Monthly Archives: March 2015

Sister Sarah

This morning I discovered a note clothes-pegged to the back-door of my burrow. I often find notes pegged there. It is how I and my dear neighbour most often communicate. The notes are written on coloured scraps, old music sheets, official letters, flyers. She is a wordsmith, too, and the notes are filled with quotes, or word definitions, or references to leaks, bills, electrical faults, or arrows to vegetables or bowls of soup left on the step, or all of these.

The note pegged onto my door this morning was to tell me that Sister Sarah had died.

A decade or so ago, when I was drowning in my opus, my neighbour told me about a retreat near a beach not far from here. It was run by nuns three times a year. It was silent. Ten days. Meals were provided. It didn’t matter that I took no part in their religious programme. I was left to my own thoughts. This was where I first met Sister Sarah.

I went to all the retreats but I craved more – more silence, more absence of clutter and distraction. I craved the small table under the window in that unmolishly attic room, and I craved the sight and sound of the sea. Sister Sarah said to me in her lilting Irish way that I would be welcome to stay whenever I liked just so long as the place was not being used by others. I took to cooking up cauldrons of soup on Sundays, freezing it into blocks, so that I could transport myself, my food, my papers, my books and my pyjamas by bus each Tuesday.

I had been hunkering into this rhythm for a couple of years when Sister Sarah came to the attic and told me she was returning to Ireland. She had been sent to Australia when she was still in her teens and now she wanted to re-enter the convent near where her family lived. Shortly before she left we spent the day making an inventory of all the sheets and coat-hangers and towels and teapots; lists and lists of every single item. She stood at the window when I left that evening.

That image haunted me. It haunted me more when I heard that she hadn’t been taken in at the convent in her home village.

And so a year or more later, I journeyed to Ireland. It was a fiendishly cold and icy winter and not many planes were landing. My arrangement with Sister Sarah was that I would catch a train to her village – about halfway between Dublin and Cork. She was waiting, small, birdlike and alone on the platform. Her brother sat in the car. It was early afternoon; I had planned for an hour or two and had made sure I would not impose on any mealtimes.

It was after their mealtime, but they had put some aside for me. They sat and watched as I ate – Sister Sarah, her brother and sister-in-law and some great nephews and nieces: chicken and vegetables and a big pile of mashed potato and pudding, which I tried to do justice to on top of the lunch I had already eaten. They’d made up a bed for me, too, thinking I might be staying.

It began to snow. Sister Sarah wanted to show me the neighbourhood. I got into the back of the car and her brother drove. Snowflakes splatted heavily onto the windscreen. The wipers screeched and struggled. Sister Sarah wanted us to start from the house where she’d grown up and follow the route they’d taken to school, so that she could point out where they had crawled under the hedge or crossed a brook or taken blackberries. We skidded at a walking-to-school pace. She showed me the home of her grandparents and the homes of each of her many siblings, mostly deceased, and the homes of the siblings’ children. The car came to a standstill when the windscreen wipers gave up the ghost, and we scuttled back to the brother’s house. A peat fire had been lit and we drank strong tea. Then they took me back to the station.

It was pitch dark on the platform and far too cold for Sister Sarah to see me off. The train was on time. But in Dublin the roads had become so ice-impacted, so deep in snow all public transport had been cancelled. It took me two hours of slithering and clutching at railings to reach the place I was staying. I’m glad it took so long, was so memorable.


‘Wer kein Kopf hat, hat Pfoten’, my Tante Mole would say, whenever she left her spectacles uptunnel or the marmalade so long on the stove that it congealed in the saucepan.

‘Auf Englisch’, her companion, Matthilde, would then chide. ‘The little one will not understand otherwise. “Who no head has, has paws”.’

Of course the little one understood. This and countless other wisdoms bore daily repetition. The little one was a deal more familiar with ‘kein Kopf’ than with the times table.

I have been being busy. My apologies for inflicting a sentence that bears the hallmarks of an English grammar exercise, but nothing else will do. A simple ‘I have been busy’ would imply that the busyness has been imposed, but I want to be quite clear that the problem lies between my ears. Yes, I have taken rather more on than one mole can manage, but the point of kein Kopf is that busyness begets busyness. I was letting several tasks bleed into each other, was doing one task but thinking of a second and third. By Wednesday I was so frazzled I overslept by two hours and had to relinquish my morning stroll up Knocklofty.

But then, in the afternoon, I lay my podgy self on a treatment table and my dear acupuncturist performed a choice piece of needling. It was the harmonising Zero Point that sent ripples down my pelt. In the human ear Zero Point is at the junction of the conchal ridge and the root of the ascending helix, but imagine the precision and dexterity required to perform this delicate operation on a creature like me. We moles, as you know, have no outer ears – no concha, nothing to perk or twitch or turn to the breeze. Nothing to needle, you would think.

That night I slept a deep sleep, the sleep of an unburdened mind. In the blackness of the pre-dawn, I vaulted from my snug little bed, sniffed the air and moseyed up Knocklofty. There was a time when such blackness alarmed me, when I imagined no-good-boyos lurking behind the trees, but not on this morning. It is true that it wasn’t pitch dark – I have taken to wearing a headlamp, especially since my chum Acorn tumbled off some rocks and broke her paw.

There was a hint of dawn as I neared the summit. I sat myself on a hand-hewn bench and watched streaks of orange breaking through the low, leaden cloud. I sat and watched the orange suffuse the cloud and tint the water of the estuary. I sat and waited while the earth tilted itself towards the sun, and I never once had a thought for anything except what was unfolding before my eyes.

My paws had brought me to a place where I had no need of my head.


I am a hoarding sort of mole. This parlour (the one in which I am sitting as I put pen to paper) was not long ago a repository for boxes labelled perhaps Bells Restoration, or Cumulus, or Tasmanian Cherries, or Stamps, or Wires That Don’t Match. I have spent years trying to lessen the jumble. Every so often I would don my late Mama’s pinny, place my paws on my hips, and hope that if I concentrated hard enough her strength of purpose would somehow infuse me. But only moments after embarking on the first box, my mind would be conjuring up a pot of tea and ginger biscuits. And no sooner had the thought insinuated itself than the pinny would be off and the kettle on and that would be that for the afternoon, the week even, or the month. Then, at the end of last year, something changed.

As you already know I am not only a hoarding sort of a mole but also a solitary one. It is rare that I have creatures coming to my burrow. But in December I invited some friends to supper on New Year’s Eve. And then I panicked. My table was not big enough and besides it held family papers and diaries, and it couldn’t be pulled out anyway for want of space. I cleared this parlour of its boxes. Still I felt as Great Uncle Mole had when he brought Uncle Ratty home to his burrow for the first time, and saw it suddenly through his friend’s eyes: its smallness, its darkness, its lack of food and drink, its air of neglect. I could sense the weight of Great Uncle Mole’s gloom billow through the generations and fog up my own burrow and this parlour.

It was of course Uncle Ratty who rescued Great Uncle Mole. He encouraged and cajoled with remarks like how capital the little place was, said he could think of no better treat than a tin of sardines. He lit a fire, and when the field mice came and sang carols, he sent one off to buy food, and they all sat around the fire with mulled beer and had a feast.

My friends arrived with hampers of food and wine and soon the friendly chatter subdued the uneven card tables I had set up, the odd chairs, the air of curiosity shop.

On New Year’s Day after I had washed up, I came into the parlour to dismantle the tables, but then I stopped. The space was vibrant, inviting. I ate my lunch here and then did a jigsaw puzzle. The warmth of my friends still hung in the air the following day and the day after that, too.

And now, nearly three months on, shafts gentle autumn light glow through the roses on the rickety table and there is nowhere I would rather be than sitting here in the parlour of my burrow.


You might, if you listen carefully, hear a mole whistling –

This morning when I went to the end of the garden to empty the compost, I noticed a hazelnut on the ground, and once I had found the one, more and more appeared. I stuffed the pockets of my breeches until they were as tight as hamster cheeks. Fifty-six, just in that first gathering. I still count. It was not so many years ago – five perhaps, that I remember the first, the one and only. I recall quite plainly how I cupped it in my paws as I brought it back to the burrow. I placed it on a porcelain saucer, admired it from all angles – first with husk on and then with husk off, and I wished there was something I could do to preserve the satiny wooden shell, while still obtaining the kernel.

When I first came to this island fresh hazelnuts could not be had for love or money. I pined. I dreamt of Bernese delicacies like Haselnussleckerli, made with hazelnuts, almonds, candied citrus, honey and a good dose of firewater. And then, one birthday, my dear neighbour gave me a tiny tree. It was called White American but we renamed it Pocahontas. The nuts are huge, New World ones, not the little things I would gather in the lanes on my way home from school in Switzerland. These are so big, that when a Lithuanian friend brought me a pair of wooden nutcrackers back from Vilna, the nuts wouldn’t fit.

My fecund hazelnut tree has sent me scuttling to Great Uncle Mole’s encyclopaedias where I learn that the root shoots might be used for making crates, coal corves, baskets, hurdles, whip-handles, withs and bands. A veritable industry awaits me in my own garden. A forked branch might become a divining rod, especially for silver lodes or in France, as a baguette divinatoire, to track down criminals. For the moment, though, I am content just to gather, admire and eat.

I am whistling because I love hazelnuts, but I am whistling with such extra, unmolish exuberance, because hazelnuts mean it is the beginning of autumn. It is a time of mellowing light and deepening colour. Apples weigh down branches, leaves are beginning to turn, and there is from time to time a whiff of cool, dare I say snowy, breeze on my snout. If you were to ask me which was my favourite season, I would say winter. But I love autumn more because it is the herald; the joy of winter and its quiet reflectiveness is still to come. Autumn is a time for gathering nuts, knitting socks, preparing the hearth for the hibernating days of blanketing nights and stillness.

Ah, anticipation: the pleasure of savouring every moment of the time before.