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Nuala McCann: Time flies by in a flash - the trick is to seize it

Stone walls and gorse lead the way to Slieve Binnian in the Mourne Mountains; stone walls remind Nuala of the sense of time passing - and standing still. Picture by Mal McCann

IT IS Sunday morning, take this gift of a walk. Wrap up warm for your present - coat, hat, gloves. Open the door and let the icy air slap you in the face.

It is the moment when the butcher flings open the freezer door; when Scott pulls back the tent flap and walks out to lose himself forever in the wintry wilderness.

Along our avenue, it's winter hush.

Inside, people sip lazy Sunday coffees; breakfast; roll over in bed, tell the children to hurry up for Mass.

Fairy lights twinkle in windows; the first of the trees is up; blow-up Santas bob outside doors; Christmas sprinkles a little magic in the air.

And that air is wintry.

In long ago days, ice feathered the inside of our student room windows in delicate lace patterns; you woke up and watched your breath rise from the huddle of blankets.

And long before that, I was a small girl huddled in her nightie by the hearth as my father built a wigwam of newspapers and sticks and coal and set the fire going.

And once, long ago, my nephew and his little brother - known by big bro as Babby - were out playing in the snow.

"Mummy, mummy, come quick," shrieked the older boy, delighted.

"Babby's smoking."

But that was long ago. Our children tower above us now. My son puts his arm around me and I lean into the warmth of his shoulder, solid as an oak.

And sometimes now, my husband catches my eye in our small scullery where we dance around each other, putting out the dinner and he asks: "What happened? How can we be this age?"

And I say, that the older people's words were true, time flies by in a flash. The trick to time is to seize it.

Next year will be different, I tell him. We shall go to Italy and France and Spain, eat steak and frites on a table with a red and white checked cloth outside a French café; let a haughty waiter in a white starched apron look down his nose at us; bathe in crystal blue waters; ease off the pain of the past two years in the warm Mediterranean; the sun will be warm brandy in our mouths.

We shall walk through groves of olive trees, sip sharp-as-razors limoncello and rest our eyes on faraway blue hills.

But here and now, on this winter Sunday, we take the car to a far flung private place; yes we care about climate change; no, we don't want to be in busy parks, dodging dogs and prams and joggers and footballs.

We take the quiet path up through the hills far from the crowds.

It's the old asylum, but no-one calls it that these days. Still we find asylum here.

It's a short drive and it's a road we have travelled season after season. We have watched the trees, stark, skeletal on the hill side, turn green and leafy and shelter us through summer; turn copper and crimson and yellow and back to skeletal again.

We have admired the beauty of an old stone wall - the sense of time passing and standing still.

And this is another winter as we head up the path to the fields where the horses graze.

The white ones have their winter coats on now - sometimes, all of a sudden, they lie down and roll over in the grass.

Far off a dog barks, and they gallop for the far end of the field.

They come for a chat at the fence... their breath warm on our faces; their eyes, dark and shy.

We find the little archway where you have to duck through and we walk on past the barns.

The whiff of horse manure would knock you flat - it wakes up your senses, leaves you startled.

And on we walk past old red buildings that whisper of lives long gone. The three of us, on a path down a hill, like a scene from The Wizard of Oz.

Soon the ice will form on the old bath at the corner of the field where the horses drink.

Soon, the last curled leaf will drift from the tree.

Winter will reign with its own stark beauty.

Let it come. We have warm coats and strong arms to hold each other. Let the ice queen do her worst.

As the poet wrote, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

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