Sundried Tomatoes ; How Much Is Enough

“Still your hands
And still your heart
For still your face comes shining through
And all the morning glows anew
Still your soul
Still your mind
Still, the fire of love is true
And I am breathless without you”

Breathless – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

I was going to write about my quest today to find a jar of sundried tomatoes in order to make ‘Marry Me Chicken’ for tea this evening for my soulmate and I. I couldn’t find them in the canned tomato/tomato paste /tomato sauce/chopped tomato/tomato puree aisle in Flemings, so I asked two members of staff who , while stacking tins of Supervalu chopped tomatoes ,  were having a furtive discussion about ‘Colin’ who one of them was in love with and the other was trying to talk her out of.

“Sorry, do you know where the sundried tomatoes are ?”

“Sundried tomatoes ???”

“Yes, jars of sundried tomatoes.”

“Ehmmm…we’re just here on work experience.”

“It’s OK, I’ll keep looking.”

“Sorry” they said together.

“It’s fine. No drama. I’m Colin’s uncle, I’ll tell him you said ‘Hello’.”

The two girls looked at each other , and as I walked away  I could hear them say in unison “Ahh shite !”

I went off , picked up all my ingredients , and then asked another lady who works there if she knew if they had any sundried tomatoes.

“Jar, or chilled ?”

“Jar, please.”

She then guided me back to where the two work experience girls were still standing, asked them to move, reached down and picked up a jar of sundried tomatoes for me. The work experience girls went bright pink.

I just smiled at them and then said in a low, conspirational voice “I hate Colin too !”, and walked off.

When I got back to the car my Soulmate asked me what I was so happy about.

“Sundried tomatoes !”

We drove down Glaslough St. and we waved to a friend of ours, a respected business man around the town. And something about the work experience girls naivete made me think of this same guy when he was their age…

He was younger than my brothers and I, and when we started drinking, so did he. He was underage and didn’t want his parents to find out, so he’d stay with us after the disco in the Hillgrove on most Saturday nights. He was best buddies with our Stephen and usually travelled home with him and slept on the floor of John and Stephen’s bedroom and we’d leave him home on Sunday , after we’d all pretended to go to mass.

On a number of occasions he’d get separated from Stephen due to romantic entanglements, and after knocking furiously on John and Stephen’s bedroom window and getting no response, he’d knock on mine and I’d get up and let him in.

Back in those days our granny, whom everyone called Nanny, lived with us. Her oldest sister, Minnie, ( yes, that Minnie, old story below in P.S.sss ) would stay with us sometimes at Easter , and Christmas. Both ladies were then in their 80’s.

On one particular Easter, Minnie arrived down and Mam asked if I’d swap bedrooms with Nanny, as I had a double bed, and Minnie and Nanny would share my room.

That Saturday night /Sunday morning, Dad awoke at 3.00am  to shrieks of terror coming from the hall. He went out to see Nanny running back and forth shouting “There’s a man in the room ! There’s a man in the room !”. Dad went to the living room and grabbed the poker and called me for support.

We ran into my bedroom to find Minnie in the bed with her knees pulled under her chin at the head of the bed, and pointing with a shaking arm at a shape behind the curtain , seemingly coming through the window. Dad gestured me to pull back the curtain and lifted the poker , ready to strike dead the interloper. I pulled back the curtain to reveal our friend stuck, half in, half out of the top small window, smiling giddily.

He looked at Dad and said “Good evening Mr. Bond, is Stephen here ?”

We hauled him into the bedroom, escorted him to the floor of Stephen and John’s room and made Nanny and Minnie a cup of tea, calmed them down and went back to bed.

It occurred to me in that moment seeing him now, well dressed, well respected, that we are only ever two skips away from our younger, naïve selves.

“Who was it ?”

It would be churlish of me to say ……..

I then thought I’d write about previous jobs I had. My first summer job was picking strawberries for Mrs. Cassidy , down the road. We were paid by the punnet, or rather, by the ‘good’ punnet. Mrs.Cassidy had exacting standards, and I was breaking my back, getting eaten alive by fruit flies, and rained on for three weeks before I met those standards. The main trick was judging the correct colour to pick them at, and to carefully place the small, and damaged strawberries at the bottom of the punnet, keeping the large and juicy looking ones for the top.

It was a great introduction to capitalism.

I was paid 6p per punnet, and back then they retailed in McNallys village shop for 72p.

After finishing school I tried out the Holy Ghost Fathers, but came home, broken hearted after a year. I thought I would have a few months at home before university, listening to Air Supply, reading Thornbirds, writing poetry and having melancholy walks around Quiglough, but after two days Dad got me a job picking mushrooms in O’Connors , out in Castleshane. It turned out that I wasn’t actually going to pick the mushrooms, which was a skilled craft. No, I was to sweep the mushroom houses daily, empty them of the old mushroom bags every couple of weeks, and generally do all the jobs Mr.O’Connor didn’t want to do.

The job I hated most was washing out the empty house with formaldehyde in preparation for the next delivery of mushroom compost bags. Even diluted 1 x20 with water, it would sting the eyes out of your head. Mr.O’Connor’s eldest son , Barry, was home from college one week and he decided to help. I was at the bottom of the mushroom house , sweeping away, and Barry was at the top, near the open double bay doors. After a while I started to find it hard to breathe and my eyes were stinging worse than usual. Some self-preservation reflex must have kicked in and I tried to run towards the doors. About halfway towards the door I collapsed to my knees. I took off my tee shirt and wrapped it around my nose and mouth and crawled on all fours the rest of the way. I lay on my back in the grass outside, gulping in fresh air, and wiping away my own snot which was stinging my nose and mouth.

I went into the O’Connor’s house to wipe my eyes and face with water. After doing that for a few minutes and coming back to myself, I went to see if Barry was OK.

He was eating a ham sandwich, drinking tea, and watching Neighbours.

“Are you OK ?” I asked.

“Yeah. You ? Fancy a sandwich ?”

“No thanks. Did you dilute the formaldehyde you were using ?”

“No, I just poured it over the floor. I’m letting it soak in a bit before I start sweeping.”

“You’re supposed to put a cupful of it the large bucket.”

“Really ? Although that does make sense, it stung my eyes a little as I poured it.”

Mr.O’Connor arrived back and queried why we were having an early lunch. I took him outside and explained that Barry had accidentally spilt the whole 5 gallon drum in the first mushroom house. He could smell it from outside.

“And where were you ?”

“At the bottom of the same house, sweeping.”

“Are you OK ?”


He handed me a fiver.

I didn’t go back.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about either. Not really.

I’m a big fan of Nick Cave.

I have several vinyl albums.

I have many, many tee shirts.

I have a signed polaroid by him.

I have a signed drawing of his.

I have seen him in concert, and am going again with my friend Karl this Winter.

He has a website ‘CaveThings’ where he sells lyric sheets of his songs, signed polaroids, knick knacks, and they are regularly promoted through his social media posts.

He also operates the Red Hand Files where fans can email him questions about anything and everything to do with his songs, his life, religion, politics, whatever. He usually groups a few similar-ish questions together and emails out an answer to all of his subscribers. They are always honest, and they are often beautifully sad, and wonderfully uplifting at the same time.

I’ve only ever asked one question.

I told him that I had worked in many jobs, had built, lost and built again many businesses. I enjoyed the pursuit of success, of money, of material things. I felt it necessary always to have more in order to provide security for my Soulmate and our family. A home. A bigger home. A second car.

It was only on the verge of losing it all that I saw how much was not, and never had been, needed.

And all that was before any health issues really made me see what was truly necessary.

The smile of a loved one.

Or two smiles from a loved one.

Or a smile each from two loved ones….

The question I asked “ How much is enough ?”

He didn’t answer.

I think I answered it myself.



P.S. This is a brilliant, fun, and foot stomping , live version of Sigur Ros’ ‘Gobbledigook’, which I dedicate to all those currently bluffing their way through work experience, all those who , like me, 40 odd years later are still bluffing their way, and most especially Peter Ronaghan…for no reason…certainly nothing to do with any preceding anecdote….


Hello Minnie

( True story told at TenX9 in Belfast , December 2018 )

When I was very young, growing up in the land that was then and forever shall be the true centre of the universe, Monaghan, I only knew of Belfast for two reasons.

Boney M had a number one single called Belfast.

And that’s where our Grand Aunt Minnie came from.

Our Granny, who we called Nanny, lived with us all of our lives and her sister, Aunt Minnie, along with Uncle Hugh would visit and stay with us for a few days every year at Easter. It was always a grand occasion. Minnie and Hugh arrived in a Mercedes, an actual Mercedes! Our family car at the time was a baby blue Fiat 127, and they arrived in a Mercedes, an actual Mercedes.
Aunt Minnie always looked like the posh lady from old black and white Marx Brothers movies. She wore a tiny hat with a little veil and a fox fur around her shoulders, which we would chase each other with when she was down for her afternoon nap. She smelt exotic to us. We later found out that this exotic aroma was actually mothballs.

Uncle Hugh, I remember oiled his hair, wore tweed, rarely said anything and smoked Players Navy Cut cigarettes continuously.

Before they arrived the house would be hoovered to within an inch of its life and we’d have to have baths…well we’d have a bath, myself and my two brothers together…as soon as Dad had finished it…sure you couldn’t be leavin’ the immersion on for two baths…it wasn’t us that drove a Mercedes…an actual Mercedes. And it wasn’t even Saturday!
We would duly line up to greet Aunt Minnie when she arrived and after she’d said hello, pinched us on the cheek, got all of our names wrong, briefly acknowledged Granny and then made a big fuss over Mum…and then a ginormous fuss over Dad…she would feign exhaustion by dabbing her upper lip with her ever-present handkerchief and would be escorted by Dad to the best chair beside the fire.

Tea would be brought to her in a china cup, with a saucer, which we’d only ever seen in the glass press in the good room. And then from her enthroned position, she would bid Hugh to hand her various presents for us.

Tunnocks tea cakes and Snowballs, and white chocolate mice.
It was worth the extra bath.

Although Minnie and our Gran were sisters they had decidedly different accents. Our Nan had a decent honest Market St., Dundalk accent. Aunt Minnie had a quiet, slightly higher pitched and decidedly posh northern accent, well it was posh to us anyway. This combined with her aroma, fox fur, veil, lavish confectionery presents, tweed-clad husband and her Mercedes…an actual Mercedes, led us to believe that she lived in a castle. One day we saw Belfast Castle on the news and we knew in our hearts that that’s where Minnie and Hugh lived. But we never visited.
It was only as the years went by that we realized that although Minnie came to us each year and similarly visited our two sets of cousins in Dundalk, none of us had ever been invited to visit them in Belfast. They had no children, so we assumed that they didn’t want other children running around and messing up their lovely castle.

But we were consoled by our own weight in Tunnocks Tea Cakes and anyway, this was the late ’70s and early 80’s so we weren’t in a great rush to visit Belfast anyway.

And then we were simply told one day that Dad and Nanny were heading off to Belfast as Uncle Hugh had passed away and they were going to the funeral. No one else was invited, Minnie wanted it to be private. This was odd to us as local funerals were great craic altogether with rivers of tea, mountains of sandwiches, piles of apple tarts,minerals, crisps, cakes, staying up ‘til all hours and getting money from distant relatives you’d never seen before. But then we thought that all the lords and ladies of Belfast , maybe the Queen herself would be there and they wouldn’t want us taking up all the seats at the front.

Nanny and Dad didn’t want to talk about it when they came home.
Minnie now visited us at Easter, two weeks in the summer, HallowE’en and Christmas. Dad collected her and left her home each time. Usually, whenever Dad had to go anywhere we were delighted to go with him for the spin, but we weren’t asked to go with him to Belfast.
I think I was 16 before he told me the truth.

When they’d gone to Hugh’s funeral the house they drove to wasn’t Belfast Castle, or any castle. It was one of those two up, two down terraced houses that you saw at the start of Coronation St. , most of the houses on the street were bricked up. Nanny argued with Dad that they were in the wrong place, but then they saw Minnie at the open door of one of the houses. She had a head scarf on and a housecoat. She cried when she saw Dad and ran inside.

They went in and comforted her.

There was a knock at the door, Dad answered it to find an angry young man at the door demanding to see Hugh. Dad told him he’d passed away. The man explained that he was storing Hugh’s old Mercedes and that he was owed money for repairs and storage for over a year. Dad asked him if keeping the car would cover it. “Just about.” the man said. Dad gave him another £20 and that was the last of the Mercedes.

Minnie and Hugh seemingly lived for their annual trips to Dundalk and Monaghan to their only family, us and our cousins. The fox furs and 1950’s posh clothes were pawned between visits.
Minnie passed away in 1989. My Nanny, Mam, Dad, my two brothers and I were at the funeral. We sat in the front. We left room for the Queen, but she didn’t make it.
We have a memento of Aunt Minnie’s time with us at home, it’s a signed photo of Laurel &Hardy with a note saying ‘Hello Minnie’. Minnie had been a nurse, she’d worked in the Royal Victoria here and during the Second World War Laurel & Hardy had toured around US army bases to cheer up the troops. Stan Laurel’s wife had taken ill while they visited Belfast and spent a brief time in the Royal Victoria. Minnie told us that Stan had given her the photo as a ‘Thank You’.
She gave the photo to my Dad saying it would be worth a fortune. She also used to wave a little green notebook at him and smile saying that this too would be his one day. It was her life assurance. When she passed away, she had indeed left everything to Dad, including her life assurance. Dad received a cheque from Norwich Union for £178, a fortune!

We look on the photo fondly now and wonder if she actually met Laurel & Hardy. I like to think that she did.

Such are the twists and turns of life that I with my own Soul Mate, and firstborn, Jake, ended up moving to Belfast in the year 2000 to set up an e-commerce business, roughly 7 years before we should have, but that’s a whole other story.
Our time in Belfast was very happy. We had a daughter there, Robyn, and another son, Elliott. Both were born in Minnie’s Royal Victoria Hospital. Funny how our lives intertwine with those of ours who came before us.

On one of our Belfast Christmases, we received a gilt-edged formal invitation to attend a black tie Christmas reception in…. Belfast Castle …Minnie & Hugh’s house.

We didn’t go.

I wasn’t disappointed and I’ve never wanted to visit Belfast Castle anytime since. I’m more than happy to hold onto the image I had as a 9 year old that Aunt Minnie and Uncle Hugh lived there, entertaining all the lords and ladies of Belfast, feasting on Tunnocks Tea Cakes, washed down with Ice Cream Soda.

And outside in the snow was parked a Mercedes ….an actual Mercedes.

Author: paul

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