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Apollo 13, Titanic and other disasters.

You may wonder what the films “Apollo 13” and “Titanic” have in common with our life here.  Well, both are referenced on a daily basis as we wrestle the house into order.  It has been a very busy and eventful year so far, perhaps too busy on reflection.  We began with a list of things we needed and wanted done but circumstances rather threw our clever sequencing out of the windows.  There is a huge rush of building work as Ireland moves out of lock down and both skilled workmen and materials are in short supply.  Prices have gone up and most people are working multiple jobs simultaneously.  It is challenging, for us and them.

Because of this the two most important things for us are still being sorted, though hopefully will be resolved in the next few weeks.  “Apollo 13” is the most urgent.  The electrics are very odd in this house.  Several electricians had a look, did a few things and vanished.  They are not even answering the phone, which does ring alarm bells.  Why “Apollo 13” you ask?  Well, sometimes the sockets all trip off when, for example, one of us turns on the kettle.  Or a computer.  Or the hot water – yes, really.  Remember the scene from the film where Gary Sinise, playing Ken Mattingly tries over and over again to fire up the capsule simulator and it repeatedly overloads and crashes?  So we have taken to calling “Apollo 13” before switching on anything, especially if one of us is working on a computer.

Basically the main fuse board is wired up almost at random which is why the lights dim if the microwave is on.  There’s no proper neutral loop and some stuff doesn’t seem to be earthed.  This is scary stuff and we are very lucky our builder found a brave, talented and properly qualified man who will rip it out and replace the whole lot with something safe and legal. Derrick, we salute you!

Now, the main bathroom is another interesting DIY project.  Any arrangement where the door hits the toilet when opened is not too well thought out.  The main problem for us though is the shower.  Now, the issue is highlighted in the name – a wet room.  Just a bit too wet, especially as the tiles are not non-slip and quite lethal when damp.  In fact the shower tended to flood the whole floor especially before we took out the bath as the water bounced off the sides and headed for the hallway. 

Many mornings one or other of us has slid across to the door, grabbed the frame and sung that irritating earworm of a song from “Titanic”.  Occasionally, on particularly grey, wet mornings, I hear strains of the Volga Boat Song drifting out on the shower.  The bath, by the way, is now in the garden and will make a wonderful herb trough next year.

Waiting to be repurposed

We are calling a halt to a lot of the work now as Jacqui needs to rest and regain her strength.  Our plumber, the lovely Aidan, is coming in the next few weeks to fit the shower screens that will contain this flood over the winter.  We hope to add a new basin and other fittings next year.  He has even found a proper shower chair if we need one over the next few months. 

Some Jacqui related news.  She is home and doing well.  We have to go back to the hospital in a month for tests and may have to stay overnight but at least this time we will be prepared!  Our main aim now is to avoid surgery if possible. She is being very good and trying not to fret over how sleepy she is or how slowly she has to move at present.  This will improve as she gets used to the medication and recovers from what was a huge shock to the system.  Everyone has been so kind, with neighbours (within 3 kilometres!) checking in, offering help and bringing wonderful flowers.  Our workmen decided jobs have to be finished and gone over and above what we could possibly ask.  And all of you, with your lovely comments and the good wishes you have sent.  Thank you all.

This has been an eye-opening part of our journey.  I realized I could not continue to avoid driving in Ireland, I had to just get on with it.  I thought I would be nervous, out in the countryside on my own.  But I wasn’t.  The house and this place continue to delight us despite recent events.  Things are different certainly.  There is very little radio reception but we have glorious birdsong.  We don’t have a shop within walking distance but we have a garden and a wood.  There is no street lighting but at night we can see the Milky Way.

We have kind, good friends both here and in other countries.

We are fine.

An apology for the lateness – but I do have a note

First an apology for the lateness of this episode – but I do have a note to excuse this tardiness.  This last week has been interesting – a bit more interesting than we wanted, to be honest.  For the past month Jacqui has had recurring attacks of breathlessness that we had attributed to asthma.  Late-onset asthma is a family trait and the house has been full of dust from building work so the idea seemed reasonable.  However on Sunday last she had a very nasty attack and I almost called an ambulance.  Then we went to see the doctor and he took one look at her and ordered us to the Regional Hospital – in Limerick, 40 miles away.

We had been rolling down the roads, happy that our car insurance problem was finally at an end.  Thank goodness it was or we would have been in deep trouble!  Public transport is a bit patchy round here (and non-existent this far out).  The few cab drivers in the area had shut up shop due to Covid and the waiting times for a cab in the local town can be hours long.  We got to A&E at noon and after four hours and several tests they whisked her upstairs.

Now, I was in a strange and very busy town and in shock.  I was also frantic to get back as we had not expected this and the dogs had been alone for almost six hours.  And I’d never driven in Ireland.  I was going to take it slowly, getting used to quiet roads first.  Dyspraxics find it very hard to automate anything physical and driving unfamiliar roads with slightly different rules in a huge strain.  Then a lovely, kind and helpful taxi driver arrived.  He drove me the whole way home and came to collect me the next morning, round trips of over 100 miles.  At least I could take some clean clothes, a toothbrush and some things to keep her occupied.

It’s just as well Jacqui was in the hospital that night as she had what they refer to rather delicately as an “episode”.  I found out about it when I rang to see if she could come home and encountered a bit more Irish candor than I wanted.  The staff were, by the way, overwhelmingly well trained, efficient, kind and helpful – we cannot thank them enough, but this was not a conversation I expected.

            “Oh now, Jacqui.  Well she’s having a bad day of it.  Whatever could go wrong has, you know.  Oh, it’s terrible for her.  She’s not well at all.”  Right. 

Looking back I can actually chuckle about that encounter.  Jacqui’s abiding recollection is the clear organisation and teamwork which made her feel in very safe hands.

I drove the car back that morning following clear directions from Kieran, the wonderful taxi driver.  He gave simple instructions on the easiest route, pointed out landmarks and said, “Don’t worry about anyone else.  They want to pass you, that’s their problem.  You just drive as you feel comfortable.”   The next day I had to go into town for food for the dogs and then set to making the house clean and safe for Jacqui’s return, whenever that might be.  When I went to change the bed linen I was horrified to find it full of little bugs.  Then I put my glasses on and swept up all the biscuit crumbs left by Charlie, the youngest dog.

We got her home yesterday, a long and horrible week later, and she is doing okay.  It was Kieran who did the journey one more time as we couldn’t get any notice of her leaving and all the delays ran through the day and into the evening.  These, by the way, were caused by an extraneous department and not the unit she was in. The next four weeks are to help her rest and recover a bit before they decide the best way forward.  We are revising plans for some of the building work, doing only essentials for the time being.  I have to drive for a while.  But the outcome has been a lot better than we might have expected. 

We are settled into this lovely house and with a new boiler and almost finished extension we will be warm and safe as winter draws on.  So many people have been so kind and helpful offering emotional and practical support.  HSE Ireland were magnificent, even letting me visit one afternoon.  I did have to wear full PPE and apparently resembled a blue jelly baby but it was worth doubling as a Smurf to spend that precious hour with her.

So, that explains the lateness of this episode.  I hope you agree this note does explain my tardiness.

News about books and that boot in the wood

I began this week thinking there would be no news for the blog but it seems I was wrong.  First I would like to share some writing news with you all.  The fifth book in the “Alex Hastings” series is due out next year though the actual publication date depends on a lot of things beyond my control.  I’m waiting for an editor and for my publisher to do the cover design and say whether he or I will supply the “blurb”.  Then the e-book version needs setting up and final proofs have to be checked.  This is the tedious but so important part of publication – and it takes months sometimes!

I had finished the book itself several times in a number of different forms over the last few years.  This is because I became embroiled with an agent (who will be nameless) who promised a lot but seemed to constantly change her mind about what she wanted.  After rewriting, editing and adding sections she finally decided she wanted the whole thing moved to the year 2020.  Eager as I was, this was a step too far – and impossible.  The Levels have changed beyond recognition since the 1980s, the Probation Service scarcely exists and Alex and her friends would be retiring.  Now restored to its former, more coherent form I hope “A Long Shadow” will be with you soon.

Even more exciting in some ways is the news I have signed a TV option for “Death of the Elver Man”.  Jon Moore, the manager of a new media company, Blue Trotter Media Ltd is hoping to turn it into a four or six part drama and has also taken future options on the other books so if it is a success there may be more.  Now is the time to start “fantasy casting”!  Jon is very skilled and experienced with TV and film work to his name, particularly in the field of special effects and prosthetics.  Moving into production will be a new step for him and I am looking forward to working with him and the team.

Now, I promised an update on the boot.  Well, that is all turning rather strange.  When I went into the wood to dig it up earlier this week it was gone.  There was no sign of digging, nothing seemed disturbed but I couldn’t find it anywhere.  After a lot of hunting I spotted the sole propped up against one of the oak trees.  The disappointing news is it is just the sole of an old canvas trainer or something like that but – how did it get there?  I also found a discarded medical mask pushed into a pile of sticks and grass off to one side.  That was definitely not ours.,

Of course, as a crime writer I am constantly making up stories and constructing narratives so here are some possible explanations.  Most prosaically it was moved by a fox or badger – but then why was there no sign of digging?  It had probably been there for years, certainly as long as we’ve been in the house so why now?  And would an animal have propped it up neatly on a tree?  If it was human intervention maybe something was buried under it and retrieved.  Or perhaps it pointed towards something buried or hidden and it was moved to hide the trail from prying eyes.  Or maybe someone is just messing with our heads. 

So, for all those of you who wonder, “Where do you get your ideas?” there’s always something you can toy with.  Everything is copy, they say and the world is full of details and events that can become a story.

Finally, there’s still no movement of the car – or movement of the car.  Fingers crossed for next week.  I’m checking my bike over as I may need to do the cycle ride into the nearest town soon.  And this week I wrote more of Alex Hastings 6, including two “crane” days.  Feels like a successful week after all.

The start of a new garland

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible…

Another week has flown by – another week without transport here in the depths of rural Ireland.  The insurance saga grinds on though I feel we are making some progress.  The garage collected the car at stupid o’clock on Tuesday and checked it over.  Not surprisingly it passed the NCT (the Irish MOT) and we had the precious certificate for the insurance company.  Just one problem though – they demanded “physical proof” of the NCT, either a copy in the post or a fax.  No, they said, they had no mailbox so a pdf was not possible.  The nearest post box is about five kilometres away and who the hell still has a fax at home?  So thank you to our lovely builder who drove into town especially to put it in the post.  Now we wait – and hope.  This is one aspect of normal service we really do need to resume.

We rely heavily on deliveries at present, for obvious reasons and Jacqui has been very pro-active in dealing with our current wave of unwanted and uninvited residents.  It’s been much cooler these past weeks – just as well as the local farmers appear to be emptying their slurry tanks over the county in preparation for winter.  We often do not open the windows which keeps out the smell and a lot of the flies.  There are fewer insects now but it is still a relentless infestation.  It will be better next year as we are rooting them out inside.  We are also removing the main attractions in the garden including three Leylandii trees they love.  We are less enthusiastic and intend to dig them out and replace them with something smaller and native.  In the meantime we have a stunning range of products to combat the flies, horseflies, wasps and mosquitoes.

Supplies for the “Flyminator”

The biggest step forward this week was finally getting the gas boiler in and running.  The gas tank was installed back in May and filled in June but we were still relying on the old oil boiler for hot water – which it refused to supply unless we were running the heating.  Now we can turn on the tap and – presto, hot water!  You really don’t know how happy that makes you unless you’ve had to rely on immersion heaters or slow warming tanks.  We are just adapting to many different things here but this was one thing we could change.  As far as we are concerned it comes under the heading “Quality of Life”. It also frees up a big area at the back of the Majestic for storage. Hopefully we will have a reliable water supply and heating for the winter.  Almost normal service !

So on to developments on the writing front.  This whole project has meant I’ve scarcely written anything for several years.  I had packed away all the sources and reference books, notes and pictures along with my trusty computer.  There is an old Jewish saying (with thanks to Rabbi Blue).  If you want to make God laugh then tell him your plans. In the absence of contact with readers, bookshops and libraries the plans I had drifted away.  They became inconsequential next to the real-life drama we were living.  When we moved into the house I discovered my lovely big writing desk was missing and we had no way to replace it.  It seems a small thing in the whole big adventure but it was almost the last straw.  Then I began this blog, just a few words every week but the discipline has been very good for me. 

My writing corner is still small and crowded but we hope to locate another table soon – when we can drive again of course.  I found some of the maps I’d marked up in a box and the original manuscripts for the first five novels too.  Yes, there is a fifth book with the publishers and there are plans for the next year.  Those of you who have followed this page since the beginning may remember I used to make a paper crane every day I wrote 1,000 words.  My garlands were left behind in the studio but finally, this week, I made a start on Book Six of the Alex Hastings series.  And so I have made my first Irish paper crane.

Hopefully the first of many

It has been a long and occasionally painful journey but gradually normal service is being resumed.

What’s in a name? Rather a lot actually…

What’s in a name, William Shakespeare asked and the answer can, sometimes, be “rather a lot”.  Firstly, thank you everyone who commented and expressed sympathy for our car troubles.  We are still without transport but I can report we are moving forward.  The garage behind our first cottage have been magnificent and they will collect the car on Monday.  They will give it a quick pre-check, take it for the test and return it the next day.  Hopefully we can then get some insurance and leave our latest enforced isolation.

Regarding the insurance, I would like to offer some information.  Many people in the UK use the comparison websites for insurance quotes.  It is quick, easy and often offers a decent price.  What is not made clear is these are actually considered “brokers”.  Not a problem in England but at the root of our dilemma here.  We have been puzzled by the refusal of some companies to insure us.  “We cover courage!” one company boasts.  Yes, but you won’t cover two retired lecturers for about 6,000 kilometres a year to drive to the shops, will you?  Something was off and we were determined to find out what it was.

It took some persistence but someone finally admitted they didn’t accept a foreign no-claims discount, especially from a “broker”.  This is partly due to Covid where people working from home are unable to do detailed record searches.  The impact of Brexit makes sharing of data a grey area, compounding the problem.  Any evidence of a no-claims record from a comparison site often cannot be verified in a reasonable time so it is rejected.  Now, you may think this is interesting but not relevant to you but if you need “foreign” car insurance it can be devastating.  And we never thought we’d need to insure our car in another country either.

Despite this ongoing headache this week has been much better for us.  The building work has resumed and we are creeping towards luxuries such as a modern boiler.  At present we cannot heat the water without running the heating which, in the recent heat wave, was less than ideal.  We tried opening the windows but this brought the plague of flies inside, along with wasps, butterflies and, worst of all, horse flies.  We’re installing fly screens on the door and windows and occasionally have a mass hunt using those clever tennis racquets that zap them when you get a hit.  In the morning it sounds like a machine gun in the lobby there are so many. 

The horse flies seen to love Jacqui and we are investing in a range of cures and researching preventative measures.  Our beautiful old Tibetan Terrier, Saffron, suffered from bad ears all her life and we found a cream used for thrush was the best thing for them.  It works wonders on the horse fly bites too – hooray for mild steroids!  A friend told us about a wrist band used by horse riders to deter them.  I was delighted to learn it was called “Naffoff”, which is what I say constantly when in the wood.  I can’t wait to try them.

A proud stand of oak trees

Speaking of the wood, we try to get out for an hour or so most days.  We are concentrating on the top end where the oak trees are and it seems to be paying off.  After some heavy work we have stripped most of the brambles and the choking ivy away.  We consigned whole heaps of nettles to the compost heap and as we moved further back we discovered several more oaks.  These are older trees, better established but still struggling.  Each tree may take several days to clear all the parasitic invaders but already the nearest is looking better and I am hopeful we can save them. I’m not sure the tiny tree at the front will survive though we are going to remove the sapling next to it to give it more of a chance.  If it doesn’t we will replace it with a new tree, another oak.

I wonder what’s under here?

And sometimes you find something rather disturbing in the undergrowth.  This week I unearthed a couple of old shot gun shells and a snare, now disabled of course.  But next to them, buried in the earth, was a boot, sole upwards.  I just hope the rest of the owner isn’t in there, head down.  Unless it’s the illegal hunter in which case I hope it is.

It’s been a rough week all round

Apologies for the delay in posting this week but it has been rather a rough few days.  After several months rolling smoothly along the sheer weight of new things – people, places, procedures – caught up with me with some quite negative impacts. There is a rich and extensive bureaucracy in Ireland and it is only too easy to run foul of it, especially in these uncertain times.  Despite some recent “opening up”, Ireland is still coping with a backlog of cancelled appointments for just about everything.  Licences, inspections, dentists – you name it, it can take weeks to see anyone.  Or talk to anyone – or, most difficult of all, get someone out to check or repair something.

Our immediate problem is transport.  We are trying to insure the car but have just been told we need the Irish equivalent of an MOT.  Fair enough, except we were told it wasn’t needed when we registered it and got our nice new Irish number plate.  We were also told the offices would contact us to say when we should go and test the car.  They didn’t.  So now we have a car we can’t insure unless we get the test.  But we can’t get to the centre (which is about 15 miles away) without driving. And we can’t do that without insurance. 

            (Bangs head on table repeatedly)

In fact we can’t do anything – shop, post a letter, get to a doctor or vet – at present.  

            (Must stop banging head on table as we are running out of aspirin).

Sometimes the bureaucracy is a little too helpful.   Last month we exchanged our driving licences but I got a text message asking for a medical report. It was, apparently, so I could keep my entitlement to drive large vans. This had been inexplicably added to my UK licence.  I had told the very helpful woman at my interview that a/ I had no idea I even had that and b/ I really didn’t want it.  Just car and motorbike, thank you. 

Anyone who knows me will be aware I couldn’t drive a van even if I wanted to.   At just five feet tall if I could see out of the windscreen I couldn’t reach the pedals.  The centre in Dublin, eager to ensure I didn’t miss out on this exciting prospect, reinstated the van category – and then asked for the medical.  I hope it’s sorted now, but has delayed the issuing of my licence.

Home baking!

A couple of features of our previous lockdown life have proved helpful this week however.  When we arrived we couldn’t go out anywhere so Jacqui ventured into the murky, labyrinthine world of on-line grocery shopping.  Stuck here trying to unpick the car insurance tangle, we are slowly emptying the freezer and awaiting the delivery truck.  Also Jacqui tried her hand at bread making and results are quite delicious.

We also instituted a special Saturday meal to end each week and have kept this up every weekend since.   We set the table with my parents’ special china, have several courses and a selection of wine.  So to finish I offer the sommelier’s suggestions for this week, to go with baked cheese, duck breasts and a selection of local cheeses. Two Pinots – Pinot Grigio from Italy and Pinot Noir from Chile.  Both under 7 euro a bottle from your local supermarket.

Here’s to a better week coming up.  Cheers!

Things I’m glad I learned from the Open University

There is a lot of snobbery around education – inverted snobbery from the “University of Life” people and academic snobbery that still maintains Open is not a “real” university.  I’m a proud graduate and have also taught for them and I have found a lot of useful stuff I learned has come back to help these last few months.  This whole experience is quite a bit out of my comfort zone.  I’m a writer and researcher but I’ve found myself planning, designing, gardening, repairing and even exterminating rodents.  It is physically exhausting at times though also oddly exhilarating. In a strange way it seems to have added even more purpose to our lives.

I studied a whole range of things at the Open University, from science and technology to discourse analysis.  It constantly surprises me how useful a lot of this is.  Take the science foundation course for example.  I know how to measure and test a substance and so have established the hardness of the water from the well.  Very hard actually –from 185 to 130 ppm.  It will fur up a kettle in 36 hours unless treated.  Enter basic maths, used for science and statistics, and I can calculate the volume and frequency of salt tablets needed.  Hurrah for our hair!

Hard water!

Trigonometry is often regarded as useless in everyday life but not so for me.  We need a backing wall for solar panels, set at 30o and standing on a concrete base.  Out came the drawing instruments and calculator to work out the dimensions, height, number of blocks needed, foundation depth and cost of materials.  Hooray for technical drawing skills acquired in the “History of Modern Architecture” course!   

There is a strange quirk amongst builders in Ireland to add “Mediterranean” features to their houses.  A friend said it was often a desire to recall holidays in warmer climes.  Well, there are numerous wide porches with Spanish style wide arches around, attached to a remodelled traditional cottage.  These look a bit odd at first but not too bad.  After all, a deep porch can keep out winter storms as well as scorching sun.  What I find deeply annoying is the use of pillars across the front of houses.  Plastic or plaster columns holding up only one corner of a porch.  Or lined up in front, just – there, supporting nothing (or maybe something invisible).   And it is wrong, very wrong, to have Doric columns with Ionic or (worst of all) Corinthian capitals.  I can put my discomfort at that sight down to the Open University courses in Ancient History.

When we arrived at the house there were curtains up, left by our kind vendors until we could get our own.  As we have dogs that wake at daybreak it was necessary to get something as lightproof as possible.  We puzzled over the best way to achieve this, with a range of windows all different sizes and shapes.  Then I remembered something from studying theatre lighting many years ago and formalized by the Open University science course.  Combining all three primary colours (red, blue and yellow) eliminates most frequencies of light making an effective blackout.  Jacqui was astonished as the drapes were only silk weight but took me at my word.  She got out the trusty sewing machine to make green curtains with red linings and it worked!

All of these scraps of theoretical knowledge garnered over a number of disciplines have had real, practical applications.  My varied (some would say eccentric) education has been invaluable as we settle in and make a new home but the most important lessons are less tangible.  My music courses taught me to listen – really listen, not just hear things.  Standing in the wood I can identify a dozen different birds at one time.  I can hear the sudden burst of rain as it rushes up the lane and get inside.  We know the rats are gone from the house otherwise we would hear their nasty, scaly feet scrabbling through the ceilings.

The other great lesson from the Open University is patience.  If you are going to be successful you can’t start looking too far ahead.  Faced with a pile of books, essays to write, an exam looming and the thought of at least six more years it is too easy to give up.  I learnt to focus on one course, one task at a time.  The overgrown bay beside the road, for example, is now filled with rich top soil and some of the abandoned rocks.  One afternoon we clipped the ivy and it will die and wither away.  Then Jacqui began planting, using flowers she grew from seed back in March.  We will add bulbs in the autumn and bee-bombs in the next few weeks.  Next year we will see it all burst into life.

The first phase of the little garden

It is like the old saying – “How do you eat an elephant?”  Answer – “One bite at a time”.  We have an elephant here and one that keeps on growing.  But the wood clearance, partial as it was, revealed a stand of young oak trees.  That is such a wonderful find, previously hidden and choked almost to death.  Each tree is being cleared and is recovering and then we will move on to the next tree, and the next.  If we focus on just one at a time we will suddenly find ourselves on the other side, all finished.

It may take us six years but we will be as proud of this as anything we have done. 

A summer of “plagues” in Tipperary

Summer has always brought “plagues” to most places and Tipperary is no different.  Many of these are due to moving into a house that has always been a rental property.  With the really big plague – Covid – still circulating the rental market has collapsed.  This brought our house onto the market (definitely not a plague!) but has exacerbated some issues. 

Left empty for almost two years, a lot of uninvited guests moved in.  I’ve already introduced you to the rats.  We got very serious about them when I was using the upstairs bathroom.  Glancing down I saw a furry little snout poking out under the loft door.  It was too large to be a mouse (I’ve suffered a plague of them before in bed-sitter land).  We sealed the gaps with expanding foam and invested in bulk tubs of poison.  I was in a hurry and really should have read the instructions for the foam first.  Who knew it kept on expanding so much?  Fortunately the rats did not keep expanding and we seem rat free at the moment.

A bit over enthusiastic with the filler

Way back in February I opened a door downstairs and was greeted by a swarm of flies.  They were literally everywhere – flying, crawling, battering at the window.  A nightmare encounter.  We rode into town and grabbed a can of spray – there was no other way to contain the insects.  The woman in the shop was sympathetic.  Empty houses are plagued by this, she said.  The flies get in, hatch, nest in every corner and just multiply.  Over the past months I’ve tackled a swarm in every room – twice in some.  Now we have a heat wave and they are back, in even greater numbers.  We’ve put up fly papers, sprayed empty rooms and are waiting for our rechargeable zappers to arrive.  Meanwhile I do occasional hunts with a very efficient swatter. Jacqui is of the opinion I have “fly rage”.

One tiny bit of my floor this morning

The plagues of Egypt included frogs and we have frogs but I don’t consider them a plague.  In March I kept finding tiny brown newts in our back garden.  I collected each one and put then into the wood.  Then in late spring we saw our first frog.  Just a couple of inches long, green with brown patches, it was hopping through the grass.  We’ve seen a fair number since, probably emerging from the remains of our pond in the far corner of the wood.  I say “remains of” as we seem to have a plague of fly-tippers.  It is choked with branches, undergrowth and strange lumpy things.  Next spring we will get the digger back, clean it out and fence it off.

This is actually a pond!

A couple of days ago the heat wave brought on a thunderstorm of biblical proportions.  I was trying to record the latest episode of “Tipperary Tales” and you can hear drop out from lightning in places.  It was so loud we abandoned Book of the Month!  https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PB10983147NNKI

After twenty minutes it turned into hail (also a plague in Egypt) – huge stones that settled in the corners and persisted despite the continuing heat.  A bit of a plague as it didn’t do the more fragile plants much good.  On the other hand it was a little bit cooler that night, and I didn’t need to water the garden either.

We have other “plagues” – really nice ones.  On my walk down to photograph the pond I saw six different types of butterfly.  They are very numerous here and only a plague when they fly into the house.  This happens several times a day and I’m getting adept at catching them gently and taking them outside.  We also have what could be considered a plague – many spiders around the windows and doors.  We started to clear the webs and then the flies arrived so now we leave them.  The enemy of our enemy is our friend.  Though last week I was so frustrated I apparently threatened one with eviction for not doing its job.  Jacqui swears it is true.  I don’t remember – it was very hot.

Note the empty web!

The final plague is not confined to Tipperary, or even to Ireland.  It is the plague of bureaucrats.  Moving to another country means navigating a minefield of new and different regulations.  Due to Covid (still a plague) the usual advice channels are closed, out of date or contradictory.  For example, we could not exchange our driving licenses before the deadline at the end of December.  Then we could drive for a while on an International Driving Permit, then we couldn’t as we bought a house.  Suddenly we could exchange licenses but needed other documents to do so.  At one point we needed to take the driving test (with mandatory driving lessons) first.  Then that changed again and we rushed to get the documents needed.  And tomorrow we finally get to swap our licenses.

Everything is like that! 

I can’t wait until we try to swap our tax status.

Yes, yes, let’s talk about the weather!

With thanks to WS Gilbert for the title

In the UK everyone talks about the weather.  It’s a national pastime and one we came to expect and accept.  It seems it is the same in Ireland.  One important difference here is you cannot go into a shop, pick up a paper, put the money down and walk out.  No, every transaction begins with, “Hello, how are ye today?”  Then a few general pleasantries and then, if you are in for the first time, some gentle(ish) questions about who, what, why…  Especially why did you come to Ireland – and inevitably this is followed by, “It wasn’t for the weather, for sure”.  Everyone talks about the weather, especially in the country where it can be vital for the farmers.

The community here is a decent size – small UK town or big village maybe.  Yet the second time we went into the pharmacy the woman serving greeted Jacqui by her first name and asked how we were settling in.  This has been the case practically everywhere.  One notable thing for us coming from the growing “hostile environment” in the UK was everyone, when they heard we had bought our house, was pleased.  And so many said something like, “Well now, firstly you are very welcome”.  And then they would add something about the weather, of course.

At the moment we have a heat wave with glorious sunshine and temperatures topping 29 degrees.  That’s about 85 in Fahrenheit.  The sky is a startling blue, the clouds are shiny white and everything in the garden has gone mad.  There were some lumpy, frosted stems in the front we thought we should remove in the spring.  Suddenly we had lilies – five feet tall and luminescent in the sunlight.  The lavender round the Majestic has gone crazy and fills the air with scent.  It is far too hot to do much during the day so I have been up early and tried a bit of clearing with the strimmer.  As I am rather short (and the weeds are very high) I invested in a helmet with visor to fend off tumbling nettles and thistles.  I look ridiculous – a sort of mini Darth Vader – but it is better than a face full of undergrowth. 

Jennie Vader

We also decided to cut our losses and got a man with a digger in to clear the side garden.  John and his magic machine were terrific.  Where the suspect piles of rubbish and heaps of brambles made any progress impossible we now have rich, fallow soil that is almost level.  Several passers-by have asked what we are going to do with the land.  We don’t know yet though the back by the hedge is earmarked for a wild flower garden.  And best of all, the rats will be gone from there.  John steered his digger round the margins and carefully avoided disturbing the hedges.  These are a bit overly enthusiastic at the moment but we are leaving then until autumn.  The birds are nesting here – robins, blackbirds and gold finches – and they will not be disturbed.  Even the starlings have been let alone.

Speaking of starlings, we had a tense moment in the spring.  One morning we heard strange noises coming from the log burner chimney.  They were faint at first and we thought it was birds on the roof.  Over the morning they got louder until we could hear scrabbling in the metal pipe.  Calls to local sweeps went unanswered so we tried to open the stove ourselves.  After a frantic call to the previous owners we managed to lift the top and a young starling shot out, flying past us into the kitchen.  After several attempts Jacqui managed to catch it and let it out of the back door, much to the disappointment of the dogs.  It flew onto the roof and chattered at us for five minutes before flying off.  It would be nice to think it was thanking us but somehow I don’t think so.

When we arrived it was grey – grey with shades of mud.  Even the snow fell from grey clouds and there was not enough to settle and turn the countryside white.  Everyone in England told us how wet and rainy it was in Ireland.  We looked out of the window and wondered whether we had made a mistake after all.  Now in the midst of summer with flowers, birds, trees and insects (oh so many insects!) we know we will have these bright days to look to when winter comes.  And hopefully everything will stop growing and we can make some progress.

Lock down life and unwelcome residents

We were under lock down almost as soon as we arrived and it would have been easy to feel isolated, especially so far out in the countryside.  In fact the wide open spaces proved to keep us rather busy.  A combination of warm weather in March and the (in)famous rain led to an explosion in the garden.  The grass shot up and with it a swathe of dandelions and primroses.  We had no intention of attempting to create a traditional lawn.  Apart from anything else most grass in Ireland grows mixed in with moss.  We used the new strimmer around the primroses, avoided the biggest clumps of dandelions and left it for the bees. 

I say the “new” strimmer as when we arrived we were rather short on garden tools.  As previous owners of a ten foot square yard we had just one trowel.  Derek, the mover, looked at it and said, “Think you’re going to need a bigger spade”.  He was right, of course.  In fact apart from food shopping and the occasional book most of our expenditure has been on tools and garden hardware.  A lot of our DIY tools were left behind by the idiot movers and had to be replaced but we never needed a hedge trimmer.  Or reciprocal tree saw, loppers, lawnmower, heavy duty clippers ….. the list seemed endless.

As did the task ahead as we ventured into the wood to take stock.  It had been sadly neglected over the years.  There were a lot of trees – ash, beech, alder, willow, hawthorn and oak, all jumbled up together.  The brambles had grown in from the boundaries, as far as fifteen feet in places.  The grass of up to five years was packed across the few open spaces and walking was dangerous.  As I tried to get to the back of the plot the whole surface gave way suddenly.  My leg plunged knee deep into the undergrowth leaving me struggling to move – and very thankful there are no snakes in Ireland. 

I looked around, focusing on one tree at a time.  Each one was choked with brambles, ivy and sticky weed (Galium Aparine to a gardener).  The weight of these parasites was pulling down the tree branches and sucking the life from them, as was the anklet of moss around each trunk.  A large number of trees had obviously already succumbed but we decided to wait for summer, to see how many showed signs of life.  We had a conference around the kitchen table.  Each tree would need to be cleared of weeds and ivy, old and new, but this depended on reaching them in the first place, something currently almost impossible.  It was off to the hardware shop again.

We not only had the wood to contend with, we also had the piece of land behind the Majestic.  This had huge piles of tree roots, earth and building rubbish scattered across it, far too heavy for us to move.  I had eyed several mounds with suspicion, wary of tackling them.  As a crime writer my first thought was perhaps there was a body under there.  In fact there was something worse.  Rats.

Having rats in England is a source of shame.  Only dirty (or unlucky, or poor) people have rats.  It is different in Ireland, especially anywhere outside the main cities.  Everyone has rats.  Each year the shops fill up with traps, bait boxes and poisons.  Everyone has a favourite method for catching them.  They prefer the grain to blocks, we were told.  Use peanut butter – they can’t resist it.  Fix the blocks so they have to eat them and not carry them off.  I was talking to the store owner on a visit to the cottages. He nodded and said, “I had three round my bird table.  Waited ‘til they got down and shot them”.  I was impressed.  “Did you use an air rifle?” I asked.  He blinked at me, shaking his head. “Nah, shotgun”.  Now, I hate rats as much as the next person but that doesn’t seem very sporting.

We began to watch our bird feeder and sure enough, early in the evening spotted a rat up at the seed hanger.  I was so incensed I shot out of the back door, seized a metal off-cut and raced across the lawn to the back wall. I was yelling and going the full Maori warrior. The rat heard me and sat up.  He stared for an instant and made a dash for a hole in the wall. 

I don’t know who was more relieved he made it, me or him.