Friday, October 23, 2009

The joy of cursing potently

I had to do it to preserve my sanity.
You would think that the older one becomes the calmer and more magnanimous a driver one would be. And, in general, in my case, it is true. I have slowed down considerably since the days when it was vitally important to get to the Clonee turn off on the N3 before the white van trundling along at a mere 90km per hour.
Nowadays, such things are unimportant. The lights at the end of the slip road are bound to be red anyway and the risk of a speeding fine is not worth the three seconds I might gain from an overtaking manoeuvre.
I do however, have one pet hate and one that churns away in my head when I am cruising up and down that superhighway known as the New Ongar Road. This is the driver that uses the inside lane at traffic lights to avoid waiting in a queue like the rest of us for the lights to turn green.
It is usually a man and often well-dressed and middle-aged in an Audi or similar vehicle. Not for him being seventh in a queue of cars waiting to pass the Hartstown turn off. I mean, how could a man in his position be expected to simply idle in a queue of plebs like us?
No sirree. He’ll turn into the left-turning lane and when the lights finally turn green, he’ll zip out ahead of the posse, like Dick Dastardly in the Wacky Races cartoons of the 1970s. I imagine him curling the ends of his thin moustache and laughing cruelly to himself as he ecstatically glances in his rear view mirror at the suckers trailing despondently in his wake.
The problem is that Dick Dastardly always got his come-uppance, driving into a tree or running headlong into an avalanche. As I have mentioned in this column more than once, no such calamity ever befalls Mr. Audi driver.
It is strange though how the focus of my ire is not trained on the car in question but upon the driver ahead who lets him regain the correct lane. If the first car in my lane does not hit the accelerator like Lewis Hamilton on the starting grid at Monza, I, with no sense of fairness at all, let forth a string of impotent curses at his ineptitude.
Of course, what I would hope to happen in my little Utopian world, is that the cars in the straight lane would be quick off the mark and form a human shield, or possibly a car shield, to force Mr. Audi driver to remain in the bus lane, where he would fall foul of the traffic policeman, waiting with notebook in hand. You would think I would have learned by now that this will never happen.
So I, and I suspect many others who feel morally affronted by such behaviour, am left to rage impotently in our cars while the baddie in the piece gets away with it yet again.
It was while raging impotently at just such a particularly brazen piece of driving that I had one of those Archimedes in the bath tub moments, though I restrained myself from leaping from my Yaris and running naked up the cycle path.
I couldn’t wait to get home. I dashed in through the front door, whistled gaily at my wife and kissed the canary and then proceeded to rummage through the box of “bits of paper that might come in useful later.” I found it near the bottom.
List of evening classes at Hartstown Community School, I read. I turned to Monday. No joy. Tuesday. Wednesday. No, it wasn’t there.
I was just about to throw the leaflet in the bin when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was in between Wine Appreciation and Woodturning but it was only there if you pretended you were looking at something else and looked at it sideways. Witchcraft!
“Come along next Monday night at 7.30pm,” said the old crone-like voice on the other end of the phone, which caused me some surprise, as I’d only just picked up the receiver.
“What should I wear?” I stammered, wondering if the black pointed hat was strictly necessary.
“Clothes,” replied the puzzled voice and hung up.
Nervously I presented myself in the classroom the following Monday night. I had been somewhat apprehensive about walking through the seemingly solid wall behind the school notice board but I concentrated furiously on the photo of the U12 hockey team and the wall just seemed to swallow me up.
“Today, we’re going to do curses,” said the teacher, who did not have a long hooked nose and black cat but looked for all the world like Marion Finucane. I glanced around at my fellow classmates. They seemed like ordinary people that you might bump into in the street, if your foot-eye coordination wasn’t very good. I saw at least one local councillor, a girl who works in Eurospar and a woman whom I had beaten to the last tin of pineapples in Dunnes two weeks previously.
Sadly, I am debarred from giving details in the local newspaper of how to perform the curses that we learned. We were advised to use them sparingly as we were only permitted to use one a month in the outside world and it was inadvisable to waste it on, say, someone who had beaten you to the last tin of pineapples in the supermarket. Here, the woman beside me shifted uncomfortably and the large boil on my backside flared up again.
The scope of the curses available to the part-time witch is actually quite impressive. You could visit a large wart on the end of somebody’s nose; or allow them to only speak Serbo-Croat; or make a large bogey appear at the bottom of their nose when they are talking to someone they fancy; or give them a flatulence problem when they are in the middle of an important interview; or instill in them a love of St Patrick’s Athletic. The list is endless.
I am also forbidden from revealing who I use the curse upon, which is a small price to pay from the sheer joy of reeling off my long-rehearsed and now extremely potent curse at the Hartstown turn off on the New Ongar Road. It was a delicious moment and I can’t wait for my November curse to become around.
Suffice to say that if you are an Audi driver whose iPod earpiece has recently become firmly wedged in their ear and you are unable to turn off Lionel Richie’s “Hello” on constant repeat, then next time have a bit of patience and wait your turn like the rest of us.

Friday, October 2, 2009

In praise of Connolly Part II

So my son dropped me at the doors of Connolly Hospital and I got out, clutching my admission form, my 1970s dressing down and a pair of beige slippers.
“See you,” I said but he was already tearing out of the carpark as though practising for Rally Ireland. Idly I wondered if I would see the car in one piece again.
However there were more important things to worry about. Here I was for my first spot of surgery ever. They were going to perform a lumpectomy (possibly not the correct technical term) on my lower back, a simple day case but, at last and for a few short hours, I was a genuine member of the hospital fraternity and not merely an irritant to be shooed out when visiting time was over.
“Good morning!” I said in kinship to a young woman in a dressing gown, standing at the door with a cigarette in her hand. She stared at me as though I had two heads or indeed a golfball-sized lump in my back.
I glided through registration with ease, despite nearly coming unstuck on the seemingly innocuous question of my GP’s identity. Luckily it was on my referral form, so I got 100% and sailed through to Round 2.
Round 2 consisted of sitting on a chair in the ward without falling off until the nurse called my name. Deploying a masterly sense of balance, I passed with a merit and at last I was in the ward.
“Slip this on you and I’ll be back in a minute,” said a nurse, handing me a night gown.
If my borrowed dressing gown was hideous, this nightgown looked as though it had come straight from the textile factory at Hell. Off-white through a hundred washes, the design consisted of the word ‘Hospital’ arranged into triangles and scripted in reds, yellows, blues and greens. Presumably, this was to ensure nobody took one home, the way they purloin towels from hotels. I murmured to myself that I wouldn’t be seen dead in one and then realised with a start that hundreds of people probably had.
“I meant, that you take your clothes off first and then put the nightgown on,” said the nurse when she returned, drawing back the curtain with a swish. Well she hadn’t actually said that. Didn’t she know I was unused to this sort of thing?
When she came back a third time, she asked if she could have a look at my lump. I thought it would have been churlish to refuse so I stood up and turned around, conscious of the fact that the open-backed nightgown also revealed my backside.
“My God, that’s a large one,” she said, leaving me wondering if it was the lump to which she was referring.
When she was done, she pulled back the curtains and informed me that I’d passed Round 3 and I’d be going down to surgery shortly. Now, hospital was one of the languages I didn’t take in my Leaving Cert but I had a suspicion that ‘shortly’ was one of those irregular adverbs. I prepared myself for a long wait, sitting on the chair and nodding at everybody who padded by, in a spirit of surgical kinship.
I had done the hospital a disservice though because the nurse had been using the English definition of ‘shortly’ and fifteen minutes later I was led down the corridor and into a small room. Here I was handed over to the care of a man and a woman all gowned up who looked at my lump and asked me if I’d be better sitting on the bed or lying on it. Again, this was a question that nearly stumped me but eventually I came up with ‘Whatever’s the best for the doctor,’ an answer which entitled me to the grand prize of a lumpectomy.
The three of us chatted away until the surgeon arrived. The anaesthetist talked about having done a 36 hour shift the previous Friday and Saturday and it hadn’t really seemed as though he’d had the weekend off at all. I thought of my own work and felt very humble.
The surgeon arrived. If policemen seem to be getting younger to people of our generation, my surgeon still appeared to be in secondary school. But she was very friendly and would have put me completely at ease if I wasn’t already as relaxed as I could be.
“I think we’ll have you lying on your side,” she said and I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand. How could I have not thought of that? She pulled up a chair and either she or the anaesthetist started sticking needles in around my lump. I wanted to watch but my head wouldn’t swivel around that far. I made a mental note to make sure the lump was somewhere on my front the next time.
Now this is what my offspring call ‘the gross bit,’ so anyone with a squeamish disposition just skip the next three paragraphs.
“Right, here we go,” she said and I craned my head back as far as I could. Next thing I knew, I heard a small “Oh!” and I saw what could only be described as a fountain of liquid spurting up to within an inch of the ceiling and then come splashing down. After about a minute’s silence, the surgeon said, “Well, now I think we know what it was,” and left the room.
“You absolutely drowned her,” laughed the anaesthetist, tearing off rolls of kitchen paper and carpeting the floor with them.
When the surgeon came back, in a clean gown, I apologised profusely, adding that it was not really something I did as a habit. She explained that it had definitely been a blocked sweat gland. “Normally, they just dribble out,” she said. “This one must have been under intense pressure.”
Anyway she set to work cleaning me out and then patching me up with a needle and thread, before applying a pad. She asked me if I wanted to see what was left of my lump and I said ‘why not?’ It actually reminded me of something that you clean out of a cooked chicken, thin skin and little balls of solidified white fat. “We’ll send it off for analysis but there’s really nothing to worry about,” she said. “They’ll send the results off to your GP shortly.”
They asked me if I wanted a wheelchair to take me back to the ward which seemed rather odd as they hadn’t operated on my legs at all. As I padded back, I wondered if I should enter the ward moaning loudly and put the frighteners on everyone still waiting but I decided to be charitable.
And that was about that. Plain and simple. I remarked to my wife later that it was such a pleasant experience that I wouldn’t mind going back and she hit me.
I was sent home in time for lunch, barely four hours after my triumphant arrival at the front door. I could see when my son picked me up that he was disappointed that he couldn’t use the car for longer.
After two days I could take off the pad and show off my scar. The consensus was it looked like a zip or a fishbone and that I should get a fish’s head tattooed onto the end of it.
As for the hospital tests coming back, the surgeon caught me out good and proper. Fourteen weeks later and I realise she was using the hospital definition of ‘shortly.’

Finding your chapel of love

In 1818 in the parish of Baltiboys in county Wicklow, Martin married Mary Ann Cullen. Over 150 years later, their great-something grandchild was born who later became my beloved wife.
The only curious thing about all this was the fact that, in the church records, Martin, as you may have noticed, didn’t have a surname. It wasn’t that he was too poor to afford one, for even tenant farmers have a right to a surname, nor did he lose it in a poker game.
In those days, the priest would ride out on his horse to the family home, often isolated or a long way from the parish church. To mix religions, it was a case of the mountain coming to Mohammad, because Mohammad couldn’t afford to bring the wedding party all the way to the parish church.
Consequently, when the ceremony was over and the priest had been plied with home-made hooch, he would stagger off on his hopefully sober horse and eventually, the following morning, fill in the marriage register. In poor Martin’s case above, the hooch must have been particularly potent, for it seems that he couldn’t remember the chap’s surname (which, incidentally, was Behan.)
Somewhere along the line, the law changed and church weddings were made compulsory, probably to save a generation from wandering the earth without a name like, again to mix religions, the Wandering Jew. And then, somewhere further down this rather strange line, civil ceremonies were permitted in registry offices for those who were churchless. It would appear also that the captain of a ship also had the power to marry any couple masochist enough to combine a wedding with a sea voyage.
Under recent Government legislation, there is no longer any requirement for couples to tie the knot in either a place of worship or a registry office. Lovebirds can now pledge their respective troths at any public venue, provided it has been approved by the local Council. Our local councillors are, of course, as everybody knows, the people in the best position to safeguard the morals of the country, hence the requirement that they ratify any proposed public venue. So far as I am aware, the only public venue that has been approved for civil marriage by Fingal County Councillors is the olde-worlde and atmospheric Fingal County Offices in Swords.
Of course in America, they have gone the whole hog. You can get married seemingly anywhere that you like and by anyone who has bought the relevant doctorate over the internet. You can get married by an Elvis lookalike while whirling around Space Mountain in Disneyworld; a Jacques Cousteau wannabe can marry you at the bottom of the ocean; doubtless the first Space Shuttle wedding will attract worldwide attention.
We may sneer at their trivialisation of the marriage ceremony but doubtless they would argue, if they could be bothered, that it is not the signing of the dirty deed that is important, but the way that you live the rest of your lives. Is it better for a couple to get married with all the pomp and ceremony of a church wedding and then endure a lifetime of cruelty and misery; or get married by Darth Vadar in Star Wars costumes and live happily ever after?
Personally, I got married once and that was quite enough for me, thank you. But if I ever got married again, I think I’d try and be a bit more creative about my choice of venue. There’s a lovely roundabout at the bottom of the Ongar Road which would do very nicely. Slightly raised, it would give passing motorists a good view of the priest, the blushing bride and me, all dressed as Lionel Richie.
I’m sure that the councillors would approve.

Surviving the Christmas night out

Okay, so you’ve only joined the workforce in the past year and this is your first Christmas night out with your new colleagues. Or maybe, you’ve recently transferred from a company that didn’t believe in the whole concept of Christmas and you’re about to experience the office party experience for the first time. A Christmas night out virgin, somewhat apprehensive about the whole experience, what are the pitfalls that you can fall in to on this most difficult of evenings?
Probably the most common fallacy about the Christmas night out is that it is something separate from the normal routine of office politics. Far from it. Do not be lulled into believing that over familiarity with the boss, or with his wife, will be banished completely from his mind when you show up for work again on the following Monday. Despite his protestations of camaraderie at the beginning of the night, slapping his head and calling him Baldilocks will not endear you to him any time in the near future. Nor will groping his wife on the dance floor.
Which leads us nicely onto the misconception that at Christmas nights out it is necessary to down copious amounts of alcohol in order to have a good time. I am sure some people see this as a way of dealing with colleagues that they can’t abide – and in truth I can see where they are coming from on this – but in reality, if you don’t overdo it, you have much more fun.
It may be harder mentally to dance when not completely jarred but at least a semblance of hand-eye coordination is helpful. Someone is bound to have a camera so unless you want your worst excesses recorded for posterity, there’s no point in overdoing it. It will also save you from going to sleep in an alleyway on the way home and waking up with pneumonia.
But the sobriety issue is particularly true on the following work day when you can sidle up to a sheepish colleague and whisper “How’s the trousers?” and all sorts of lurid thoughts will run through his mind as he tries to make sense of it. “Did Madeleine get home all right?” will also leave him stumped, especially if there is no-one called Madeleine in the workforce.
You should also be prepared for the manager who approaches you on the night out and begins a conversation with “I don’t want to talk shop but...” This is particularly dangerous as it would be unwise to offend but you run the risk of getting cornered for two hours while the geek from accounts gets off with the wan from sales that you had your eye on all evening. Probably the best tack is to endure him for five minutes and then protest a weak bladder.
It’s probably a good idea too to have a set time that you intend to leave at. Naturally, it can’t be too soon in the evening or everyone will think you’re only showing up for the food and not for the joy of socialising with your workmates. And it’s never a great feeling to be the last person left in the establishment with the table groaning with the weight of sixteen pints bought hurriedly when the shutters are coming down.
There is always a certain point in every Christmas night out, after which the proceedings start to deteriorate badly and you are sorry you didn’t leave two hours earlier while relatively capable. The trick is trying to hit that point as accurately as possible. It’s normally some time between midnight and one o’clock so it might be a good idea to get your partner to pick you up around then, giving you a perfect excuse for leaving the jollifications.
The most important thing to bear in mind, though, is that there is only one thing worse than waking up the morning after the Christmas night out and remembering all the embarrassing things you did the night before.
Not remembering them.

Losing your Fathers

I know many of you will be reading this expecting to hear all about my terrifying brush with minor surgery during the summer, as promised in Issue 142, but I simply can’t let this issue go without relating the anguish felt in the Huntstown area over the loss of not one, but both, of our parish priests.
When I say loss, I do not mean that they have simply gone astray in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre and we can’t quite locate them, like the priests in Fr. Ted who were lost and disorientated in the lingerie department of Dunnes.
Truth of the matter is that the Archbishop works in mysterious ways. Fr. Eugene has forsaken us poor sheep and has headed off to the bright lights of downtown Mulhuddart, while Fr. Ralph has been retired, despite the fact that he is still under eighty. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one parish priest is unfortunate; to lose two hints at carelessness.
It seems like a veritable age since Fr. Eugene first rode into the parish, tethered his horse to the prefab that served as the church and proceeded to put manners on us. No longer would we get away with mumbling our responses. No sirree. We would sing our Hallelujahs as though we were trying to impress Simon Cowell and anything less than full participation meant that we had to sing them again until the rafters shook.
It was something of a culture shock. Fr. Jones – who, let’s face it, did not have a voice to make Louis Walsh leap up and down with excitement – had somewhat minimised the singing bits of the mass. Fr. Eugene, however, definitely had the X factor and we now were expected to sing three hymns as well as gospel acclamations and responses at full volume!
Of course, we got used to him and him to us. Under his stewardship, the new church opened in Huntstown, as well as the Chapel of Ease in Littlepace. He introduced the wonderful sight of all the children elbowing each other out of the way to be the first up to the altar to participate in the Our Father and I was particularly struck by his revelation to me, on seeing my Shelbourne jersey about how, as a child, he used to play football in the streets with Shels supremo Ollie Byrne.
Fr. Ralph came later. With three masses to be said between Huntstown and Littlepace every Sunday morning, it would have been something of a test for Fr. Eugene to sprint the half mile between the two churches, so one morning this twinkle-eyed, silver-haired bearded priest appeared at mass, like Ronnie Drew with a collar.
I think Fr. Ralph missed his true vocation as a stand-up comedian. He could have them rolling in the naves with some of his self-deprecating observations and his ramblings and asides were of Ronnie Corbett-esque proportions. And to me, he uttered the greatest line I ever heard from a priest as we were leaving mass after Pope John Paul II died. “Look at the crowds,” he enthused. “We should get rid of a pope every week!”
It’s difficult to know what to do when a priest leaves the parish. My own inclination would be to have a bit of a hooley, though I suspect both of our departing priests’ dancing days are over, no matter how many times Fr. Eugene danced around Ollie Byrne fifty years ago. Besides, it’s not quite the same as when a work colleague leaves and everybody goes out and somebody gets up on the table and bares their backside or tries to get off with that girl in accounts.
I understand that the parish have invited them back for a special mass in October, though to me this is like asking a departing postman to come back and do a few hours sorting. An anonymous suggestion that we hold a karaoke night was apparently ruled out on the grounds that Fr. Eugene would blow everybody else out of the water, particularly Fr. Ralph who is notorious for starting hymns an octave too high.
Similarly, what on earth do you get as a present for a priest that is leaving the parish? Certainly not some of the lurid items that are dished out to departing work colleagues. Although I suppose if a priest is supposed to renounce all worldly goods, then buying him a present is a bit like buying a pint for a reformed alcoholic.
Birthdays, the card shop up in the centre, don’t appear to stock a range of “Sorry you’re moving on, Father” cards, or even, “Sorry you’re retiring, Father” cards. It was only when I looked that I realised that Hallmark don’t really cater for priests at all – I have since written to them and pointed out this gap in their market.
Anyway, the pair of them are gone now this past two weeks. Fr. Eugene is doubtless sipping his margueritas by the pool in balmy Mulhuddart and has probably forgotten about us already. I’ve heard many families in the area are now enrolling in singing classes in preparation for the mass. Fr. Ralph, I expect, is busy forming a Dubliners tribute band with a view to touring the country, providing he can start “Seven Drunken Nights” in the right key.
Meanwhile we have a new priest. Fr. Begley is eying us warily and we’re eying him with equal caution. It’s like when you get a new teacher in school. Doubtless we’re going to try and see how little singing we can get away with in the mass and wondering if he’s going to insist on us singing the third verse of the hymn on the missalette.
There are many who no longer see the parish as a geographical entity. We live in one particular area and the things that bind us together are the public transport problems or the local shopping centre or the pub. However, the church in Littlepace has always had a good attendance at Mass and it remains an important social as well as spiritual centre for many families in the area.
So when you lose both of your priests in one fell swoop, it can rightly be regarded as the end of an era. Gone, but not forgotten.