• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Write ‘Thirteen Stops’ by Sandra Harris

Writing.ie | Member Blog

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Sandra Harris

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My little man (six feet tall now and built like the proverbial brick privy) went to school for the first time ever in 2018, at the ripe old age of thirteen. By this time, he had seven years of homeschooling by myself under his belt and a recent enough diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and he was more than ready for the change. And the challenge!

But were Mammy and Big Sister, who’d watched over him like lionesses since the moment he’d come whooshing out into the world, late as usual, bawling his powerful baby lungs out and flailing his pink little fists?
Well, there was all the usual weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at the school gate (that was me and Big Sis) on the morning of the off, and all the bawling and fussing (us again) when he strolled back out through those same gates at the end of his first day, relatively unfazed by the experience.

In fact, he coped much better with the transition than Mammy and Big Sis, for whom tissues were an absolute must well into October. Because the school specializes in helping children with autism and all its attendant emotional and behavioural difficulties, we at least were confident that we’d found the right place for him at last.

One of the biggest adjustments I personally had to make that autumn was in regard to transport. Living in the city centre as we do, and therefore having everything we need within walking distance most of the time, I was, and still am, a carless person. Not a careless person, mind you, but a carless one. Well, if you can walk to the chipper and to the Spar for a newspaper and a carton of milk, what do you need a car for? Exactly! Gimme a break.

While we waited for a school bus place to become available for my son, it fell to Mammy and Big Sis to ferry him back and forth to school every day for the month of September on the Luas. I was a bit iffy about this, as I always am about public transport.

Oh, not about the mode of transportation itself or anything like that (the carriages are always lovely and bright, and the Luas is the sole form of transport that doesn’t make Mammy sick), but more because of the ticketing situation, which always strikes me as being needlessly complicated, like taking two bottles into the shower. Squeeze the exact right change into this little slot here? You might as well ask me to do a handstand while reciting the Koran. Backwards. I just seem to freeze when it comes to following this kind of basic instruction.

Thank Christ for my adult daughter, who came with us every day, come hell or high water. (Very little of this last; we were enduring a heatwave at the time, if I recall.) She did all the poking of the magic screen that was necessary to ensure that the little white tickety things we needed to travel came spewing out of the right slot at the right time. Nowadays, of course, I simply tap my Leap card like a pro and the Devil take the hindmost, but 2018, gentle readers, was a simpler time.

Once we were comfortably seated on the choo-choo, oh joy unconfined! Putting a nosy person like myself in a tram with dozens of unsuspecting commuters is a bit like slipping a barracuda into a bathful of goldfish. How I watched them, fascinated, and they never even knew I was doing it. For, to my utter astonishment –– you must remember that I was new to this travelling lark –– scarcely a one of ’em looked up from their phones or gadgets for the entire journey. My kids caught me staring and hissed: “Mind your own business, Mum! Everyone’s busy!”

Of course, my kids are mortified beyond belief if I so much as utter ‘good morning’ to another living soul, and I kind of see their point. Everything a parent does is embarrassing to a child, and rightly so. But they couldn’t stop me looking, right? And what I saw was gobsmacking. What was happening here, I wondered? Are we now afraid to the point of being terrified of making contact with our fellow human beings, or is it just that the world of interesting stuff to look at and listen to online is too damned tantalising to resist?

I didn’t figure out any answers to this question during my lazy hazy sunlit Luas days. What did occur to me, however, was the following: What if some of these strap-hanging gadget-fiddlers, every one of them a digital island unto themselves, were to look up occasionally from their iPads and take notice of the people around them? A germ of an idea for a story was starting to take shape in my brain. I’d make these lads and lasses mix and mingle if it was the last thing I did, even if I had to damn well write a book to do it.

What a September we had! Places with magical names like Windy Arbour, Cowper, Beechwood and Balally whizzed by us daily as we lounged like royalty in our iron chariot, while, on an exposed stretch of road between the Luas station and the school, an Indian summer sun burned a layer of skin off our pale inner city faces.

We even picked blackberries on this road, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Blackberries, can you imagine? My son, being autistic and fussy, was naturally suspicious of something that grew on a bush by the side of the road and didn’t come in a flat box with a picture of a smiling pizza-making man on the front, but my daughter and I gobbled them down with relish.

Well, not with relish, that would have been disgusting, but with child-like enthusiasm, anyway.

We may never recapture the magic and beauty of that sun-dappled September, when the road ahead literally shimmered for us with newness and anticipation, but it doesn’t matter. We lived it, and it’s in our heads, there to play on the flickering screen of our memories whenever we press ‘rewind.’ Happy days.

About Thirteen Stops:

There are thirteen Luas stops between Sandyford and St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, each significant in the lives of the people who step on and off the tram every day.

The passengers all hunker down, folded tightly into themselves, eyes fixed on their phones, interminably scrolling, terrified of connecting with each other. Except . . .

Except, who’s that good-looking guy in the long dark coat who’s eyeing up Selfie Queen Laura? Could he end up as one of her terrible choices? Hang on, isn’t he the same guy who was ogling glamorous working-mum-with-a-secret Maroon before? And why is Jamie over there telling his life story to a complete stranger? What’s Fauve hiding in her handbag? It must be the Crown Jewels at the very least, the way she’s clutching it so tightly to herself. And why does Becks from two seats down look out the window so anxiously? Is she worried that Barry could be straying?

Alight here for the inside track . . .

Thirteen Stops is available as an ebook (Poolbeg Books) – click here!

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