Wednesday, 5 March 2014

My Boy Cecil

It all started when my friend DodoWoman rang about two weeks ago.
'Can I put you in charge of the snake?' she asked. She was up to her eyebrows in feathers, beads and over-sized potted palms at the time, preparing for the Great Twenties Speakeasy.
'Of course,' I said, kissing goodbye to the intensive week of Reclaiming My Veg Garden, which had been on the cards.

I haven't had much experience with snakes, but on the few occasions when I have been up close and personal with them, I was quite surprised to find that I wasn't panic-makingly frightened.

Up close and personal

We even had one visit the Market recently. Her name was Cinnamon and no one knew she was present - curled up inside her owner's jacket - until suddenly there she was, in the arms of his small daughter instead.

Cinnamon visited the Market

But I digress. Cecil was to be the new snake in my life. Cecil the Snake.
That had a nice ring to it.
I thought about him quite hard for a day or two, and put in several requests for vital equipment, but then I put it all on the 'long finger' as we say in Ireland. Which turned out to be a mistake, as come Thursday evening I was frantically trying to make up for lost time and get organised for imminent Cecil-dom.

On Saturday morning, I loaded the car with everything I could think of that any large snake worth its salt could possibly need, and set off for Beltra Country Market. There was barely room in the car for me. But lots of eager people were waiting when I got there (most of them under 10), but all potential Cecil-fans, and we set about the serious business of preparing for the advent of this slithery creature.

By the time I got home, I was shattered, but we had created all the accessories a snake could desire.
Now we just had to wait, as patiently as possible. One more vital process had to be undergone.

But it wasn't until the following Thursday that another Beltra friend - the Upcycler Extraordinaire - and I were able to get together to complete the gear that Cecil would need. Assisted by her lovely new dog Feena, we launched ourselves into the final stage of reptile-preparation. We sewed, snipped, shaped and stuffed, pausing only to eat a delicious salad at lunchtime.  It was a tiring day, but we both felt quite excited. Cecil was finally about to put in an appearance.

He turned out to be a good deal larger than I'd really anticipated - more anaconda than adder - and although he was still rather sleepy, and not yet totally 'with it' when I finally got him home, I had some difficulty in transferring him from the car into the kitchen on my own. The In-Charge had not yet returned from college, and I couldn't risk involving the dogs in case Cecil was hungry after his long day.

The kitchen table proved to be the only surface big enough for his huge, sinuous body. But that was fine, as it meant that as he was up high, so I could keep an eye on the cats down below. I wasn't sure whether he'd go for the cats, but he didn't show any interest in them at all, even though Hobbes, our big ginger boy, was foolishly curious about him.

He lay there for days, happily curled up enjoying the warmth of the stove while I tended to his scales and his eyes. His scales had been in a sorry state when I first got him home, half of them missing altogether, and he looked blind, I don't think he could see at all. But it didn't take too long to rectify those problems, and the following day the TalentuiGoddess came by and dropped off some lovely shells that she thought he might like.

I got rather fond of Cecil. He had a sort of bashful air about him, more like a dog who's hoping to be noticed than a snake, I thought. But it was not to be - our house wasn't his Forever Home.
On Monday the order came from on high, and Cecil moved on to greater things.
The In-Charge and I carefully loaded him into the car - we couldn't risk damaging any of his new scales - and I drove him into Sligo. The TalentuiGoddess has organised that Cecil will live in the windows of the Sligo Tourist Office for the whole of March, by way of saying 'Happy St Patrick's Day'.
I suppose St Patrick must have missed Cecil when he got rid of all the other snakes in Ireland.
I'm quite glad really, as he's very beautiful, and extremely placid.

But I do worry about him.
Will they look after him in the Tourist Office? Will they talk to him?
Will they remember to feed him? He was looking nice and plump when we delivered him, but that won't last for a month.
He's not hard to please, he eats almost anything.
Speaking of which, where is Hobbes? I haven't seen him for days...

Val Robus's wonderful picture of Cecil in pride of place

The children and Nancy making Cecil's scales

They made hundreds!

Cecil - you're surely not thinking of eating the Upcycler Extraordinaire!

Cecil turned out to be a bashful boy. He liked hiding under his tail

More anaconda than adder - he took up the whole sofa, but we didn't mind

Monday, 3 March 2014

Laid Bare

I remember, on New Year's Day, saying to the In-Charge: 'I wonder if anyone, a hundred years ago, knew what kind of year they were welcoming in?'
For most people, it was probably a New Year like any other - Auld Lang Syne, the coal and the bread on the doorstep, a few jars too many...
When I said it, both of us sort of  - paused - hindsight being what it is. The In-Charge numbers war heroes amongst his ancestors, a father and son who died together at Passchendaele in 1917, so his genetic memory (as it were) of the First World War runs very deep.

Having studied various aspects of that war at college, and, more recently and far more poignantly, having visited Ypres, Tyne Cot and many of the other Passchendaele war cemeteries to mark the 90th anniversary of that terrible battle, it runs pretty deep with me too.

There were no graves for the In-Charge's relatives to visit, just the knowledge that the bodies of their beloved men had been lost forever in Flanders mud. But we found their names - at long last - carved on the great wall at Tyne Cot, where 12,000 soldiers are buried and another 35,000 have their names inscribed on the wall, because they too were never found. It was a naked moment for us all - a raw, vulnerable sensation of being laid bare, feeling the loss of them, the waste, all over again, despite the years, despite the generations.

I say us, because our son was there as well. He had been asked to make a speech on that memorable occasion. The Queen was present, and Prince Philip, and the Queen of the Belgians (their King was in hospital at the time), and representatives of all the Allied armies, and Governments. It amounted to a lot of Big White Chiefs and scrambled egg on shoulders.

I am lucky enough to have a DVD of my son's speech, as one of the many cameramen present sent it to me afterwards - a kindness I greatly appreciated. I also found it on YouTube recently, to my surprise, and if you'd like to watch it, you can, via this link:

(The coverage starts 40 seconds into the recording, and finishes 4.40 later)

He was magnificent. Neither the In-Charge nor I could have uttered more than a couple of words without breaking down completely, but No 1 Son did a fantastic job, which only served to make me cry even more.

Ypres, totally destroyed during the battles of Passchendaele, was identically rebuilt after the War. The Last Post has been sounded every evening since the end of WW1 at the town's Menin Gate - except during Hitler's occupation

The next day, we were taken to the battlefield where they died - and someone who knows a great deal about military tactics and even more about Passchendaele, explained just why the In-Charge's great uncle Ronald was killed.

It was a quiet field, sloping gently upwards to a small knoll of trees, and planted with cabbages.
Such an innocent-looking landscape. You would never guess how many men lie beneath it.
Beautiful boys, just like my son, most of them.
It was the slope that killed Ronald - he'd been given the almost impossible task of leading his men up the hill to take the German position at the top. There was nowhere for them to hide, and the Germans just picked them off.
His father, Harry, died because when Ronald was brought into his headquarters, mortally wounded, Harry insisted on going to find a doctor to try and help his son. Lieutenant-Colonels weren't generally cannon-fodder in the First World War, but on that occasion Harry, a veteran soldier, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the saddest part of all is that no doctor could have saved Ronald at that stage, anyway.

We found their names, at last

Melancholy thoughts for a Monday afternoon. Thoughts prompted by the year that's in it, and by the fact that - just two months into2014 - every time you turn on the radio or the television, the Ukraine is teetering on the brink of something potentially explosive, potentially disastrous.

I was in Sligo Town earlier on, and the chap behind the counter of a shop I visited spurned my platitude about the gloriously sunny day.
'I wonder what will happen in the Ukraine?' he said.
We talked about it for a few minutes.
'The guy I work with is Polish,' he commented. 'He says if anything happens in the Ukraine, Poland will probably get involved, and he will have to go home and join the army - all his family are in Poland.'

Who could blame him?
When the politicians and financiers and economists string us up in the tangled webs they weave, what option are we left with but to defend the values, the people, the land - all the things we love most and hold most sacred.
I came away feeling that, collectively, we have all been here before.
And perhaps, collectively, learned very little.

The memorial at Tyne Cot, bearing Kipling's words: 'Their Names Liveth For Evermore'