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  • Writer's pictureLizzy Shannon

Writing research & stirring up memories

My goodness, has it really been October 5th since my last blog entry? Well, I have a good excuse: I just finished writing a first draft of a new book!

In the past when I’ve talked about what I’m writing, I seem to jinx it and it never gets finished, so I’m very superstitious about talking about this one. I will when I feel I can, though. Some of you may remember me talking about it somewhat over the past couple of years. It’s something I’ve been desperately trying to write but just wasn’t able to. Every time I tried the words choked, and when I read them back I thought it resembled a 5th grade paper. ;-) Fortunately, I feel a lot better about it this time, and don’t think it reads like a school essay.

I’m working on a couple of projects. One of which meant I needed to go into Belfast to do some research. I’d intended to plan it in advance, like a military exercise but ended up just going on a whim. It’s been many years since I drove through the streets of Belfast. I threw a change of clothes into my mammoth-sized purse along with toothbrush and paste, and took my new little Ford Ka Studio, whom I’ve named ‘Sputnik’, on an adventure.

First stop: Queen’s University. It was with trepidation I approached the Stranmillis Road area, seeking a place to park. The place is flooded with memories. From walking through there on the way back from Ashleigh House School on the Malone Road, to catch the bus from the Lagan embankment home to Knockbreda. Passing the Lyric Theater, which embodied all the hopes and dreams I had back then of getting into Drama College in London and making acting my career. It all seemed so glamorous then. If only I’d known! June Clark and I used to walk together when we went that way. We’d been at Primary School together and were the only two in our class to go to our grammar school. Unfortunately we got separated into the two learning streams: she was in ‘A’ and I was in ‘Alpha’. I don’t think it meant anything academically, because there were as many intelligent ‘swots’ in my class as there were in hers. Nowadays I wish I could remember more about my school days. I’m sure there were good times. There surely must have been! If I had gone to a school in the States, where they label people, (making it nigh on impossible to break away from that imposed stereotype for the rest of their lives), I would have been one of the misfits, I think. The arty-farty, non-conformist who flaunted authority.

I wish from the very depths of my heart that I had understood the correlation between what I was being taught and how it applied to the real world. I had two great interests back then. Drama and astronomy. The latter secret, of course lest I be mocked! As one would have been. I wanted to be an astronaut, or do anything that was connected to space exploration. But in Northern Ireland, that was as impossible as finding Atlantis and growing gills. Once I came to the States, though, being involved in the Space Program was not an impossibility at all. If I’d had credentials in maths, physics, any of those… But I didn’t. This is one of those ‘two roads diverged’ dilemmas, isn’t it? Things do work out more or less the way they’re supposed to. I mean, if I hadn’t gone into Drama then I never would have progressed to writing. But you can’t help but wonder about that path not traveled, can you?

So, back to Stranmillis… I drove down toward Queen’s and turned into the last side street on the right, just before the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens. These streets are all so very narrow to start with, and then people park their cars on each side making a hair-raisingly tight gap to drive between. As I inched my way along, someone ahead of me pulled out of their parking spot. I felt like triumphant George in that episode of Seinfeld where he found the perfect parking space outside a hospital. He boasted and crowed about it ad infinitum, until someone killed themselves by jumping off the hospital roof. And yes, you guessed it – onto George’s car. :-)

Always timid about parallel parking, I tried to pull forward, but that wasn't going to work in such a tight space. No one was about to watch so I pulled the car out and backed in. To my amazement and delight I got it right first time. Sputnik was docked! With no one to scrutinize and criticize, I just got the job done with no fuss at all. Got to remember that next time I feel frazzled in a public parking lot in the States.

I felt like taking a photograph of my perfect parking, but resisted. (This does tell you what little confidence I have in my parking ability.) Leaving little Sputnik to his own devices, I walked back out onto Stranmillis Road and headed down toward Queen’s. Again, a myriad of memories. When June and I didn’t go the Embankment route home, we’d walk down this way and go through the Botanic Gardens to catch a different bus. In a Georgian building on the corner opposite the Botanic Gardens entrance, worked a young man with sandy colored, collar-length hair. Every single day that we passed, June and I would look to see if he was at his desk at the window, and if so, we’d wave. He always flashed a huge smile and waved back. We never met him, but we nicknamed him ‘Sandy’ for obvious reasons. I often wonder about random people I remember like that. What happened to him after June and I left Ashleigh and moved on to different paths in life? How long did he work in that building before moving on? Did he marry and have a family? Was he destined for a different future? I’ll never know. Another oddity about those days is that barely a week passed that some man didn't expose himself to us on our walk to the bus. I'll never understand it. We just ended up laughing, which was truly the best way to deal with it.

I walked past the gates to the gardens. I’d go there after I’d seen Queen’s. The day was mild with a little sunshine here and there, so I had all afternoon to wander the gardens. I mingled with the constant ebb and flow of students and entered the front gate to the famous landmark Lanyon Building. No one gave me a second glance. I would have thought they might, as I am probably double the age of anyone there. I wandered into the hall and popped into the visitor reception and store. I bought a Queen’s University sweatshirt and was asked if I wanted the faculty discount. Tempted to say yes because the garment cost the equivalent of $55, I declined with a grin.

By the time I’d wandered around upstairs and seen the display cases of silver, rain had begun to pelt down. I emerged into the quadrangle behind the Lanyon Building and lurked under the cloisters to take a few photos. The guide I’d downloaded to my Galaxy told me to head next to the Great Hall, so I made my way in that direction. A horde of students were bee lining there and I got caught up in their midst. I went with the flow all the way to the Hall, and again, none of them seemed to find it odd that I was there. Queen’s was hosting some kind of careers reception. The Great Hall was filled with booths where people could talk to you about what degree to choose, and a table down the middle of the room was laden with canapés, little sandwiches, and Mimosas. I could have. I really could have, but I didn’t. I ignored everybody and went up to the fireplace to look at the portraits and carvings, and then picked my way through the crowd and back outside. The rain was still fierce, so I abandoned following the guide and just wandered wherever I felt like going. I could look it up later and find out what it was I’d seen if I wanted.

Under an archway I found a heavy dungeonesque wooden door that was slightly ajar. I peeked inside and saw tantalizing stone steps spiraling upward. I slipped through the doorway and up the steps. I found myself in a lecture hall, at the top in the back from where the seats and desks tiered down to the floor. There sat a very large wooden desk, blackboards behind it, and a large flat screen TV affixed to the wall in the corner.

I sat on one of the seats at the back and listened to the silence. A million hopes, dreams, despairs, and disappointments had been felt in this room. The air felt heavy with them. When you think of all the range of intense thoughts and emotions you’ve experienced over the years, every single person who’s ever sat in this room has had their versions of the same kinds of thoughts and emotions. That’s why I think that walls can sometimes absorb the most intense. But that’s just me being fanciful, I guess.

It was time to move on. The rain looked like it was lightening up, so I zipped up my jacket and headed outside. I wanted to see the old bus stop where June and I spent so many hours waiting in all weathers. Buses would be late and then arrive sometimes three together, but by then they’d be full and we’d be lucky to get on. It was at this bus stop when I was about thirteen that I had a revelation. It was raining, (of course), and my school uniform was soaked through and I was freezing. All I wanted was to get home and dry. I remember the bus pulling up and I stepped over a huge leaf-filled puddle to climb on.

The driver said, “Sorry, love – we’re full.”

I looked at him in utter despair. “Really? You’re full? Is there no room for even one person?” This I asked with wide-eyed sincerity.

Before my eyes he underwent a transformation. His gruff expression faltered. “Er…” he mumbled as a flush spread across his face. “Well, I guess just one. See if you can squeeze in there.”

“Thank you!” I cried in gratitude and sidled down the aisle to join the clump of people standing there, hanging onto poles, bars and handles for dear life.

After much thinking and analyzing, I realized that I’d unwittingly turned on ‘helpless female charm’ that the driver couldn’t resist. This was a whole new power that I hadn’t realized I possessed. ;-)

I walked down University Square alongside Queen’s toward Botanic Avenue. Apparently at one time this row of smart Georgian houses was the Belfast equivalent of London’s Harley Street. I reached Botanic Avenue and looked across the road but my old bus stop had gone. I crossed over and stood in the spot, though, gazing down the road at the oncoming traffic and remembering back through the years.

The heavens literally opened at that point. So much for having all afternoon to wander the Botanic Gardens. I pulled up the hood on my jacket and turned round, squelching through huge puddles toward the lower gates to the gardens.

They hadn’t changed at all. I walked through the gates and past the little gatehouse. The paths, grass and flowerbeds are all exactly where they always have been. The benches sit where they always have been. The bushes and trees may have grown taller, but they are tamed and are in the same place they always have been. I wanted to sit and think about this… how something could remain the same for so long but the bottoms of my jeans were now soaked up to my knees and my hair was plastered flat to my head. God knows what my mascara was doing; I dreaded to think.

To the right stood the Victorian botanic glasshouse. Where it has always been. But it looked so much smaller than I remember. I went up the two flattish steps to the front door and had to stoop to turn the handle to open it. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. The scent of leafy, green foliage was the same as I remembered. But now, I’d been to the places where some of these exotic plants grow naturally. I recognized a spiky flower I’d seen in Southern California, and a bright pink flowered bush that lined many roads on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There was a luscious leafy tree I’d seen in Australia. The palms I’d seen in Hawaii and Miami, and the banana tree I’d seen in Zambia in Africa. I’d eaten seven curries off of a banana leaf at a Hindu wedding; one of the best meals I ever remember.

I walked around the glasshouse on the narrow brass grated pathway and returned to the door in no time. Was it always this small? I thought it went on forever, like a brass version of the Yellow Brick Road.

I took a few more photos and then braved the rain again, walking through the gardens toward the Ulster Museum. It had changed pretty much beyond all recognition. Except for the rubber, ridged floors. I remember the feel of those under my feet, and the particular rubber scent that came from them. Amazingly, that hadn’t changed.

I was grateful to be able to dump my heavy bag, computer, and sopping wet coat in their cloakroom. It wouldn’t have been much fun dragging those around with me. I got a little map and started my tour in a section they called, “Window on the World”, which gave an overview of some of the museum highlights. From there I stumbled upon a display about Northern Ireland’s Troubles. That was fascinating to read about it like a tourist, as though I hadn’t grown up in it. It all read as though it happened far away elsewhere. My people wouldn’t do this to each other… we’re all far too civilized. Right? Yeah, right. Since I've lived in the States I had the fanciful notion that one could be both British and Irish at the same time. I now understand that that's impossible. No wonder the country's been in such trouble for so long.

One thing remained the same as I remember it from the old days. The Mummy. This poor Egyptian woman’s preserved body has been lying in state in a glass case for as long as I can remember. She brought back so many memories. When I was about six, Mum and I going there especially to see her. Me feeling a little scared but thrilled at the same time. Going in there after school sometimes, just because. Staring at her desiccated, twisted hand that rests atop her thigh. Intruding on what should be the ultimate privacy. Coming here with a boy, because there wasn’t anywhere else for us to go on a Saturday morning.

I moved on to the natural history exhibits, which have vastly improved. I recognized some of the stuffed animals, but they’d been put into new displays that were more informative and interesting. In each section they had a room set aside for interactive knowledge. I only put my head round the door in the animal section to see the stuffed Bengal tiger in a glass case on the wall. I remembered him from the old days, too. As I focused my camera to take a picture, the young girl on duty there came up to me.

“Did you know you can open the drawers?” she inquired.

I lowered my camera and looked at her, nonplussed. “You can?” What was she talking about?

“Yes, look.” She went over to a display further inside the room and turned to make sure I was following. Then with great aplomb she pulled the drawer open.

I glimpsed the incarnate black evil shape of a tropical spider and jerked my museum map up to block it out. “Oh, my God!” I found myself saying.

She quickly shut the drawer. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She looked genuinely disappointed. “I didn’t think.” The tag pinned onto her shirt told me her name was Nicola.

I felt like a spoilsport, so I said. “No, it’s okay. I really should look.” I leaned forward and slowly pulled the drawer out again. I grimaced but kept my eyes on the furry, eight-legged epitome of my arachnid psychosis. Over the years I’ve come to admire them, which is quite an advancement. They are super intelligent. They would be way up there on the food chain should humanity ever vacate the earth.

“There’s an even bigger one over there.” Nicola bounded over to another drawer.

This time she let me open it myself, and I found myself looking at huge furry monster bigger than my hand. I made some kind of guttural noise, indicating my opinion and Nicola laughed.

“They’re amazing things, spiders,” she said. “The females are inclined to eat the males, so if a male spider who wants to mate comes onto their web, they have to tap out a kind of Morse code saying, ‘I’m here for a date; don’t eat me!’”

I found that fascinating. I told her how spider silk is very coveted, but you can’t group spiders together like you can silkworms. If you do there won’t be a host of little spiders for long. There’ll only be one very large spider.

She agreed. “But the males end up getting eaten anyway afterwards. Just be glad you’re a female. You don’t want to be a male in the animal kingdom.”

I pondered this, wondering if she were referring only to the animal kingdom, when she grabbed me by the arm.

“Although sayin’ that… wait till you see this!”

I followed her over to a shelf of books, where she pulled one of them down and rummaged through the pages. “See the spotted hyena? The female grows a clitoral penis and has to give birth through it.”

“Ouch,” was all I could think of to say.

“It’s awful to see. Like an explosion.”

I then learned all about it and why it happened that way. Don’t take our word for it, though… here’s a page that explains it all:

You know, if I’d met someone working in a museum like Nicola when I was younger, she would have sparked my interest very much in a subject I otherwise couldn’t have given a rat’s arse about. I had a swift 'if only' daydream about becoming a biologist after that encounter. I’m glad people like her are there now and are talking to kids today about all this. She is a credit and an asset to the Ulster Museum, and I shall be letting them know all this in an upcoming review. Absolutely top notch experience! I was very impressed indeed.

Reluctantly, I left and moved onto other displays. I spent all afternoon there, and it was still bucketing with rain when I came out again. And I had been walking and standing for hours; I was pretty worn out. Glad that I had brought overnight stuff with me, I got onto the internet and found a great price on a hotel, and headed over there. It turned out to be a gem. The Beechlawn House Hotel in Dunmurry. A perfect place for a writer to hole up in. Mid-week it was quiet, although I could see from their bar, restaurants, and promise of live music that it would not be on a weekend. My room was very large and comfortable, with free Wi-Fi, tea kettle and plenty of electrical outlets. I burrowed in and wrote a considerable amount, using what I’d seen earlier to make it come to life.

In the morning I decided to concentrate on a different writing project. This involves me trying to get my Great-Uncle Earnán de Blaghd’s memoirs translated from Irish to English, so I drove over to the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich center on the Falls Road. This is a place in the recently emerged Gaeltacht Quarter in Belfast, where they promote use of the Irish language. And somewhere once I would have been afraid to go. Times have definitely changed.


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