Nuala McCann: Ma is still getting her message across

Yellow roses blooming in Botanic Gardens evoke cherished memories...

HALLOWEEN won't be the same this year. There's a pumpkin crisis.

If I were curmudgeonly, I'd sniff and say that an old turnip from the Fair Hill was good enough for us back in the day.

Hollowing it out cost a few spoons, bent Uri Geller style.

But ma tholled it and we were proud of our turnip lantern.

Pumpkins, like avocado and spaghetti bolognese and pizza were very foreign back then.

I never tasted lasagne until I was 20. It was fancy.

Halloween is coming and on TV, they interview a farmer.

She has a field of huge orange pumpkins right for the picking – only there are no pickers.

Call it the pandemic, call it Brexit, but the workers who once came to help are no longer there.

Maybe they went back to their own countries in the pandemic, sighs the farmer.

People living locally aren't so keen on that kind of heavy farm work, she points out.

I chat to a pig farmer from near home one day.

He fills me in on the horrors of pig farming when there aren't the workers in the abattoirs.

Pigs breed at speed and you need somewhere to keep them.

He has 300 sows producing 200 piglets a week and there are not the staff to slaughter them.

Just do the maths... it's a catastrophe. In my head, I'm seeing a farm house with piglets everywhere, under sofas, on top of bookshelves, poking a wet snout out of a teapot.

If you don't get your pigs to the abattoir at the right time, then they get too heavy and you get penalised for that.

At worst, it will mean that farmers will have to kill their own pigs for no good reason, he says, they'll not go into the food chain, they'll die for nothing.

Nobody wants that, he sighs.

Call it the pandemic, call it Brexit... nothing but the same old.

All this and soaring gas prices makes for glum times.

Time has stood still in Castle McCann - like sleeping beauties we have slumbered in our own little demesne while the hedges have grown higher; the plumbing has sprung a leak and the old boiler has blown a solenoid.

I was just about to switch to gas when the price rocketed.

Call it the pandemic, call it Brexit... you know, the old story.

But we're sitting tight and venturing out with all the excitement of a couple of snails.

The world is divided into two halves: the ones crying: "It's over, it's over," ripping up the masks and breaking their necks to get into a night club.

And the others... tentative, wary, masked crusaders hooked on hand sanitiser and reluctant to hug even their pillows.

A friend rings and invites me for a walk in Botanic Gardens.

It's been a long time since I've walked there. It's a little off our beaten track – just about five minutes off.

It's a beautiful Sunday morning with the soft haze of Autumn in the air.

Dads carry babies in papooses, mothers push strollers, students with long hair linger at the picnic tables drinking cappuccinos and making rollies.

The Palm House is looking splendid.

It was a favourite haunt of 30 years ago - my first, and last, banana tree.

The young man in the van who serves us coffee says it's busy these days, if a little chilly in the van.

"You're in your T-shirt, put a jumper on," I tell him.

Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother jumps out.

In Botanic Gardens, the roses are in bloom.

I stumble on blossom upon blossom of my mother's favourite yellow rose.

In among the plants, there are signs with the name of each variety.

The yellow ones are called 'Keep Smiling'.

It makes me laugh.

It's divine intervention, I tell my friend. It's Ma getting her message across.

"Keep writing, keep making people smile," she told me at the beginning of this pandemic.

It's a year since we brought her home from hospital for the last few days and she got her wish to die there.

We'll buy yellow roses for her grave.

"Keep smiling," they'll whisper... look forwards, look ahead.

Yes, there is a pumpkin, a pig and a gas crisis, but on Sunday in the park, there was love and laughter and hope in the air.

"All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well," Ma used to say. She had the soul of a poet.

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