know, and I intended to avoid such calamities.
"Go on," he coaxed, aware of my tendency to be chilled at the slightest provocation.
"It's too late anyway," I retorted. "It's going to get dark soon, and of course I don't have a car. And, oh, too bad, I don't have a membership card for any of the videostores."
"Then take a bus, and get one," said my relentless sibling.
At exactly that point in time I ought to have brought up the fact that there were probably no more buses running, or that I had a supper to cook. Instead I said to him, to myself, "why not? I'll do it."
My brother was pleased to be victorious, and shortly thereafter I was riding a bus into town.
I felt awfully grown-up as I signed on the dotted line for my very own video club card, and brave as I selected my brother's film choice.
I was just in time: I caught the last bus home.
As I twisted the key in the front door I glanced up at the sky, with its shrinking shreds of precious sunlight, and I all of a sudden remembered that Spouse was not home. But I had a promise to keep; I cooked my supper and settled down to watch the spooky cinematic offering.
The usual cliches followed: the house creaked, shadows danced. And yet, I did what I set out to do- I sat through the entire film.
The desperate, midnight telephone call I made to a friend, half-way through- best forgotten, I think. Once she knew what my agenda was, she gently set me back on the track to completing the spine-tingling odyssey by refusing to indulge my dawdling any further.
Best forgotten, because after all, I did what my brother challenged me to do. Still, I wish he had chosen a jolly comedy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

By the Book

On Sunday afternoon Spouse and I ventured down to the local library with the thought of getting an amount of exercise and fresh air.
"Look," I said as we drew near to the main door. "There's a huge book sale on today."
We found ourselves, in the blink of an eye later, standing in the middle of the sale; and there and then we decided we would, for the time being, be content to read about said exercise and fresh air between the well-thumbed, toast-crumbed pages of discarded books.
We purchased a paper bag for a few dollars; for that price we could fill it with books, we were told, to the very top- just as much as we could cram in there.
As it happened, we got in at precisely the right time; we found some delightful copies of books we already loved, and not five minutes later I snapped out of my reverie, looked around and thought something about the scene had altered. The books were no longer visible to me on account of all the people- and where was Spouse? He had been carried away on a wave of shoppers, still valiantly clutching the brown paper bag.
I waved at Spouse; immediately my elbow struck a stranger's ear. I squinted at the spine of a curious-looking book- but an arm dashed across my line of vision and the book vanished before I could read the second letter of the title- snatched up, it was, and spirited away into somebody's paper bag.
Glancing at the books was similar to watching cars pass by- one tries so hard to catch a glimpse of a face here and there, but the moment is too fleeting.
This book- gone before my eyes. That book- was it there at all? This book- dancing in mid-air before my eyes. That book- a strand of unfamiliar hair lashed at my eyes just then, so I never got to know more about it.
Spouse, when he was able to swim in my direction, gasped that we ought to leave them all to it. He had observed people scooping up books and jamming them furiously into bags without bothering to inspect the titles or ascertain the slightest interest in them.
And one fellow, Spouse claimed, was wandering around with a small device in his hand to scan barcodes with, to tell him the value of a book and, one would suppose, its usefulness.
On our way out the door, the assistant checked our receipt and stared with some surprise at our paper bag. It was less than half filled.
"You can put more!"
We shook our heads. We had enough gathered, and, despite our lack of a nifty, space-age gadget to tell us how precious the books were, we were thoroughly pleased with the afternoon's haul.

Friday, January 22, 2010

More Than a Stone's Throw Away

Having extracted all that I could from my mother of local news, I turned this week to the old homestead newspaper.
I have been urging Mater, since shortly after I learned to read, to refrain from buying its dreadfulness. I happen to know she still procures it from time to time, but the transactions take place only when Mater is safely garbed in dark glasses and discreet, mute-coloured clothing, and that she makes her purchase at sunset when there are less likely to be witnesses.
Given the limited resources for local stories, however, I still could not stop myself from having a rummage on the internet for odds and ends from that particular institution.
"Did you know," I said to Mater, "that there were recent plans to sell the Stone?"
The Stone is a monument to my home city- historical and vital and immensely valuable, the latter of which becomes noteworthy at a time when cities are running out of funds.
"It's true. The local government supposedly considered selling it to a casino in an American city. Atlantic City, they say here."
Mater expressed surprise, much as I had done. Mater wanted to know where Atlantic City was, and I replied that it was on the East Coast. Atlantic City got several mentions throughout the article.
"Read on, MacDuff," said Mater.
Then I hit an obstacle, as I knew I would. I stumbled over the segment where one of the local politicians assured the people of the city that the sale was not going to happen, was nothing more than a nonsensical rumour- and the newspaper reiterated the point by stating firmly and for the general relief of all its dear, patient readers, that the Stone would not be sent off to Las Vegas.
"Wait a minute," said Mater. Mater has strolled, wide-eyed and beaming, around Las Vegas; has had merry times with loose change at slot machines in Las Vegas; has posed for photographs in Las Vegas, grinning, with an arm around wax replicas of her favourite celebrities: as a consequence, Mater knows where Las Vegas is.
"I know," I said. "I know."
There was a bit of a rustle and commotion from Mater's end just then- that was probably the moment she locked the headscarf, sunglasses and trench coat into a deep drawer, and melted the key in the roaring coal fire.
Stone Mad! runs the title of the article. I do believe it is the first thing those fellows ever printed that I am inclined to agree with.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Blind Sight

I noticed the other day that the window blinds in one room have taken to waving about on their own. We have lived here for six months, and it never happened before that the slats of the blind turned this way and that as though a hand were swiping them or, at the very least, as though there must be a gentle gust somewhere. I searched, and Spouse searched, for an open window- for any reason to explain the all-of-a-sudden change; but not a hint of explanation was to be found.
It started mysteriously and out of nowhere, and I am inclined to suppose it will finish up that way.
In that room I make my conversations with Mater courtesy of the telephone. Our communication has been improved significantly in recent times by the addition of a camera that enables us to see each other in our respective telephone positions.
"Do you have a window open?"
Mater was squinting at the grainy, moving image, staring beyond my shoulder at the big window illuminated with faint strands of afternoon sunshine.
"It's not open."
It being January, I rarely, these days, open the windows for long.
"It looks like it's open."
I could not think what she meant by her insistence. I told her so.
"Well, the blinds are moving about. I thought you had the window open."
I ought to have known. This is the very same Mater who, after Spouse and I visited an open house with a view to buying it, and later forwarded her the details, including pictures, responded by remarking, "I see the children of the house drew all over the walls."
I doubt if any of the foot traffic in the open house took note of the scribbles; but Mater observed it in a digitised, poor-quality copy of a copy of a copied photograph.
Maybe Mater, along with her eagle eyesight, has some suggestions as to just why the blinds sway the way they do.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cabin Fever

I thought I glimpsed
a patch of blue,
a corner clear,
this afternoon-
but then it winked
and slid away.
I counted forty
shades of grey.

I fetch my hat-
the rain seems less!
-I'm at the door-
you'll never guess:
Not quite the Stop
I thought it was,
the rain was only
taking Pause.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of Ghosts and Laundry

Mater remarked today about the nightly notions that instilled fear into her as a child: the monsters that positively lurked under the bed; the shadows that trembled and flickered behind the curtain; the way that a nightgown slung casually on the edge of a wardrobe manifested as a grinning, waiting witch with shiny button eyes; the host of terrifying possibilities that hovered, always, at the corner of her young eye- all made infinitely worse as she tried to read her book by the pale glow of forbidden candlelight.
Now that she is a grown-up, the phantoms have evaporated, replaced by analysis of the next day's chores and plans. There is nothing quite like plotting the next round of laundry to deter invasive ghostly thoughts; it keeps one's mind busy, certainly, but also bores the ghosts senseless.
"Where did the monsters come from?" Mater threw the question at various family members.
"It all seems so ridiculous now, to think that I was so scared. Where did the monsters come from? I didn't even read scary books, or watch spooky films."
One member of the family suggested, reasonably, and by pointing to Mater's head, that the eerie figures and half-creatures had originated in her mind; and that the mystery also concluded there.
I offered my ideas to Mater on that particular subject.
"I wouldn't worry about where the monsters came from," I said.
"You wouldn't?" Mater said.
"I wouldn't," I said. "What I'm wondering-"
"I'm wondering where the monsters went."
To judge by the heavy silence that followed, Mater might need to have that list of chores memorized for tonight.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nobody's Moomoo

For some time now Spouse has been drawn, bit by bit, into the bosom of a lively and exceedingly friendly group. The members- all of whom are basking in the twilight of their lives- frequently share their exploits with Spouse through the medium of e-mail. They deliver bright and cheerful photographs of their various outings together, motivational quotations one of them chanced upon that week, or a new delicious recipe. They sound, on the whole, like marvellous people who grasp every joyous moment in life.
It would all be perfectly fine- if Spouse were the fellow they meant to send it to. On account of a minor misspelling, Spouse receives the group's regular newsletter, with its merriment and its litany of gatherings and its pictures of grinning men and women who formed friendships a long time ago.
Rather than feel annoyed at the onslaught of such that he never asked for, Spouse wonders how to deliver the news that he is not actually one of them; how to tell the chums that somewhere out there, one of them is not getting his or her weekly portion of friendly notes and might, for all he knows, fail to turn up at the next fishing trip because they never heard about it.
While Spouse pondered his dilemma, I got a friendly e-mail, albeit a brief one, of my very own.
The sender started with affection- 'Hi Babe-' concluded with a flourish- 'Love, Moomoo-' and in between reflected on how much it would mean to hear my voice, insisting that the written word could never make up for such.
I was at first startled, then flattered, then I was obliged to accept the fact that I was nobody's Babe and nobody's Moomoo; and that, therefore, there had to be some mistake.
As it happened, my dilemma was of a different nature than Spouse's, the sender being a close personal friend of mine. How to rectify it? In drawing the matter to her prompt attention, I feared I would bring about some degree of embarrassment; and yet, if I kept hushed about it, it would not be long before she declared that the intended recipient had thoroughly ignored her ruminations, and after that not long at all before she discerned the note's actual destination.
I tried to make it simple yet cryptic: I sent the Moomoo note right back, with my own text at the top.
"I think," I wrote, "that you dialed a wrong number here."
I fervently hoped it would do the trick, and that we might say no more about it.
My friend soon wrote back with word that she was mighty glad to hear from me- but what did I mean about dialing a wrong number?
I returned the original Moomoo message again, this time highlighted in a green so otherworldly and luminous that one's attention could not help but be drawn to it.
It worked. My friend recovered herself quickly, glad to be told the truth.
I suggest that Spouse extricate himself in a similar fashion before they all become too attached to one another.
For certain, I am nobody's Moomoo; but it might, even now, be too late for Spouse.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Big and Little

I recently spent a marvellous week with my surrogate grandmother, during which time I did a lot of shopping. Rather, I jabbed an enthusiastic finger at a lot of objects I was drawn to, and my friend, as is her nature, swept in and scooped them up- either secretly when I sidled away to examine another corner, or by means of pushing me over and telling me to hush the protests, that it was her treat.
As the days progressed, as we happily sloshed our way through town under a snow-laden sky, I made great efforts to limit the pointing and the picking up and the commenting; but it was Christmas, and the gorgeous swirls of festive colour captured my attention, so that before I knew it I had confessed to liking such and such, and before I knew more, such and such was staring at me from the shopping cart.
I ought to have reined in my brimming joy when I glimpsed, in a thrift store, an enormous, winter-clad stuffed penguin with jolly yellow feet that spilled over the shelf. I made an exclamation of admiration.
My friend, who stood behind me, declared that he was now my own; she asked the assistant to hold the penguin for us at the counter while we continued shopping, an excursion I made sure to undertake with mouth firmly closed, teeth clenched, and index fingers wedged in pockets where they could cause no trouble.
I could not hope to possess everything I took a shine to, certainly not at my friend's expense- and, anyhow, the small apartment and pared-down lifestyle that Spouse and I shared would simply not allow it.
I resolved, then, to be thrifty with my opinions and to be observant in learning what bits and pieces my friend was attracted to so that I might turn the tables on her.
As we explored the store, I hummed all my comments.
I did not trust myself to use whole words, knowing that a single utterance would put the book or the hat or the piece of pottery into the shopping cart.
We returned, too soon, to the grey afternoon, and I stood beside the car and waited for my friend to unlock it.
"Do you hear something?" Her back was to me; I had not, apparently, heard what she heard.
"It sounds like a child."
I remarked that I did not hear a child.
"Crying for its mother. I hear it. Don't you hear it?"
There was nobody in sight but the two of us, if one chose not to include the gigantic penguin.
I insisted again that I had heard no sound such as she described.
"It's calling "Mommy, Mommy. I'm absolutely sure it's a boy, somewhere." My friend said this without turning to me, which I thought highly unusual, given the possibility that the child, if one was in range, may be a distance behind her, and not in front.
I believe I frowned at just that point; I said that one of us seemed to have the gift of extraordinary hearing.
"I hear it. It's definitely crying for its mother," my friend sang, in the same instant she turned to face me. She was laughing.
Clasped warm in her hands was a smaller, softer version of my penguin, whose price tag she had been tearing off while her back was to me.
"You see- I just couldn't separate them!"
I accepted the little creature, added him to my rapidly growing penguin collection. Now, however, that I wished to make a remark, I found I was at a loss- no words could match the gesture or the overwhelming aura of kindness present at the scene.
I was thoroughly stunned.
I must, all along and in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, have been humming in code; and she, being a superlative surrogate grandmother, was consummate in the art of surprise.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nail Biting

It came to pass, just yesterday, that I was dragging myself past Spouse's place of work, burdened with four plastic shopping bags filled to capacity with numerous reference books from the library, a container of milk, and several packages of bread.
The weight situation had improved only slightly since I briefly stopped at the post office to send a package to a friend- I now suspect, too late, that it would have been more prudent to post the the groceries to my home and thus relieve me of aching limbs- but the envelope weighed next to nothing, and the struggle to pay the postage using just my elbows only served to cause more bewilderment.
I shuffled along by Spouse's building, hoping to reach home before he did. The midday sun beat down on my sluggish form.
In a moment something was under my foot, stuck brazenly to the roof of my boot. I sighed. I had no time for such obstacles, and no hands to properly examine the item, so I made efforts to scrape it off. It refused to leave me and it made a dreadful clackety clack noise when I tried to proceed with the journey. I twisted and turned my foot until I could catch a glimpse of the object, all the while trying to stay balanced on a single leg, two sinking, sagging supermarket bags choking the circulation in each hand.
No chewing gum or wayward pebble was it, but an enormous nail, the head of which was all that was visible.
It was less than good, I reasoned, staring at the awful intruder, to have a nail protruding through one's boot when one was so defenceless. If I set my boot on the ground again, the nail would, in all likelihood, go straight through my foot- I had to presume, for peace of mind, that it had not already done so.
I performed a rapid calculation in my head: if I transferred the two bags in my right hand, that would make four bags in my left hand, a weight I might cling to for perhaps thirty seconds, in which time I could, I hoped, retrieve my telephone from my backpack- slung, mercifully, around one shoulder and not on my back- and call Spouse for assistance.
I explained to him about one leg and no free hands whatsoever and a big nail in my boot and milk and library books and that I was wobbling near to the big clock; and Spouse, to his eternal credit, deciphered my babbled code immediately.
He urged me to stay right where I was- I promised to do so- and said that he would be with me in a minute.
My right hand threw the telephone into my backpack and scooped up the two packages just as the left was about to retire.
Seconds later I saw Spouse's familiar blue shirt gliding around a corner. I could not, of course, wave to signal my presence- and still he was gliding away, gliding, eyes fixed heroically on a point in the distance that was not where I was at all. I wondered if he had seen another soul in need propped up on one leg, and whether he thought that it was I, and whether nails in the boots of pedestrians weighed down with books and food supplies was a common occurrence in that particular corner.
I felt lost at sea, saw my only chance of salvation bobbing further away from me on a wave that was very nearly salty.
At last Spouse's gaze wavered- he looked around the courtyard and- I was so glad- he recognised me. He had mistaken me for a flamingo at first, so it was entirely understandable. He proceeded to save me in the middle of his work day, holding the grocery bags while I took off my boot and struggled to remove the nail, and then, when it would not budge, letting me hold the bags while he tugged at and extracted the nail.
Noble deed performed, Spouse returned to the business of Work, and I, light footed- on account, perhaps, of the thundering hole in my beloved boot- went on my way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Special Chair

I thought it would be grand if Spouse- rather, would-be-Spouse- sat at the head of the Christmas dinner table, nearest to the stairs. It was his first time visiting Ireland. He was a guest in my ancestral home- although, to be fair and accurate, I was still living in it at the time.
Spouse tucked into his sprouts and turkey, helped himself to more potatoes, toasted us all with a glass of wine, and settled in quite nicely.
I, positioned just around the corner, insisted on repeatedly asking if he was all right, and on advising him to tell me if he needed anything. I thought at the time that I was overdoing the matter- nagging, as it is more commonly known- but I ought, in hindsight, to have pressed the question at least once more.
Years later Spouse confessed: despite his numerous assurances to the contrary he had, for the duration of the Christmas dinner, been subjected to the most awful chill on his neck owing to a biting gust of December wind swirling its way down the stairs and singling out most cruelly our visitor from afar. He never said a word about it- just, I suppose, wondered quietly what precisely his hosts might have meant by the Guest of Honour Chair.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Crooked Words Well Intended

My brother has a preference for thunderous, jangling, growl-enriched rock music, and of late has been particularly drawn to the orchestrations of a group that titles itself Them Crooked Vultures.
Mater, who shares with her son a remarkable predilection for electrifying tunes, surprised my sibling recently with a gift of the Vultures' new album.
I have no doubt that his estimation of Mater's artistic taste was greatly elevated, as was Mater's pride with regard to the same. It turned out, therefore, to be a dreadful shame that Mater telephoned the next day to seek feedback on the album.
"How did you like those Crooked Penguins?"
My brother was, naturally enough, perplexed; at first hearing he did not know at all what they were like, or why his mother thought he might be in the least bit knowledgeable about the little arctic fellows, or in what way they might be considered crooked.
Nonetheless it must be emphasised that Mater reveled in her moment of glory, albeit brief, when she stepped forth with the album- and despite her grim reduction of the band's name to something that might delight a reading child, my brother would recall it with fondness, and with no small measure of admiration.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Time Flies

I experienced my first hint of an earthquake this week. Thinking, at first, that several persons were trying to force their way into the apartment by hammering soundly on the walls, I was briefly irritated, until I questioned why and how they would also be rattling the ceiling. How long it continued, I can hardly say: perhaps five seconds, or it might have been fifteen- but in the off-kilter way that time has of playing tricks on us, it felt like several minutes.
It was rather more distressing for my poor mother: she was on the other end of the telephone on the other side of the world, decidedly one of the more horrifying positions to be in during such an event. I was forced to interrupt the routine morning discussion and advise Mater to hold the line so that I might glance outside and see what was what, and I said I had high suspicions that it was an earthquake.
To Mater, her ear frantically tuned to silence while I investigated, it must have seemed whole hours before my return. I announced that an earthquake had certainly struck, and that a significant crowd was congregating outside, but, I assured her, apart from a few ruffled feathers, nobody seemed to be troubled.
For Mater and I both, our sense of time was askew: seconds were minutes and minutes were hours and the entire happening was, conversely, both extraordinarily quick and supernaturally slow.
Later I examined the apartment, moving from room to room to ensure that nothing had smashed. The kitchen clock, in the shape of a fat black cat, had tumbled, landed on its cat face. I straightened it up, set it to rights again.
Later still I told my cousin that the clock had been one of the few household items to lose balance. Quick as a flash he replied, "ah, yes. Time flies."
Ah, yes. And on other occasions it puffs along like an old, battered locomotive.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

At Odds

Spouse and I were at odds regarding a favourite movie of ours; despite having watched and quoted it repeatedly, we were embroiled in an argument regarding a particular piece of dialogue, if it might be called such, and whether it was a figment of one of our imaginations.
The movie: The Muppet Christmas Carol. The scene over which we debated: a host of furry characters mill around a village square commenting, through the medium of song, on Ebenezer Scrooge and the chance of his being a decent human being underneath all the frosted hostility.
A momentary hush follows the moral query. Then, as far as my memory served, they next stare blankly- in perfect Muppet tradition- at one another, shake their heads, and ultimately chorus an elongated, definitive, rousing, "nah!"
I recalled it that way. Spouse, on the other hand, was possessed of an opposing thought. He accepted, generously, that each fellow bobbed his puppet head in agreement; but Spouse was positive that only one small voice squeaked a double-barrelled, "neh-eh."
I declared my certainty and Spouse stated his. Thoroughly indignant and fired up, I hurried to start the movie so that we could settle the score and get back to quoting the movie with authenticity.
On went the movie. We waited- I with tapping feet and folded arms and terse jaw set firmly in that unyielding fashion of the determined.
Along came the scene in the village square, and there was the song, and I grinned when the crowd, as I knew they must, cried, "nah!"
Before I had any chance to verbalise my glee, there came, as the symphony of affirmation began to fade out, a very small voice from the back of the gathering.
It squeaked.
It said, "neh-eh."
Spouse was vindicated; so was I. Absurdly, I had never heard the fragment he spoke of, and Spouse had never heard the line I knew.
In the end, we were both right. We heard what we chose to hear, we kept the bits we liked, and we scattered the remainder to the four winds.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Emperor's New Flute

Mater, aware that Spouse bought a flute for his friend, wanted to know the details. A flute was a wind instrument, yes? Was it made of wood? Or brass? Or- wind? That last word was out before she could rein it in.
I replied that I sincerely wished it was made of wind.
The other evening Spouse and I drove a significant distance in order to deliver the flute, and we forgot to bring it with us. It would have helped enormously if the instrument had been fashioned from purest wind- we might then, instead of being stricken on the doorstep, have presented it to the friend with our assurances that it was fragile, and invisible, but most certainly a flute.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Magic Flute

Spouse bought a flute for his musical friend in India, then pondered how to get it from our side of the globe to the other.
We learned that a friend, who lives in a neighbouring city, would shortly be travelling to the musician's corner of the world, and, most happily for us, the friend agreed to carry it with his personal luggage next week.
Last evening we ate supper and prepared to set off for the friend's house to deliver the flute and set it on the next stage of its journey.
Before leaving home we determined that the friend wanted us to pick up a gallon of milk on the way. We bought the milk at our local supermarket and drove into the night on our quest to deliver the flute.
Due to rush-hour traffic on a Monday evening, we were on the road for forty or so minutes; under such stalling and sluggish circumstances, one realises that one's so-called neighbours are not, after all, what one could reasonably call close in proximity. Still, it meant that the fellow in India would soon have his flute.
Along the way we mused about the flute and we remarked about what a stroke of luck it was that the friend was visiting India at just the right time.
Then some single, simple sentence from Spouse jolted me, caused my hands to fly to my head and tear in anguish at my hair, so that Spouse was, for a whole moment, thoroughly alarmed.
"Where's the flute?" I cried, registering with dismay the alteration of Spouse's face as the last word burst forth emphatically.
My heart sank and kept sinking.
"Ahhhhh!" Spouse said.
"Ahhhhh!" was my echo.
"Did we actually forget the flute?" Spouse was incredulous as we turned into the friend's driveway utterly fluteless but, on the bright side, bearing a gallon of milk as requested.
"We forgot the flute," I said. "The whole flute."
We will try again some other evening before the friend flies to India. Just the same, we wondered how it could happen: how we could set off, carefree, with the sole purpose of delivering a precious, much thought about flute and, between the pair of us, forget to bring the flute along.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Last Word

Mater gave me a fat book by Wilkie Collins. He was her favourite many moons ago, and she hoped I would take the wordy old detective novel to heart as she did, and scratch my head over the puzzling twists and turns exactly as she had done or- better still- in my own particular way.
But I am reluctant to begin the course of reading it, hesitant to take the first steps that will, inevitably, lead to the turning of the very last page.
When Mater was a youngster, she read everything she could by the fellow. Then she wanted more. She hunted high and low. To her great sorrow, she discovered only an enormous literary void: she had inadvertently devoured Collins' two major works and- the writer being long deceased- Mater was left desolate, without a whisper of a possibility of any further treats.
It being best, in this case, to let the mystery linger, I know that Mater will understand if the volume rests a while on my bookshelf.
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