Iceland2 2018Long time bucket list item rose to the top recently, when I noticed that Icelandair were now flying from Belfast, from the little airport 15 minutes from my home. Local travel agent had a package for February, and I was just about to book it when I mentioned it to my daughter in London. “We want to go too!!” meaning daughter and grand-daughter, named appropriately Aurora. But I’m flying from Belfast! Package abandoned, and much scurrying about the internet as we tried to source appropriate flights. A friend says she knows someone who specialises in packages to Iceland. Daughter considers it rather expensive., and persuades me to do separate flights, and she would get a place to sleep using the Internet. Iceland specialist offers to arrange trips while we are there to suit my ageing inability to walk long distances or climb steep steps into coaches, and daughter agrees. I pay for all flights and the Iceland package, leaving food shopping and eating out to daughter, as these happen. As February approaches, husband in care with dementia is admitted to hospital with pneumonia. Cancellation considered, but he conveniently passes away 4-5 weeks before the trip. I’m sad, but relieved his Alzheimers journey is over. All good considering, funeral over, visitors away, legal paperwork begun, packing commenced, and Iceland becomes my post traumatic respite holiday. Paul would have said, ‘ You go!!’ He used to call ME Bossy Boots’! Thank you, Paul!

Our flights would arrive about an hour apart, and our driver Olav would collect us both, and drive to the Blue Lagoon for our first Icelandic experience before dropping us off at the ‘Ice Apartments’. On the morning we leave, daughter texts her flight is cancelled. Frantic attempts to re-book with another airport produce a result. I take a taxi to my local airport, ETD 10am, and as we approach the airport my taxi driver says my plane is delayed. Checking in, it will leave at 18:00, snow is starting to fall as I settle in for the long wait, relax buying duty free wine, cosmetics, and availing of a free facial. By 19:30 I’m in the air, and 3 hours later arrive in a severe blizzard. Blue Lagoon now out of the question, daughter texts to say they can’t even get into the accommodation, so I book a night in another guest house. Driver negotiates expertly through increasing snowfall, we find accommodation 2 and settle for the night. Next day, driver collects us complete with all bags and my walker and we arrive at accommodation 1, negotiating badly parked cars blocking our entrance way. Daughter to discuss previous night’s access problem with owner of apartment next day, and we settle ourselves, exhausted and stressed in the very welcome and cosy beds.

Next morning we head off with driver on the arranged plan to the Golden Circle, on snowy roads, visiting the Thingvellir National Park, and stopping at the Secret Lagoon for a swim in the geothermal heated water. Amazingly we encounter many cars that have accidentally driven off the edge of the road, probably tourists in hire cars, according to Olav. Lunch at the Farmers Cafe overlooking the cows munching at their hay, we enjoy an excellent Icelandic lamb dinner, and head off in the deepening snow for a photo shot at the Gulfoss waterfall and see a geyser erupt at Strokkur.

Plan for next day is to talk to accommodation admin in nearby shop, proving difficult to locate, and we explore the local shops, have coffee, see the tall church and enjoy an Icelandic pancake day treat for lunch. Apartment admin eventually located, and it appears I have not forwarded to daughter an email explaining access to apartment, which arrived day after husband’s death and thus out of my radar. Daughter hurls abuse at my poor email review management as she is embarrassed, but negotiates 50% reduction on first night. This has not appeared in my bank, but I put it down to bereavement expenses.

Our last full day is to drive to the south coast. Olav has brought his 8 year old daughter as company for Aurora. It is snowing hard, and he suggests a city tour seeing interesting sites, walking on the frozen Pond, a visit to the Whale museum, and lunch in the Perlan restaurant overlooking the city. Still snowing hard and roads to the south have been closed. Daughter suggests snowboarding for the kids, and Olav helpfully finds a suitable hill, having thoughtfully packed boards in the boot of his 4-wheel drive. We join the queue of cars waiting to drive south, it’s getting dark, but we eventually make it, driving again through snow clad high mountains, and find a delightful restaurant where we enjoy welcome Icelandic fare. And the day ends on a high note, as we stop at a place Olav knows is good for watching the Northern Lights. We are not disappointed, and Olav parks in a dark spot for us to enjoy the amazing treat we had come to see, the Aurora Borealis.

Our journey home was thankfully less eventful, and we can look back on a holiday never to be forgotten.

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How The Troubles affected me

On reading my memoir recently, another member of the local U3A ‘Exploring the Short Story’ group asked why I had not mentioned ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. I said that although I was a nurse in Belfast from 1964 to 1968, I then spent about a year in London doing midwifery training, had not worked in The Royal at that time, and was little affected.

But the real reason was that I had just met the love of my life and shortly after married him, and anything else had little importance to me. We read of bombings, and even heard one that exploded fairly near our home. We were approached on our doorstep regarding our political attitude, and refused to say, as another reason was that we both came from quite pacifist families, our parents belonging to Plymouth Brethren and Presbyterian, his parents spending most of their married lives as missionaries in China. The Irish question was hardly mentioned, except by his brother who studied at Trinity College, Dublin, was married there (to an American) and settled there. My father was Scots-Irish, and my mother was from Ballina in the Irish Republic. But the subject of politics was rarely mentioned. Chris had written a scholarly article on Rev Ian Paisley, but it was only published locally. To us it was just a other political matter we had some opinions on, but had little effect on our lives. Later I became involved in a church organised peace movement, but this had little real effect on anyone.

Nowadays I feel all I can do is vote, or join a non-sectarian political party, which incidentally did well on the recent elections.

Not everyone here allows politics to rule their lives. My children have all left northern Ireland, disinterested or perhaps disgusted by sectarian attitudes.

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The Nook

68 Galway Pk 1969-70It was my sixth house move since my first home as a wife, and possessions had accumulated, far too many according to my daughter Jenny! Brother Arthur helped decant them from my latest attic, and handed me a tatty red notebook, circa 1970. And as you do when checking what to keep and what to discard, I found myself back then, starting life as a new wife. The hours passed, as I reminisced on those days we searched for a place to live…

After our marriage on 9th April 1969, we had rented an apartment on Kirkliston Drive, Belfast, near the famous Cyprus Avenue, until we found a house to buy! And that was when we found ‘The Nook’!!

Looking for the right place for us, the first priority was for the house to be close to my place of work, as Chris could drive to his. We must have gone through practically every available house/bungalow in the area, and were on the verge of buying not a few! With a husband whose eyes sought out those little details, like poor wiring, or possible subsidence of the back garden, and both being particular about the style of fireplaces, outside decor and other details which would be difficult to alter, we found we were rather hard to please! It was all very discouraging. In any case, the places we looked at were all too far from the hospital where I worked for me to walk there, and the bus service seemed neither convenient or cheap! It is one of my principles not to waste my hard earned cash on getting to work!

Our next idea (we were brimming with ideas, it was practicalities we were rather low on!) was to buy a building site, and build a house to our own specifications. This seemed the ideal solution, but the only site we found had a tiny 30ft frontage, and we wanted a garage! We tried many arrangements of rooms, but came to the conclusion, which we had really known all along, that the site was too narrow!

One day, while on one of our frequent tours of the neighbourhood, looking at houses for sale, we spied a small bungalow, not 5 minutes’ walk from the hospital, with a newly erected ‘For Sale’ notice in the garden. The next day, key in hand, we approached the front door of ‘The Nook’. It was probably the only house we saw which possessed absolutely none of our previously thought-out requirements. It had a long, dark hall, many doors, tiny rooms, especially the kitchen, which was so small that the cooker was housed in a make-shift lean-to wooden shack just outside the back door. The garden was long and sloping, with a few untidy fruit bushes, 2 apple trees and 3 outhouses with leaky roofs. There was no garage or even space for one. My ever observant husband also detected squeaky floorboards, suggestive of rotting joists, and rotten wood in the window frames.

Opposed to these relatively minor snags, The Nook possessed 2 essential qualities – first, it was convenient to the hospital, also bus stops and shops. Secondly, it had a view unmatched by that of any house we had yet seen! A golf course was immediately across the road – near enough to watch the 7th hole from tee to green (which pleased my father), but not near enough to have golf balls flying through the front windows! Beyond that, the fields and trees stretched upwards and back for miles. The third quality which finally clinched the deal in our minds was that indefinable quality – potential! The word itself inspired thoughts of marvellous conversions of anything from barns to churches to stately homes! Needless to say, the price was important in this consideration, and at the modest price of £3,000 we considered mortgage repayments would be low enough to allow a certain amount to be spent on the house.

While the legal side of buying the bungalow was in process, Chris was frantically making plans about our conversion. Sometimes he would sit with that dreamy, far-away look in his eyes, which meant his mind was at work on the house…..! Looking back I think to myself, how fortunate are those wives whose husbands are first practical, and second, idealistic! We must have considered 10 brilliant ideas for every one that was carried out!  Still, ‘Look before you leap!’ – and probably we would have hit many more snags than we did, had I not had a husband who thought things out in such detail first of all!

But the first practical realisation was that we must knock down some walls to make the rooms bigger, even if it meant having fewer rooms, and the second was to install central heating before moving in, and while all this upheaval was going on! We approached several builders with our rough plan, and each said it couldn’t be done. Without inspecting the structure of the roof space, they claimed, together with an architect friend, that the wall requiring demolition was a supporting one. Undaunted, and having inspected the structure of the roof space, my brave husband, with practically no knowledge of building, disagreed. And we finally found a builder who was willing to give the idea serious thought, and at last the work commenced. Two walls were to be knocked down; the first between the hall and the lounge, and the second between the existing small kitchen and the smallest bedroom, which we planned to make the dinette (very sixties!) Next, three fireplaces were removed completely and the walls papered over. The rotten floorboards and joists were replaced in the lounge, skirting boards fitted where walls had been removed, and gaping holes in the ceiling temporarily covered over. The meaning of the word temporary underwent a profound change for me during those first few years, Two weeks would lengthen into four, then into months as we found we were short of time, money, or ideas to carry out certain renovations. Finally central heating was installed, as we found this best for a small bungalow The fridge and cooker were both gas, and there was a new gas fire already in the lounge, so we were able to run these fairly cheaply on the low central heating tariff.

This marked the end of phase 1, and after a weekend spent cleaning the place, we moved our meagre furnishings and possessions into our newly acquired property.

Opposed to some relatively minor snags, The Nook had possessed our 3 essential qualities: first, it was convenient to the front door of the hospital, and even eventually Chris’s work, as he started a new job in the Civil Service, also just across the road. And though it was probably the only house we saw which possessed absolutely none of our previously thought out requirements, it was transformed to what we wanted.  Though it had had a long, dark hall, many doors, tiny rooms (especially the kitchen, which was so small that the cooker was housed in a make-shift lean-to wooden shack outside the back door) we now had space that we needed. The garden was long and sloping, with a few untidy fruit bushes, 2 apple trees and 3 outhouses with leaky roofs, but it was manageable, and even had  an arch of romantic cottage roses over the path! There was no garage or even space for one, but that had become less of a priority. My ever-observant husband had indeed noticed squeaky floorboards suggestive of rotting joists, and rotten wood in the window frames, but we had finally found a builder who was willing to give the idea serious thought, and at last the work had commenced. Two walls were knocked down between the hall and the lounge, and between the existing small kitchen and the smallest bedroom, which became the dinette. Three fireplaces were removed completely and the walls of two plastered over. Rotten floorboards and joists were replaced, skirting boards fitted where walls had been removed, and gaping holes in the ceiling covered over. And while the legal side of buying the bungalow was in process, Chris was frantically making more plans….



THE PLAN (as jotted down in pencil in his notebook!

Stage I. (before moving in):

  1. Knocking down wall between hall and lounge.
  2. Knocking down wall between kitchen and small bedroom.
  3. Installing central heating.

Stage II.

  1. Moving bedroom door
  2. Removing L-shaped wall
  3. Bringing in cooker, getting cupboards, fridge etc, for kitchen. And a ‘junk shop’ table after Chris fell through a temporary one!
  4. Ordering carpet, papering kitchen, dinette and lounge.
  5. Papering bedroom and getting carpets and a built-in cupboard.
  6. Filling up old kitchen door and putting up shelves.
  7. Wooden cladding on chimney breast.

Stage III

  1. Attaching a porch.
  2. Replacing front windows and guttering.
  3. Cleaning the roof!!

I don’t remember exactly when we moved in, but there was definitely a lot of rubble around on the day we first woke in our newly purchased first home!

Memories of that time:

  • Watching the moon landing
  • Inviting friends for suppers
  • The lodger in the attic!
  • Learning how to prune roses

Stage IV plans (after moving in!)

  1. To extend the back bedroom – £100. Not sure if this happened!
  2. Dormer windows – £100. Yes, and they are still there!!
  3. Sun lounge -£250 (sadly, didn’t happen!)
  4. Waste disposal -£50 (had to happen!!)
  5. Garage £1000 (didn’t happen)
  6. Floor the attic
  7. Workshop (didn’t happen)

Pencilled notes continued in the Notebook, along with pencil sketches of the dear husband, shopping lists (prices in pounds, shillings and pence!) and details of my new job after baby  Jenny arrived, The Modern Nappy Service!

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Trust and Obey

She was a trusting sort of person, compared to some she knew…….

At about the age of 10, she wrote a poem expressing her absolute belief in the aspect of Christianity she had been taught.

But even by the age of about 9, she was discovering things that left her distrustful of those whom most people usually trust implicitly – their family, their church, the belief system they imbibed as a child. In other words,’ the big things of life’.

So by about 9 or 10 she was asking questions. She had been thrust into a fee-paying school environment which her poor but middle-class parents assumed was best, as it was the one associated with the grammar school her father had attended. But here she was bullied. In P.1 she was top of the class academically, but could not tie her own shoe-laces. By P.3, she had a fear of the maths teacher, who was cruelly unkind, and she was so unhappy that her parents decided to move her to the local primary school, just 5 minutes walk from home.

This was a happier environment, and through the new class teacher, Mrs Brown, she grew to enjoy writing ‘compositions’ and to fear maths less. She joined the school choir, and entered the Belfast Musical Festivals. This began a long association with choral singing. But the class that set her thinking more than anything was the Scripture lesson. They read from the same Bible, sang the same hymns, and were taught the same lifestyle rules. But having to ‘get saved’ was never mentioned!

They lived in a smallish Protestant enclave within or on the edge of a Catholic area. These were people who were, according to her mother, not as clean or tidy as her own family, and who because of their religion had to have as many children as they could so that there would eventually be more of them, and this was re-enforced by her paternal grandmother.

So at almost 70, and pondering why it was that although she grew up in a deeply religious family, and was not allowed to ask questions they didn’t have an answer to, she rejected their brand of faith, but continued to ask those questions, and over the years found some answers, as well as reasons to accept there may not be an answer to some, and even at age almost 70, she continued to have a deep faith.

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baby Norah 001Brought up the eldest child of a not very well off middle class northern Ireland family with Brethren Irish/ Scottish roots, I started my schooldays at Downey House, a paid-for prep school of Methodist College, the grammar school my father and his siblings had attended in Belfast after his Tyrone based farmer father suffered a severe stroke. Shy and a bit of a dreamer, with no older siblings, I couldn’t yet tie my laces at 5, liked English, reading and nature study, but didn’t like the maths teacher. Still, I was awarded 1st Girl in Form 2, but from there my marks went down. I was unhappy, and my parents transferred me to the local primary school, where I learnt the joys of singing, English composition, and a well stocked library. Passing my 11 plus, without ever feeling any pressure to do so, I went on to Ashleigh House, a Belfast grammar school my mother had attended for a secretarial course. With a place in the A group due to 11 plus results, I did reasonably well until mock O-levels, of which my results were average. On a summer job in France I received my actual O-level results, which I could hardly believe, as they were good enough for me to return for A-levels. However this was not to be, as my return to commence A-levels was determined by my poor mock O-level results, and by this time my parents had decided I would commence a nursing career as most of my aunts had done. And so it was. I suspected they felt Uni would give me an opportunity to ask too many questions for a Brethren girl, and I deeply regretted not having been given the choice. But nursing training was of a high scholastic level and I passed my exams with ease. A further 6 months Midwifery training convinced me that was not for me, but I had met the man I wanted to marry, and babies followed. Only after he was diagnosed with leukaemia aged 36 did I start to write, and when he died I had the responsibilities of single parenthood. A further career in clinical research followed and my writing ability came to good use. I have now just finished writing my memoir.

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Senses like a flower

Spreading out towards me now

Giving warmth and joy

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There was once an inventer called Richard

Who dreamt up a scheme to make knickers.

The machine had a curse

It went in reverse

And he had to feed its voracious appetite with all the sexy ladies’ underwear he could lay his hands on.

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