Monday, June 28, 2021

Helen is Found

 One month and a day ago Helen, my favourite hen, disappeared from the hen run. 

...we had a call from Clint. Apparently, there were a lot of hens wandering the road in front of the primary school. Anything to do with us? I checked and all my hens were home. Except for Helen. I spent an hour looking for her but no joy. And to think that only a few hours earlier Evie and I had been in the run hand-feeding her RJ Kerr soda bread.

Perhaps she'd turn up in the morning. Perhaps she choked on the soda and died. Perhaps Foxy…?

But she did not turn up in the morning.

I'd looked everywhere that evening, poked through the extensive nettle patch at the bottom of the run, looked under every gooseberry and blackcurrant bush but there wasn't a sign of her - until today. It was Evie who found her remains beneath the biggest blackcurrant bush right next to the hen house. I raked her out and Bert took her off for a decent burial in the midden. Poor Helen. I wonder if it was the soda bread?

Martha is staying with us tonight and she is currently hogging the TV. Under Bert's very nose she opened her own iPlayer account so she could watch junior telly. I advised her that it would be mannerly not to make changes to our devices without first asking permission. She agreed in principle. Tomorrow we are getting up early and taking the train to Belfast. We are both looking forward to it. Will take my mind off Helen. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Missed It!

 Two goldfinches in the airport snack bar.

One says to the other,

Is it not near time we were heading to the departure gate?

The other one, munching away says,

Ach sure, we've loads of time. Cool your heels...


Ah for fuck's sake. We've missed it!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Sister Benedicta Revisited

I wrote Sister Benedicta over fifteen years ago. I'm so glad that my oldest granddaughter, going to her new school in September will not experience anything like this.

By the way, that being on the brink of ruin period did come to an end soon afterwards. It is just unfortunate that it coincided with my starting grammar school. Another thing, although I never told my mother about charity collections or sports kit I always asked for and got my art supplies. I had priorities.



For most of his life, my father had two jobs. He was a HGV lorry driver and a farmer. There was a time just a few years after he bought the farm when things did not go well for him. He had replaced his old faithful ERF truck with a more modern Seddon-Atkinson lorry. And this lorry gave him a lot of problems. He was sold a pup. And because he was self-employed he earned no money on the days that the lorry was broken down. That would have been bad enough but then there was also a run of bad luck on the farm. He lost a bullock in a freak accident; a cow died calving and there was a run of dead calves. This left my parents with a lot of financial worries, which my mother confided in me. In hindsight, she realises she probably shouldn’t have because I was only 11 or so and took it very much to heart.

“We might lose the house. We might be very poor.”

What did that mean? I hardly dared to ask. I couldn’t comprehend what losing the house might mean. Maybe living with Granny? Horrible thought. As for ‘very poor’ I thought I knew what that meant. It meant nothing to eat but dry bread and water, crying hungry children, being barefoot in the snow and no Christmas presents.

I remember praying very hard in Chapel that we would not starve. Then I passed the 11+ and I was going to The Convent. I knew Mammy was worried about the price of the uniform but she got it all anyway except for the jumper and the scarf, which the nuns sold themselves at a ridiculously high price.

So I started The Convent. Maybe it was nerves or maybe it was a particularly chilly September but it was very cold. The uniform was so cheap and shoddy you could have spat through it. The rumour was that McKillen's bought it in for a pittance, sold it to us for a fortune and gave the nuns a kickback. The blazers were warm enough. They were probably made from the bits of felted up wool sweepings from the Lancashire factory floors, dyed navy blue and sewed into an ugly box-shaped garment with a posh badge and braid added on afterwards to give it a bit of ‘class’. But the sadistic nuns didn’t allow us to wear the blazers inside so we froze. They kept the central heating turned off too. Within a couple of days at least half the girls had bought a school jumper.

After the first week, there were only a dozen of us without the jumper. I was so cold I could hardly think. By the end of September, there were just two of us, myself and a girl called Eilish. And then there was just me. My humiliation was total. Or so I thought. For there was a lot more to come.

Mammy finally scraped the money together to get me the jumper in October. I honestly don’t remember what it cost but it would probably have bought her enough wool to knit the entire family jumpers. Oh aye, I forgot to mention that we weren’t allowed to have home knit jumpers.

Oh, The Convent! It was money, money, money all the time. At least once a week Sister Diabolical would sweep into our classrooms and announce that we were taking up a collection for the poor starving Black Babies in Africa or the poor starving White Babies in Dublin and we were all to bring in at least two shillings the next day. We were to ask our mothers as soon as we got home. Of course, I never mentioned this to my mother for fear of worrying her and then got roundly humiliated the next day when they took up the collection.

Then there was the PE kit. We were to have tennis rackets, hockey sticks, this kind of a skirt, that kind of shoes. Once again this was never named by me at home. So I spent my entire first year in an agony of shame and dread and consequently never learned a thing.

Then Sister Benedicta took a pick on me. She thought I was a scruffy tyke and she was right. She sent me out of class one day to comb my hair.

“Nelly Moser, your hair is a disgrace. Go to the washroom right now and comb it!”

So I went to the washroom and looked in the glass. My hair was untidy, too curly and tangly. I had no comb so I tried to fix it with my fingers but it was no good. I was terrified going back to class because I thought she’d have another go at me but she never even noticed my hair was no different.

Then there were Sister Diabolical’s surprise fingernail inspections. She’d sweep in and go round everyone and inspect our fingernails. Humiliation for anyone whose nails were less than pristine. We’d all be frantically using compass points to clean them before she got to us. Once after failing inspection, I got sent to the washroom to give them a good scrub and when I got there I scrubbed and scrubbed till they were nearly bleeding. Then Sister Benedicta nobbled me at break time for having all these white soap flecks on my jumper.

“Nelly Moser, you dirty, dirty girl. You’ve been eating ice cream and got it all over yourself!”

As if. As if I had the money for ice cream.

In those days it was a small school with just two streams. We’d all been streamed on the first day. The second class was for those who’d scored less well on the initial tests and a lot of them were being paid for anyway because they hadn’t passed the scholarship. But at least their families were wealthy enough to afford the fees.

After the first year, I got put into the second stream because I’d performed poorly in my end of year tests. I was mortified but in the good old Convent tradition more was to come. Sister Benedicta was our form teacher. She introduced an encouraging little ritual to motivate us to be smart and tidy schoolgirls. At the end of every month, she’d have a class prize for the most well-turned-out girl. And while she was about it there would be a dishonourable mention for the least well turned out. The prizes were nothing to get excited about – maybe a holy picture or a cheap set of rosary beads. Anyways Mary Teresa won it the first month. Her father was a wealthy businessman and she got a new uniform every term. I got the dishonourable mention. The second month Mary Catherine won it. I got the dishonourable mention. The third time it was Mary Teresa yet again and myself for the booby. After the Christmas term, Sister Benedicta got bored with her little scheme and it was never mentioned again. Maybe she just got bored of humiliating me because by that time I’d gone numb and had stopped reacting. Bullies need a reaction.

I begged and begged Mammy to let me leave after the third year. I told her they’d probably throw me out anyway. I did no revision for Junior Cert and failed Math, French, Irish, Geography and History. The parents relented and I went to Antrim Tech to do a pre-Nursing course. I learned to enjoy school again and when I wasn’t top of the class I was second. I also smartened up my act and became one of the most well-groomed girls in my class.

Incidentally, Sister Benedicta was her real name. She’s probably dead now. I don’t really care.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

A Day Out In Great Company


Strange to see the toys we used to play with on an antique stall

Evie and I planned this long-overdue day out last Monday. Big Sis was going school uniform shopping with her Mum so Evie was at a loose end. Our first stop, Evie's choice, was St George's Market. It has been a long time since I was there and apart from masks and hand sanitisers, it was all much as usual. There were the regular interesting stalls but we were only there for the food. Although had I a spare couple of hundred on me, I might have been tempted by a big dramatic painting of a jackdaw. 

The next place Evie wanted to visit was Victoria Square because there were 'lots of shops'. It turned out that as far as she was concerned there was only one store she wanted to visit - the dreaded Claire's Accessories. I waited outside the door while she spent a good twenty minutes (I timed her) examining the merchandise. Only one purchase was made - a present for her sister.

The next place she needed to visit was Smiggle which is actually worse than Claire's. Evie looked at everything and then bought one thing, some sort of a puzzle. The moment she got outside she ripped the packaging apart and immediately regretted buying it. That put a damper on things for thirty minutes or so during which time we went to Matchetts to buy Bert some clarinet reeds. Then the next stop was Waterstones, a store we both like. We chose two books each and then had lunch in the cafe. 

By the time we left the bookshop, Evie had decided she did like her new puzzle

Of all the street musicians we heard in Belfast, Evie said this percussionist was the best. 

He beat out an impressive rhythm using old plastic buckets, saucepans and other bits and pieces. I suggested to Evie I might buy her some drumsticks and set her loose on the contents of my kitchen cupboards. She seemed to like the idea.

Evie's next port of call was Søstrene Grene but by this time we were hot and tired and as it was getting close to home time, and we took a slow leisurely stroll to the train station. It was more than thirty minutes to departure but we found a cool spot to relax and read our new books.

Heading home

Evie got met at the station by Big Sis and I travelled the next stop along and got met by Bert and the dogs, fashionably late as usual. It was a most enjoyable day.

The books I bought

I chose Starve Acre because of this review,

'The best closing line of any novel we have read this year... A strange and unsettling read'

And knew that as soon as Bert picked it up and read that he'd turn straight to the last page. Which he did this morning. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Wee Day Out

I never used to worry about leaving this place unattended. Just get in the vehicle and drive away with never a thought. These days it is all careful locking up, anxieties about the pigs and hens, maybe somebody coming on to the yard, stealing tools, equipment, plants. It must be something to do with getting older. And it is part of the reason that Nellybert outings are too few and far between.

But today we went out for breakfast, a plant delivery to Montrose, a trip to the supermarket and a jaunt to McNeill's in Broughshane for bird food. 

As I remarked to Bert the other day, the wee boys' grocery bill is nearly as much as our own - the amount we are spending on mixed seed, nyger seed and sunflower hearts and that's us with a field full of grasses going to seed at the front of the house, it is little wonder the wee boys are becoming so numerous.

This one has just left the nest. Both parents spent half an hour toing and froing from the fat ball cage feeding it titbits. Bert wondered about the other nestlings but I reckoned this one, the first out, was their pride and joy, their big hope for the future and they were going to put the effort in. Even if it killed them.

We returned from our jaunt to find the place unburgled, unburnt, and unflooded. The wee boys had their feeders loaded and it seems that they prefer the grub they get from Ronnie in Portglenone to Jimmy's in Broughshane. They'll have to get used to it though as we bought 20kg.

The only thing was, we seem to have lost a hen. Maybe Foxy. I'll know for sure at bedtime.

Tomorrow I'm going out again, first to pick up Jazzer and go to lunch, then pick up the schoolies. It's going to be a fun day.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right...

 ...or do they?

I decided to move my primary bird feeder. It had been placed in the position that Pearlie had enjoyed, just outside the window that she could view from her hospital bed. I don't know which she liked the most, watching the wee boys eating the peanuts, or bossing Bert to keep the feeder full. Back in Pearlie's day, it was all about peanuts and fatballs but I like to provide a variety of seeds and mealworms too. 

The problem with a feeder close to the house is that it makes life easier for the cats. They are both old now and not such active hunters but if there are going to be small birds strolling around the front door gathering up the overspill from feeders, and especially if those birds are this year's breeding and short on sense, then it is much easier pickings for Holly and Fred.

Still, we got to June before we had a fatality. I'm not even sure what it was as Fred had the head and breast devoured before Bert alerted me to his crime. I went out to him, caught him in the act and as there just happened to be a vat of rainwater and a bucket sitting handy, I filled the bucket and drenched the murderous bastard. That disturbed him at his repast.

I did try to identify it by the wings and tail feathers but not sure. Possibly some sort of a tit. I thought of posting a picture of the remains on Facebook but decided against it as,

(a) it won't bring it back and

(b) it might depress someone.

So I moved the feeder to the shepherd's hut. High enough to deter cats and close to a big thick hedge.

It was only there moments before the birds found it. The first caller was a great tit.

Quickly joined by a goldfinch.

Then my current favourite birds...

Two baby tree sparrows.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Wee Boys


Oh! I wisht the wee boys were here!

Which is something Bert’s mother probably never said but it has been attributed to her and oft-repeated so she might well have said it. The wee boys were the swallows and Pearlie was expressing her yearning for the summer, for longer evenings and warmer days.

The warmer days and long evenings with us and I am determined to enjoy them. The wee boys are here too, nesting in the shed, the same place as last year. The spotted flycatchers have arrived too but aren't nesting in their usual spot behind the trellis at the front door. We think the nest is in a hawthorn tree, still near the house but it’s unlikely we’ll see the young ones until they’re flying. I don’t mind, just glad that they’re here.

Yesterday evening, Bert and I were relaxing in the polytunnel, remembering what Saturday evenings used to be like. We’d be so excited for company, maybe the Wees, or the Banjos. Possibly Swisser, always Ian. Who knows who might call in for we were a party house. And if we weren’t having people round we’d be going out ourselves. Good times.

I said to Bert,

I never gave birds a thought back then! They must have been around but I paid them no mind. 

When Matty retired she told me that she could spend ages, just watching the birds from her kitchen window. I remember thinking that she must very little to do with her time. But I get it now, for what could be a better use of our time?

 A swallow flew into the house this morning. I was making coffee when I heard the noise of it. Went into the sunroom and it was flapping against the windowpane, desperate to escape. It was being observed with great attention by Holly de Cat. She was chased off and I caught it (gently) in two cupped hands, straight to the door for release. I only held it for seconds, yet time enough to take it all in, it was so light and delicate, all glowing colours. A jewel of a bird. It was a sweet encounter for me, much less so for the bird. I thought about it all day. 

Young swallows from a few years back.

I just looked out the window. There is a collared dove out there, a chaffinch, a blackbird and a great tit.


And a goldfinch.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Bert's Birthday Cakes

Bert's birthday cake is traditionally served on Zoe's gardening day which is the day I make everyone supper. This has been going on for some years now and there are photos to prove it. It doesn't matter whose birthday it is for everyone gets to eat cake.

Back then Martha would always get involved in the blowing out of candles. She has since learned to hold back.

The icing had to be pink as Martha informed me that it was Bert's favourite colour. Evie is beginning to take an interest in the proceedings. She always liked cake.

Bert is wearing his best birthday boiler suit. 

1919. Martha can now be depended upon to present the birthday cake.

2020. Best cake ever but social distancing put quite a damper on the celebrations. Martha and Evie were not happy that they could not help blow out candles.  

Is it just me, or is Bert getting smaller?