Babysitting with Arlene Foster.



When we were small, my sister and I were cared for by one of two baby sitters when my parents went out for the evening.

One was Rita Wadey, who was lovely. On evenings when she was in charge, we would start by having ‘cowboy tea’ (her words for a fry up) at her house, and then she would come and tuck us in at our house round the corner, and darn socks until my parents came back from wherever they had been. I haven’t seen a sock darned in years, and cannot now help but wonder where on earth she found them all. Were we especially hard on our socks, as a family? Or were they just terribly badly made? She was ‘proper Sussex’, and used words like ‘anywhen’ and ‘presently’, words that you don’t hear so often now. In the ordnance survey map of my childhood, Rita would be the ever-present contour lines, linking events and people, and being there to look up to until the day she died.

The other one was, and let’s spare her blushes and call her Ruby, everything that Rita wasn’t. Living in a world of ‘slightly’, she was slightly large, slightly rude, slightly idle and slightly unhygienic. Her principle concern was to get the two of us in bed as fast as decently possible after her arrival so that she could go downstairs to watch Z cars or Hogan’s Heroeson our parents Rediffusion TV set. Rather than darn socks, she just ate the stale After Eights and Parma Violets that we had been given for Christmas, and now didn’t know what to do with.  ‘Don’t worry,’ said my mother when we pointed this out; ‘that’s why we leave them there.’ Come the Autumn, Ruby would strip the hedgerows of blackberries, sloes and anything else edible, and increase her already substantial girth by ingesting what seemed to be the whole of nature’s local bounty in one sitting. When the kids went out with their punnets, oftentimes they found that Ruby had already hogged the lot.

I am sure that the Grim Reaper swept her up many years ago; indeed, it may well have been her first sight of a sweeper of any sort when he did. But now she has returned to my life. Fifty years later, every time I see Arlene Foster on the TV, I think of Ruby, and every time I think of Ruby, I see Arlene Foster. They have the same scowl, and the same prize-fighter’s jawline, and it is not a comfortable co-existence, especially now that the United Kingdom is her personal fiefdom. Events elsewhere have made Arlene our spiritual mother, and the DUP the cathedral in which we worship, and it strikes me that we had better start getting used to speaking the language.

Instead of fretting, as we tend to do, about all that innocent flat earth, creationist, pro-life, anti-gay stuff that the DUP go in for, I think we should come together in a spirit of positivity to try celebrate the adventure that they can bring into our lives. The things that appealed to the 292,316 DUP voters in 2017 might as well be aggregated out for the remaining 99.38% (46.9 million) of us who didn’t vote for them, as they are now the main show in town. Say goodbye to all that annoying virtue signalling from the other parties: these guys say what they mean, and they don’t dress it up. Here’s some recent quotations to give you the spirit of things.

Their first leader, Ian Paisley, spat at me once on the junction of Donegal Street and Royal Avenue during a July 12thMarch in the early 80s. I don’t think he meant to; he just couldn’t get the words ‘It’s my inalienable right of way’ out without projecting saliva into my face whilst I was quietly suggesting he walked another less confrontational route, in my capacity as military bloke in charge of supporting the police on that section of the march. Otherwise, he was charming. Curiously, when I see the mischievous glint in Arlene’s eye each time she walks into Downing Street, I look back to that saliva moment with nostalgic fondness.

Which brings me back to Ruby. One day my mother discovered that Ruby had been at the family gin, and not in particularly small quantities. Parma Violets were one thing, but half a bottle of gin was quite another, and she summarily lost the gig. No more Ruby. No more peeking at Z Cars through the half-closed sitting room door.

I wonder if Arlene has any gin.

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