That unmistakable sound

‘What’s that sound?’ Katie asked in a fearful voice.

We were walking home from the village shortly after 9pm. ‘Home’ at the moment is a tiny house and caravan on a plot of land by the river, with Carina moored about 100 metres away. We’ve been living here for over two weeks, taking care of a cat and living off the fat of the land while the owners are away. Our lives are lived mainly in the little house and out of doors, but at night we sleep in the caravan, which is about a metre away from the fence that marks the boundary between this and the neighbouring plot of land. Juan tends the vegetable patch next door, while Niño keeps a small flock of sheep there. Most of the ewes wear heavy bells around their necks and our time in the caravan is accompanied by the tinkling of bells that I always associate with my very first afternoon on the Rio Guadiana. It is a sound that I love. The ewes noisily make their way through the long golden grass throughout the morning and evening, bells ringing as they munch their way through the field. Most mornings when I wake up the first living being I see is a sheep, not much more than a metre from my window, grazing near the fence. In the past few days a couple of skinny little lambs have appeared, bleating loudly when their mothers don’t pay them enough attention.

So when Katie asked what the strange sound was as we walked home from the village, I was pretty sure I knew what it was. The sound of a mother giving birth is pretty unmistakable! ‘I think one of the sheep is giving birth’, I said. ‘Come on’. We walked quietly onto ‘our’ plot of land. The flock of sheep was divided into two groups, both standing towards the bottom of the steep slope in the neighbouring plot, looking up the hillside to where a lone ewe was lying on the ground making guttural moaning sounds.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ Katie asked. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her’, I said. ‘She’s having a baby’.
‘How do you know?’ Lily asked. ‘Well, it’s a sound mothers make when they’re in labour’.
‘Did you make that sound?’ Lily asked, wide-eyed.
‘Something like that’, I laughed, omitting the part about yelling at Julian to ‘stop playing that f***ing piano’ as he entertained the midwives in the dining room while I was wracked by contractions in the living room. Ah, such fond memories!

I told the girls to keep quiet and not make any sudden noises. Remembering the piano incident (Lily) and the ‘now’s not the f***ing time’ incident when Julian was regaling the midwives with stories of his adventures in Antarctica as I passed from the second to third stage of labour (Katie), I knew the ewe needed to be as undisturbed as possible while she was going through this. She let out a pitiful moan, stood up, and the head and shoulders of a lamb appeared from her rear end. ‘Are you crying again, Mum’, Lily asked, rolling her eyes, used as she is to her mum’s bladder being far to close to her eyeballs. ‘Maybe just a little’, I croaked.

A couple more pushes and the little lamb was born. The mother lay down, making a new sound, almost a cooing sound, that I’ve never heard a sheep make before. Mother and baby lay there for a few minutes, the lamb soon trying to lift its head off the ground. Once the head was up, it then tried to get its legs going. The ewe was up now, licking her newborn all over. She had given birth on the steep slope of a hill and with each attempt of the precocious little lamb to stand up, it slid further down the hill. The ewe continued cooing and licking. Before long, the little back legs were shakily off the ground and with a few more attempts, the little thing, less than 10 minutes old, was standing up and nosing its way to it’s mother’s udder for its first meal.

Lily and I were moved by the experience. Katie, only one thing on her mind, insisted we go into the house so I could make her supper. She’s heartless, that one.

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Fat of the land

With Julian’s help, I made the move onto Chris and Maggie’s land as soon as the girls had gone to school. The girls and I would only be at Chris and Maggie’s for a little over two weeks, but I moved all the stuff I thought we’d need for three months. A couple of days after Chris returns, we’re moving into a house in the village for about two and a half months. Chris and Maggie are off to Sweden to visit their grandchildren, leaving their cat, Aris, their home and their garden in our (I hope) capable hands. And when we move into the village in the summer it will be to look after Vinnie, the coolest and most chilled out dog in Sanlúcar.

Chris is a keen gardener, and at this time of year there’s a lot of food about. As well as providing the girls with an opportunity to look after a cat, this lovely plot of land offers them an opportunity to get to know plants, to dig up or pick fresh food and to prepare it for the table.

For our first lunch here, we had a salad of lettuce, spinach, grated courgette, onion, sugar snap peas and green peppers, all picked not 10 minutes before we ate, drizzled with our own olive oil from Julian’s olive picking endeavours in the autumn, and freshly squeezed lemon juice from one of the many citrus trees in the garden. For dessert the girls ate strawberries directly from the plants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

Late in the afternoon, I sent them out to get potatoes for dinner. I followed them, not sure if they knew where to find potatoes. ‘They’re somewhere here’, I said as we reached the garden down by the river. The girls looked around. The broccoli, courgettes, onions and red cabbage were obvious, and not to be confused with anything else. But where exactly were the potatoes? ‘Is it this?’ Lily asked, pointing to a young tomato plant. Not a bad guess, but no. I directed them to a weedy-looking plant, but they were still none the wiser. I grabbed the garden fork and started to dig and almost immediately a golden potato revealed itself.

The girls were delighted. Katie took the fork from me and Lily removed potatoes from the two plants Katie dug up. Back at the house they washed the soil from the potatoes and used the muddy water to irrigate the vines, rose bushes and baby tomato plants growing close to the house. Then I sent them back down the garden for broccoli and courgette for the supper I’d planned and then up the garden to the loquat tree, to gather fruit for dessert.

We’ve lived almost exclusively off the land since coming here and every few days a new fruit or vegetable ripens, adding variety to our diet. First it was the beetroot, then the aubergine and now the tomatoes are turning deep red. What a bounty and what a delight that our friends asked us to look after their place.

Mr Hynes

How many different teachers did any of us have throughout our childhood and adolescent years? Ten, twenty, thirty? And how many of those inspired us, moved us, helped to shape us into the adults we are today?

I received a WhatsApp message from my sister yesterday morning, who in turn had received a message from one of her old school friends. The message said that Pat Hynes had died. ‘Do you remember him?’ my sister asked. ‘He always wore sandals and socks’. And even though I hadn’t seen or even thought about Pat Hynes in years, the news of his death moved me to tears and I sat sobbing in the café where I had, up to that point, been enjoying my morning coffee.

Mr Hynes wore socks with sandals alright, and a tweed jacket. He was sandy haired, slightly built and drove to school in a little car. Unlike some of my other teachers, who were from or who lived in my home town, Mr Hynes’ life outside school was an enigma to me. He was ever so slightly exotic, a lone English accent in a sea of Bog of Allen accents and, when you asked him where he came from, he always said, ‘I was born in the South China Sea’. For all I know, he was.

Mr Hynes was my religion teacher. In a state school in Ireland, i.e. a Catholic school, religion was compulsory, though not an exam subject. Over my school career I had a number of religion teachers, each of them memorable for different reasons. But none made a bigger impression on me than Mr Hynes. When other teachers expounded on the evils of masturbation (to a co-ed class of 14 years olds), divorce and sex before marriage (all of this from an unfortunately menopausal nun whose hot flushes were all too common), or the likelihood of Nostradamus’ end of the world prophesies coming true any time soon (striking the fear of God into me), Pat Hynes had an approach to our Christian Doctrine classes that was altogether more humorous and humanist.

With a sharp wit and the skills of a storyteller, he taught us about social justice, empathy and kindness. He urged us to believe in ourselves and to be true to ourselves. For him, these were the ways we honoured God. As a 16 and 17 year old, I was trying to figure out where, if anywhere, my faith lay and I remember being able to talk openly and honestly with Mr Hynes about that. He didn’t judge me or tell me it was a sin to question my faith, or anything of the sort. And I respected and admired him all the more for it.

He teased me mercilessly about my Irish dancing skills. When he was first, briefly, my religion teacher, when I was about 13 years old, I told him the sorry tale of my inability to escape the Beginner’s Line at Olive Keogh’s School of Irish Dancing. Week after week, I watched as my classmates graduated out of the Beginner’s Line while Olive either overlooked me or told me I needed another week. Eventually I quit, and thus the fledgling career of a future Riverdancer died before it had even got started. Mr Hynes thought my Irish dancing failure hilarious and when we’d meet in the school corridor or when I’d walk into class, he would refer to me as ‘the Irish dancer’ or ask me to show him a few steps.

I recall meeting him only once more after I left school back in 1990. I remember one day, in my late 20s, bumping into him in a short-lived bookshop on JKL Street, Edenderry’s main street. He asked how I was and asked after my sister and some of my old classmates and friends, interested in how our lives had progressed since we’d left school. And then he asked me how my Irish dancing was coming along. I was touched that, despite the hundreds and hundreds of students he had taught over the years, he remembered that little joke we had shared over a decade earlier.

From my entire 13 years at school, there is probably only one other teacher the news of whose death would move me as much. Mr Hynes didn’t help me pass exams. What he taught me didn’t help me get into university. He didn’t teach me syntax or grammar, French verb conjugation or the periodic table. He didn’t teach me how to solve mathematical problems. But he taught me about empathy and justice, about having confidence in myself and being true to myself. I learned from him that a person can have a strong faith in God while not expecting the same from everyone else around them. I learned that it was ok, indeed right, to examine my own faith. And I learned that one could be professional and take life seriously with both good humour and a smile on one’s face. I always looked forward to my religion classes with Pat Hynes because he was, above all, a lovely human being.

When I, via WhatsApp, passed the news of his passing on, my old classmates were just as saddened by his passing as I was. Wherever he is now, in heaven or floating over the South China Sea, may he rest in peace.