Tag Archives: winter

Watching the swans with Shane McGowan – fragmentary writings

Years ago, my mother moved to Bray, a seaside town near Dublin and looked for a property to buy. My brother, always a man with grand designs at heart, discovered that the Martello Tower which guarded the harbour was for sale and campaigned, hard, for my mother to make it her [ and his] home.

Later still, I found out that the tower had been owned by a member of the U2 management team and loaned to Shane McGowan for  recovery and drying out.

My mother bought a bungalow.


I am standing with Shane, safe in the shadow of the Martello Tower, built to warn the invaders, the interlopers, that others might come, blown across the grey sea, with their own plans to take this poor land.

We are watching the swans, Children of Lir, huddled in the harbour, buffeted against the jetty. Their plumage, snow-white, bone white against the customary grey, brown of the Irish sea, interlopers and alongside them, other outsiders. The yachts, playthings of the playboys of the western world, or at least the western coasts.

These yachts belong somewhere else, somewhere with azure seas, skies that blend, fall from other shades of blue into the gentle swell, not this landscape of hard lines and cold breezes.

Shane discourses, poetry, womanizing, the arts of falconry and warfare.

And we walk in the footsteps of poets and warriors, taking the waters, but not the water of life because Shane is drying out, drying up, moving towards  the years of silence.

I learnt to swim in the other harbour, concrete wall built to trap the sea and in water so dark that we could not see the bottom and so we learnt to swim, a lesser terror than sinking into water we knew had no ending, no sanctuary  for feet, clenched in cold, searching out safe harbour.

We never expected to find this sea swimming pleasurable, water so cold it would

” knock the very breath out of ye”

and in homes where the threat to

“knock the very breath out of ye, see if i won’t”

was commonplace, the sea held no fear for us. The cold a rightful punishment for almost pleasure, our catechism re-inforced

“Who made the world?”

“God made the world”

I wonder what Shane looked at,that winter, when the sea and sky met, bands of grey and brown and white, dirty white, another shade of pale, a million miles from the plumage of those swans rocked against the winter waves.

I wonder if he looked out to sea or turned inward, inland.

Th Italian chipper, our reward, wrapped in cardigans and our anoraks, our knees and lips blued by over immersion in the sea.

The chips, our reward for childhood bravery, child stoicism, we ate them, huddled ourselves against the constant winds, hot, greasy, somehow more delicious the colder we are.

And then, we walk past the Amusement arcade, because nice children don’t go there, licking the tang of salt, sea salt, chip salt from our fingers as the purple fades from our knees, our lips.

I am standing in the shelter of the Martello Tower, taking refuge from a storm, one eye on the horizon, grey and brown and white.

Watching for interlopers.



Almost a Christmas ghost story……

The woman is cold, her clothes which seemed quite suitable when she left her city home this morning, are subtly, slightly not right for this place.

She stands, not quite sure what to do with herself, all too aware of her interloper status and all too aware of her frozen feet and hands.

The women around her are all, it seems, tall, with rangy bodies, padded gilets, expensive, although mud encrusted boots and around all of them are the horses.

She is here at the invitation of a woman who may or may not become a lover in the future. She has come to meet this womans’ horse, to show an interest, although her own interest is in something quite different.

That woman, her almost friend, keeps vanishing, re-appearing to do something confusing, complicated to the large brown horse in the stable where she, still cold, is standing.

And because she has nothing to do, does not know what to do or even how to do it, she stands and looks around, stares at all these busy, purposeful women.

A woman steps in front of her and catches her eye, does more than that, actually takes her breath away. This woman is tall, slim, in fact thin, her body lean, muscled, taut. Her face is tanned, even on this icy winter day and her hair is steel grey and short, close-cropped to her skull. She looks completely self-contained, her face tight with concentration. She notices that our woman, our frozen, foot stamping woman is looking at her and nods, curt, but not unfriendly and then she steps out of view and vanishes behind another stable block.

Later, when our woman and her almost friend have found a pub and our woman is sipping brandy, trying not to shiver, trying to flirt,just a little, she asks her almost friend, almost lover about this other woman, but her friend does not recognise her from the description and conversation veers off onto other paths.

Time passes, the almost friend does not become a lover – the friendship withers over too many late phone calls, too many almost flirtatious brandies, but, surprisingly, the horses stick.

Our woman learns to ride, learns to wear the right expensive, mud encrusted boots, learns to complete all the tasks that so confused her then, so many years ago on the wintry December day.

She has her own horse now, spends time with the all the rangy horsey women, feels at ease in that horsey space and then one day, another wintry December day, she catches sight of herself in a mirror, dressed to deal with the cold.

The face that looks back at her is tanned, even in the middle of winter. Her hair has grayed, become almost silver, she has cropped it for convenience, its tidier under a riding hat. She has over the years lost weight, grown muscle, become athletic looking.

The face that looks back at her is the woman who took her breath away, so long ago.

She crosses the stable yard, deep in thought as to what this could mean and notices a stranger, eyes watering in the wind, feet shuffling on the gravel, an attempt to keep warm and nods before she  steps out of view and vanishes behind another stable block.

The Seal Wife – version 2

I want to take this story and re-write it as a performance piece.
Feedback would be welcome.

The fisherman is all alone and his heart is cold, frozen, he is brusque, distant and fearful that he will become like the icy wind, the stormy sea, he goes in search of a wife.

He brings her back, dark haired, eyes like sloes, sleek skinned, fleshy, the women of his village see her for what she is.

Behind his back, behind their hands, they whisper
“Seal wife”

But to their faces they are kind, welcoming, they know that they cannot warm the ice at the centre of his heart, they know, though many of them have tried to kindle a little warmth, a little taste of spring, they know that they have failed.

At first, all is well,

The winter storms come, the sea too fierce for the little wooden boats that huddle together in the tiny harbour.

The seal wife has brought wedding gifts;
A wooden chair painted periwinkle blue,
A cooking pot so shiny it fills the room with light
A quilt stuffed with goose feathers, patches of red, gold, green, flashes of summer colour to trick the eyes and heart.

The fisherman and his wife stay indoors buried under the feather quilt, lsitening to the wind howling around the flint covered cottage.
The seal wife opens her arms to him, envelops him in her soft giving body, he feels his heart thaw, his body warm.

Then one morning, the winds drop, the sea is calm and the fisherman leaves the bed that smells of her, leaves their tiny home and prepares to catch the fish.

The seal wife clings to him, weeps, says that the sea is tricking him, that the storm will come back.
At first he is kind, but finally exasperated, he pushes her away, pushes hard and walks toward the harbour.

As he walks he feels the icy coldness grip at his heart again, feels fear, wonders if love has made him less that he used to be, wonders if he can still do battle with the waves and wind and snow.

His is the only boat to leave the shore and as he leaves the little harbour, he turns and sees her, his seal wife, pacing on the shore, her keening louder even than the seagulls screams.

The sailing is easy, the sea gentle, the wind kind and the little boat cuts through the swell, heading for the winter shoals.
The fisherman laughs at the wind, but the wind is only waiting, waiting to trick him and it begins to blow, pushing him out towards the rocks and the fisherman laughs again
“You’re strong, but I’m smart and he tacks against it, heading back to the shore.
And all the time he can feel her eyes, her sloe black eyes burning into him.

The wind is waiting and the wind is watching and it comes round from the west and takes the little boat further and further out to sea.

The fisherman tries everything to escape the storm , but he is cannot fight it, the wind too strong and he feels the cold grow in his heart and he is afraid and he remembers the warmth of his seal wife and the warmth of the bed and the smell of their lovemaking and he prepares to die.

And at that moment on the shore, she stiffens, her head comes up and for just a moment, she pauses and remembers the periwinkle blue chair, the shiny cooking pot, the warmth of their quilt and his weight on her and then she dives.

Into the crashing, grey waves and as she dives she becomes her self, her true self, her true aquatic self and her sloe black eyes are fixed on the tiny wooden boat and the fisherman feels her coming and a warmth grows in him and he knows that he will not die.

Not today.

And when the storm abates and the other fisherman go out to find him, they see his boat, mast snapped, rudder lost and in the stern, curled up, is the fisherman.


And next to him and over him is a seal, keeping him warm, keeping him safe.

But she, is quite, quite dead and the settling snow is almost melted on her back.