Date: 29 March 2017
Posted by author: Roundwood
In every good life there are bad days, and this was one of them. One thing I haven’t gotten used to in the country is all the dying. I’m sure the grim reaper doesn’t spend more time here than he does the cities, it’s just that you meet more of God’s creatures when you’re here. In 3 short years here I’ve witnessed the passing of 3 cats, two geese, a peacock, Frodo (a chestnut brown mongrel), and dozens of mice (although, I have been responsible for those). Today marks a passing to eclipse all others – Sheridan, our beloved border collie.
He was 15 years old (105 to you), and the real master of the house. Although I only lived with him for three years, I’ve known him for ten, and he knew me well by the time he closed his eyes this afternoon. He stayed with me while I filled potholes in the driveway when no-one else would. He saw me smoking behind the barn and told no one. He let my kids sit on his back to allow me a little guitar time. My tutor and partner in crime. In a way he completed me. I’d tell guests that Sheridan would take them on a tour of the property, and as if he were listening from behind a bush, he would appear and show them around, to the amazement of newcomers, and with a familiar smile from regulars.
One guest, who has been staying here with much appreciated regularity for the last 14 years, claims that his visits are because of Sheridan. We received a package from him at Christmas containing a card for Sheridan and one pair of “Doggles”, which for the uninitiated, are goggles for dogs…with UV protection. Although I was at first offended by the thoughts of playing second fiddle to a dog, I now understand why.
Sheridan was nature’s welcoming committee. He allowed me to stop and smell the roses. He would walk at my pace, stop when I stopped, and helped me hear the heartbeat of this place. I loved him, and no different than anyone else that I love, at times I wanted to kill him.
For a few years, he had a particular affection for attacking the wheel wells of cars as they arrived down the long drive. The distance from the front gate to the house gave plenty of time to plan his assault. Just when I thought that another car had made it safely to the house, he would charge out of the long grass and attack, terrifying a new arrival, and mangling the side of their car. Never someone driving a Fiat Punto. No, Sheridan’s tipple was dark coloured, late model BMW’s and Mercedes. If anyone reading this has had their car attacked by Sheridan in the past, I hope you feel guilty about sending us the bill.
He was also clever, cold and calculating. Not long after moving here, I remember the panic as he came limping across the lawn after an encounter with one of our donkeys. Another favourite pastime of his was herding our donkeys, and on this day the donkey stood his ground, and kicked Sheridan in the side. He lay down under a bush and didn’t come out for three days and I’m sure I would have too. He recovered and chose his moment. A year later he charged the donkeys in front of an inspector from the Donkey Sanctuary ensuring their swift removal from the property.
Well, today all is forgiven. I sat with him as the vet shaved a patch on his foreleg to find a vein to inject the Euthanyl that would send him off. I said my good-bye and thanked him for showing me around his home, then left him to make sure Hannah was ok. Expecting to be met by floods of tears, I was surprised to see her preparing the starter for the guest’s dinner. She gave me a hug when she saw my quivering lip and proceeded to tell me how relieved she was. We’d all been dreading today, but he didn’t suffer and was surrounded by people he loved. He had a good life.
Date: 15 February 2017
Posted by author: Roundwood
Bunny and The Yellow Hammer
The Yellow Hammer was buried on Saturday. That wasn’t his real name. His real name was Ivor and no-one had been able to explain to me why he became know as The Yellow Hammer.
“Why is he called the Yellow Hammer?”, I asked Sadie, a twenty-five year veteran of Roundwood who knew him when he was Ivor.
“He’s called the Yellow Hammer because…he’s just the Yellow Hammer.”, was her response.
I knew him better as the part-feral old man who ‘s way of getting around was to stand in front of oncoming cars, forcing them to stop and give him a lift. He was never going far, just to town or back, so he became a familiar, if slightly unexpected moving landmark on the short stretch of road that passed by our house. He had reached a ripe old age, so there was no surprise to hear of his passing. If there was any surprise, it was that it wasn’t as a result of being run over on his way to get milk.
There are many stories about him, as you might expect about a man with such a bizarre name and lethal road etiquette. A favourite of mine involves his interaction with a fellow Canadian named Bunny. Stopping to avoid hitting him, she offered him a lift, as was expected in accordance with the local custom. He strangely refused and she carried on, rightfully confused. The next passing car was driven by another local, which he get in when offered.
“You won’t believe it!”, exclaimed the Yellow Hammer, before he had even taken his seat.
“That Canadian woman just stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride*! And there I was, just minding my own business, looking for a lift into town.”
*(For non-Irish readers, a “ride” means something else here…)
Date: 15 July 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
The Phone Call
I love my life here. It’s a pretty magical existence, living in a 300 year old country estate, surrounded by nature and animals, my girls at my side, entertaining interesting guests from all over the world. But, I do get homesick sometimes. I miss my family in Canada. Sometimes I wish I could just meet my father for a pint, tell him about my life. About the tiny Mexican woman who stayed with us last week, who’s job was risk assessment for NASA, or a cute story about one of the kids, but I am where I am and wouldn’t change it for the world. You can’t have everything.
It was during one of my recent bouts of homesickness that this story begins and it’s one that I couldn’t have made up if I tried. It was the day the world learned of David Bowie’s death. A sad one for myself and millions of others and I have no doubt that it effected some of them the same way it hit me. I got me thinking about mortality, mine and that of those close to me, slowly leading my mind across the Atlantic to Canada and my parents. If an extra-terrestrial rock star can be taken from us, none are safe.
When the sad news broke, I was in the kitchen with Khan, a 19 year old Berliner who had been staying with us for a few weeks. I suggested that we should record a song in Bowie’s honour and we began exchanging ideas about what kind of song we should make. One of the musical references he made, was to his “father’s Turkish rap crew”, a combination of words never uttered in my presence before. We went online and sure enough there was his father, rapping in Turkish. I tried for a moment to picture my father in Khan’s father’s crew, but because dad had wasted so many years being a judge, I was certain both his rapping skills and his command of the Turkish language would have been underdeveloped enough to prevente our fathers from busting rhymes together.
Then my phone rang. It was my father’s number and considering the mortal theme running through my mind, I got a bad feeling. I answered it and from the sound I was hearing, could only assume that his phone was in a tumble-dryer. This was followed silence, then heavy breathing.
“Dad, can you hear me?” No response, only distressed breathing.
“Hello…Can you hear me?” Then I heard distant voices, that I thought at first were echoes of my own, repeating,
“Can you hear me? Hello, can you hear me?”
A feeling crept over me that something terrible had happened and he had called me to say good-bye, losing consciousness before he got the words out. I was sure that I was listening to my father’s last breaths, the distant voices belonging to concerned bystanders trying to revive him. Then the line went dead.
Finished work for the day, Justice Flynn left his chambers and made his way to the parking garage. When he arrived at his car, he cursed under his breath at the idiot who had parked so close to his driver’s side that he couldn’t open his door. Weighing his options, he decided that finding the offending car’s owner would take far too long and that this was a situation that called for “thinking outside the box”, a skill he used daily.
The plan was simple. He would enter through the passenger’s door, lean across into the driver’s side, slowly ease out past the car blocking his door, then get out and walk around to the driver’s side. Except, when he had taken up his position, he couldn’t properly get a grip on the steering wheel, a constraint he corrected by opening the drivers door, giving him the few inches he needed.
He called his wife to tell her that he’d be home in time for dinner, hung up the phone and started the car. He put it in drive and stretched his left foot out to press down on the accelerator, quickly discovering that it didn’t posses the same subtlety that his right foot did, as the car shot forward. In a panic, he stomped for the brake, missing it and fully flattening the accelerator. The screeching tires propelled him forward, the sudden motion making him grip the steering wheel, turning it hard left, and into the wall in front of him. The impact threw him forward, a flailing limb engaging the cruise control and hitting the speed dial for his son’s phone number in one fell swoop, before launching him out of the open driver’s door. The vehicle continued forward, connecting with a pillar, which slammed the door shut. Doors shut and engine on, the doors automatically locked and the car continued on, an eighty thousand dollar pinball, in a parking garage themed pinball machine. Down the ramp it went, it’s course corrected by the walls it bounced off on it’s way through the security gate.
Dazed and confused, a nasty cut on his elbow but otherwise unharmed, Justice Flynn looked on in stunned silence as courthouse security guards surrounded his unstoppable driverless car, which continued to bounce from wall to pillar, like a short-circuiting robot. The surreal scene made even stranger by the fact that the guards were shouting at the car, asking if it could hear them.
“Can you hear me?”, a voice from inside the car asked them back.
To prove to himself that he hadn’t sustained a head injury in the fall, he reasoned that the bluetooth function must still have been enabled on his phone, which would explain the conversation taking place between his car and the guards. To test his theory, he reached inside his breast pocket, retrieved his phone and ended the call. To his relief, the voice stopped. Now, if only his car would do the same.
Date: 30 June 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
Dog Days of an Irish Summer
One Sunday, in the not too distant past, we decided to take advantage of the rare confluence of sunshine and a day off, by going for a walk in the mountains. It was unusually hot for May, or for any time in Ireland for that matter, so with great delight we headed towards Kinnitty Castle. Children in tow and dog in the boot, we planned to stretch our legs on the grounds and then have dinner in the castle and let someone else do the dishes for a change. We started out with a bounce in our step. But it didn’t take too long before 23 degrees of Irish sun shortened our stride. About ten minutes to be more precise. But that’s all it took for our 6 and 7 year old daughters to begin their “go-slow” campaign, stopping to pick wildflowers every twenty paces. Rococo, our energetic labrador, had no such qualms with the elements. She charged off into the woods, tail wagging and eyes bulging, as if she would never be taken on a walk again. As it would happen, she was nearly right.Focusing on the task of encouraging the girls to plod on as Hannah and I began to wilt ourselves, Rococo’s absence went unnoticed. Until we heard a raspy wheezing noise behind us. We turned to see her slowly stagger towards us, eventually collapsing at our feet. She didn’t look good. Her tongue spilled out of her mouth and lay in the dirt covered in foam, her eyes were slits and she was panting uncontrollably. I ran back to some other walkers, who graciously donated a bottle of water which I administered to our distressed patient. She could barely drink it. When she finally finished it off, matters hadn’t improved.It was obvious that our concern had made it’s way down the ranks when our eldest, Amelie, asked where we would bury Rococo if she died. It was time to up the ante from “concern” to “panic”. I ran on ahead, hoping to find a stream to cool her down. At the same time I rang Pete Wederburn, Ireland’s favourite celebrity veterinarian, who’s number I happened to have in my phone. He confirmed our panic and told me she was suffering from hyperthermia, a potentially fatal situation. It was essential that she be cooled down immediately. At that very moment, I spotted a stream at the bottom of a steep embankment through the woods.“Great!”, said Pete. “Now you’ll have to get her to the water as quickly as possible, but don’t let her walk. You’ll have to carry her.”And just like that, a plan came together. I had tracked down expert advice, found a stream and now all I had to do now was carry 90 pounds of sweaty, slobbery, semi-conscious dog for the guts of a kilometre, then down a treacherous hill to the life-saving water. This would turn out to be the hard part. The small miracles of getting phone reception in the middle of the woods and stumbling upon a stream in a life or death situation apparently came with a cost- one I fully measured the moment I heaved Rococo up into my arms. Big dogs don’t know how to be carried at the best of times. But carrying a well fed, dazed lab was like carrying an oversized bean bag full of bowling balls that sporadically lurched in one direction or another. I was in a constant state of trying not to drop her.Realising immediately that there wasn’t a better, or even a good way to man-haul a dog, I began my staggering-heave-walk towards the stream. At about the half-way mark, concern for Rococo began shifting towards her bearer and Hannah voiced her concern that I may have been closer to a heart attack than the dog. By the time I had reached the top of the hill leading to the stream, my arms decided they had had enough and began shaking uncontrollably. Rococo immediately fell out of them, completing the last part of the journey with gravity’s help.Unfortunately, the malnourished stream wasn’t the answer. Deep enough to submerge her paws, but not enough to lower her body temperature; we were still in trouble. Then, a shout from atop yonder hill.“I see a river!”, shouted Lucie, our 6 year old. Sure enough, a hundred meters away flowed salvation. Unable to carry her, we coaxed Rococo up and over the small ridge, nudging her toward the water. When she finally realised what was in front of her, she didn’t need to be told twice and threw herself in. The cooling effect was almost immediate. Her eyes opened, she began lapping up water and her tail started wagging. We let her linger until we were sure she was out of danger and then began picking our way out of the woods.As we neared the castle, we met a couple standing outside the stables. Covered in muck and dog hair, I began explaining our ordeal and hoped that they might have a cool place for Rococo to recover while we had dinner. I was just coming to the part of the re-telling that involved me carrying her to the stream, when Lucie ran up and interrupted.“Are you talking about the time I saved Rococo’s life?”Yes Lucie. That’s how the story goes. But not how it ends.Yesterday, two months after the fact, Lucie extracted herself from the giggling gaggle of little guest girls she was playing with, tugged on my apron and said,“Daddy, do you remember the time you were carrying Rococo, when her tongue was hanging out of her mouth and stuff…and I went on the hill and said that I saw a river? ““Yes, I remember Lucie.”, I replied.“Well, I really didn’t see a river. I just said it to make you happy. And then, there WAS a river. Do you remember that?”Yes I do, yes there was and you just made me more happy than you’ll ever know. And THAT’S how it ends.
Date: 28 April 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
The Silence of the Lambs
I can’t find the whisk. Again. In the past this would have been a problem, but I’ve learned not to react to these little provocations. Because if it weren’t the whisk, it would have been my favorite knife, or the really thin broken spatula that is essential for flipping crepes.
Things not being there when you need them, is a fact of life in this kitchen.
And being unsettled by facts is an exhausting way to go about life.
In the past, I blamed the misplacement of important kitchen tools on the staff, but I know they’re really not to blame. It’s poor leadership on my part and a lack of important kitchen tools. I repeat this over and over in my mind whenever I need to distract myself from the rage monkey screaming for my attention, when the thing that I need isn’t in the place it should be.
But we’re not here to give out about the staff. There’ll be plenty of time for that. We’re here to talk about lambs’ tongues. Let’s be honest. They’re not pretty. But with the right manipulation, they can be turned into the most delicious mystery meat you’ll ever serve.
I’ve had the dubious pleasure of messing around with them a good bit for the last few months because my butcher gave me about a hundred of them.
Have you ever seen a vac-packed bag full of lambs’ tongues? It looks like a Geiger painting. I had no idea what to do with them at first and then remembered that you can confit anything. So that’s what I did. The end result didn’t look very appetizing, unless you think a severed tongue looks delicious. So I did a bit of “research” and found out that the outer membrane has to be peeled off. I did that and it still looked like a severed tongue.
In it’s natural state, I had very little chance of feeding it to Hannah and if she wouldn’t eat it, I couldn’t very well serve it to customers.*
So, I cut it into slices, threw them in a frying pan and decided not to tell her what we were having for dinner. I put in some garlic, a splash of red wine and a ladle of lamb stock. For good measure, I put in a couple of spoons of a blueberry reduction I had used the night before to serve with a more socially acceptable lamb part. In their slender, tender, gooey reincarnation, the tongue slices looked a lot less tongue-y, if you squinted.
I heated up some horseradish mashed potatoes, also left over from the night before, flashed some asparagus in a pan and stacked them just so, the tongue on top. I drizzled the remaining sauce over the lot and sprinkled winter thyme and marjoram leaves from the herb garden to finish. It looked pretty good.
I could tell when Hannah squinted, as she took her first bite, that she knew what I was up to. We both ignored the facts in front of us for a moment like two people who share a secret that neither should know.
I tasted mine and was delighted. Surely it was safe to say the name of something so delicious.
“What do you think?”, I asked.
“It’s amazing. It’s so tender!”
I leaned in and said, “Did you know that you’re eating…”
“Stop!”, she interrupted.
“Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know.”
I bit my tongue.
She squinted at me and took another bite of the lamb’s.
Some things are best left unsaid.
*Editor’s note: No mystery meat has ever been fed to our guests, unless specifically requested.
Date: 2 March 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
Portrait of a Con Artist
The pair of portraits, hanging either side of the fireplace in the drawing room are of particular interest to visitors. My great-great-great uncle Issacc and his wife Hannah. It’s in the subtlety of their expressions, which can change slightly in different light, or with the weather. He has a look of smug self-assurance, a confidence in his eyes that comes with the burden of being in charge. I can imagine it being the expression he wore as he made the fateful decision 163 years ago, to lead the 50 men in his charge into the ambush awaiting them in the Bestaan Uit valley, in the dying days of the first Boer war. He survived, along with his communications officer, but 48 men died that morning, their bodies only recovered when the Boers surrendered six weeks later. He received a purple cross for his bravery, but was given the nick-name “The Boer Runner”, the label of cowardice which stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Opinion is fairly evenly divided about Hannah’s likeness. Some see a kind, caring face. Others, the face of a bitter woman. Knowing her story, I would have to side with the latter opinion. She was only 18 when they married, he a 32 year old widower who would, very shortly after their joining, bring everlasting shame on the family name. And so, Hannah, “the
Runner’s Wife”, stares out from her picture frame, smirking at the cruelty of being immortalized beside the coward who defined her.
Actually, none of this is true. I have no idea who these people are, but that wouldn’t have made a very interesting story now, would it?
Date: 26 February 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
After a busy patch a few years ago, Hannah and I came to the conclusion that we were possibly neglecting our kids. We got to see them all day every day, but rarely when we weren’t working. Easy enough trap to fall into, working from home. We immediately decided to do something about it, summoning Amelie and Lucie to inform them that we were starting a new family tradition and Family Day was born.
It was really designed as a marketing strategy towards the girls, adding a sense of festivity and occasion to a walk in the mountain, or an afternoon in a cafe. And that’s mostly what we did, for family days had to be within a half an hour of home, in case we needed to get back quickly.
Feeling like the sheen was wearing off of our young tradition, i decided to spice it up a bit and found a ruined castle in a book by a local historian that was only twenty minutes from our house, near a shop that sold ice cream. It was an adventure that wrote itself.
We arrived first at the ice-cream place, which meant that according to the book, we were a few kilometers past our destination. We bought a bunch of Magnums and I decided we’d save then until we got to the castle, a decision that was immediately overturned by the unsyncronised, caucaphonous jumping and pleading of my two girls. Since kids don’t do deferred gratification very well and I couldn’t think of another way to make the noise stop, Magnums were handed out, unwrapped and devoured instantly. I saved mine in my pocket because I knew it would taste better in a castle.
We spent the next 45 minutes driving up and down the same one kilometer stretch of road, looking for an impossibly small lane.
On what we decided would be our last pass along this tiny country road, we found it and the adventure was on.
The lane was just wide enough for a tractor and moving at a crawl. We were able to avoid holes and puddles for a few hundred meters, but were forced to stop. From here on it it would be by foot. In front of us was a closed farm gate and a sea of mud about half a kilometer long, that I would have to navigate in runners. Past that, no sign of a castle. Thinking about it, the words of Paedar the ice cream man kept ringing in my ears,
“Now, you wouldn’t make it without wellies.”
Before I got a chance to query him further on this however, I was interrupted by bouncing and begging children. Since I was the driving force behind our day out and because there was no castle visible on the horizon, I was selected to do a reconnaissance mission. As gingerly as I could, I jumped the fence and hopped between dried patches of mud and the odd stone. It was a slow process, but I managed to make it out of yelling distance from Hannah, so that when I shouted my assessment that we should abort the mission, she took it as her cue to advance with the children.
As I had now unintentionally committed my family to continue on this questionable quest, I decided I had better find a castle. Thankfully, a few minutes later I did. Through a small gap in the hedgerow I spotted our prize; a 60 foot tall crumbling beauty.
I carefully picked my way back and met up with with the girls, who weren’t having such an easy time of it. I grabbed Lucy’s hand, Hannah took Amelie’s and we squelched our way forward, stopping every few feet to rescue a small wellie, sucked into the mud. After an eternity, we were only half way there. And caked in mud. I think it was around then that I promised Hannah she could pick the itinerary for our next day out.
But, we struggled on and eventually made it to the castle. It was magnificent, just as it was described in the book. We walked around it’s front, gazing up at it’s battlements and were met around the corner by what looked like four young bulls, staring at us from a distance. These weren’t mentioned in the book. As they didn’t seem to be moving, we carried on exploring the marvelous ruins until we realized that our dog Roccoco had decided to introduce herself. I think the bulls may have taken this as a threat, or insult, as they began charging towards us, led by our bounding labrador. .
As panic took hold, my first thought was, “I’m a bad parent.” The next thought was that we should hide in the castle. After all, that was what they were designed for. Once safely inside and with nowhere else to go, we tried to imagine what it would have been like when it was in it’s full glory. Safer, certainly, as it would have had a door.
The bulls were also aware of this, and slowly started making their way in.
More contagious than laughter, fear began spreading through the ranks. To show the girls that there was nothing to be afraid of, Hannah took them to see the bulls surrounding the entrance and they were terrifying.
Hearts pounding but with no sudden movements, we moved slowly towards the window behind us, which seemed to be the only option at this point.
Hannah hopped up first and I handed the girls one at a time as the bulls continued to advance. Genuinely shitting myself by the time it was my turn, I jumped up a little too eagerly, banging my head and dropping the now melted ice-cream at the hooves of the beasts. The girls screamed, “You said we could share it!”. I didn’t say that.
Ah, “Family Days”. May the best ones not always be in retrospect.
Date: 27 January 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
A little gem just in time for Santa
There’s a Room at the Inn This Christmas
Sometimes, when people find out what I do for a living, eyes are rolled and sympathy is expressed about what…
Date: 27 January 2016
Posted by author: Roundwood
The Christmas Present
I needed to come up big with a present for Hannah this Christmas. I am haunted by the ghosts of Christmas presents past. Every year, the mind numbingly long lead-in time somehow tricks me into believing that Christmas is always months away. Subsequently, I spend every Christmas Eve racing around like a lunatic, as shops are pulling their shutters down, hoping that an ethereal glow will emanate from the Christmas present…