A Life in Buildings

I grew up in this place:

The first photo is the ‘Works’ Corner. Lurking on the left of the photo – across from what had been the library and houses and shops – is the old derelict shell of the Shotts Ironworks. A massive complex of sheds and furnaces and chimneys. All gone now.

Shotts Ironworks Corner taken by J Marzella

Mum says it was a good place. A thriving town when she arrived in 1964.

I don’t remember much of that.

It was on the slide by the time I was old enough to form memories of it.

But I had nothing to compare it with. It was home. And magic. No place like home.

We moved to a tin-roofed ‘Cooncil’ house in Thomson Terrace in 1979. Constructed from the left-over fusilage of surplus airplane technology in the post-war Public Housing boom.  Luxury. It was big – bigger than the two-up two-down schemie terrace we’d come from. And totally without central heating. That first winter the ice was half an inch thick – on the inside of the steel framed windows. We all cried with the pain of it and slept in our clothes, with huge piles of thick covers and patchworks. And Dad – unemployed and desperate to do something – dug up two Belfast sinks and a lot of scrap from the garden he was trying to make into something like from The Good Life. The root veg he planted got clubrot from the pigeon shit he inexpertly spread because it was cheap and we couldn’t get any better dung.

Thomson Terrace – 1950s -World Pipe Band Championship Day taken by J. Marzella (local and very highly skilled photographer). My home was three up on the left.

This was a happy home. Though money was scarce and the fights were legion. My Mother forever working nightshift overtimes in the local Mental Asylum. My Father visibly shrinking during the years of Nothing. A Car Manufacturer – a semi-skilled engineer casualty of the strikes at Leyland – finished off by Thatcher and castigated by Tebbit (‘get on yer bike’ Tebbit) and arriving at a place of shame where his rich siblings snubbed him. The heart attack came later. After the hidden half bottles in the garage and the tears. But before the good job and rebirth.

This next picture’s taken from the area of the Bing. The Pit Bing (Slag Heap for one of the Mines) which I scooted down sitting on a bread tray. Where we all lit the wee field fires and got a skelping for smelling of smoke. The vista is grim. But I could tell you every name for every door. And the football park still is the biggest in Scotland (just the field – not the stadium!).

This was also the Bus Stance. Where the buses finished their journeys from Airdrie and Glasgow and Motherwell and Wishaw. The prefabs went and were replaced in the late 60s/early 70s with a white all-electric (under-floor heating which nobody could afford to run) terraces.

It was when I was 19 years old that I realised that this was an ugly place. An architectural crime, perpetrated against people too poor to move away and too ignorant to demand more.

I began to understand the significance of our built environment.

I stayed in Crail for some time. And felt like one of the miners I grew up with – coming blinking out of the dark and into the light. A subterranean troll, I felt out of place and out of class. My beautiful boyfriend coaxed me into his world. But I really didn’t understand their language. It was the language of people who were the complacent owners of a transcendant beauty they took for granted. They were not tainted by dark industries. No factory workers. No miners. No steel workers. His people were hard working teachers and shop-owners and sea-people. Their horizons were wide as the world. They were free and outward looking, where in Shotts there was a grim and narrow insularity. And a sectarian violence.

This was his world:

 

 
Crail – The East Neuk of Fife
 
 

This remains a favourite place. The fossilised tree trunks on the shoreline. The ancient Pictish placenames. The Dark Age cross-slab in the Kirk. The Tolbooth. The Dutch red pan-tiled roofs.

But there was a time when it felt too sweet to be wholesome. A sugary confection.

It affects us – where we live. Buildings are signifiers. Why else build a Court that looks like this:

It is seeking to intimidate all those who come before it. The entrance doors are thick and heavy and bristling with security for this is the busiest court in Europe. They open into airport scanning. And then the highest reach of marble and steel and stone. And anonymous doors everywhere with the people like mites and ants and cockroaches.

For many years I moved between worlds. From Shotts to Glasgow University. I wondered why I often felt confused. And resentful. This formal institutionalising architecture which sought to impose and impress.

Between the Quadrangles – the Undercroft – the area I went to every day for tutorials and lectures. Glasgow University.

 

I was sometimes stunned into a silent worship – the buildings are so beautiful. Perfect. They spoke of privilege. Of donors seeking a fitting memorial which would bear their names into perpetuity.

At other times all I could do was remember the builders and labourers who had sweated over their carved grace and sometimes died. Though they would be happy for the work and accept their lot as life.

There was a point to this post. It was about how we build people into their lives. How we show them their place. And keep them there by constraining their vision. Or how we gift grandeur to others and show them their place.

I am not so far away from Shotts in miles and it will never leave me – its stain of memories is indelible. It was my home. In some ways, though, I could not be further from Shotts as this place is another beautiful Crail. Though it is a peasant vernacular and there is a great mix of people. New Lanark – here:

Looking down on the Village – Mum and Dad stay just under the Bell Tower

I wonder at my children and how this place will leave its mark on them. I think I see their openness. They have grown up in the sunlight.

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Festive Cheer from Bah Humbug

The mall spills festive cheer from every orifice.

The perfect Yule confection towers above us as we enter the centre atrium. The conical tree is bedecked with this years colours. Unsubtle silver and aqua baubles clamour for our attention – a surface covering of shiny pustules.

The silvered house for Santa and his reindeer is like a beacon to Mammon, beckoning all the little children to come unto it. Where they can spill their avarice into good ole Santa’s ears whilst the adult carers spill the contents of their purses and wallets into the hands of Santa’s little helpers.

I remember I was as greedy as any other child. I didn’t noticeably curb the excesses of my letter to Santa. Though I was well aware – by the age of 8 and thanks to the ridiculous impossibility of aspirations to the clandestine or furtive in a cramped two bedroom terraced Cooncil Hoose – that my Ma n Pa were ‘Santa’.

I did modify my list so as to include those items that Ma n Pa could reasonably afford. Though of course I stretched the boundaries of affordability.

I remember the building frenzy of excited anticipation that peaked on Xmas Eve. My brother Derek and I would be swept along in a perfect cataract of desire and satiated pleasure; of sweeties and wrapping-ripping; of giving and taking in return.

There was never a Xmas that disappointed. Though I remember Scottish Granny giving me a hairdryer one year that melted two weeks later – and which she returned to the shop but never ever replaced. And a t-shirt that I hated instantaneously on sight – and which I buried at the bottom of my drawer.

I look back now and can see into the perfect bleb of the memories and at the centre of it all is the family-visiting, the noisy hustle and bustle of our big extended family.

The 25th of December to the 2nd of January were the busiest and ecstatically happiest – spent with my hard-drinking and hard-partying and simply religious Irish Granny and my Communist Granpa and all my aunts and uncles and cousins and the Irish relatives. The small two-up two-down house just down from the Steel Works would be bursting at its seams. The never-ending trail of neighbours bearing bottles of whisky and vodka and rum. The singing. When you were sweet 16… When Irish eyes are smiling…Wee Cooper O Fife… Wee Deoch n Doris…Auld Lang Syne…Ae Fond Kiss… The vast meaty cauldrons of Scotch Broth and the huge metal ashettes of steak pie. The perpetual peeling of tatties and scrubbing of carrots and shelling of peas. The steamy kitchen opening into the small garden and Granpa’s Doo Hut and the old 18th Century trunk which Granny hated and which had been banished under a lino covering to the garden space under the back window.

Granny had a kitchen hatch which opened into the small space that served as Dining Room. I was fascinated by the hatch. A hole in the wall through which bowl after bowl after plate after plate and glass after glass would be served up.

Granpa made the food. Though Granny controlled it all. The men would be served first. I remember that. Then the women who would fuss over plates and cutlery. Our Tennants and McEwans and Bells and Grouse. And then us wains. Too numerous to be fed in one sitting, there would be several sittings. The food would go on all day it would feel to me.

Granny would have decked the house in gaudy tinsel. Chasing, twinkling, lanterns and jaggy floral bauble-shaped lights lined the outside window-frame. There was a Baby Jesus in his manger on the table at the window – sleeping peacefully under the sparkly wee tree. Later there were garlands of metallic red and green and gold to festoon the low ceiling. And the lava lamp would be outshone for a change.

The trim phone would trim-trim-trim with messages from over-the-seas and from the next street over who wanted to announce their setting off to join us.

I remember the house sung to the Belfast Brogue and raw Lanarkshire dialect. And my Granny’s voice would remember itself as strong and Northern Irish.

And in the middle of it my Mother’s beauty would be incandescent and light up the room – outdoing the fairy lights. Every man’s eyes would be on her. But even then, every woman would love her. Her glamorous but tasteful make-up; her subtle jewellery; the scarf tied just so; the dress cut to accentuate the turn of her waist, her fine bones, her generous breasts.  My Granny would say ‘Catch yer self oan. Our Mary was born t’ be a lady but thur was no room fur her’ and every one would laugh and nod and say ‘Sure and Mary is a beauty still, Martha’.

And Great Uncle Alex would search me out with his eyes and gesture toward me with his wide-open arm and always say ‘and where’s our wee stunner. Yer a beautiful lassie sure. Come and sing us all a song.’

They were mostly all dead by the time I was 16. Granny and her brother Alex of cruel cancers. Aunty Nessie later became too frail to travel. Communist Granpa would drown his bereaved sorrow for years before joining them when I was 21. So, by the time I met R and was pitched womb-first into a home of my own, the circle of extended family had shrunk.

And R had no experience of family. I had to teach him how they worked. Introduce him to ‘the rules’.

Perhaps that is why we have 5 children. But even if that is not one of the reasons it has always been my sorrow that they cannot ever know what that little house was like, filled with the generosity and joy of a family that spanned the generations. So I have tried to create my own pale copy.

We have tried to steer them from the gross want-want-want. We taught them a socialist redistributive Saint Nick who might take what money your parents could afford to give him – but who would decide how to equalise the distribution across a world of children. Though they also joined the nativity at the Salvation Army…

Every Xmas Eve we would sprinkle magic dust on the road outside to guide Santa to our house… Though later they each would be ‘reported’ to their School Teachers by angry parents who complained that they had debunked Santa and made children cry…

Ana at 9 yrs is well aware that there is no Santa. But she enjoys a charade of whisky and shortbread for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. The older two stumble home on Xmas Eve at 3am from the pub celebrations – and suffer for it in the little ones’ enforced 5.30am rise.

But they all want to be here. Stirring bread or cranberry or mint or apple sauce. Carving turkey and lamb and ham. Lighting the Xmas pud. Fighting, squabbling, laughing.

It’s a cliche of middle-age to bemoan the appalling and rampant consumerism; the loss of the Xmas message in the mountain of tinsel and pound notes.

I was like Pavlov’s dog in that mall yesterday. All bristling and indignant at the stark monuments and little alters to Mammon. I’ve recovered myself in time.

We imagine the past as some better place where minds and motives were purer; where there was an innocence; where greed was not as greedy and want was not as naked.

It’s all balooney of course. Greed and want are still greed and want, regardless of the scale.

And when you scratch the surface, when you speak to people of what they enjoy about their Christmas rituals, we come down to the same base: that we value most the time spent together, simply sharing company and whatever victuals we have.

I can’t believe that I’m writing of Christmas and it’s only October. I was going to moan about the mall and the consumerist industrialisation of what could otherwise be special (even for an atheist). But having gone through all of the above I’m actually looking forward to my December.

‘See Me’ – the anti-stigma mental health campaign

I welcomed Scotland’s See Me anti-stigma Mental Health Campaign. Any attempt to challenge the attitudes of some people towards mental ill-health is a good thing in my book.

I met with a client today who demonstrated just why campaigns such as See Me are necessary.

A middle-aged man who had previously worked at Director-level in a very demanding area, he had retrained following redundancy. The first episode of depression came in the middle of his training. He dropped out and was admitted to hospital. He was suicidal. Very ill. Unable to function.

He was proudest of the fact that he returned to college and completed his course – facing the people who had witnessed his original disintegration.

He is one of the most articulate and intelligent people I have met for a long time. With the greatest insight into his condition that I have ever encountered.

He had attended a meeting with managers yesterday. The meeting was a lesson for all managers in how not to behave.

Prior to the meeting he had been told by the biggest boss that ‘we don’t ‘do’ unions here’. So he ‘hadn’t to bother involving them’. He could ‘bring along a colleague or friend’ but ‘they wouldn’t be allowed to speak or contribute in any way’ to the process.

The external managers in attendance arrived an hour late. During which time my client and his colleague were sitting outside in a corridor.

The meeting degenerated into a bunfight between managers wishing to off-load any responsibility they may have for making the required (and Occupational Health recommended) ‘reasonable adjustments’.

The lowest point (and there were many low points) came when the managers in the room decided to discuss my client and what ‘would be good for him’ as though he were not there. Maybe it would be better for him if he did a different pattern of reduced hours to those recommended. Maybe he would find it difficult to perform 4 full days. Maybe it would be better if he did 3 full days and two half days.

As he told his story the tears trickled down the space between his spectacles and his nose. They dripped onto his chin and through his hands. I made him tea and got him the only tissue I could find – a toilet roll.

I listened.

He was worthless he said. He had pretended to his family that he was working today and had left the house as usual. He had found himself here. He could not face going into work. He knew he was ill. He was deteriorating. He was sorry. He felt guilty about it all. About troubling me. About letting his family down. About being a worthless failure.

When he left – calmer and with some ordered thoughts and a written plan of action (for me) – my own colleague expressed extreme sympathy with this man. My colleague thought their words were enlightened and understanding. In fact, my colleague betrayed yet another misunderstanding: that depression must have a how and a why. My colleague made a common mistake – they began speculating about how this man had ‘caught’ depression, about why this man was depressed. Was he intrinsically weaker and unable to cope? Had he suffered some deep and hidden trauma? Was the depression a manifestation of psychological turmoil?

I tried to point out that we do not ask how or why someone developed multiple sclerosis. That there need be no psychologically traumatic and deeply buried trigger for the depression. That it wasn’t useful to us to think of depression in terms of ‘what happened to make the person become depressed’. That we didn’t baulk at giving a diabetic insulin so why should we moralise about giving a depressed person anti-depressants.

My words were falling on incomprehension.

My client knew he needed help.

I can help some. I can make his employers act according to their legal duties under the Equality Act. I can take the pressure off by being his advocate in meetings. But I can’t make the depression go away.

There are many reasons why See Me is so important. Until mental health is treated in the same way as ‘bodily’ health, clients like the man today will continue to endure attitudes and behaviours which actively mitigate against them seeking help or being open about their health needs. Clients like the man today will continue to self-harm and to commit suicide.

The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will soon be the second largest illness worldwide. One in 5 Scots will suffer from depression at some point in their life.

We need to open the closed doors behind which this illness is hidden away like our dark secret shame. Our sin. We need to be honest. Challenge the prejudice with our refusal to be stigmatised.

I have suffered from depression in the past.


A Family Story or a Mother’s Tale

The lad is attacking this graduate scheme with an enthusiasm that has me convinced aliens really are living amongst us.

The Real lad did not spring happily from bed at 5.30am to catch the first of 5 trains for that day. The Real lad would not complete a 15 hour shift – and want to get up at 6am the next day for even more.

The Real lad had a snooze when he did anything taxing that lasted longer than 5 hours. He was a nocturnal boozing party animal who stored sleep for the weekend-a-thon. He was a laughing boy – the high octane joker of his group. He was a tricky wilful toddler who had an Aspergian response to change and a deep violent aversion to travel and shops.

R says that the signs were always there of the man who was to emerge as a leader of DIY teams, spouting HR wisdom and the touchy feely psychobabble that drives sales. And I stop to think and remember.

He’s a clever do-er, our son. An action man. Impressive school grades were his – but all that sitting still and writing bored him. He needs to be on the move.

R says: remember – when he could crawl that was not enough because he could not walk; when he could walk that was not enough because he could not run.

R is right. As usual.

At 18 the lad manages an 11 strong team of people – some of them old enough to be his great grandpa (honest – that bit made me begin to rethink my prejudice against global retail groups – though only a wee bit). Those same people who met him with initial suspicion – but who embrace him now with genuine warmth and respect even though he has had to discipline some. His appraisals beat anything his father or I have ever achieved. He is tipped to be running his own large store by his mid-20s.

And all of this excites him. He is amazed by life itself. He is meeting it all head-on and with a smile on his face.

When he speaks to me now it is as an equal – though also an occasional superior. He has learned more in this last year than I did in 20 years of working. There is a reassuring authority in his assertions. He has his father’s seriousness and capacity for hard work – his deft managerial touch. His occasional piss-artistry he gets from me.

He enervates a room – though can exhaust with a relentless energy. Even in sleep he is restless, consuming calories with a fast burn. And if he sits it is to invade your sofa space – even on an otherwise spacious sofa.

I remember he used to tell clothes and belongings from their smell. Hand-me-downs were betrayed by their scent – that’s Stuartie’s clothes he would say when Jill sent me Arran woollies and jackets which Stuart had out-grown.

I don’t ‘do’ bragging about my wains – I never did. But I have a sudden and new-found desire to hold him out to the world – to say ‘look at this fine young man! How good he is and honest and decent and funny to be around. See how proud I am.’

And at the same time I have an intense and deep sense of loss.

I know I’ve written about how their sudden adulthood surprises you. How you turn away one moment and they are grown. How it all passes so quickly. How my mother and my grandmothers were so poignantly right to say ‘don’t wish them older. You’ll wish away their lives. Enjoy them now. Right now. It all passes so quickly.’

But the sudden realisation of the passage of time and their childhood is like a punch to the solar plexus. It knocks you breathless with the force of all that is gone. All those times that cannot be relived – except to replay in family gatherings where the stories that have gone into the making of them and us are told again, binding us, one to the other. Making us family again and again. Bringing the children still in them out and to the front.

Our Family Narrative built of all the little remembrances. The day Louis bit Megan’s bum and left teeth marks. The day he thumped her on the head with a loosened handlebar which she had tried so hard to fix for his toddler hands. The day Jamie tumbled from the table top where he had climbed to reach the chocolate. The day of Lyn’s wedding when flower girl Megan fell on her mouth knocking out front teeth to be captured forever in photos – a toothless and bloody lipped girner.

e.f. – you made me think. You all did.

This is what matters. This is what makes sense of it all. That we have cared and loved and worked and fought to bring us to moments like this where we can stop for a while and appreciate.

Appreciate. And comprehend what has gone before.

I turn my memories over in my mind like pages in a book that is still to be written and whose end I will have no memory of. They are reassurance and they are vindication. Talismanic in the power they have to transform and to connect.

And because I cannot help myself do otherwise, I wonder where they will lead.

Being Mum

Back to work tomorrow. And I don’t mind.

Today, of course, the sun is finally shining – a beautiful winter white shine. But I still don’t mind. R is his usual monosyllabic thrawn self – but I don’t mind that either.

I feel well. There is nothing – and this is a new experience for me – stressful about work. The kids and Mum are as healthy as they can be. The new cat does not pee all over the place. The chicken, sweet potato and coconut milk curry tastes better than I thought it would. And Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B Flat Minor is making me cry.

What more could I ask for?

It has been a mixed week. The school October holiday week here – and this new job’s 65 days’ annual leave means I get to be off too. I had a bit of a health hiccup but that has passed. Torrential rain and flooding curtailed trips out. The planned escape to York was scuppered by Ana’s suspect spots (do they get chicken pox more than once?) and Jamie’s projectile vomiting. But there was a trip to Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway to spend a day with my brother, Derek and his wife, Zoe and the children, Nairn and Mia. A chocolate factory workshop for pre-spotty Ana and pre-vomit Jamie. And then a log cabin in the wood; a hot tub dip in the rain; a rich fattening carbonara and lots of prosecco.

What I enjoyed is what I normally struggle with – and I say this knowing that it will probably surprise (if not shock) some and dismay others.

I enjoyed the domesticity of it all.

The making of food. The rhythm of my home. The children’s comings and goings. Their noise and nonsense and fighting and moaning and laughter. The older ones coming in late and flopping onto my bed to tell me all about what had just happened in their world. The loud raucous dinners with all 5 of them around the table – squabbling and shouting louder and loudest to get their stories told. I enjoyed long lies in the morning. Cooked breakfasts – even although I was cooking them. The smell of the laundry room and the hiss of the iron.

I have fought long and hard not to be defined by the too-handy descriptor ‘mother of five’. Maybe I have gone too far on occasion. In the process of convincing others, done too good a job of convincing myself – that the label somehow doesn’t fit.

People are fascinated by the ‘5 children’ thing. I have found myself in the middle of humdrum meetings – meetings where you are simply getting your job done – where you want to be visible only for the reason you are there. And then some idiot will mention ‘earth mother’ or ‘five’ or ‘want to know anything about children, ask Yvonne’.

They mean well. I think. And over the years I’ve become increasingly efficient dealing with it. A smile. A nod. And then a subject changed to business.

I know that my fecundity intimidates some. Challenges others. Puzzles even more. When you have 5 (I say ‘5’ – but it could be less) your fertility becomes a matter for public discussion.

In the beginning, the assumptions that were (and still are) made took the breath from me. I was (variously): procreating from a deep religious conviction (usually Roman Catholic in this neck of the woods – despite me being atheist); had no television in my house (cue laughter); was sex mad (more laughter); shouldn’t be working (said by the misogynists and by one infertile woman boss – to my face and in front of other workers); needed to work (because five children were expensive); was an earth mother (self-explanatory); had child-bearing hips (ditto); was overloading the planet and irresponsibly destroying resources (all by myself!); was wealthy (eh?); was poor (well… that would be the five wains then…); had them to different fathers (not true – but so what if it were?); was mad… I have been asked ‘why?’ (I have som many). I have been criticised for making that choice (aren’t there too many unwanted children – couldn’t I have adopted?).

I have had conversations which were completely unremarkable – until the other party discovers how many children I have given birth to. Women, in the main, feel intimidated. I can see it in their eyes. They shift away from me. They stop telling me their birthing stories or their son or daughter stories. Do they really think that I am judging them? That I am somehow holding myself out as a better mother just by virtue of me having 5?

Or – and this is clearly how some experience ‘me’ – that my fecundity is a statement that says something critical about their fertility choices. These are the mothers who suddenly feel a need to un-burden. To tell me how they always wanted more – but their partner stopped them; or there wasn’t enough time; or labour was difficult; or they just made a mistake and were sterilised without sufficient thought. To be honest, I am never sure with these ones whether the truth is that they feel I am so ‘odd’ that I must be placated and ‘normalised’ by their own stories of how they wanted to be like me too… It sometimes feels as though they are patting my head (poor demented soul that I am) and reassuring me that ‘your choices are not that odd – I wanted to have more too’. Or whether I really do touch some deep buried need they had to have more children.

And the childless – oh how they recoil from me. I have well and truly nailed my colours to the mast of ‘parenthood’. I must be rabid about procreation. I am obviously disapproving of their choices – or pitying their infertility.

What I am clumsily trying to explain is that there is no neutral reaction to the fact of the maternal me.

My fertility is always a signifier of something other; something more. It’s religious or political or it’s evidence of a warped response to the world or it’s just plain odd or it’s me saying something about other people’s choices.

The upshot? That I have spent a long working age hiding or ignoring the domestic me. And so it is that I find myself not entirely comfortable in my 5-children-ness.

This week I relaxed a bit. I enjoyed myself. I revelled in family – and in the fact that I am a mother.

Being a mother does not define me – or any mother for that matter. But it does form part of my identity. An important bit of me is ‘Mother’. Maybe the most important bit. I need to find a smarter way to bring this ‘mother’ out, into the light…

Journey to Work

The iced land opened up before me at the road end. Whitened earth stretched out to dark hills in the distance. Hoary sandstone seams are a running stitch, hemming field boundaries and retaining muffled, shifting sheep.

As I advanced into the veiled land, still, silent cattle loomed from road edges, breathing smoke plumes into the frosted air.

There is the surprise of a sandstone farmhouse nested in the crook of a land fold. Shrouded, lightly.

And then a spectral wall of cloud, fallen to earth, has consumed house windows and doors, church hall walls, has eaten the penitentiary.

The spire rises above with a stark bleak clarity.

To my right and the south I sense the reassuring omniscience of Tinto – pre-history pointing still to the sky and tying us to this earth. On the Hill Fort, buffering mists reveal shadowy mesolithic ancestors working prized pitchstone into bewitching tools and carrying a horn of fire up the ritual path.

To my left and in front, lies Wolfclyde and the Coulter Motte. Its settler farmers carving their new life in royally gifted land and building. Recent. They speak to me in a Flemish tongue bringing new trade.

But there are the neolith field barrows, tumulus rising like slumbering giants before me. Unfolding and furling again as I pass at increasing speed.

The land is a cradle and a grave. It is food and shelter, sustenance and death. It is my womb and my home and I will turn my flesh into its folds, one day.

Until then, there is the journey. The daily grind of the city, and of work and of money, to be fought. There are the little joys to be won. The smell of Ana’s wind-blown hair and the earthy odours of the pleasure she took in that new football strip; a smile and kiss; the promise of living, replete.

Band of Sisters

And in the artists’s cream and wood and heart-lined kitchen sit a band of sisters. All dirty cackles and gentle laughs and squeals and whoops melding into a frenetic Concerto of voice. The air thick with hot, rich saffron and coriander and curry; vibrating with the releasing energy of eight women.

I join the table, sitting on the hand-painted purple chair fetched by Sharon. Shirley and I are folded into the company. Food pressed on us. Glasses pushed into our hands.

I know these sisters from home. A home I left a long time ago. I remember them, barely. Their names are like little rag-momentoes from a cloth I once wore tightly around me. My memories distort down the years.

I absorb their clamourous shot-fuelled energy. I bask in their heat. I press my nose up against the faultline of age and religion. It seperates us now as it has always done.

Their shared histories fill the air and I listen for little anchors of shared experience. The home that tumbles from their stories is a magical place of feral children camping for the summer in council territories; of borrowed tents burning down in Belgium and of school newsletters lamenting a ruined holiday for one child and a ruined tent for another. Of 4am milk and rolls stolen from doorsteps. Of Church Hall discoes and Ranas Nightclub and the hiss of hairspray and hormones which sizzled in the sticky carpetted anarchic Mukky Duck.

They race a meandering path through the past – remembrances splitting off into fast and high cadenzas which trill and twist and end raucous. Here is the day my mother’s new ceiling light was smashed by the exploding Asti Spumante cork. And here is the day I smashed her mother’s ceiling light and had to go to BHS to buy a new one. Here is the day Batty laughed and drank even more. Here is the day I found my sister’s durex – and gave it to my mother who sat purse-lipped and puritan for her return. Here is our school and that teacher who knitted and disappeared us into dunce-corners to face the wall and sent us for cigarettes and balls of wool. Here is the priest and our first communion. Here are our families: a tangled close community of blood and adversity; of time and of place.

There is no malice here, but a bouquet of love and welcome – yet I sense I am on the outside. We lived in the same village and knew the same people but we have arrived in this house and this kitchen by paths determined by our distinct clan belongings. There is a distorting veil of slight, mild, age difference and then there is different school and church and surname between us. We emerged from a community sundered by religious bigotry. A bigotry nurtured by seperate schools and Christian churches; originating from the same small Irish towns and villages. Our ancestors worked cheek by jowel, hating and loving and hating one another. Phalanxes of Celtic Begleys and Sweeneys and Hughes and Kellys lining up to face off the anglo-sounding planters, the Bells and Taylors and Halls and Stewarts.

We hide the inter-marriage and absorb the interlopers into our camps. Protecting our difference, fiercely.

My birthing tradition is Ulster, the signing of the Covenant, Orange Walks and King Billy. The anti-papist flute placed in my hand to encourage my musicianship. The shame of shipyard discrimination and the closed anti-catholic shopfloor and of Drumcree and the Victory Jig, denouncing me as Paisley denounced Pope John Paul with a bannered ANTICHRIST. Mine’s is the Red Hand and the Union Jack. The Shore Road where my grandparents lived and worked and marched and which gave birth to my mother. I am Keady. My fields are Freeland fields stolen by the Republic. My town become a Border no-go for gun-running and bomb-making. I am Omagh, outraged.

My warm sisters have hearts full of the Gervaghy Road righteousness of the oppressed minority. They have blood memories of famine and poetry. Theirs is the bravery of the fight for freedom against a British army operating a shoot to kill in occupied territory and colluding with the rank loyalist paramilitaries. Dublin and Easter Rising and the shame of partition. Shinty and the Shankill. The Troubles starting in 66 with the death of a shopkeeper. The death of the Hunger Strike martyrs: Bobby Sands’ face beaming Christ-like from the Falls Road Sinn Fein buildings and genuflecting to bless all those who would follow him. Of Ogra Shinn Fein in Derry and Christy Moore and the Wolfe Tones comemorating Francis Hughes. Misty romanticism versus English Protestant brutality. They are larks in barbed wire.

Here we are now, in this warm kitchen, in the early hours of an iced and frosted morning, sharing our stories and spilling our laughter and booze with an embracing generosity. We rise away from the past and feel our way to our shared experiences. We bleed and suffer and worry and love just the same.

And finally I sense our real bonds as women and mothers and creators of our own warm worlds assert themselves.

I hug my new friends to me.

And I am thankful for this road which led to my beautiful Sharon and her white and wood, warm artist’s home.