Hard to Tell

Back in 1991, I worked with a team of Building Contractors in London. We spent several months doing up a floor of offices just off High Street Kensington. I was normally on the other side of the drawing board on these building projects, so this was a visceral, exhausting but highly-entertaining time for me.

One of the guys, Richard, seemed to provide the bulk of this entertainment. He was a mid-twenties Cockney guy who seemed to constantly challenge his environment on every possible level. Everything was a Federal Case to him.

One Saturday morning, coming up to tea-break. Richard announced he was going out to the shop for some apples. Apples were a significant departure from the stodge we normally shoved down our necks but, Richard being Richard, nobody questioned his decision.

"The front door is locked," said Denis, the foreman, "so buzz the intercom when you want to come back in."


"Oh and Richard," said Denis, "don’t piss around, get right back here or we may fall out."

You didn’t want to fall out with Denis. His type of fall out was more of the nuclear kind than the emotional.

Richard left and we all sat down for tea on the floor of the big office with the windows open onto the street six stories below.

Our conversation covered all kinds of topics over the next fifteen minutes, including The Arsenal’s chances of a draw in the afternoon and the likelihood of Rambo having a positive impact on the worsening situation if he were to be parachuted into Deepest Iraq.

After a while, all topics were exhausted and we sat quietly with our thoughts and our tea. Denis suddenly looked around angrily.

"Where the hell is Richard?"

He didn’t actually use the word ‘Hell’.

That fall out was coming…

Richard was, in fact, down on the street, six storeys below, looking up at our open windows so far above.

The electricians had disconnected the door entry intercom for reasons known only to themselves. Richard could buzz that button all day if he wanted, nobody on the sixth floor was ever going to hear.

He wasn’t getting back in.

Richard soon realised that the intercom was a futile exercise. He paced up and down the street, glaring up at the windows, wondering how on earth he could get back in. The phones were all disconnected up there and the only mobile phones in those day were the same size as a concrete block and were not generally owned by angry foremen.

He tried shouting.

"Hey!", he roared, "Hey!"

Back up on the sixth floor a colossal wave of post-prandial torpor had set in. We all lounged around dreading the call back to work.

A discordant tone drifted in the window.

"Did you hear something outside?" Someone asked.

"No," someone else replied, "it was the radio, now shut up."

Back at ground level, Richard threw his hands up in exasperation. Then he remembered the paper bag in his hand.

The apples.

A wild idea formed in his fevered mind. If he could take an apple, a single apple, and throw it though that sixth floor window then his cohort within would be alerted to his situation and would get up off their arses and let him bloody in.

But the window was six storeys high. It was a long way up. A legendary effort would be required on his part.

An impossible throw.

Denis stretched and raised himself off the floor. It was our signal, the call to action. He hardly needed to speak but he did anyway.

"Come on men," he said, "one more time before the weekend."

Just as we were getting up, something strange happened.

A bright red apple sailed in the window and landed on the floor.

Richard stared up in disbelief, arm still extended. He had done it, he had accomplished the seemingly impossible feat. Songs would be written about this, stories would be told. He did a little impromptu dance on the street, then looked up and waited.

The apple bounced impressively, rolled across the floor and stopped at the toe of Denis’ boot.

"Where the hell did that come from?" somebody asked.

Denis thought about this for a long moment.

"Who the hell cares?" he said, "Let’s get back to work."

* * * *

I did a follow-up to this post which you can have a look at here if you like.

Writing Influences

Who influenced me and made me write in the way that I do?

It’s a question I’ve thought about quite a bit although I hadn’t really ever intended posting about it. Then my pal Rachel Fox did a Fine Post on the writers who have influenced her and she asked me the question directly. (I see that Poetikat has posted on this too). So that all gave me an excuse to answer, hopefully without sounding too full of myself.

I started to read a lot and to write a little when I was really young and I believe that the seeds of the way I scribble were planted very early and have not changed an awful lot since. That’s why the five influences I’m about to suggest will not seem overly highbrow or intellectual.

I could bluff you with more challenging fare if I felt like it, trust me, but that's not the point.

These five names represent an honest attempt to think back at who coloured my style of writing and why.

In approximate chronological order, here goes:

James Thurber: As with most things, I am not an authority on James Thurber. He turned up in a English Class textbook - “The Night The Ghost Got In”, I think – and shortly after that, I saw two collections of his work in the local book shop and I bought them. Most of the short pieces were from his New Yorker writings. I was amazed to find that a writer could be so accessible, smart and yet still funny. I wanted to learn to do that.

James Herriot: Yes, the ‘Vet’ from 'All Creatures Great and Small'. Years before any mention of a TV series, I was attracted to James Herriot’s books on account of the nice cartoons on the covers (remember I was very young). Inside the covers lay a wealth of well-told stories from the man’s professional life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the Thirties. I always remember a review on the back of one of the books said something like, “he can tell a good story against himself.” This sentence became embedded in the part of my heart reserved for writing.

Kevin Marron: Sadly, a great many of you won’t know who Kevin Marron was. Kevin was the editor of The Sunday World newspaper in Ireland in the Seventies and early Eighties. He kept a page in that paper called ‘A Sort of TV Column’ in which he reviewed the week’s television and had fun with everything else that came to his mind. His page was always adorned by a nubile young lady in a bikini and I think my parents thought my interest in the page was another sign of my advancing adolescence (along with the acne and the moods). The girls were certainly nice but Kevin was the main event - he was a brilliant writer. He was readable, smart, finger-on-the-pulse and funny – very funny. In 1984, when still a young man, Kevin Marron flew to France on the annual Beaujolais Nouveau run and tragically died in the ensuing plane crash. You made me want to write as good as you did Kevin. Maybe someday…

Stephen King: It seems to be cool to knock Stephen King but I will always defend him with some passion. I have read pretty much every word he has ever published and I think he is a sharp, crystal clean writer with colossal story–telling ability. I can criticise him too. Here is my one-sentence-King-crit: His 'small' books are much better than his 'big' ones. People think King is some kind of pulp writer because a) he writes in the horror genre and b) he is prolific but Stephen will still be around in a century’s time and will be taught in all the best schools. He writes about his own pain with great insight, be it alcoholism in 'The Shining' or traumatic life shattering injury in 'Duma Key'. He is graphic, visual and searing and he is, to my knowledge, the first writer to describe the taste of blood as ‘copper’. I remember as a teen grabbing his books off the shelves on the day they were published – books like ‘Christine’ and ‘Cujo’ spoke directly to me as a young guy. I wanted to be able to tell a story and grab the reader by the scruff of the neck like he could. Still tryin’…

David Mamet: It took me quite a while to discover that I’m better at writing drama than I am at writing anything else. Nobody beats Mamet for Drama. He pares everything down to the absolute quick. There is no flab, no fat. Read 'American Buffalo', see ‘Oleanna’, catch the movies ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ or even ‘The Untouchables’. Mamet rules. He taught me that brevity is the soul of wit (Polonius who?) and he is still teaching it to me. Nobody is better at writing about the state of being a man. I don’t always get what he writes but it always, always, gets me.

I could list 25 writers, sure I could. But with these five, I believe that I can see their footprints in the words I write. I don’t think I’m as good as them or even as good as anybody else, I just think they - all five - have shaped me a little. And that’s the point of this post.

Back in 1978, my English teacher wrote on the bottom of my essay that I had a 'nice, chatty style' and that I should try to hold onto that. She wasn't a writer but, with that passing comment, she influenced me too.

With a Song in My Head

I like to try write lyrics occasionally – never poems.

Sometimes you can say things much neater in that way than you can in any other.

As I always say when I flash a lyric, if anyone can come up with a good tune for one of these puppies, let me know, perhaps we could do a Lennon/McCartney type thing on it.

I gotta like the tune though. I gotta love it!

When we Finally Say Goodbye
We've been together always
but the way's been hard and dry
so we shouldn't make a deal of it
when we finally say goodbye.

We stuck it out as best we could
and the years just walked on by
but we'll know it's only for the best
when we finally say goodbye.

It's been a long time coming
but it's been coming all the time
and we lost however many times we tried.
It's been such a long time coming
but we're running out of time
now it's coming to our time to say goodbye.

We dragged and pushed and clung so hard
we're allowed just one more cry
but the tears will stop forever
when we finally say goodbye.

Heart and Skin
I took up my blade
the night we met.
The edge was sharp and true.
I gave you my heart,
gave you my skin.
I cut them nice for you.

I pledged allegiance
to your flag.
Carved off my tattoo.
Gave you my heart,
gave you my skin
Forever me and you.

My body lying
raw and still.
You’re onto something new.
I gave you my heart,
gave you my skin.
Flayed and lifeless too.

© Ken Armstrong and Niamh O’Reilly 2007

I'm Gone
You can tell me that you love me.
Swear the grass is always green
You can say my disposition's just
the sweetest ever seen.
You can say that we're forever.
That we never can go wrong
You can say in heaven's choir
we're both singing the same song.

Just remember that I'm idling
and I've got my handbrake on.
You can lay your heart down in my road
but when the light goes green, I'm gone.

You can say that I'm an angel.
You can think that I'm the Man.
You can say that in the scheme of things
we're nature's given plan.
You can sing my highest praises.
You can curse me into hell
You can swear allegiance to my throne
and kiss my ass as well.

Just remember that I'm stalling.
I'm intent on moving on.
You can put your hair down on the ground
but when that light goes green, I'm gone.

People think that we're forever
gotta tell you that they're wrong
'cos you're stuck in my no-parking zone
and when that light goes green I'm gone.
To me you're just a pit stop.
A place to wash my screen,
check my tyre pressure,
wipe my dipstick clean.

You can wish for love eternal.
You can wish for what you need.
Just don’t put me in your wishes,
I'll be gone from you at speed.

Like I told you I'm just idling
and I've got my handbrake on.
You can lay your heart down on the road
but when the light goes green, I'm gone

(That's me: gone.)

CMF Ads: Why It’s Good To Have An Ad Or Two In Your Sidebar

When I started blogging, I came to it with a couple of preconceived ideas.
Firstly, I felt that my blog needed be an ad-free zone, it would be purely for the writing and not be sullied by such notions as commercialism.

The second idea was to do with The Man in a Santa Hat.

Everywhere I went, this bloggers face and image was there to be seen, this guy in the Santa hat. Quite quickly, I concluded that this man in the Santa hat must be a major player in the world of blogging. Why? Simple. Because his face was everywhere.

It took me a while to realise how inextricably linked my two little preconceptions were. Firstly, I had no readers because I wasn't putting myself about and secondly, Santa-Hat-Man looked (to me) like king of the world... because - when it came to putting himself about - he did.

After a few months of posting maniacally, and seeing nobody come by to read any of it, I realised that it’s not really enough to simply post stuff and wait. You have to bite the bullet and go and put yourself about a bit .
And that’s really all that the Man in the Santa hat was doing, putting himself about a bit. In fact here he is:

His blog is called ‘Thoughts From Down Under’ and he’s still going strong. He doesn’t know me from Adam but he sure was a big influence back in the day.

He thought me about the importance of being visible.

In discovering that a little ‘blog advertising’ is an amazingly powerful thing, I also learned that it’s not about monetising, commercialisation or selling out. It’s not about devaluing the temple of your blog with market stalls. It’s really just all about getting your blog out into the world where it surely belongs.

At this stage, I have tried a few ad networks and I want to tell you that the one you see over at the top of my sidebar – CMF Ads – is simply the best I have found.

I’ve held off telling you about CMF Ads a few months so that I could confirm to myself the most startling fact about the network.

Simply – it don’t cost nothing.

I have ads running here on my blog and my ads are running on multiple other blogs too and it isn’t costing me a red cent. In fact, if I chose to, I could be turning in my earned credits for cash. But that’s not really the idea. The idea is to put yourself about a bit and it works.

So how does it work? Okay. You put the widget on your blog and set a price for advertising there (CMF credits are the currency that’s used and they are priced at $0.25 each). People come and advertise, you earn credits and, to really make it work, you then spend them by placing your ad on other people’s sites.

The ingenious part is that you can sell many ads in the one little box and those ads will rotate around evenly, showing a different one every time the site is clicked on. This ensures great value from the one little box. All the credits you earn are yours to keep and you can cash them in with CMF at a percentage of the face value, if you ever desire to do so.

There’s a great ‘CMF Forum’ too which is worth a ‘hang-around’ even if you’re not using the ads. There’s some fun to be had there but, perhaps more importantly, some of the most helpful, willing and knowledgeable people are only a shout away. Have a look through it, you’ll see what I mean.

I actually kick-started my advertising by buying a few CMF Credits ($10 in my case) and then I went on a advert buying spree but that isn’t a requirement. You can just set up, get some ads on your blog and wait for the credits to roll in exactly thirty days later when the first ads end. At this time, I do not see a situation where I will have to spend any more money on keeping this advertising system working constantly for me.

The beauty of the thing is that there’s so little time or effort needed to keep it ticking along smoothly. It really is a very sweet arrangement indeed.

Now this isn’t a sponsored post or anything like that. I just wanted to tell you about this because it’s been really good for my blog, that’s all.

In fact, they explain it all so much better here.

The only interest I need to declare is that the owners of the CMF Network – Turnip of Power, Razzball and Ben Barden– have all been known to me long before they set this up, I’d like to call them friends if I can be sure that they wouldn’t throw something at me. I helped a little with Beta-Testing the system and that was a fascinating process in itself. Apart from that though, I have no involvement in CMF beyond my Forum participation and my enthusiasm for the concept.

I remember after those first months of posting and hoping somebody would drop by, I asked the only blogger-friend I had then, “what should I do?” She told me I had to advertise a little, it wasn’t enough to sit around and wait.

Know what? She was quite right.

Finally, if you fancy giving it a go and crave the easy life, here’s a link for you:

CMF Ads - Low cost, no-nonsense advertising

Alone and in The Dark - My Best Saint Patrick’s Day Memory

Saint Patrick’s Day has always been a fairly low key day for me.

I’m not a big fan of parades and I’m not a big fan of excessive drinking either so that immediately removes two of the key elements from the equation.

That’s probably why my favourite St Patrick’s Day memory has nothing to do 'shamrocks' and 'crock’s o’gold' and such. In fact, for probably the last time, it’s that movie again.

On 17th March 1981, I was living in Sherrard Street in Dublin and going to college. 'No college on Paddy’s Day though, so the choice was go to Mass or go to the Parade.

The Parade was quite good… for a parade.

But afterward, the families all dispersed, the shops all shut, and ‘The Flight of The Doves’ was on the telly at home. There was nothing else for it, it simply had to be a movie.

Luckily there was a new film just released that I wanted to see and it was on at the Screen on The Green. I walked through the dregs of the revellers in the beaming afternoon sunshine.

The cinema was deserted except for the ticket lady. I bought a ticket off her and went in. There was nobody to check my ticket, the shop was closed-as-hell.

The cinema was pitch dark. I stumbled into a seat which was thankfully empty. As the gloom cleared I saw that finding that empty seat was no great trick, the whole auditorium was completely deserted. I watched the previews and the ads and waited for some other people to come in but nobody ever did.

A short while before the feature was due to start, a phone started ringing somewhere in the building. Nobody rushed to answer it. Fearing that it would spoil the movie , I went and found the phone in a little empty office and answered it myself.


“What time is tonight’s show?”

I checked a chart on the wall.

“Eight Thirty.”


Then I went back and watched the movie, all alone in the huge cold theatre on St. Patrick’s Day 1981.

Man, I loved that movie so much that day.

I’d offer a prize for someone to name the film but that would just mean that the answer to every quiz I ever did here would be ‘Body Heat’.

Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day - whatever you may do.

A Fish Called Lazarus

I'm re-posting this today for a reason. More details at the end of the post.

I think I lost of few of the valued original comments too and I'm sorry about that... as well as other things.

My son was given a goldfish as a birthday present when he was two. He came in a little bowl. The fish, that is, not my son.

He’s twelve now. My son, that is…

The fish is still there, much bigger, much older.

Still there.

Back when he arrived, I could only stand to look at him in that little bowl for a few days. It wasn’t good. So I went out and bought him a sizeable tank, an air pump, water filter, stones. 

The fish settled in.

My son was too small to look after him so the job fell to me. It is in my nature to take care of everything in my world (except me) so the fishy did all right for himself.

He was called ‘Goldie’ back then.

Not any more.

The only thing I didn’t get for Goldie’s tank was a lid. I tell a lie. I did get a lid but I didn’t like the aesthetic of it and I figured Goldie might like to see the ceiling so I left it off.

Goldie has had a good life, I think. He had other goldfish, for company along the way ,who lasted some years and then faded away. He has mated in his tank and produced offspring. He had a Plecostomus in there for a while too but that really didn’t work out – another story.

This is this story…

One morning, some years ago, I went into the kitchen, pottered around in a muddy pre-work fashion, and suddenly missed the occasional peripheral flash from the tank. I looked in. Goldie was not there.

He was, in fact, on the hard-tiled floor, several metres from the tank.

I bent to examine him. He was unmoving and his tail was bent upwards at the rear. I pinched his tail between thumb and forefinger and peeled him off the floor. All the scales on the ‘floor-side’ were left stuck to the tiles. He was stiff and he was cold.
I headed sadly for the bin. 

It is a surprising fact that goldfish will jump dramatically from their tank from time to time. Perhaps the nutrient level in the water had risen to an inhospitable level – whatever the reason, Goldie had bailed out and there had been no lid to stop her.

(Incidentally, ‘she’ became feminine after ‘she’ jumped out, read what you will into that).

So there I was - poised over the bin. What would my son say when he heard I had killed his fish? Better, I reasoned, to show him the lifeless body rather than just tell him about it. There was a bucket of water in the utility which I kept for topping up the tank. I plopped the fish into it and went to get ready for work. 

That evening, I brought my son out to the bucket to introduce him to one of the more inescapable facts of life. We both peered nervously over the rim. Goldie was down there, lying on her side. But one of her fins was flapping feebly to and fro… to and fro…

For weeks Goldie was a Zombie-Corpse-Fish, tattered and torn, weak and ugly. But ‘She’ gradually strengthened back into a ‘He’. And ‘He’ survived. Within a surprisingly-short period of time, the scales all grew back, the jaunty gait returned. 

So these days ‘Goldie’ is known to us as ‘Lazarus’. 

I would never in my life have bought a goldfish for myself but this little creature has rewarded me plenty for the small bit of care I have dished out over the years. 

Sometimes when I come home stressed or fed-up, I’ll sit and watch the little fella swim - so beautifully-formed against the artificially-induced current that swirls around within the tank.

And, when I finally rise to go, I often find that my sitting has done me some modicum of good.

So here’s to the next ten years Goldie… I mean Lazarus.

It’s been emotional.

13th March 2009: Eleven years and three hundred and sixty four days since he came into our home as an unwelcome present for our (then) two year old, the aforementioned fish died gently. Don't be sad, he had a good life and gave much pleasure in return.

Even the original Lazarus had to die again sometime.

Please Refrain from Crying Out During the Show

It was only after I posted that last short story, ‘Rasp’, that I decided to write a post about the true story behind it. Shall I just tell you how I remember it? Everything you are about to read is true:

In August 1994, we celebrated our wedding anniversary by having a little dinner and then going to the movies in Richmond, Surrey, which was close to where we lived.

There wasn’t much on but I’d heard that ‘The Mask’ with Jim Carey was at least a little bit funny and had some good special effects so we settled for that.

The cinema was pretty full for a midweek show. We ended up sitting beside a couple who were about the same age as us. The girl was sitting to my right and her guy, who I hadn’t seen much of, was in the next seat over to her right.

The main feature hadn’t long started when this girl produced a sealed cellophane bag of sweets. My purgatory was about to begin.

Over the next few minutes, she proceeded to drill a tiny hole in the bag with her fingernail. She then set about trying to extract one of the sweets out through this tiny hole using only one finger. This keyhole-candy-surgery produced the most tooth-grinding of noises – a gentle crinkling and crackling which went on and on and on… and still the damned sweet would not come out.

And all the while, this girl was keeping up an unceasing commentary on the film with her invisible boyfriend on her other side.

Trish took to squeezing my hand. She knew how I got. I tried to silently reassure her that I would not start anything but the finger - in the hole - in the bag - kept on crinkling and crackling and ‘rasping’ and something… had to give.

A voice in my head – a voice which often appears dressed up in a rational suit but is, in fact, anything but – this voice suggested to me that I should simply have a quiet word with this girl about this noise. In the words of some great man, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I leaned over a little and said to the girl in my most kindly voice.

“Wouldn’t it be much easier if you just tore the top of the bag open?”

The girl did something I didn’t expect then. She started to cry. I could see huge wet tears roll down her cheek as she let out a big heartfelt sob.

I felt like a complete bully.

I sat for a few minutes silently cursing myself for making this poor girl feel so bad. I couldn’t leave it at that, I had to apologise to her.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, looking at the screen, “I really didn’t mean to upset you,”

The girl tuned to me angrily and, in a very loud voice, said, “Shut up, just shut up, you’ve been annoying me all evening. Just shut up!”

The entire cinema was suddenly aware of us.

One of my many failings, arguably my greatest one, is that I never know when I am at the end of my tether. I am given no warning. One second I am, to my mind, the epitome of sweetness and light, the next moment I can be gone, real real gone. This happens less now as I get older but it can still happen. I have to tread carefully.

When this noisy girl told me to shut up, I immediately fell far beyond the end of my tether and my base instincts marched in took over.

“Well that’s just fucking rich,” I roared at her, “You sit there all night, blabbing, and… fingering your little crinkley bag and then you have the gall to tell me to shut up?”

The girl started to cry. No liddle bitty tear this time, we were talking floods.

A huge shadow fell over me. Her boyfriend was ready to enter the fray. He stood up and inched past her. I’m sorry to swear again so soon but he was fucking enormous, he really was.

“You,” he boomed, “stand up.”

“You,” a disgruntled punter from the back muttered, “sit down.”

At this point his poor upset girlfriend pulled on the big guy’s sleeve and said, “let’s go, I want to go.”

“No way, I’m gonna tear_”

“Let’s just go… please.”

So they gathered up their stuff and they left. But, as he was going, the big guy calmly said the following words to me, “I will be waiting outside for you and when you come out I am going to kill you.”


I felt just awful, like a criminal. That always happens when I lose my cool.

Trish and I left shortly afterward, at Trish’s request although I wasn’t sorry to go. We left through a fire exit at the rear, walked to a nearby bus stop and got a bus home.

The bus went past the front of the cinema. The big guy and his girlfriend were sitting on the steps outside. I swear to God they were.

I’ve never watched ‘The Mask’. Is it any good?

Interestingly, when I went and researched the writing of the story, I found my memory to be suspect and my perceived truth to be actually completely false.

The above story is true but the timeline is all wrong.

The above ‘cinema argument’ did not inspire me to write ‘Rasp’. In fact, the story had been written a full year earlier. I had completely forgotten this fact and, over the years, had totally come to associate the events described above with the writing of this story.

This means that, when the above fight was unfolding, my story was already written. Did it occur to me at the time that this was life-imitating-fiction quite scarily? I don’t recall that it did.

The facts are irrefutable. We always went to see movies when they first came out and ‘The Mask’ did not come out until 1994. My story ‘Rasp’ was fully complete in 1993. As soon as I realised this was true, I immediately recalled the actual events behind the story and they are as simple as they are unexciting.

The facts (as they say on ‘Pushing Daisies’) are these:

One Saturday night in 1993, Trish and I went to see ‘Indecent Proposal’ in the West End. (Don’t judge us on these movies, we saw everything back then). The guy in the seat behind me talked non-stop all the way through the film. He drove me completely mad but I said nothing. Instead I went home and sat up half the night writing the story that’s in my previous post.

That’s really all there was to it.

Yet I had forgotten this truth completely and convinced myself that an entirely different version of reality was true. Isn’t memory a funny thing?

Or perhaps it’s just mine…

A Short Story - Rasp

We queued in the rain.

It wasn't a terribly long queue and the rain wasn't particularly heavy but Shiv was not a happy person. I tilted the umbrella further out over her head, getting myself thoroughly drizzled-on in the process. She did not seem appreciative.

"Why can't we go and see something new? There's that one with 'what's-his-name' in it, you know who I mean."

I knew exactly who she meant. 'What's-his-name' was reason enough not to go see it.

I didn't say that though.

"We can go next week. Give this a chance, you'll love it, I promise."

We progressed two steps in silence.

"It's not as if I've never seen it. I have, you know...twice!"

"Yeah but only on television. It's not the same."

Shiv made a face. "Oh please!" she said, "It's not as if it's 'Citizen Kane'. "

Then she laughed.

I laughed too. We both felt the same about the great 'Citizen Kane. We reckoned it was the most chronically overrated film of all time. Perhaps we should have gone to see it in the cinema.

The queue started to shuffle along with a purpose so I took the umbrella down and shook it.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"We'll be inside in a minute."

"Then put the goddamned umbrella down in a minute!"

God, I loved that girl.

The ticket lady was enclosed in a chin-high perspex booth. Permed, fluffy and wearing horn rimmed glasses, she looked like an escapee from a Larson cartoon - everything but the chickens.

I paused respectfully in front of her. She sat rigid, staring blankly ahead. Shiv had wandered off somewhere so we were practically alone. She studied a point beyond my left ear, a dying breed, masticating gently. I wanted to say something to her, just so she'd acknowledge me, but nothing appropriate came to mind. I paid up the admission fee and two pink bus tickets clunked out of the shiny metal plate on the counter between us.

"Thanks." I volunteered.

She chewed at me - once.

I found Shiv over at the wall where the poster hung. She was staring at the credits.

"You didn't tell me John Barry did the music."

"You're right. Sorry love. I know we shouldn't keep such things from each other"

"Be serious! I hate John Barry. You'd never have got me here if I'd known it was him."

I nervously adjusted my jacket. I believed John Barry to be the greatest Cinema composer since Rachmaninov. I even had the soundtrack album at home, it had cost me thirty-five quid. Was this a stand worth making?

"You're probably right," I said, deciding not, "I can't hardly remember the music."

Shiv started jumping and pointing at me.

"Liar! Liar! You love it, you've even got the record, I've seen it under your bed along with all those soggy Penthouses."

"Hey, you know I only read those for the articles."


"Anyway, they never look as good naked as you."

Shiv looked round anxiously.

"For Christ's sake Minty!"

"Well, it's true."

"You wish."

"Have an Opal Fruit."

It was time to go in. We headed for the double doors, held open by the stubble-chinned relic in the decaying blue tunic. I handed him our tickets and he ripped them effortlessly in two.

"See that?" I asked Shiv.


"He ripped our tickets in half. Look."

"Wow, is there someone we should call?"

"Don't be sarcastic, there's a whole generation of kids coming up who've never had their ticket torn at the movies."

"Have you lost it completely, Minty? Everybody tears tickets."

"Rip, they rip. Hardly anyone tears. The secret is in the perforations.

It's all perforations now. All you get are those awful printout jobs with hot dog offers on the back and perforations to rip along - I hate them!

"Shiv, what you are about to experience here is Cinema as it used to be. No gimmicks, no tricks, just raw nostalgia."

"Raw what?"

"You'll see."

"Just keep taking the pills, that's all."

And then we were in. The place was about quarter-full, people scattered around here and there. It was old fashioned, of course, that was part of the attraction. Dominant colour red, not particularly ornate, plush in a dusty sort of a way and big...very big.

"God it's big, isn't it?" Shiv was impressed. She and I were frequently impressed by similar things. "Which are our seats?"

"Anywhere you like. First come, first served."

"Are you sure? Didn't the computer allocate us seats?"

"The 'computer' was too busy filing her nails. It's much better this way."

"Oh come on! It's a great little movie-house, sure, but let's not stretch this 'weren't the old ways wonderful' routine too far. Computerised seat allocation is a great idea and you know it."

I arched an eyebrow at her. "Do I?"

"Okay, you smug git, tell me it isn't!"

"All right it isn't. Not always."

"Yeah? When is it not? Give me one 'for instance'."

I need to explain that the show hadn't yet begun. The house lights were still up and people were chatting away among themselves. Also we were speaking quietly so our mid-aisle exchange was neither exhibitionist nor a nuisance to anybody. I feel I should make that clear in the light of what was to follow.

"In the afternoons."


I had her here, I knew it.

"Automatic ticket allocation can be an embarrassment in the afternoons."

"He's bluffing."

"I am not! Listen, the computers always allocate seats on a 'best seat first' basis, right? The best two seats are always in the same place, near the back, in the centre, beside each other..."

"Let's sit here," Shiv marched into a row, chose a seat five in from the aisle and collapsed into it, "Now, what are you going on about?"

"Most afternoon shows only ever get a small attendance. Okay, suppose two separate people, a guy and a girl, decide to go to the same movie one afternoon. The movie is a bit well...sexy, and they're the only two people who go."

"Don't you think this is a touch contrived?"

"Let me finish. Those two people, who have never met, will be allocated seats right next to each other. They'll have to sit, shoulder to shoulder, through some of the most graphic sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, with hundreds of empty seats all around them. Nervous, anxious and seriously embarrassed those poor people will emerge cursing the computer that seated them. And that, m'lud, is where the system falls down."

Shiv mused on it a moment.

"I think it sounds great. I bet the two would get off with each other, and live happily ever after. Pretty imaginative though, Minty, well done."


"Did you just make it up?"

"Of course... sure."

She caught my tone.

"You didn't?

I must have shifted in my seat.

"You didn't! You sod! That actually happened to you, didn't it? What happened? What was the movie? Did you get lucky?"



"Don't be silly."

At that moment the house lights dimmed and I clammed up, saved by the bell. Neither of us believed in talking while the show was running. We both got too wound up when other people did it.

An usher crept in and sat on a little pull-down perch at the side of the stairs below us. Not the slob who had torn our tickets - this was an altogether smarter-looking guy. I watched as he made himself as comfortable as possible and then gave himself to the screen, obviously a fan. I followed his example and settled into the show.

The curtains opened.

No trailers, no adverts and no charity-collecting-do-good bastards rattling their tuppence boxes along the rows. This was Cinema, folks, as it used to be.

The Film began.

The titles gave us our first taste of the smoky, elusive score that I loved so well - no matter what Shiv thought. Piano first, then tenor sax, lazy, slow and seductive but always, not far behind, that insistent, nervy back beat warning us, telling us to watch out - there is more going on here than meets the eye.

"John Barry," whispered Shiv, "I hate him!"

Scene one:

"My god, it's hot!" breathes the lady on the screen as the sax fades into the wail of distant sirens, " 'Stepped out of the shower and started sweating again."

The man she is talking to turns from the window to grin at her distractedly as she climbs into her nurses uniform. He is Racine, the lawyer. The nurse is not relevant, we won't see her again.

The film seemed different from the last time I had seen it eleven years before. I suddenly realised what it was. Back then, Racine had been anonymous but nonetheless instantly recognisable as a dubious character. Since then, though, he had become infinitely more well-known. Now he was William Hurt - Movie star - and as such towed with him the baggage of the many memorable roles he had since played. A person seeing the film for the first time would now take a while to figure out the nature of Hurt's character.

I didn't let this worry me overly. The mood was as I remembered, the atmosphere still intact. The movie was going to be just as good this time around as...


A guy, well built, wearing a black leather jacket, a gangly blonde girl in tow. They fell up the stairs fooling with each other and giggling selfishly. The usher jumped from his perch to quieten them.

"Tennn-shun!" the big guy bawled, at the top of his voice, and then, "Jesus Corr-aye-est, is it dark in here or is it me?"

A palpable swell of hostility coursed instantly through the entire auditorium. These were good people, all they wanted was to enjoy this fine film in peace. They did not deserve this West End Saturday Night trash.

"Two of your best seats for my lady and I, scout," the noisy one boomed, "And be quick about it!"

The usher tried his best. "The feature has already started," he hinted coolly but the guy was ready for him.

"Good job too! Less of this shit for me to sit through," he marched past the usher, "C'mon, babe, let's sit up here."

Four seats in from the aisle was where we had sat. Why did we do it? We could have just taken the aisle seats like normal people. The quest for the perfect stereo position perhaps. Didn't matter now, the mouthpiece and his girl had collapsed into the two seats right next to us, her closest to me. Ignore them, I advised myself, give your attention back to the film, they'll probably shut up once they settle.

On screen, Racine and Mattie were about to meet for the first time. The fire was beginning to burn. The band played 'I saw you last night and got that old feeling' while Hurt pursued Kathleen Turner through the summer heat. I relaxed again, forgetting the interruption.

"Hey," brayed the big guy, "What's this crap all about anyway?"

Somebody behind 'ssshh'ed angrily but it only served as encouragement to him. He twisted full round in his seat and stared out into the gloom behind.

"Shush me one more time, scout. I'll come back there and shush you."

Then he turned jubilant back to the girl beside him, punched her shoulder and said, "Where's my sweeties?"



Anything but sweeties, please.

The blonde rummaged in her coat pocket and fished out a virgin bag of gold wrapped chewy caramels. The brute ripped them out of her grip...

"Yes, sweeties!"

...and proceeded to tear the plastic limb from limb. The bag was gunfire in the still of the auditorium, it went...


For many people it is a certain smell which trigger vivid memories; flowers, bus stations, drains.

For me it is a sound.

That sound.


"Are you all right?" whispered Shiv anxiously.

Fine. Except for that sound, dragging me back.




"I said are you okay?"

Shiv was now also torn out of the movie and was worried about me. She knew how I got.

"I just wish he'd...stop. Y'know?"

"I know. Just try to watch the movie, it's good."

I tried to watch the movie - I really did - but that bag went...


...and back I went...

It was a joke, a kids joke. We were walking back to school one day and we had our rolls of mint imperials in our hand, chewing away. Remember the packets? Ten white ovals laid end to end, wrapped in a square of transparent cellophane then all rolled up with a couple of twists in both ends.

Coogan finished his first and rasped the paper into a ball in his hand. I told him to stop, that I hated that noise. I didn't really, it was just something to say, but the guys latched onto it.

They started to call me Minty. They rasped paper at me all the time. Everywhere I went - rasp, rasp, rasp - and it wasn't the noise that got me, not really. It was the knowing that, even though I'd said how much I hated it, they still kept on doing it just the same. It got to a stage that every time I heard that noise I got really upset.

It became something of a problem for me.

Mop does it one day and I lose it completely. We'd been playing marbles in the gutter on the back street and Mops opaque had rolled down into the gully. We manage to get the cover up - it is cast iron and very heavy - and mops kneels and reaches in to feel around in the muck at the bottom for his prize. I wander off to look for pennies but he calls me over.

"Hey Minty, c'mere and see!"

I go over and kneel down and he pulls his arms out and he's got a filthy mint imperial wrapper in his hand. He rasps the damned stuff at me, right under my nose, then he laughs and shoves his arms back down the hole. "Poor mad Minty," he says.

Then I just get all upset and kick the gully lid over on his arms. It crunches down on him just above the elbows. It doesn't chop them off or anything but it's still pretty bad, there's a lot of gore and stuff and Mops is howling....

I snapped back. From the corner of my eye I saw the blonde staring at me, annoyed, and I realised that I have been cracking my knuckles slowly one by one. I can crack them really well, twenty-two different ways. Shiv reckons I'll have Arthritis by the time I'm forty. It really winds her up.

Anyway, this blonde was staring at me angrily and her dumb boyfriend was still off in his own world rasping away beside her so I couldn't resist the dig.

"I'm sorry," I said, turning and smiling my most winning smile at her, "I do hope I'm not bugging you."

I could see that she didn't really know what to do. Her eyes darted away from me to the screen for a moment but then back again. I cracked another knuckle at her for punctuation. She winced.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, hardly a breath really, "he wanted to go and see Tom Cruise."

"So did she," I said, nodding over at wonderful unaware Shiv, "but she's still behaving herself."

Then, from nowhere, he was over in my face. He had leant across the blonde using her arm as painful purchase to drag himself closer to me.

"What's this then, sodding 'Blind date' or something?"

He was too close, I could smell the caramels on his breath, probably wedged somewhere between his teeth.

Shiv snapped suddenly around to face him.

"Why don't you shut up, you ignorant shit-head?" she hissed. Shiv really doesn't like being disturbed in the cinema.

He stared at her just for a moment then threw himself to his feet in a manner that might have been funny in different circumstances.


He pushed roughly past his girlfriend towards Shivs' seat.

"Shit-head, am I?"

"Sit down," somebody behind said.

"I'll sit in a minute, scout," he replied, almost reasonably, "Just let me straighten something out with this bitch here."

To get to my Shiv, he had to first get through me. I stood up to face him, my seat popping upright as I left it. Somebody behind swore softly, I sympathised - it really was a very good part of the film.

"You first, eh?" The guy looked pleased to see me," Good. I'll save her for dessert."

He probably would have too. He was a foot above me and a damn sight heavier. I calculated the odds, realised it was a certain loss, then reached in and drew out my gun.

"Minty!" Shiv shouted.

The entire cinema gasped. Some girl behind started to scream. It was just like being back at that gully.

I extended the gun, raised it above the morons head and slowly brought it down level with the bridge of his nose. His mouth fell open and chewy caramel-coloured drool ran out of the corner of it. I could tell he was impressed.

"Step back and sit down," I advised. He did.

"Pull in your legs" I requested the blonde. She did.

"Minty, you swore..."

"Shut up a minute, Shiv." I said. She didn't.

"You're a real Wally sometimes, you know that?"

"I know."

I advanced on my quivering thug, past the blondes' tucked-in legs. I inserted the barrel of the gun into his left nostril and pressed hard. I was all upset again.

"You wanted to straighten something out with us? Is that what you wanted to do?


"SHUT UP!! Just...shut up"

I forced the barrel of the Walther a little further up his nose.

The James Bond gun,' Shiv had called it when she gave it to me two birthdays ago. Not quite. The Walther PPK, 7.6mm was a cool piece but If she'd wanted to buy me the 'James Bond gun' then she should have opted for the Beretta .25mm. Bond only gave his Beretta up because M forced him to in 'Dr. No'. Still at least she got the holster right - Berns Martin triple-draw - worn tight under the left shoulder.

I'd promised I'd never carry it outdoors because that was totally illegal and normally I didn't but today we were going to see my all time favourite film. I wanted to see what it would feel like to see it tooled up.

Actually, it felt all right.

"Hey," the big guy sounded a bit bunged up.

I blinked. I had tuned out for a second, it was true, but I was back now, loud and proud. Things had changed. The house lights were up, for a start, and somebody had stopped the film. I took a look around, everybody was watching me, waiting to see which way I would jump. The usher from the pull-down seat was out in the aisle just beyond the Jerk. The room was poised.

Then somebody down the front spoke up, an American I think.

"It's a fake."

A murmur raced around.

"It's a fake gun, for Christ's sake. Who's going to pack something like that in London?"

He was right, of course, my gun was a replica, it fired only blanks. Below me, the idiot slowly realised that this had to be true. A smile spread slowly across his big mouth.

"Put your toy away now scout," he said, "It's time to learn some manners."

Normally that would have been it. My bluff had been called, it was time to pay the price. That's how it had been when I kicked the gully cover down on Mops arms. I had triumphed in my rage but only for the briefest of moments. Many bad things were to follow close behind.

The guy's hand rose up to brush my gun aside and, normally, I would have been powerless to stop him.


Not this time.

This time there was an awful lot of anger still inside me. This PIG had ruined my favourite movie for me forever and then, THEN had moved to hurt my Shiv, My dear precious Shiv, and I knew, if he got past me now, he would surely go on to Shiv and hurt her and hurt her and hurt her and hurt...


He leaned back...and stared.

"THE GUN IS A FAKE, SURE IT IS," I roared, pumped with adrenaline, "IT SHOOTS BLANKS."

The blonde was staring, the usher too. Everybody was staring.

I made a little speech.

"Anybody know what a 'blank' is? Anybody? I'll tell you shall I? It's really just a little bit of paper rolled up really tight. Wouldn't hurt a fly. Right?... Right?... WRONG! Ever hear of Jimmy Ruane? No? Jimmy 'Sax' Ruane put a gun to his head during a game of Russian Roulette in Salt Lake City back in 1988 and fired a blank round at his temple. That piece of paper went in one side of his skull and out the other and took half his BRAINS with it. Believe me? No? Shall I prove it to you?"

I dug the gun back up his nose and squeezed at the trigger.



The big guys' eyes were bursting out of his sockets and his jaw seemed to be locked ajar.

"Get off me!"

I eased the gun back to let him move.

"Get out of here," I whispered, "Get out of my sight."

Drool, once more flowing freely.


He jumped up and fell out into the aisle. The blonde got up too. She muttered an 'excuse me' as she squeezed past, her hip brushing me. For a second, I thought she was going to stoop and get the bag of sweets.

She didn't.

When the big guy had got some distance between himself and my piece of paper he turned around and made like he was going to come back. The audience started up a slow handclap and a low sinister hiss. He cut his losses, spun and stomped down the stairs.

From outside, he screamed.

"I'm going straight to a phone and calling the police. You'll suffer for this, matey, you'll pay."

Then he left.

I got the gun back into my Berns Martin triple-draw holster only with a lot of difficulty. My hands had started to shake really badly.

I looked at the scatter of faces, all gaping at me, then I looked over at Shiv. She just stood there shaking her head and crying. I straightened my jacket and headed out into the aisle. Once there, I looked back. She was sitting down again.

"You coming?"


"I did it for you, you know"

"Go home, Minty. Just go home."

I left without her.

On the stairs, I met the usher from inside. He was hanging around nervously. He looked as if he had something to say.

"What?" I asked.

He grinned.

"It is hot," he said.

I had to smile back.

"Yes," I agreed, “it is.”

© Ken Armstrong

The Four Settees Challenge

It's that time of year where lots of people are out straining themselves for good causes. 'BBC Children in Need' has a bunch of celebrities off climbing Mount Kilimanjaro... or is it mounting_ no, never mind.

Even here, locally, there's a gang of fine folks about to climb our lovely mountain Croagh Patrick for seven days running. That's it in the picture and that dot on the top is a church) I mean seven days in a row, they're not actually running up it, though that's been done too.

Not by me though.

Am I the only one who thinks it's a pity that all the really good fund-raising activities have to be directly related to extreme physical activity?

People run marathons, swim bodies of water and generally knock themselves out in the name of making a little dosh for good causes.

I would like to join in and perhaps engage in an activity to raise some money for such things but, believe me, I ain't gonna make it the end of anything calling itself 'The Four Peaks Challenge'.

Perhaps somebody could organise a 'Four Settees Challenge' where people are sponsored to sit on a variety of oversized soft furnishings for an extended period?

I could give that a go.

Or how about the 'Four Very Long Subtitled Foreign Movies Challenge' wherein the protagonists have to sit through... well, you get the idea.

I want to help... really I do.

I'm just not up to much at the moment.

Liking It So You Don't Have To #3 - Bobby Darin

My quest - to list those things I like that everybody else probably doesn't - continues.

I started with the movie 'Mission Impossible 3' and moved on to (God help us) this song. So now here's number three and it's a singer.

I think I may be off-the-mark, this time though. I mean, really, how could anyone not love this:

(turn the volume up a bit)

I love Bobby Darin.

Sorry I can't help it. I'm not an authority on him or anything and I don't own his entire back catalog either. In fact, I only have one CD of his work - a sort of a greatest hit compilation but, dammit, if I feel bad and want to feel a bit better then Bobby can do that for me and he never seems to fail.

So if you want to know everything about Bobby Darin, go look him up on Wikipedia or something. I'm only hear to tell you he's great and to play a few tunes for you.

There's one thing about Bobby that I don't like (sorry Bob). I really don't like looking at him. He was just so darn 'busy' on stage, it even gives me the jitters to YouTube him. Perhaps it's also a factor that he was so 'hip' and 'cool' that images of him now seem so much more dated than those artists who weren't trying so hard to be on the cutting edge all the time.

People might put him down 'just as a pop singer' but he was innovative and creative too. He took that song from the Threepenny Opera and made it his own in a very special way. Everybody in the world has recorded it - some versions may be better and many are doubtless worse but it's Bobby's version that sets the standard. I don't think the archive footage captures what it must have been like to hear Bobby sing 'Mack The Knife' live but I think this clip from Kevin Spacey's biopic goes some way to doing that.

Have a Look by clicking here.

I like loads of dear Bobby's songs. (Truth? I wish I could sing like that, I do).

But my absolute favorite was derived from Charles Trenet's wonderful song, 'La Mer'. Here's Charles himself doing it like the French do.

Bobby took this lovely song and he did this wonderful thing with it:

I like Bobby Darin. So you don't have to.

You really should though.