I’ve been a bit of a grinch of late. Christmas comes around and I get a bit sullen. There are lots of reasons for this, none of which is particularly unusual or original. It’s not fair on Liv, my youngest, though – she’s fourteen and loves getting into the spirit of things at this time of year. Life isn’t always easy when you’re fourteen, so if there’s anything you can do as a mum to make things a bit better, then you should do it. So when Liv asked me to take her into town yesterday, just the two of us, I agreed. I realised I had yet to have a mince pie with whipped cream, so we decided to make finding somewhere in Galway City that did them our main focus.
It had been pouring rain and howling a gale for much of the day, and once we were in town things weren’t any better. I lugged my heavy bag of sketching stuff with me, as I was determined to sketch somewhere. Liv is super company and even though I could feel a cold coming on, there was a pep in our step as we left the park-and-ride bus station and jumped into the fray of Christmas shoppers. Galway City is very small and the layout is very uncomplicated: you have the sea, with the port and docks, then a few streets parallel to it, and you can get around the whole place in a few minutes. The bus station at the top of the town stretches down to the River Corrib, the two connected by one long snaking street where all the life is. It’s fully pedestrianised so it’s a people’s realm. Yesterday that one street was so crowded that you had to weave your way down, through this morass of humanity, being forced to a stop every now and then by a bottleneck caused by some particularly amazing street musicians, dancers or whatever. Towards the bottom, the street becomes narrower, the surface is cobbled (we won’t mention the dips and troughs in the street that are waiting to drench your feet and turn your ankle) and just above you is a carpet of gold lights in strips, like something a princess in a fairy tale would run along to get back to her castle.
Liv and I tried a few places but no one had any mince pies. I’ll go so far as to say I was starting to have bad thoughts. The peppy step of an hour earlier was but a memory by now as café after café was wrong for a variety of reasons. One was too chain-like. Another looked like it didn’t do mince pies. A third was too crowded. We had rejected McCambridge’s, one of the best cafés of all, just because they had run out of home-made mince pies and only had gluten-free left, which may have been wonderful, but didn’t fit the image I had in my mind (what a big child). But, when nowhere else was cutting the mustard, we went back anyway. As it was nearly full, were directed by a lovely, smiling waitress to a window on the far side of the restaurant where there are just two stools in a tiny corner, looking out onto the street. The open stairwell separated us from the rest of the restaurant: there was only the two of us on this side, and Liv was very happy with this choice.
“I feel like there is a deep river between us and the other people,” she said, “and we are safe.”
We got our cakes (sticky toffee pudding for Liv, carrot cake for me, both exquisite) and when we had enjoyed them I sketched. I started with the girls having a coffee and a chat and spiralled out from there, including the fab light fittings – gotta love those chimney pots over the bar – and little by little I began to see a typical Saturday afternoon in a very popular café start to take shape. Time settled into that warm fuzzy place that it does sometimes. Liv popped in and out, dodging showers and visiting shops. I was happy about the deep river of stairwell between me and my subjects, as I figured that even if they noticed that they were being sketched, they wouldn’t be bothered coming all the way around to the opposite bank (ie to the windows) to complain. Like Liv, I felt safe. After a long time we left McCambridge’s to face the rain again and make our way back to the park-and-ride. This time the heavens weren’t messing about. No, sir. My sketch, which wasn’t yet dry, was in danger of melting away entirely.
A great afternoon: a sketch, a cake and a happy daughter. Time to count my blessings.
The other morning, when my son Paddy was supposed to have started school for the day, I received a text from him asking to be picked up from school later that day instead of taking the bus. On Fridays the school closes early so there’s an extra half hour to wait till the bus comes, which isn’t a big deal compared to what we had to put up with in our day etc. It’s only a fifteen or twenty minute car journey down the motorway to his school for me, which isn’t very long, but it’s one more thing to do and anyway we’ve paid handsomely for the bus. I wasn’t going to bother but he pleaded so prettily (when he should have been nowhere near hos phone) that I relented. I did think, however, that the one word reply “thanks” didn’t match the passion of the pleading beforehand.
I met Paddy and his friend Mattie at the school. Liv was home sick: Mattie, who is also fourteen, is in her year. Paddy is seventeen but he and Liv have been close friends with Mattie since the two younger ones were just eighteen months old (Mattie’s mum is my neighbour and very dear friend Lorraine).
Mattie talked about a science test he’d done well in, 94% I think. He told us that the teacher had called him over after the results were handed out.
“Mattie, I think we have a problem,” she said.
“But I did great,” said Mattie. “What sort of problem could there be?”
“Someone is copying you,” she said. “It’s Barry Flaherty [made-up name]. Identical turns of phrase, identical mistakes.”
“Never!” said Mattie.
“Yes,” said the teacher, “and I’m marking him down to 46%.”
Then Mattie told us that not only was he aware that Barry had been copying him – he sat beside him – but that the lad had turned Mattie’s page towards him to get a better look, and had even flicked Mattie’s pencil case away because it was obscuring his view.
“That exact thing happened to me a couple of years ago,” said Paddy. “Those complete fools Jamie O’Farrell and that other eejit he used to hang around with copied me one time, and when they got marked down for being too blatant they weren’t happy.”
“How did they have the nerve?” I asked.
“Jamie said, “That’s the lasht time I’m copying from you, Paddy!” as if it were my fault.”
There were more stories from school, a disproportionate amount of which involved tractors. That’s the way it is when your kids go to a school in the middle of the Galway countryside. Both Paddy and Mattie are born storytellers – thick rural accents a rich part of each telling – and I was hugely entertained from the start of the trip.
I don’t think Paddy will have to plead quite so hard next week.