When my grandparents retired they built a house in Mayo. It was tucked into the purple-veined crook of Lurgan’s elbow, gazing down over Lough Conn, with Nephin Beg rising up to the left – its mist-swathed summit a reasonably accurate gauge of the weather sweeping down towards the lake. If the top third of the mountain was hidden in cloud or mist it was a sure sign of good weather. ‘Good’ weather was showery and overcast, with a stiff but not too strong breeze – perfect fishing weather. Bad weather, on the other hand, was hot, still and sunny, peachy-scented with blossom, the air full of the sound of grasshoppers scraping and the sporadic popping of dry sun-ripened gorse pods spitting their black seeds outwards in ever-increasing circles. On bad weather days even the dogs were too hot to go rabbit hunting, instead throwing themselves down in exhausted hairy heaps in the shade of the porch with their pink tongues melting in coils beside them.
‘Try and make those stupid dogs drink’, my grandmother would say. ‘They’ll get dehydrated’, and I would sprinkle drops of water onto their tongues for a while, watching their sides heave and their tails wag languorously. Because bad weather days were good for nothing else they were usually designated work days – days for brambling in the herb bed where my grandmother grew parsley and dill, cutting wood to thin the surrounding hedgerows, stripping and painting boats, or raking the gravel around the house. Such days usually ended in a barbecue. When evening fell we would congregate at the back of the house, sit on seats made out of old wine casks, and boast about our aching muscles, smearing ourselves with midge-repellent, and my grandfather, in his blue and white striped apron, would cook the dinner. Usually he barbequed steak, which he served with mushroom sauce – ‘grandpa’s special’. The recipe was a secret and only I, his pet lamb, was allowed to accompany him to the kitchen and watch while he sliced little piles of mushrooms, turned them in buttery meat juices in a pan, scraped the bottom with some brandy, and added a stream of cream and some white wine; other times he cooked fish, pink trout wrapped in tin foil. Mine would always be opened for me, the firm flesh peeled away from the bones and the steaming slippery skins thrown out onto the grass for the dogs.
Amanda Bell and daughter near the summit of Mount Nephin
One bad weather day, tired of brambling and of splashing water onto the dogs, I decided to help my grandfather, who was building a boat-house. This boat-house was to be built half-way up the lane, and would have a lean-to shed at the side for stacked logs and turf. I had watched my grandfather drawing the plans for it himself. Now he was working on the foundations, and would have to go down to the boat bay. The boat bay was where we kept our two boats – the blue one and the orange one. The women preferred the orange one because they could see it easily through the window with binoculars, and know when to put the dinner on. The men preferred the blue one because the fish couldn’t see it from the bottom of the lake, and so they caught more.
The boat bay was fringed with hazel scrub and thorn trees, and purple loosestrife and blue scabious grew in the coarse yellow sand. It was a very good place to catch grasshoppers and daddy-long-legs for dapping, and because I was small and moved quietly I was the champion hopper-catcher.
‘Mummy’, I called, running to where she lay reading in a deck chair, ‘I’m going down to the boat bay with grandpa, can I wear my yellow dress?’ The dress had been a present from my brother when he came home from the hospital, a thank you for letting him be born and an apology for distracting my parents’ full attention from me. It had a flared skirt and the bodice was ruched with elastic cross-stitches and dotted with tiny rosebuds of pink and green cotton. For a second the thought of washing the dress yet again flickered in her eyes, but Dr Spock’s advice about not alienating your first-born won out and she came into the house with me, leaving her book spread-eagled on the dusty canvas of the striped deck chair. I wriggled as she pulled the dress over my head, blinked while she caught my hair back in a slide to keep it out of my eyes. Then I tore up the drive, gravel shooting up from beneath my feet, shouting ‘I’m ready now, let’s go.’
Author 1971 or 1972
My grandfather opened the car door and I climbed in gingerly, careful not to let the sun-heated leather car seats burn my thighs or crease my skirt. I loved sitting in the front of the car – they never let me do it at home, only on holidays, because everyone drove slowly and there were no other cars around, only old tractors, rusty red with no safety frames. When we arrived at the boat bay I did a tour to see if I could find any dragonflies, then came back to supervise my grandfather as he threw shovelfuls of sand into the trailer, stopping occasionally to light a Players from the butt of its predecessor. My grandfather even smoked in his sleep. His pillowcases were patterned with brown-rimmed holes from the occasions when he’d failed to wake up in time to take the narrow pillars of ash from his lips and extinguish them in the scorch-marked scallop-shell on his bedside table. My grandmother had long since moved into a separate bedroom for fear of being set on fire. This year, I was allowed to share my grandfather’s bedroom because the baby was in with my parents. I loved it. We stayed awake late to listen to the long-range weather forecast and I watched him blow slow, looping smoke-rings towards the ceiling without taking his eyes off his book. He was a better smoker than my uncles, and his hands were yellower. I preferred cigarettes to cigars, or the cheroots my father smoked.
The author at Pontoon, 1972
They made his breath sour when he kissed you good night, and in the car it made you sick – worse than reading. My grandfather always asked about what you were reading. Our beds stretched out side by side with the bedside locker and his scallop-shell in between. I went to bed before him, because the grown-ups stayed up after dinner to play bridge, but I always stayed awake waiting for him. To undress he sat on the side of the bed furthest from me, his back turned, and slipped off his trousers and long white drawers while still seated, then pulled on his baggy pyjamas and buttoned them up before turning around and getting under the covers. The blankets smelt musty sometimes, if it had been cold and the radiators weren’t on, but in summer they were fine. I lay in my bed just like he did, with my book leaning on my thighs, and concentrated very hard on watching him smoke. I loved to watch the ash slowly lengthening and bending in his lips, waiting until it was just about to fall. ‘Grandad’ I’d whisper, thinking he was asleep. Then his eyes would snap open, watery blue without his glasses, and he’d take the butt between finger and thumb and lower it to the shell. An inch of ash usually fell on the carpet. ‘Just having a little think,’ he’d murmur, ‘not asleep yet. Good night pet lamb.’ Then he’d turn off the bedside light and we’d go to sleep.
Author’s grandfather and brother collecting turf
When the trailer was fully loaded and the sand slid in tiny streams over its edges we got back into the car and drove back onto the road and up the lane towards the house. ‘Let me out here – I’ll race you.’ The hot leather scorched my legs as I slipped down and out the door. The lane was planted with tiny gorse bushes to either side, which my grandmother had transplanted from big thickets in the field – they were small enough to jump over. The blossoms smelt like peaches but they were too thickly surrounded by prickles to pick, unless you had gardening gloves and secateurs anyway. My mother said that we were lucky to have orchids in the field, but we mustn’t pick them because it took four years for them to flower again. I skipped along beside the car, hopping in and out of the field, singing to myself ‘red and yellow and pink and green…’ I leapt high into the air with each word to see my skirt balloon out around me as I descended, jumping higher each time to see how full I could make it spread. I could see my father’s bare back over the hedge where was sawing planks for the boat-house. It was shiny with sweat. In the car my grandfather had begun to gain on me now – even the trailer was ahead. I stopped my leaping and ran as fast as I could, till I was even with the end of the car, overtook it, strained to run faster still, then my shoe hit a stone and I fell headlong over the tow bar. The lane was bouncing up towards my face – baked clay to either side, clover in the middle, sheets of dried and flattened cow dung matting blades of grass together.
The author and her brother
I hung on tightly – my ribs crushed against the bar. I heard my father roar, then the car stopped and everyone came running, their sun-pink flesh bouncing, their mouths big black Os. I felt my grandfather catch me under the armpits and lift me off the bar but without looking at him I broke away and ran, over the gorse bushes, around the cattle-grid, and into the house. The tangle of dogs in the porch scattered, yelping in surprise, as I ran through them, down the corridor, not into our bedroom but into my parents’ room. I slammed the door behind me and crawled in under the cot with my eyes closed and my heart racing until I heard voices in the corridor. They murmured for a while, then the door opened and my father came into the room, eased me out from under the cot, lifted me up, and held me gently against his shiny shoulder. The hairs on his chest were matted with sweat and the cheroot smoke smell was hardly noticeable. He sat down on the bed and rocked me for a while, then took off my hair slide, which hung loosely near the end of a strand of hair, smoothed my hair behind my ear and replaced the slide. Then he asked me to come with him and apologise to my grandfather for frightening him. But I was the one who was frightened, so frightened that I didn’t want to see anyone, just stay in the bedroom until bedtime and then it would be tomorrow and it would be a good weather day and the men would go fishing and I’d stay in and watch the rain patterns on the window and do jigsaws with my mother, or we’d put on wellies and go out looking for flowers to pick, or maybe collect some eggs from the neighbour in my little blue bucket, and everything would be the way it always was.
But no, I had to go to the living room, because my grandfather was very, very upset, and I had to say sorry, so he’d know that I was alright.
We went to the living room hand-in-hand. My grandfather was in his chair by the fire – it was a tall-backed easy chair with a badly strung seat, and a little tray with spring-fasteners attached to the arm for balancing glasses and ashtrays. The fire wasn’t lit because it was bad weather. My mother smiled at me from across the room – she was pouring him a gin and tonic. My father pushed me gently forward and I climbed onto my grandfather’s knee, mumbling a barely audible apology with my chin down on my chest. I could see the rusty mark the tow-bar had left across the middle of my yellow dress. ‘There there pet lamb, that’s alright now,’ he said. But his blue eyes were looking out the window towards the lake, and that night in bed he kept them open while he thought, and he listened to the radio way after I’d fallen asleep, tipping his ash on the scallop shell.
Amanda Bell’s collection Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haiku and haibun, was published by Alba Publishing in 2016. Her illustrated children’s book, The Lost Library Book, will be published this spring by The Onslaught Press, and a debut poetry collection, First the Feathers, is forthcoming from Doire Press. She is the editor of The Lion Tamer Dreams of Office Work: An Anthology of Poetry by the Hibernian Writers (Alba Publishing, 2015) and Maurice Craig: Photographs (Lilliput, 2011). Amanda is currently completing a middle-grade econovel. She works as a freelance editor and indexer. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie/publications/