Let’s Not Do This

And so the end of the year once more approaches. It's a time to reflect on the year gone by. More than that, a time to reflect on the substantial part of your life gone by and to gaze ahead at the limited time left to_

Sod it.

No.

Let’s not do this. Not this year.



I’m talking to myself here, not you. You can do whatever the hell you feel.

It’s just a thing I tend to do at this time of year. This ‘Looking Back Wistfully and Looking Forward a Little Nervously’ thing. It’s a game I’d rather not play this year, if it’s all the same to you.

I think it relates to a habit of mine. Somebody once told me it’s a tiny bit OCD but I don’t know much about that. It's this; I always tend to ‘count days down’. I always know the moment when the midpoint, the zenith, of any timescale is reached and when the latter, downward, part of that timescale begins. It’s most noticeable during holidays like this one. We’re well over the midpoint of the Christmas Holidays now and descending rapidly back into ‘work-city’. Everybody know this but most, I reckon, are not as acutely aware of it as I am.

This whole ‘awareness of time and where one is in it’ thing can come to a head in this week of the year, as the old year ends and the new year_

Stop it!

(Sorry.)

The 'blogging' thing doesn’t help very much either. When you commit yourself to producing a blog post a week, you (well, ‘I’. Swap ‘you’ for ‘I’ in all of this) inevitably fall back on the ‘excessively introspective’ and even the ‘maudlin’ from time to time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to look back and it’s good to consider and mull-over and think about stuff.

It’s just not so good to do it too much.

And this time of year almost demands it of us, doesn’t it? The year is dying. One more year of our increasingly limited quota receding into the mists of history. Vanishing into_

No. No. No. Stop.

(Sorry)

This year, I would like to try to cast my vision forward rather than backwards. A new year is just around the corner. A year to be seized rather than gingerly grasped. A year that can easily be done better than last year, if I only try. There are obstacles, for sure, mountains to climb. (I sound like Diana Ross now) Some of them seem to be almost insurmountable from this current vista. But I know I’ll get there. (And now I sound like Chris Rea… damn!).

I think we spend too much of our time pondering the way we have come and the way forward. Better, perhaps, that we just travel the road rather than analysing what it’s made of. Onwards, fearlessly, into 2014. What will be, will be and it will be down to us to do the best we can with it.

So bring it on!

That’s it. Now don’t use a bloody hourglass as your image for the top of this post… okay?

Okay.



The Last Real Magic

I must confess that there have been times in my life when I had my doubts about Santa Claus. Not any more though. I turned fifty this year and I have finally got it all sorted out in my head again.

I no longer have any doubt. Santa Claus exists.

Of course, if you’re below a certain age, and you happen to be reading this, you will just say, “Duh, of course Santa exists, what’s this dude on about?” 

Quite right too. It’s just that, as the years go on from childhood, through teens and into early adulthood, some doubts can come creeping in. Those ageing, increasingly hairy, folk get a little bound up in the irrelevant technicalities associated with the great one. Things such as; how does he carry all those presents? How does he cover the whole world in one night? How does he actually get down the chimney? These rather trivial matters become magnified as the teen years go by until, in early adulthood, they start to foster a bit of cynicism and then sometimes, rather amazingly, a sense of disbelief.

But the kids know. The kids always have it sussed and now, at fifty, I’m pleased to say that I do too. I've been away from the fold for a while but I’m back now and this time I think I’m going to stay.

Santa exists. He really does. 

I’ll go further, if you’ll let me. I’ll go so far as to say that Santa Claus represents possibly the last piece of actual full-blown magic left in this world of ours. 

In older times, there was lots and lots of magic around but not any more. Magic, you see, is a rather curious thing. It doesn't just exist of itself, like, say, a Cloud or a Bus or even a Meerkat does. Not at all. Magic has to be ‘Evoked’. That’s why there was so much of it around in older times. People had more time on their hands and more energy for evoking things. In fact, I reckon those olden-days-people would have been getting together around their sparking fires and evoking magical things practically all of the time. Much of what they would have been evoking could perhaps have been defined as ‘Spirits’. There were lots of Spirits and lots of magical-evoking back then, not so much of it now. 

That’s effectively what Santa Claus is, you see. He’s the direct descendant of one of those old fashioned spirits our forefathers used to evoke on those darkest of Winter nights. 

This is actually one of the reasons that we tend to fall out of belief for a while as we get some metaphorical hair on our chins. It’s because spirits are notoriously hard to pin down and not at all easy to define. The very word – ‘Spirit’ – kind of gives it away. It suggests an amorphous thing, something not easily seen or grabbed or held on to. No less real for all that. Just a bit harder to believe in.

We've done what we always do, whenever we modern people try to nail a spirit down. We've given it a long white beard and a subtle benevolence and an implied wealth of wisdom and power. Yes, we've done the ‘God’ thing on it.

So the kids have it completely right, as usual. On Christmas Eve Night, on this very Christmas Eve Night, Santa will come. He will come because we, all of us who choose to partake, will evoke him, just like our distant ancestors evoked him under different names. We will evoke him as we deliberately shut out the everyday world, dim our lights, light our candles, drink a little more that we usually would on a Wednesday night, leave out some rudimentary food, tuck our expectant children up in their beds and remind them quietly of the old ways and the magic about to unfold.

If just one of us did this, it wouldn't work. Neither with two nor three. But millions together will evoke the Spirit of Christmas, past and present, on Christmas Eve. And the Spirit will come.

Not everybody has to play, not everybody has to believe, it’s fine, there’ll be enough people on the night who will. There’ll be enough to make the magic happen all over again.

Of course we all know that Santa comes for the children, not for us fifty year old types. We know all that. But the Spirit of Christmas has many names. You don’t have to be surrounded by friends or in the bosom of your family. You don’t have to even be happy or contented. You don’t have to be healthy or without pain. Your Spirit may not be a jolly man with a beard, it may not be a new born child. It’s your Spirit, after all, it can be whatever you want.

If you wish, you too can evoke the Spirit of Christmas. Treat yourself in some small way, see that you are warm and sheltered. Step out of the year for one last time before it goes away. But don’t expect it to come if you don’t work at it a little. A Spirit is not something that just comes for you, you have to evoke it.

This post will probably sound naive at best, heretic at worst, but it’s just my own attempt to pin down something that is rather flimsy and ever so slightly whimsical. Something that I have nonetheless come to believe. Namely, that there is still a little magic abroad in this world and that, on Christmas Eve, with so many of our souls pointed in the same direction, we can actually make a little of it happen.

Right there, among all the gaudy tinsel, the commercialism, the pressure, the loneliness, the heartache, the pain, if we believe hard enough...

… Santa will come.




Three Random Christmas Things

I’ve told you before about how I like Christmas time. In particular, I like that insular, ‘hibernating’, feeling that comes with it, for me at least. 

My Christmas is certainly not any kind of social whirl. In fact it’s the exact opposite of that, it’s a rather lengthy ‘quiet time’ and, as it now approaches, I can’t bloody wait for it.

But the devil’s in the details, as they say. So what do I like, specifically, about Christmas time? Well, I like loads and loads of things. When you like something, you often like lots of things about it. But that’s not any kind of answer so here are three random things I like about Christmas.

First up, the Christmas double issue of The Radio Times. I have it here on my desk now, snowmen, snowdogs and Santa all bursting out at me. I’ve been getting the Radio Times ever since I was a boy in Sligo. We were geographically-lucky-enough to get British radio signals which bled over the border from Northern Ireland so the BBC has thankfully always been a part of my life. So, yeah, the double Radio Times has always been a thing for me. Oddly, though, it isn’t so much the thing itself as the promise that it makes. 

I got this year’s copy during the week when it appeared on the shop shelf. There was a delight in seeing it. It’s like a good omen, a big fat invitation to a party. Don’t get me wrong, I use it a lot, every day, to see what I should watch and what I should listen to but I don’t tend to read the features or do the quizzes or anything like that. It’s like the opposite of that other magazine… I don’t get it for the articles. 

Second up, the afternoon when the Christmas holiday begins. I usually finish work at lunch time on the day before Christmas Eve and I love the afternoon that ensues. There is a falling away of tension, combined with a glorious feeling of a leisurely voyage about to commence. Yum. There is no set routine for how this afternoon goes. One year I spent it wrestling with lights on a tree in the back garden, another year I watched Million Dollar Baby. It’s no particular thing, it’s just a feeling.

Finally, in this short list of random things, the Christmas Day walk. Lots of people do Christmas Day walks and I do the one they do too. The one after the Christmas dinner, with the family, to work off a bit of the grub and to better-appreciate the warmth and dryness of the house when you get back in. That’s a great walk but I don’t mean that one. I mean the second walk I do. 

After Doctor Who is over and we’re into the (for me) Strictly Come Dancing dead zone of the evening, I get coated-up again and I walk out and around the town. It’s an ultra, super quiet time of the day, especially here in Ireland where everything is closed on Christmas Day, so I practically have the whole town to myself. Not that I do anything weird with it, I just look around. For an hour or so, I gently pace the deserted streets, nod to the very few people I meet, and just breathe the air. With everybody safely boxed-up in their houses, the whole town has a sort of a ‘parallel dimension’ feel to it. I feel a bit like George Bailey, striding through a world that is his own but yet somehow at the same time is not his own. The most memorable of these walks was three years ago when the whole world froze completely solid. That year, there was nobody at all to nod to. Literally, not a creature was stirring. 

And when I get back to the house after this solitary Christmas walk, the place is invariably all the warmer, all the safer, all the more-welcoming. 

Then I’ll have a bottle of beer or two and a couple of Cadbury's Roses.

Sorted. 

The Doctor’s Teddy Bear

For over forty years, the doctor’s teddy bear sat alone on his chair in the corner of the surgery. It seems unlikely but it’s true. 

It was a small enough room, the surgery that the doctor and the teddy shared. Just a desk and a rotating chair, a couch to lie-and-be-examined upon, a weighing scales, two chairs for patients and the extra chair in the corner that the teddy bear sat on. That was pretty much it. 

For over forty years, the doctor and his bear had seen all of the thousands of patients who had come and gone. The infantile and the elderly, the genuine and the fakers alike. They had given their ear equally to all.

After the first few months, the doctor did not even know that the bear existed. Even when a child came in and picked it up to play with it, the doctor was always too focused on the matter in hand to remark on his career companion serving his purpose. For this indeed was his purpose, to distract and entertain the sickly children when they came to be seen. Back in the earliest days, the doctor’s wife had quietly remarked on the austere conditions in her husband’s surgery and so had bought the bear in a second hand shop in a nearby town. She had put him sitting on the spare chair one afternoon and the doctor has raised an eyebrow at her and she had shrugged in return and that was it. The bear was in.

Shop bears do not have any feelings, of course. Those bears who sit on shelves and wait to be bought are nothing more than what they may seem to be. A stitched-together collation of cotton wool and fake fur, of glassy eyes and scrap-fabric-scarves. They have no sentiency. They have no feeling.

But the doctor’s teddy bear was a different matter entirely. Before it had ended up in the second hand shop, and before the doctor’s wife had found it, the bear had been a beloved toy to a succession of brothers and sisters in the house of a large rural family. As we all know, the constant handling, caressing and affection bestowed by a child effects a change on the soulless store-bought toy. The particles of skin and hair, the molecules of humanity, not to mention the warmth of emotion that is bestowed, all of these things instil a modicum of life and knowledge into a toy. It doesn’t show itself in any visible way. Of course not, how could it? But it is there nonetheless, a spark of something.

And the doctor’s teddy bear had soaked up more life than most. Years upon years of hugs and care and night time saliva kisses had left the bear with a vibrant hum of life about it. An ability to taste its surroundings. A dubious talent for feeling warmth or lack of it. 

And this was a dubious talent indeed for, ever since the old woman had died and it had gone to the second hand shop, there had been a pronounced lack of warmth in the low wattage life of the doctor’s teddy bear. 

Mostly the bear was dormant, untouched save for a brief lift from the cleaner when she came in on Tuesday nights to make her sweep of the surgery. Like the doctor, the regular children had become impartial to the presence of the bear. Nobody touched it, nobody saw it. It sat and witnessed the comings and goings of the day and the unremitting darkness of the long nights.

Today was no different beyond the fact that it was the end of days. The doctor was to see his last patient today and then he would retire to a life of gardening and golf and leisurely breakfasts. He had been on call to his country clientele, day and night, for the best part of his life and he deserved the early release. Most of the paraphernalia of the surgery had been removed and boxed up. The incoming doctor had a new surgery. This place would fall to cobwebs and dust over the coming years, It had nothing more to do.

“What about him?” 

His daughter had come to help him on this last day. There would be a steady stream of people in to the surgery, very few of them sick. They would come to pay their respects, leave a bottle of amber liquid, wish well and shuffle away. There was a dinner planned for the evening, just family and a few close friends.

“What about what?”

“Him, the bear. What will I do with him?”

The doctor looked up over the top of his reading glasses and, for the first time in decades, he gave some of his attention to his teddy bear. The bear felt the warmth generated by his gaze.

“Ack. Throw him in the bin. There’s no more use for him.”

The bear felt little. Just the faintest sense of the earlier heat drifting away. The daughter lifted the bear and tossed him into a black plastic rubbish sack, along with the health posters from the walls and the broken stethoscopes, then she took the bag and left it out for the bin men.

The bin men come early in these country parts. At 5.30 am, on the morning after his retirement dinner, they pulled up outside the doctors front garden and started to throw the black bags onto the back of their wagon. It was more rubbish that they would normally accept but most of them owed some debt to the doctor so they didn’t grumble.

The doctor heard the hiss of the bin lorry’s hydraulic breaks and he sat up in his bed. He looked at the cold place where his wife had lain for so many years and he shook his head to clear it.

“You fool,” he said to himself, “you old fool.”

He bolted down the stairs and shouted at the bin men to wait, wait. There was only one bag left, it dangled in the hand of the oldest bin man, himself overdue for retirement.

“Wait, just wait a minute.”

The doctor snatched the bag from the bemused bin man and tore it open. Health posters, an old stethoscope… there he was, impervious as ever, the old bear.

“There you are, my old pal.” The doctor whispered then he noted the bin man’s stare. “For my granddaughter, you know, she was quite attached…”

“Of course, doctor, happy retirement sir.”

Then they were gone. 

The doctor stood at his front gate in the early morning mist and he looked at the bear and the bear, in his own subtle way, looked back at him.

“There’s a place for you,” the doctor said, “we need never speak of it, my old friend, but there is a warm place for you.”

Then they went inside to breakfast. 




Close the Door

It’s Christmas Eve
Let’s close the door
And do the things
We've done before
Dim the lights
Trim the tree
Christmas Eve
Just you and me

It’s Christmas Eve
Just you and me
Let’s make it like
It used to be
Draw the blinds
Close the door
And do the things
We've done before

It’s Christmas Eve
Switch off the phone
We’ll spend the night
All on our own
Light the fire
Watch it glow
Christmas Eve
Let’s take it slow


Envy

So I was driving along, one day recently, and there was this discussion on the radio about Facebook. I was only half listening to it but I did hear enough to distractedly remark to myself about how sexist it all sounded. 

Basically, the person on the radio was saying that people should beware of Facebook because it can cause Envy in some people. Particularly, the person said, in women who see their friends in enviable situations such as steady relationships, married-with-children, nice houses… all that jazz. 

Like I said, it all sounded a bit condescending and, yes, sexist to me so I switched over to some classical music station and let it go.

For a while.

The discussion came bouncing back into my head a few days later. This would be a better piece if I had some neat inciting incident which caused me to revisit the discussion but there wasn’t anything like that. It just reappeared.

What it was, though, was a kind of a little epiphany. A very little one but, still, we take them where we find them, don’t we?

“That’s me,” I thought, suddenly, out of nowhere, “that’s me. I’m like the housewife, the single lady, all those sexist simplistic stereotypes. I Have Envy.”

That was it. I had never thought of it before I had heard that silly radio discussion and suddenly I just knew it was true. The rather-sexist radio person had a point after all. His point was about me. I suffer from Envy.

It’s a silly thing. An embarrassing thing to admit, in truth, but if I don’t push for some modicum of truth now and again, what the hell am I doing here? So, yes, Envy, me, I suffer.

It’s a particular kind of Envy, the one I have. I don’t Envy you your husband or your wife. I don’t envy you your Porsche or your big house or your fifteen foot telly screen. I don’t envy your status or your money or your nice face, sparking wit, or svelte figure. None of the above.

What, then, Ken, what do you Envy?

I Envy the writers.

There I’ve said it now. It’s out.

On Twitter and also, to a lesser extent on Facebook, I follow/friend/whatever a considerable number of professional writers. I’ve always loved to watch them write, virtually, across the Social Media Interface. I’ve learned stuff from them too, about productivity and procrastination and just the business of writing. It’s been great. 

But there’s been this subtext, all of my own making, and the silly sexist radio person made me think about it. I Envy them what they have made for themselves. Oh, and let’s not confuse Envy with Begrudgery. The writers I know got there by virtue of their own sweat, talent, and perseverance. They have my respect… and my Envy too.

This is odd. It’s especially odd given that I am a writer myself and, although it’s taken me years to be confident enough to say it of myself, I am a writer. It is doubly-especially odd given the afternoon I had yesterday where one of my theatre plays, ‘Midnight in the Theatre of Blood’ was launched onto the National Stage by a hugely enthusiastic cohort of actors and audience members. As has so-often been the case, I got to see my writing performed and enjoyed and, yes, even celebrated. I am a writer. I’ve had round-and-about ten different theatre plays produced and performed, some of them in a number of different productions, I’ve has a similar number of radio plays, I’ve been on telly and on the radio, I’ve… I could go on. Yet, still with the Envy, Ken? An Envy of writers when you, yourself, are a writer too? How can this be? Where is the sense in it?

The key to it is in one aspect of those Writer’s lives, those ones I follow on my computer. I don’t Envy them their glamour lifestyle or their vast hoards of money, mostly because I know that neither really exist. I don’t Envy them the kudos they receive or the critical acclaim or even the lie-ins they can perhaps have on certain mornings.

Really and truly. I only Envy them in one respect.

Time.

I Envy them their time.

They are professional writers. That means they have time that they can legitimately allocate to writing. God, how I Envy them for that. I am a professional… something else, so the writing I do is snatched from the scraps of the day that remain when all other things are done. Those late hours of the night when every other person, and every other concern, is sleeping.

And I get it done. We can’t accept our excuses that there is no time to write. There is always time and I find it because I have to but, golly, it’s hard to bind a piece of writing together when it’s produced in stolen moments. The work itself tends to reflect the time available to create it, short, patchy, intermittent. 

Imagine the luxury to sit and stare then write and write and write again. To let it grow and flower in the light of day.

I Envy that but I’ll get over it. 

I think everybody probably envies something. Don't you? 




Error 404

I went to my baby’s website
I surfed right onto that place
I typed ‘Hey babe, I love you so’
But she slammed it in my face

She gave me an
Error 404
Error 404
You know you’re
Heading for the door
When you get that
Error 404

I said, “Hey Babe, Don’t lock me out,
Don’t take your love to town.
My wifi’s pretty patchy
And my bandwidth’s runnin’ down.

I got me an
Error 404
Error 404
You know your
Credit’s on the floor
When you get that
Error 404

So if you take your gal for granted
And cause her lots of pain
And think that her good lovin’
Is your exclusive domain.

Take my advice for nothin’
Don’t stay offline too long
Go click on her quite often
And build your links real strong

Lest you get an
Error 404
Error 404
There ain’t no love
In her online store
When you’re left with an
Error 404

HANS (by John Armstrong)

This is a short story by my son John, which I like very much.


HANS

The morning’s black coffee had lifted the sleepy haze from her vision just in time to greet the first of her students as they trickled into the classroom. Each little boy in turn bid farewell to his parent/guardian, removed his winter coat and took his assigned seat around one of the four rectangular tables. 

They knew her as Ms. Bellamy, and nothing more. Their teacher, who was quick with a warm smile and a glistening gold-star sticker, but who could also become quite frustrated if they did not score highly on their spelling tests. Ms. Bellamy, the sole academic influence currently present in their young lives. Her word was fact and law in their pint-sized society. She was forced to relent from time to time that maybe she had developed just a little bit of a god complex during her time as a primary school educator. But she also reasoned that anyone who could exert so much influence over a group of minds would inevitably begin to feel just a tad omnipotent. It was only natural.

Each and every one of her twenty-two students was seated by the time the morning bell chimed electronically over the intercom. The usual buzz of excited chatter filled the room. It seemed the students had not grown to loath Monday morning just yet. Ms. Bellamy cleared her throat once, then twice, in an attempt to gain the attention of the class. The volume of the discussion fell to a bare minimum, and she began to speak. 

“Good morning class!” she announced with a false brightness in her tone. She still felt much too groggy. 

“Good morning Ms. Bellamy!” the twenty-two boys replied in unison. So much energy and enthusiasm, she thought to herself. Just wait ‘til you’re my age, kiddies.

And so began the Monday morning routine. First came news. Each boy had to tell the class about something that they may have seen or heard or done over the weekend. Usually this involved entertaining the wild fantasies that their young minds offered up. As a teacher, she was simply not allowed to question a student’s tall tales. Maddeningly, she had no other option but to play along and ‘encourage their imaginations’. Bullshit. All this did, in Ms. Bellamy’s experience, was reinforce the idea that lying about one’s accomplishments would garner respect in the real world. Whoever tells the tallest tale wins. So students would give detailed reports on how they had found a king’s ransom at the bottom of their garden, or how they had taken on 20 highly disciplined ninja assassins at once and lived to tell the tale. Usually this lie-to-win attitude would be grown out of in time, but a handful of students inevitably carried the symptoms for years and years to come. Ms. Bellamy was powerless to stop it. 

That’s why, when timid little James started telling the class excitedly about his amazing new friend Hans, she simply nodded along.

“…and we’ve already been on loads of adventures together!” James was saying, the words flowing excitedly out of his mouth, along with a great deal of saliva. “We climbed the big tree in the park and met the monkeys that live in it and we went to the swimming pool and fought a giant squid and there were pirates and ninjas and cyborgs and and and…” he trailed off, evidently exhausting his supply of imaginary scenarios. He took a few shallow breaths, and inhaled a blast from his inhaler. 

“Well, that sounds like a super fun weekend!” Ms. Bellamy beamed falsely. “Tell me, did you bring Hans to school with you today?” Her superiors demanded that she engage with the children’s fantasies from time to time. Encourage them to explore the tremendous depths of their youth-enriched imaginations. More bullshit. But while she may have been the overlord of her own little classroom, the board of education had her on a firm leash.

“Yes teacher. Hans doesn’t like to be left alone, and Mummy and Daddy don’t like him very much, so he followed me to school. This is Hans.” James said in his small, breathless voice, before holding up his left hand for the entire class to see. His fingers seemed to be forming the shape of a crude mouth, his thumb forming the lower jaw and his four fingers forming the upper, as if he were trying to make a shadow puppet. On closer inspection, Ms Bellamy could see that he had glued a googly-eye, the sort that might be used for arts and crafts, onto the outsides of his first and last knuckle. It was a strange and crude design, giving the impression of a frog made of fingers or a fleshy bird, but it served its purpose. The entire class said hello to Hans without being prompted. She hadn’t anticipated that. She had also not anticipated that Hans would reply.

“Greetings, friends.” Hans said, in a much deeper voice than she thought James should be able to produce. His tone had more in common with a child kidnapper than an imaginary friend. James opened and closed his tiny fingers in an exaggerated imitation of speech. He must have been practising his ventriloquism, Ms Bellamy mused to herself. Though she was almost sure she could see the corner of James’ mouth move along with Hans’. “I’m truly honoured to be welcomed with such open arms into your charming little classroom. Thank you all.” 

She was slightly taken aback by this. Hans spoke with a humble yet refined tone and a sophisticated use of language that was completely different from James’ wheezing squeaks and monosyllabic vocabulary. It was almost eerie to think that such a young boy could adopt such a drastically different persona so easily. 

“Don’t mention it, Hans,” she said, giving a token smile. “We’re happy to have you. Aren’t we class?” The entire room shouted their approval.

Sentences followed news. The children were only just gaining a foothold when it came to mastering the written word, so their task was to copy out a prewritten sentence several times, first by tracing the outlines of each letter, and then freehand. A mind-numbingly simple task for anyone over the age of seven. But for these boys, it was like pencil gymnastics, and very few could properly stick the landing. James had requested two worksheets; one for himself and one for Hans. She had hoped that he would have abandoned this little game after news had finished, and that it was just another primitive attempt at one-upmanship aimed at his fellow classmates. But this began to seem less and less likely to be the case. His commitment to the fantasy was commendable.

Ms. Bellamy hovered over the class as they worked, perched high atop the pedestal of her adult shoulders. She inspected each student’s work briefly, saying “Good…good…good…” as she went. This mantra of vague approval caught in her throat when she scanned the work of James. Or rather, James and Hans. Normally, he would not have been considered a particularly skilled calligrapher. But his level of skill now seemed altogether different. He held a pencil in each hand, working on two identical worksheets at once. His right hand was its familiar, sloppy self, taking an age to negotiate the intricacies of the letter K. His ‘Hans’ hand, on the other hand, was speeding along the dotted lines like a pro. Hans appeared to be holding the chubby, child friendly pencil in his mouth, as a dog would a bone. This unusual grip did not seem to slow his progress. 

Without warning, James’ right hand dropped its pencil and rose into the air. At least Ms. Bellamy was a righteous god. She always answered her disciples when they beckoned. “Teacher, how do you make a K?” James asked, obviously frustrated with his lack of success in constructing the letter. Though he was now gazing up at her expectantly, Hans kept writing. She bent down, meaning to demonstrate how the letter was formed, feeling like an angel descending from on high to deliver mana, but still quite perplexed by the left hand. She knew for a fact that James was not ambidextrous.

On closer inspection, she could see that Hans had abandoned the exercise. Instead, he was etching the words “I am Hans,” onto the sheet of paper over and over with such ferocity that it seemed he was surely inscribing it into the table too. “I am Hans I am Hans I am Hans…” Ms Bellamy looked on in shock. He was filling up every minuscule white space on the worksheet with those three words. Then, just as it seemed that he would run out of space, the pencil broke. Not the graphite tip of it. No, the entire pencil simply snapped in two. Hans let it drop from his mouth with a deep, pleased chuckle, as if he had just been told an amusing anecdote. 

“Teacher…” another small voice came from across the room. She was forced to put her disbelief on hold for the time being. Little Darren had just been sick.

Lessons continued as normal, but she made sure to keep an eye on Hans. She decided that she would send a note home with James as the end of the day, requesting to speak with his mother tomorrow morning. This game was going on for far too long. Hans had overstayed his welcome in her domain.

Lunchtime arrived, and each boy produced his sandwiches, no doubt lovingly prepared by his respective parent/guardian. Ms Bellamy had another coffee, blacker than pitch, and continued to observe Hans and James from behind her desk. Both of them had separate packed lunches. What sane, functioning person would possibly make ham sandwiches for both their little boy and their little boy’s left hand? Hans ripped his sandwich viciously into chunks, having no hands of his own to hold it with and no throat to swallow it with. The pupils in his googly-eyes bounced around maniacally. James nibbled at his sandwich and chatted with Hans, who replied between savage bites. It seemed another student had taken notice of this peculiar sight.

“Why does Hans have to eat?” little Conor, one of the brighter members of the class, asked James. 

Hans decided to answer. “Why, the same reason that you must eat, friend,” he said in his unsettlingly refined tone. As he said this, bits of his sandwich fell from his jaws. 

“But…Hans isn’t really real. He isn’t a person. He’s just your hand. So he doesn’t need to eat,” Conor replied, taking a smug swig from his carton of apple juice. 

Ten points for observation, Ms Bellamy thought, as she leaned forward at her desk expectantly. Maybe this would put James’ imaginary friend to rest. Maybe there was no need for her to intervene on the matter. After all, any attempt at one-upmanship is ultimately one-upped by another party. It was only natural. Or so she thought.

“How dare you?!” Hans exploded, his voice suddenly filling the room, his finger-jaws moving even more exaggeratedly. “You would dare question my existence? The sheer insolence of it!” 

The other twenty students turned to watch, leaving their half-eaten lunches alone. “Hans is real!” James screeched, evidently also enraged. “He’s my friend and he’s real!”

“No he isn’t.” Conor protested stoically. “You just stuck eyes on your hand and pretended it could talk. You just made him up.” To punctuate this statement of defiance, he stuck out his tongue and blew a modest raspberry.

“Have you not eyes?! Can you not see that I am as real and human as anyone else in this room?” Hans bellowed. Even James was beginning to look frightened. There was no sign of his mouth moving at this point either. It seemed it was all Hans now. “I am more human than you could ever hope to be. Allow me to demonstrate.” 

Suddenly, James stood, knocking over his tiny chair. “What are you doing, Hans?” James asked, his mousy voice trembling. Hans shot out like a serpent towards Conor. The left hand found his neck and clutched it tightly. Hans was like a wolf, trying to rip the throat out of its prey with its fearsome jaws. He lifted Conor out of his chair with unnatural strength, and held him aloft. 

Tears were trickling down James’ cheeks, but it seemed he was powerless to resist. “Please Hans…stop…” he sobbed. The class looked on in muted horror, entranced. Conor was struggling and retching and choking, but the grip held. If Hans had been an imaginary friend once, he was neither of those things now. 

Though his mouth was wrapped around the little boy’s neck, Han’s voice was still clearly audible, chanting rhythmically, becoming thunder. “I am Hans! I am human! I am Hans! I am human! I AM HANS! I AM HUMAN!”

Up until now, Ms Bellamy was paralysed with shock and fear. A demon had encroached on her heavenly domain. She could hardly process what was happening. Hans was no fantasy. He was terrifyingly real. No note home could fix this. She sprang up out of her swivel chair and moved around her desk. She ran across the room towards the two boys and the force that possessed one and was murdering the other. 

She acted on instinct, abandoning all of her training as a teacher, the regulations of the board of education and her morals. She did what had to be done. She struck James. Hard, with the flat of the palm of her right hand, across his helpless, weeping face. Hans released Conor, letting him drop. Both boys fell to the floor. Hans released one final roar, and was silent.

* * *

Ms. Bellamy was soon released from her duties. While her offence was not made public, it was made clear to her that she would never teach again. It seemed that each and every one of her twenty two pupils had forgotten just how wonderful a teacher she was, and instead focused on her one slip, her one wrong move. The wrong move that had saved a boy’s life. 

It seemed they had also forgotten Hans. Not even Conor or James made a mention of the hand-shaped evil. So each and every one of her former disciples testified against her. Twenty-two witnesses are a difficult thing to overcome. And though she was labelled a monster, she never forgot what she had seen. She never dismissed what could have happened, had she not acted. Those six words still haunted her dreams. Words born from an imagined being, desperate to be something more.

“I am Hans. I am human.”





He’s Eating the Baby…

“Your life is ‘The Truman Show’. There are actors out there preparing scenes to play out in front of you, I’m sure of it.”

This is what my friend said after I recounted something that happened to me this week.

Maybe he’s right. See what you think.

I was going back to work after being up at the house for a sandwich and to see how some urgent repairs were coming along. I parked my car where I always park it, grabbed my bag, and locked the car up.  As I was locking, I noticed what was happening a few cars further on. There was a small cohort of people gathered around a car, peering in. They looked like a young husband and wife and a Grandma and that’s what they turned out to be.

The husband was poised at one of the rear passenger door windows and the fact that he was wielding an unwound coat-hanger immediately told me (and probably tells you too) what he was doing. I pride myself on being quite good at getting locked car doors open with a coat hanger, I’ve done it several times in my life, so I walked down to see if I could offer any assistance.

The husband had indeed locked his keys in the car, they were dangling there in plain sight in the ignition but that wasn’t the most notable thing about the set up. There were some other things in there, as well as those dangling keys. 

There were two children locked in the car too. 

In the front passenger seat, there perched a boy, no more than a toddler, and in the back seat, strapped into her chair, a little person who I guessed was his baby sister.

“Can I help?” I asked.

The husband seemed glad to give up the coat-hanger immediately, “I reckon you might do better than me.” I reckoned so too because his hands were quite large. I took up the challenge.

But before I got stuck in with the clothes hanger in earnest, I thought there was one other fairly obvious solution to explore. Could the toddler be persuaded to come over to the driver’s seat, pull the ignition key and push the central locking button to open the door? Well, no, as it happens, he couldn’t. He was far too happy in his own seat and no amount of cajoling from me could get him to move.

As I started working the clothes hanger, I noted that my cajoling seemed to have had a curious side effect on the four people peering into the car with me. Yes, four, a sister of somebody had emerged from the adjoining front door of the little terraced house where they all clearly resided. This side effect was strange. An air of jollity and general hilarity had descended on everybody, including the two kids inside the car. There was laughter and teasing and a general atmosphere of bonhomie about the affair. The only person not feeling this seemed to be me.

You know how to open a rear passenger door with a coat hanger, yes? The general idea is that you can sometimes push down the window a little to open a crack at the top and then you poke the untwisted steel hanger in the crack and you try to get the end loop over the opening lever inside the door. If you manage it, you give the wire a good tug and the door pops open. It can be done. It’s tricky though.

“Ohhh, you nearly had it then.” The husband provided encouragement from the window on the other side of the car as the children giggled and smiled out at me. I tried again.

Then my phone rang. It was the repair man back at my house. I needed to take it. I asked the husband to take over with the coat hanger for a minute and stepped up the road a few paces to take the call.

I can’t have been more than a minute into the conversation when all hell broke loose back at the car. Suddenly there was no more laughing or giggling. Suddenly, everybody was shouting, wailing and, yes screaming. I hung up and ran back. What was it? What had happened?

It didn’t take long to see. The toddler in the front had evidently become bored and had unclipped himself and toddled into the back seat with his little sister. He had then taken her fingers in his mouth and started chewing on them, perhaps as a teething aid. The little sister was singularly not amused by this and had started roaring like the proverbial buck ass.

Perhaps the laughter and jollity of a few moments ago had been a precursor to genuine hysteria for that was now what had broken out outside of the car. The three woman folk, all two generations of them, seemed to go from ‘okay’ to ‘completely not okay’ in the space of a split second. They were shouting and screaming at the top of their voices.

“He’s eating the baby.”

“He’ll bite her fingers off.”

The Granny was winning the hysteria sweepstakes by running around screaming (and, sorry about this, but she was), “the child is dead, the child is dead.”

The Poor Husband was utterly bewildered. The relative calm and patience required to pull off the coat hanger trick was now only the dimmest memory. It was hard to know what to do.

The women knew though. All three of them knew at once.

“Break the window.”

“Break the window.”

(“He’s eating the child.”)

“Break the window.”

Can I just say, from where I was standing, the child was fine. Yes, the toddler was chewing/gumming her fingers and, yes, the child was screaming blue murder as a result but the level of agitation among the adults did not seem warranted to me, someone who is no stranger to agitation. I felt I should explain that to allow myself to smile at what happened next.

The husband ran into the open door of the adjoining house and there were sounds of drawers being torn out in the search to find something to break the window with. All the while the hysterical cacophony continued and I was powerless to intervene. 

Then, after a strange moment’s silence that seemed to come from nowhere, in a moment worthy of the ‘Gourmet Night’ episode of Fawlty Towers, the poor Husband re-emerged, blinking, into the daylight, with a plastic soup ladle in his fist. He then proceeded to batter the side window of the car, completely ineffectually, with the plastic ladle.

Because I did not see the kids as being in danger, I couldn’t help but see this as a lovely moment but I also knew the pantomime had to end soon or else something really bad could happen. So I ran, back to my car, threw open my boot and found my tyre iron. If the window needed breaking, and it seemed clear now that it did, I felt it was time to get on with it.

But as I arrived back at the car, tyre iron in hand. The husband had just managed to break the window with a rock from the ground. Before I could say a word, the children were swept wailing from the car, the entire cohort were rushed into the little house, and the front door was unceremoniously crashed shut in my face. 

It was over. It was time to go back to work.

You can see why my friend might think that Shakespeare’s sentiment ‘all the world’s a stage’ seems to apply a bit more to me that it does to others.

What the hey?

At least it’s never dull.



My Two Metre Rod and Me

In my lifetime, I have measured a lot of stuff. It’s a key part of what I do. Mostly, it’s buildings but I’ve measured some other things too. I’m quite a good measurer of things even if I do say so myself.

But one of my most-favoured tools has fallen by the wayside such that I don’t even have one anymore. The two metre folding rod. That’s one there in the picture. These days it’s all retractable steel tapes and such but, no matter how impressively large your steel tape measure might be, it will never command the mystique and awe which the two metre rod could inspire, when used by a pro.

I don’t need to describe it, do it? The picture tells the story. It’s a rod, two metres long (really, Ken?) and it folds over onto itself in smaller manageable sections. The great advantage of the two metre rod was that it could maintain a measure of rigidity, even when fully extended and only held at one end. Your average steel tape will tend to buckle if extended beyond 1.5 metres.

So why don’t I still have one, if they’re that bloody brilliant? The truth is, I don’t know. My last one broke, I guess, many years ago, and I never got another one. 

Gosh but it was a thing of beauty, back in the day. When you came in and started to unfold your two metre rod, people know they were in the presence of someone with a bit of skill and know how. There was a sort of 'Bruce Lee Nunchucks' action to the unleashing of the two metre rod upon a space to be measured. One twirled and angled and extended the thing in a manner slightly reminiscent of Darth Maul and his two sided light sabre in that first-and fourth Star Wars movie. 

You know what the effect was most akin to? Remember in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, when the bad guy came into the Himalayan Pub and he took out the nasty looking thing made up of rods and chains and then he manipulated it into nothing more threatening than a coat hanger? Yes, it’s a bit like that. The clients, seeing this folded behemoth revealed and slowly unleashed, may have felt apprehension and even fear at what may have been about to unfold (pun intended). Then, when they saw that the awesome tool was used only for good, they would relax into a state of quite respectful admiration. 

You just don't get that with a tape.

There was a downside, though, as there so often is. In unskilled awkward hands, the two metre rod could be a weapon of some destruction. Eyes could be poked, fingers could be trapped and (herein lies the tale) fixtures and furnishings could be placed in grave risk.

So, yes, once, quite early in my measuring career, I was taken to an extremely up-market antiques shop in the Bond Street environs of London Town. The mission was to survey the internal spaces of the shop with a view to planning some renovation works. My boss, who accompanied me, was not above a bit of surveying himself, when the need arose, but this particular client was nervous and needy and required constant attention from the ‘main man’ while the measuring works progressed.

So it was that I found myself in a room all by myself, tasked with recording the dimensions of the space. I had done many such rooms in the past but this one was different, unique even, in that it was literally filled to the brim with highly valuable antiques. There were paintings and couches and chairs and vases and plates and God knows what else and every little thing reeked to the high heavens of opulence and high-value.

I was a good little measurer, even way back then. But I was also known to be a bit clumsy. Being in this room, by myself, was by no means an ideal situation and I knew it.

Still,  the job had to be done and so, while Peter engaged the proprietor in Bond Street Environs-Style banter out in the front of the shop, I set to my task.

Allow me one more movie analogy. Remember the film ‘Entrapment’ with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones. Remember how Catherine was improving her cat-burglar skills by angling and contorting herself… ... ... (sorry, 'tuned out there for a moment) to avoid the security laser beams. Well that was me in the little antiques room. I was Catherine Zeta Jones.

And I did it.

I did it.

Nothing smashed, nothing broken, nothing got even slightly scratched. I emerged from the room with the measurements captured on my pad and my two metre rod, still extended, propped manfully over my shoulder.

“All done?”

“All done.”

My boss leaned in and brushed the end of the rod, quite discreetly. “Let’s go then.”

We took our leave. In the car, on the way back to base, my boss presented my with a small slip of cardboard with a string attached to it.

“Keep that as a memento of your visit,” he said, “I pulled it off the end of your rod.”

It was a price tag. 

It read ‘£53,000.00’

This story is true.

Encouragement

I got a little bit of encouragement with my writing stuff a few days ago. I’ll tell you about it in a week or two. It’ll be good fun, I think.

This got me thinking about encouragement and what it means to me. The temptation to generalise is huge. It would be very easy to start going on about how, “we all need this” and “we all want that,” but I don’t really know what we all want or need, do I? I only know about me.

I need it though, I know that. A little encouragement from time to time, I need it. 


Or perhaps not. Perhaps that’s incorrect. Perhaps I don’t ‘need’ it, per se, it just helps me. 

I think that might be a key difference between me, the eejit who continues to write despite everything, and those who finally throw their arms up and stop. I think someone like me, who keeps grinding away at it, is like a camel or a cactus. Except, instead of water, we store up tiny droplets of encouragement in our humps and in our prickles. We can travel a long way on very very little.

That’s good, I suppose but, still, even the camel or the cactus will stumble or wither eventually, if the drought is long enough or the distance between oases too great.

So, yeah, I got this little droplet of encouragement out of the blue and now I’m all buzzy and rejuvenated again. I can write, I really can write, and people sometimes like what I do. I will grab my board and surf this wave as far as I can. Who knows? I might even make it to the shore this time.

It’s a shame that the encouragement effect diminishes over time, for me at least. I got some encouragement earlier in the year when my short play did well in the Claremorris fringe. I surfed that pretty well. But it got used up, like petrol in a car, until I was chugging on empty again, pig-headedly refusing to quit. 

One thing to learn from this is to give encouragement where you can. It is a lifeblood, a drop of liquid that can make your brown cactus flower or your camel make it over the next dune. Give encouragement.

But here’s the rub. We, the people who benefit from your encouragement, are connoisseurs of the stuff. We can smell a bad glass of it a mile off. Gratuitous encouragement, self-endearing encouragement, encouragement which seeks reciprocation, pity-encouragement. These things, however well meant, are simply poisonous to us. They are a hemlock which can land us in our beds for weeks, battered and unable to function.

Encouragement is a bit like love. You can’t make either up, however much you would like to. You can’t just pull it out of thin air. The moments when it can be given are quite rare and momentary. Again, like the surf waves, you have to catch those moments and use them.

That’s it. Use your encouragement when you get it, keep plodding on when you don’t, and don’t ever give it if you haven’t got it to give.

Live long and prosper.

Webcam

John sat in his sterile office pod and listened to Wagner.

It was Saturday Night and every other cubicle in the sprawling office was righteously empty and dimmed. Only his desktop lamp shone out into the gloom.

He had ‘Live From the Met’ on the radio and, although the bulk of the music washed past him, it still seemed to give him a sense of his own intelligence as he listened to it. 

This week it was ‘Tristan and Isolde’. His favourite part was always the applause that came right at the end. On and on it thundered, like some hugely expensive release in a hugely expensive brothel.

Of course he should have been at home with his family but this was the third Saturday night in a row that he had perched here, alone in his computer-buzzing office space. The documents had to arrive on the other side of the world at this particular time and automation simply could not be trusted. There was no other way acceptable to that terse little man who resided in the end-room during normal office hours. John simply had to come in and get it done.

The pdf files were being generated now so there was really nothing else that he had to do. He sat back and tried to focus on the music. He tried to guess if the applause was coming any time soon. It felt like there was still quite a way to go.

He shivered involuntarily and reached for his long-cold coffee. As with the other two Saturday nights he had sat here, he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched. There was nobody else in the building but still his spine was telling him that he was being scrutinised. Not just by a single person either but rather by a group, a cohort, a team.

He effected another shiver to try to revive himself. There was nobody watching. Late evening, self pity, paranoia, that was all. This would hopefully be the last Saturday he would have to come in and do this. He could live without any more Wagner at The Met, even the applause.

There it was again though. The feeling. Someone was watching him, he was sure of it.

His attention fell on the ceiling-mounted security camera at the far end of the room. There was a small unwavering red light on top of it and it was pointed straight at him, like an eye. That was it, wasn't it? It was the security camera that was watching him. He had investigated it last week, found the cupboard where the footage from the camera was recorded onto a loop tape. Nobody ever monitored it, nobody ever looked at it, it was just a souvenir from a more buoyant time when people seemed to care about such things. It might be capturing him, recording him even, but nobody was watching it. Nobody cared.

Still a small worm-thought wriggled and turned in the recesses of his mind. Something he had read once. Something about security cameras being secretly accessed by people via the Internet. Weren’t the images of certain cameras being unwittingly beamed onto the web and couldn’t people log into them simply by chasing them down in Google?

The pdfs were still cooking, he had some time to kill. He went onto Google and entered ‘network camera’ and hit the search button. There wasn’t much there but there was a link to a link to another link and, suddenly, he was watching an office scene via some monochrome webcam. An office not unlike his own. Except this one was vacant, the occupant doubtless out on some Saturday Night Spree or sitting at home by the fire watching some fine old movie. 

He looked up at his own camera.

Could someone be watching him over the Internet?

How would he ever know?

Over in the corner, beside the water cooler, there was a flipchart with some spare sheets of large white paper still clipped to it. There were some permanent markers too. He dragged it over to where he thought the camera might see it. What to write? After a moment, he figured it out. Open a line of communication.

John4455678@xmail.com

His email address. He wrote it clearly so that anyone could see it.

Anyone.

He slid his chair back over to his desk and logged into his email account. There was nothing there. Nothing new.

Wait…

One, two, three, four, five emails clicked into his inbox. Six,  seven, eight, the number steady ticking upward like a metronome.

He opened the first of the emails.

“Hallo.” That’s all it said. Monotone, misspelled. “Hallo.”

The second said, “Hello dear.” The third said nothing at all. 

Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen…

All of the emails offered either some bland non-committal greeting or else pure blank silence. All from different addresses made up of random numbers and letters. On and on, the number ticked upwards. They didn't stop.

“Who are you?” John said aloud but that was no use. They couldn’t hear, these watchers, they could only see. He flipped the paper sheet over and wrote his thought down. “Who are you?”

The next email he clicked on gave him an answer.

“We Are Legion.” It said. 

The next email said exactly the same thing and the next and the next and the next.

Another sheet and another sweatily-scrawled query.

“What do you want?”

The emails stopped. At seventy two, they stopped. It was as if the faceless correspondents had paused to consider the request.

Wagner was drawing to a close, he could sense it, behind all the dread.

“What do you want?” He wrote, a second time.

The emails started again. Click, click, click. Seventy three, seventy four, seventy five… they all said the same thing.

“We want you to dance.”

“Dance.”

“Dance.”

“Dance.”

John sat back and stared at the screen.

“Dance.”

“Dance.”

“Dance.”

He would not dance. It was too wrong, it was far too wrong.

Wagner’s music ended. The radio audience rose in united, colossal, thunderous applause.

He rose too.

The five hundredth email clicked in.

And, mindlessly, he danced. 

Fighting

I haven’t been in a fight in several decades and I hope this remains the case for the rest of my life. I’m not a fighter. I’m about as far away from a fighter as you can possible get.

But there has been fights in my life.

We all have them, I think, or most of us anyway. Moments of conflict which escalate, often without much warning, into something highly physical.

My own fighting career can be summed up fairly easily. If the fight was my idea, I was pretty good but if it wasn’t, I was bloody awful.

I think there were some scraps in the earliest years of school but I can’t really remember anything about them beyond the faint knowledge that they happened. I do remember that I had an ‘arch-enemy’ in the schoolyard and I could name him for you but I won’t because I still see him from time to time and he is quite a nice family man and not really much of an arch enemy at all.

The fight that colours my view of such things happened in primary school and I’m guessing I was about ten or eleven at the time. I was out on my street with some pals and everything was cool. I got this silly idea of swapping the guy’s initials around to see if it made their names funnier. Nothing changes much, really, does it? You know the idea, Michael Kelly would become Kichael Melly. It was silly childish stuff.

One member of the cohort had a name which initial-swapped to a rather funny result and, when I landed on it, I laughed out loud. Then everybody else laughed too. Everybody except the initial-swap kid.

“What did you call me?”

I repeated it and laughed again. I didn’t know much about fights and how they gestated.

The initial-swap kid turned puce around the gills.

“Right. Nobody… Nobody talks to me like that. Fight! Seven O’clock this evening, at the hedge.”

Then he was gone. I didn’t have any say in it. I was booked in for a fight at seven that evening. The afternoon dragged. I sat at my bedroom window and wondered what I would do in an actual pre-booked fight. I had no idea. My introspection was punctuated by my opponent cycling up and down on the street outside and pointing menacingly at my window.

I could have just not turned up at seven but I did. Perhaps I was curious as to what might happen. There was quite a lot of kids there. They formed an organic circle which enclosed the initial-swap kid and me and they egged us into action, as kids tend to do.

I decided I would talk to my opponent, explain that no taunt had been intended. Yes, that was a good plan. I opened my mouth to start the parley but no word ever escaped.

Apparently I was kicked, I’ve never had any true recollection of that. I was kicked in the upper stomach, up under the bottom of the ribcage where we have some kind of diaphragm, I think. All I know is that I was wearing a kiddy string vest and, for days afterwards, the bloody imprint of the strings of my vest were carved in relief on my torso.

The effect of this kick was that I was winded but I didn’t know what winded meant, I had never before had the air forcibly kicked out of me. When I tried to draw my next breath, there was no breath to be had. I heaved and pulled at the atmosphere but there was no air anywhere. The kick had banished it all to some faraway unattainable place. I fell to my knees and, from there, on to the ground and I lay there for some time, flopping and wheezing like a small fish out of water.

The crowd dispersed. The fight was over.

I haven’t seen the initial-swap kid in years and I hope he’s okay and happy. We were good friends in the years subsequent to the kicking and ran into each other on many social occasions. It was all good between us. Well, almost all-good. The truth is that he had 'Alpha Male'-ed me on that day as nobody else has ever managed to do, before or after. It can remind me that we are basically animals when I sometimes look at a defeated lion after a battle, on some TV show. and how he behaves towards the victor. Nice as it all was, in the subsequent years, between the initial-swap kid and me, there was always a lingering taste of that 'defeated lion' relationship.

That was an example of a fight which wasn't my idea. As I said at the start, they had inevitably poor outcomes. Where I used to do better was when I got ‘riled’ by something. If I got ‘riled’, I could manage surprisingly well.

Not to make myself sound like some kind of Hulk character but I only really tended to get fighting-riled when I perceived that someone close to me was being threatened.  On two fairly spectacular occasions, that happened to be Trish. It’s no surprise really, we've been mooching around together for one hell of a long time, there were bound to be moments.

One such moment happened on a boat down the Thames, at a Christmas party. A fellow employee got blisteringly drunk and started being belligerent to everyone. I remember I was sitting, rather confined, behind a large table which was heavy with drink. Trish was beside me. I saw it coming, the belligerent guy got bored with the pint he was drinking and threw it at the wall of the cabin we were in, it literally smashed inches from Trish’s head and covered her in the remnants of beer from the glass.

That made me mad and I rarely get mad but, when I do, I am capable of rather going off the deep end. The table was in my way so it had to be moved so I moved it. Glasses, bottles, food, whatever was on there went flying along with the table. I needed a clear route to my fellow employee and boy did I make one…

On another occasion we were at a house party and we were sitting near the top step. Some unknown person kicked my girl in the head as he rolled up the stairs. I pointed this out to him and he expressed the opinion that she shouldn’t have got in his way. I still remember the expression on his face as I threw him down the stairs. Bewilderment, really. 

Like I said, I haven’t had a ‘Barney’ in decades and I don’t think I ever will again. So don’t worry.

One thing united these rare moments of fighting dominance. My reaction afterwards. Within seconds of these eruptions happening I would be consumed with regret and self-abomination. I would be convinced that a posse of outraged enemies were about to descend on me and, my rage now spent, would find me easy meat for their abdominal kicks.

In short, I turned into a big pussy. 

I spoiled it there right at the end, didn’t I? That’s the trouble with the truth. It’s rather like an unexpected kick in the solar plexus.

It hurts. 

Grannies and Granddads

I was in Sligo the other day so I paid a quiet visit to Mum and Dad’s grave. Everything was very nice and tidy so there wasn’t much I could do. I moved a few ornaments around and watered a plant that patently didn’t need watering and then I looked around from the vantage point of the grave.

It’s a nice cemetery, with wonderful views of the mountains which surround the town of Sligo. In the distance, I could just make out the grave of one of Dad’s friends who had died some years before him. We used to walk around here, Dad and I, and go and visit this friend’s plot and admire the little fisherman statue on there. Standing over Dad’s own place, with him now having joined his friend in repose, was perhaps the saddest aspect of the little visit.

Feeling the need to divert myself, I turned from Mum and Dad’s grave to the much older one behind me. My paternal grandfather and grandmother’s place of rest. I had been visiting that plot, perhaps annually, since I was a little guy. These were the two grandparents I never knew. They were both gone before I was born, having died young. I can’t really write about them on account of this. I know things about them, interesting, intriguing things but everything I know is hearsay and second-hand at best. I would do them no service to write of such things here.

My mind then turned to my other Granny and Granddad, my Mum’s parents, the ones I had known so well. So I took a stroll down the graveyard to visit with them too.

I have written about Mum before and how, try as I might, I can’t conjure her as anything other than 'Mum' and everything that meant to me. I can’t deal with her memory as a strong woman in her own right. She was my Mum and that was too important to allow herself to be anything else to me.

I have much the same problem with Granny and Granddad. I remember them well but my memories are of the roles they played for me rather than the lives they had for themselves. It’s a taint on any reporting I can do about them but it’s an affectionate and perhaps a forgivable one.

Granny and Granddad were my Godparents as well as everything else and they were a daily presence in my life. I got my middle name, Felix, after him although he was never known by his given name. He was always Sammy. He worked all his life, as far as I can tell, on Sligo Docks as a stevedore, unloading the coal and timber and cattle boats that came in there on a weekly basis. He was still engaged in his working life when I was young and I remember him coming up from the docks in the afternoons in his flat cap and his leather-shouldered jacket. My older brother remembered when he used to go for a drink after his work but he had stopped by the time I came along. He still smoked though, Woodbine after Woodbine, and his fingers and thumbs were stained deep brown from holding the cigarettes and smoking them until there was nothing at all left except a flesh-scarring ember.

I was a book lover, even when I was little, and I used to love to be allowed to go to the library to seek out cowboy books for Granddad. If I could find a new Louis L’amour or Zane Grey then I was the hero of the day. I was the hero of the day even if I didn’t find one, I always felt that.

My main memory of Granddad is a very subtle one, a feeling rather than an event. It is a knowledge, a certainty, really, of his great fondness of me. A man of few-enough words, he would walk me around the flagging-point, when I was a kid, and show me the big boats that had come in overnight. He would let me walk along the old stone wall and hold my hand tight. It’s as good a memory as one could possibly have.

Granny would come down to our house every day and help Mum out with things. To me, she was perfect. Never angry or upset, always willing to come up with a sweet or a biscuit or ever a coin or two if required. For a period, Granny would take me to the pictures on a Saturday afternoon. It feels like we did that a lot but I can’t be sure. We saw things like ‘Carry on Again Doctor’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ so that was 1969 when I would have been six.

One day, when I was about ten, I’m not sure exactly, I was walking home from school for my lunch when a neighbour stopped me and she said, “I’m so sorry about your Granny." Sorry? Why? Shocked that she had told me something I didn’t know, she allowed me to run home without offering any further explanation.

Our house was full.

I have to be careful here because this is not fiction and people died on that day and my memories are only the unreliable ones that a child may retain. In essence, there had been a fire in the house next door to Granny’s. Granddad was down town at the time. She had been alerted to the fire and had run into the burning building to try to get some of the people out. As I say, lives were lost that day through nobody’s fault. It was, in fact, a terrible tragedy and as I write this, my thoughts are with the people who must still suffer as a result of that day so many years ago. 

Granny came out of that house alive but she had been burned, terribly burned. Granddad came to live with us and Granny spent a long time in a Dublin hospital being skin-grafted and healed. For me, these months involved many trips to Dublin and sitting on the low wall outside of the hospital while the adults visited. I was never allowed inside, her injuries having been too severe for me to see. 

Eventually Granny was moved back to our local hospital and I was taken to see her. I remember the fear and trepidation emanating from Mum as she brought me in. The reduced husk in the white bed was nothing like my Granny had been. She was bald and had huge scabs all over her scalp. Her face was livid with tracts of skin which had been harvested from elsewhere on her body and her mouth was small and tight and lipless.

“He doesn’t know me,” I remember her saying.

“I do, Granny, I do.” I said and, after the initial shock, I did. After all the burning and all the surgery, it was still my same Granny who always had a sweet hidden away and who always loved to see me come in.

Granny lived for many years after that. She recovered to lead an active mobile live though her scars could never be ignored. Years later, I still think of her as the bravest person I ever knew. Not because she ran into the fire that day but because of how she bore the impossible load that was put on her the moment she came back out.

Granny and Granddad ended up back in their own house, growing old together. I remember the pride in bringing my wife-to-be to meet them in their house and how well she fitted in there in that little sitting room with the pair of them and Blessed Martin looking down from the mantle. 

Let’s not dwell on their passing, Granny and Granddad’s. It was no worse and no better than many other people’s deaths but it is not the period of time to remember the best. 

I can picture them so well now as I write this and I have a tear in my eye regardless of the fact that they are so long gone. I hope I am doing them some service by remembering them in words, with much love, as I do, and I hope that I may be remembered by somebody in this way fifty years from now.