Happy New Microcosm

I have this theory that the week which runs between Christmas and New Year’s Day of a sort of a microcosm of the year we are departing and, perhaps, of our lives.

(Oh Jesus, here we go…)

No, no, bear with me.  I’ll be done with this in a minute and then I’ll tell you about some stuff I liked in 2011.

It’s natural that we would arrive at the end of another year all-introspective and perhaps a little maudlin.  No matter what other circumstances pertained, we would probably still do this.  Although it’s really just another day, we have learned to measure out our lives in bite sized portions and to place markers of its demise repeatedly along our way.

So, yeah, we’re always going to feel we’re at the end of one thing and the start of another on this day of all days, on New Year’s Eve.

But that Christmas Week we’ve just completed, it sets us up for it, I think.

It’s like our year, it’s like our life.

It’s full of promise, at first.  It starts out with music and lights and companionship and excitement and… well, you know how it starts.  Then the promise doesn’t quite deliver – it’s good but it’s not as good as it’s built up to be – then it slides into the doldrums  Then it dies. 

And it all happens in a week.

Therein lies the rub.

You see, at first, Christmas week stretches ahead of us like a promise of peace and leisure which may never end.  And then it all goes so quickly… so very quickly.

As a year goes quickly…

As a life goes quickly.

So, it’s hardly a wonder that we might ponder our future, our past, our very existence on this day of all days.  After all, we have just watched our lives play out in miniature, right before our pudding-stained eyes.

So, yeah, here comes 2012.  It will probably be quick and edgy just like all the others were.  Live it and love it the very best you can.

Now, that's quite enough of that.

                     *                 *                *                  *

I liked some books and films and stuff which I came upon this year.  Mostly, though, they wouldn’t be from this year.  I am usually several steps behind the Zeitgeist and I like it that way.  Besides, new stuff is so damned expensive.

Books: Castlebar Book Club showed me some of my favourite books of this year, they included:

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

Film:  The film which stood apart for me this year is, again, not of this year:  The Secret in Their Eyes.  I also greatly enjoyed ‘Super 8’ with my family and 'True Grit', which has stayed with me in a rather surprising way.  There is lots from 2011 that I haven’t seen yet – I’m a DVD man, mostly.  I am most looking forward to ‘Tinker Tailor…’.

Theatre:  Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’, beamed to my cinema on St Patrick’s Day, was a high point in many respects.  Bruiser’s Othello, in the Linenhall, was also brilliant.

I don’t expect that my liking something will encourage you to try it but, if you see something here and then see other people liking it too, perhaps the collective liking will bring you to it.  That’s my hope anyway.

Thanks for stopping by, this year. I have no idea what kind of posts next year will bring but then I never do.   To quote Indiana Jones, “I’m making this up as I go.”

Happy New Year.


As Close to a Prayer

I lost the knack of praying a long time ago. Nowadays a heartfelt wish is about as good as I can do. So here’s one.

But first, a little context.

My son had one of his return visits to his Orthodontist earlier this week. He’s been having some pretty serious realignment done for just over a year now. The dentist-guy, who wears cool protective glasses, pronounced my son’s progress as being remarkable and announced that some of the more obtrusive blocks can be removed early next year.

My reaction to this news surprised me a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I was, quite literally, overjoyed.  It was a definite over-reaction and much more of a one than my son had. He reckoned it was ‘pretty cool’ and he moved on with other stuff just like he always does.

I know why I reacted as I did. It’s mostly because of how lucky we’ve been. So very lucky. I’m not superstitious at all but still I touch wood as I write that last sentence, you have to cover your ass in any way possible.

We have two great boys and neither of them (touch that wood again) have known serious sickness or hurt or pain in their lives.  We’ve been so lucky.  I’d go for ‘blessed’ but I lost the knack of ‘blessed’ a long time ago too.

So I’ll never forget the awful day that I first brought my son to get his orthodontic stuff fitted. I wasn’t really warned, or prepared, so I sat in the waiting room and waited for him to come out. It took a long time.

The moment when he came out was, without question, one of the worst of my life. His mouth seemed to be packed tight with ‘stuff’, metal and plastic 'stuff' and his jaw hung open awkwardly and, truth be told, rather grotesquely. But it was his eyes…  his eyes looked at me and said to me, ‘Is this real?’ ‘Do I really have to do this?’ ‘Can’t you make this better for me?’

I ran into the surgery. The guy looked surprised behind his cool glasses but not too much. 

“This can’t be right,” I said, “Look at him, his mouth is hanging open.”

“He’ll get used to it,” the guy smiled, “don’t worry.”

And he did. Stoic little John. Within a single day he had taken it all on board, dealt with it effortlessly, and his being-okay-with-it made it okay for me too.

Many of you may laugh at this story of mine. Stupid, lucky, blessed, Ken, who thinks an hour at an orthodontic appointment is to watch your child suffer. I don’t blame you, not at all.  

But it’s not that.

My tiny experience gave me my only taste of what it must be like to have a son or a daughter who is unwell.  It was like that thing the old priests used to do – run your finger across a candle flame to get a gauge of the thousand-fold agony of their ‘hell’.

Those feelings I had that day. The dread, the helplessness, the genuine wish that there was some orthodontic brace that I could wear for him that would straighten his teeth.  Some bloody way that I could just take this bullet for him.  Those feelings gave me a minuscule taste of what life might be like with a sick child.

So today, as the first of the orthodontic blocks get ready to come out. My thoughts are with you, you parents whose children are unwell. I won’t throw the cliché at you and say that I don’t know how you do it.  I reckon that you don’t either.  We simply have to drink from the cup we are given, don’t we? But my heart goes out to you, it really does.

And I wish you things. I wish you well. I wish that the coming year sees your kid get better and better every day and, if that simply cannot be, I wish you the strength and reserves to cope and to support your stoic child.

And that’s about as close to a prayer as I can get for you. I really mean it though.

Perhaps that counts for something, somewhere.

Like Poe

I feel like I am inside a story by Edgar Allan Poe.

There are two reasons for this and I’ll tell you about the second one shortly.  The first reason, obviously, is because I killed the Old Man.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t cut him up and hide him under the floorboards. Nothing so melodramatic. I smothered him with his greasy old pillow.  I smothered him until he was dead and I’m glad I did it.

He had me demented.  Literally, I think, because I wouldn’t normally have smothered anybody.  Well, I never did before and I don’t feel inclined to ever do so again. I think ‘Demented’ is fair enough.

It wasn't easy, either, the smothering of him.  I thought it would be easier.  He seemed weak and useless until I pressed the pillow to his gob but he livened up fairly sharpish then, I can tell you.  He bucked and kicked like a young horse in a field and he seemed to do it for the longest time.  One song on the bedside clock radio played right-the-way through and the next one had started before he finally settled himself down and died.  ‘Careless Whisper’ I think the second one was, although I was quite distracted.

He didn’t look quite-right then, after I had taken the pillow away from his face.  He looked shocked and anguished and I thought the Doctor might be suspicious of that.  So I tried to rearrange his face a bit.  That was horrible, the grizzled scratchy bristles on him and the saliva… ach!  It was all for naught anyway.  No matter what I tried, he seemed intent on holding on to the stupid expression he died with. 

I had one good idea before I gave up.  I pulled his false teeth out and plonked them in the water glass by the clock/radio.  He didn’t look any better because of that but I think he did look a lot older and more likely to be dead.

The Doctor didn’t say much.  I told him how his breathing had become laboured and how I tried to rub menthol on his chest but it had been no use.  He looked at me intently for a moment when his examination of the corpse was over.

“Did you help him along the road, Molly?” he asked me.  The cheek of him.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, and the haughtiness in my voice was as real as you could like.

We left it at that then.

Oh, I was sorry I had to kill him.  He was my Father, after all, and he had been good enough to Mam and me in his day.  And I didn’t begrudge minding him when he got sick but seven years was enough.  He should have been thinking about dying by himself after seven years.  I had some living to be getting along with and – I know it sounds awful – but seven years into his sickness, he just seemed to have started to get in the way of all that.

It was just me and him in the house.  The Brother had gone to Manchester for work years ago and only rang when it suited him.  So it was Daddo and me, together into the long Winter nights.  I used to read him stories.  He liked the Poes, ‘House of Usher’ and such.  Maybe that’s where I got the idea for what I did.  Maybe not.

The last year was the worst, mostly on account of that phone.  The Brother came home in the Spring and bought the Auld Fella a mobile phone, of all things, so that he could ring him whenever he wanted.  A mobile phone!  I thought he’d never get the hang of something like that, stuck in the bed as he was, but I was wrong.  He took to it like a duck to water.

The worst was that he discovered texting.  Don’t ask me how.  He must have saw something about it on the telly, that’s the only possible explanation.  Anyway, he started texting me whenever he wanted anything.  I mean, it wasn’t like I was in Timbuktu or something, I was usually only in the kitchen or, God Forgive, the toilet.

“I’m hungry.”

“I need the commode.”

“Where are you?”

He needed a text reply too.  It wasn’t enough for him that you went and seen to whatever he needed, oh no, he needed to know you were on your way – even if you were only in the next room.  He liked getting texts, I suppose, and I was the only one left that he knew.

It became unending and very, very annoying to a poor girl who was only trying to do her best.

So I murdered him.

I believe that phone and its unending texts was at least half the reason I killed him with that pillow.  So thank your son for that, you old goat, him and his free phone.

He was buried two weeks ago, in the little family graveyard up behind the back garden of the house.  They’re all buried up there; Mam, Gertie, Jacob, Billy, Martin and Sean.  No, I didn’t kill any of them, just my Dad.

So, yes, I feel like I’m in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, as I was saying at the start.  The killing of him is one obvious-enough reason.  The second reason is a little odder…

I’ve started doing ‘Automatic Writing’, you see…

Poe might not have wrote about it much but he used to do it, I think, and there was another story that Dad used to like me to read, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ by W. F. Harvey.  There was plenty of automatic writing in that one. 

You know what it is.  It’s where you pick up a pen and your hand starts writing stuff without you knowing anything about it.  So, yes, I’ve started doing that…

Only not with a pen.

I've started doing it with my phone.

You think I’m mad now but I’m not.  There’s a lock on my phone that I put on before I put it in my pocket and that stops my hip from hitting buttons and ringing up numbers it has no business ringing.  We’ve all had calls like that, where all you can hear is someone puffing and panting along the road and you know it’s their keys or their wallet that’s called you rather than them.

Well the lock on my phone must have broke.  It doesn’t ring people up though.  That would be too normal for the likes of me.  No…

It writes texts.

I know, I know, but it does.  It doesn’t send them to anyone, it just writes them.  It’s not strange or anything, it’s just the jiggling about that my phone gets in my pocket as I go about my chores. 

The first text was unremarkable enough. It read;


I cursed when I saw it and resolved to take the phone into the shop to get the lock on it fixed or replaced or something.  Of course, I forgot.  The next text my phone wrote was much the same and the next and the next until I got used to seeing silly messages on my phone whenever I took it out of my pocket.

The message I saw on Tuesday of this week stopped me in my tracks.

“for you.”

It said. 

That was all.

“for you.”

I deleted it and moved on but it was oddly unsettling.  I couldn’t say why, not then.  I can now, of course.

The next message came soon after, on Wednesday morning.

“oming for you.”

I stared at that for a long time.  I eventually decided that the phone had also managed to switch on that predictive text setting that makes up real words for you.  That was the explanation.  I still stared though.

When the text beeped on Thursday, I looked at it with a little fear in the back of my mind.

“am coming for you.”

That settled it.  I had to admit it.  My subconscious guilt was writing macabre texts to me.  I had to get rid of the phone, that was the only way.

So I did. 

Until this evening.

Until a few moments ago.

I heard it beep, you see, in the spare room where I threw it.  I heard a message come in and it couldn’t be one I subconsciously wrote because the phone was locked away from me.

I creeped into the spare room, lifted the phone and read

“I am coming for you.”

I dropped it like it was molten lead.

It was him.  He was texting me from his phone down in his grave up the back field and he was coming from me.  He was_


I rushed into his room.  It smelled of him still.  There it was, on his bedside table, his phone.  I picked it up and examined it.  No messages had been sent.  It was dormant, like himself.

So here I am now, sitting in my kitchen, Midnight Saturday night.  There hasn’t been any more messages since.  The phone is on the table in front of me, with the Whiskey.  He is two weeks buried tonight – a sort of anniversary.

The phone rings and I jump and spill my drink.  It’s not a text, it’s a phone call.  I guess that’s all right.



“Yes.  Who’s that?”

“Sergeant Mulcahy, at the Station, sorry to bother you so late.”

“What is it?  Who’s dead?”

“No, nobody’s dead… well…”

“Spit it out.”

“There’s been a… a…”

“A what for Christ’s sake!”

“A desecration.  I’m sorry.”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s your Father’s Grave. We got a call. It’s been disinterred… dug up_”

I cut him off and rush to the window.  The moon is in its first quarter and casts a faint misty pall on the frosty night.  The gate leading into the graveyard is closed tight, as it always is.

The text beeps.  I don’t want to see it but I have to look.

“I am coming for you.”

It beeps again.

“I AM Coming For You.”

And again.


I look out the window again.  The back gate, leading from the graveyard, is swinging open and askew on its ancient hinges and there is a trail in the frosty path – a damp track down the cobbled way.

The phone sounds a text.

And again.

And again.

I don’t look at them.  I don’t need to.  I know what they say.

There is a knocking at the back door.  More of a scratching really.  Yes, that’s it, a scratching.

I suppose I’d better answer it.

(c) Ken Armstrong 2011

If You Ever Walk Alone…

This post seems to be part of a loose theme which has recurred in my posts over the last month or so.  Please forgive me, I think today’s grumpy observations will put the matter to bed once and for all.

The theme might best be described as ‘Meeting People in Public’.  I’ve touched on ‘Supermarket Meetings’ and ‘Walking Alongside People in the Street’, now it’s time for ‘Greeting People in the Street’.  Don’t worry, it won’t take long (one of my best lines).

I’ve touched on this before.  I am a 'Serial-Say-Hello-er.  I tend to say hello to people in the street as I pass them.  Not everybody, that would be silly, but quite a few, which is still silly.

As with most things I do, this maniacal greeting of street-folk is largely driven by fear.  When I walk, I generally exist in a dream-world somewhere between waking and Narnia.  Often, people will say to me, “You’re off in a wee world of your own there.”  Because of this, I’m always afraid that I will breeze past someone I know without saying hello to them and, worse, probably talking to myself as well.  

Add to this that I only snap out of my reveries when someone is coming really close to me and you;ll appreciate that only I have a very limited time to figure out whether I actually know them or not.

Do I?  Don’t I?  The easiest thing is to just say hello and be on the safe side.  So that’s what I do.



“Nice day, hello.”

I’ve grown accustomed to getting a lot of ‘no-replies’… actually, strike that, no I haven’t.  I’m only saying that to try to appear reasonable and, in matters of street-greeting, I am far from reasonable.  'No replies' annoy me but I have grown to be philosophical about them.  There are foreign nationals who I greet who haven’t a clue what I am on about, there are ladies who are terrified of my unsolicited leering cheerfulness and there are a brace of sullen Connaught Men who just think I’m a feckin’ eejit.  These are understandable reactions and I tolerate them albeit somewhat reluctantly.

I reserve some annoyance for those folk who stare at you pointedly as they approach you, as if demanding a greeting then, when you give them one, they ignore you completely.  There is a special circle of hell for those miserable bastards and I will doubtless see them there ,where they will doubtless diss me yet again.

But this is all old-stuff.

There’s a new thing.

Well, I say new, it’s been emerging over the last few years but it’s now got to a stage where a learned paper on the subject (such as this) needs to be published.

What we’re talking about here is what we shall now call the ‘Rudeness in Numbers’ phenomenon.   Here’s how it works:

Every morning, I meet two older men, walking in the opposite direction to me.  They are out taking their constitutional while I am heading to work.  Dressed in track suits and trainers, they cut an inspiring figure in the morning gloom, it’s almost as if they are sent there to assure me that there will be life and leisure and health and activity after retirement, after my work is done.

It’s great to see them.  So, obviously, I say hello.  “Good morning.”  “Nice day.” Etc etc etc…

No reply.


Not one syllable.

These people live in my neighborhood.  I know them to see on a day-to-day basis.  And we’re right there, face-to-face on the deserted street… and they can’t manage a single bloody hello between them.

Of course, I gave up eventually.  I’m only human.  After weeks and months of un-reciprocated greetings, I reverted into sullen stony-faced ignoring.  And is it my imagination or do the keep-fit-geriatrics seem even more hostile and walled now that I refuse to greet them?

This is only half the story.

Last week I met one of the pair out walking alone.  Just one.  I approached him without too much concern.  My mind had been made up long ago, these feckers don’t get my greeting whether there’s one or forty-thousand of them.  I’m walking past and I’m not uttering a single bloody_

He stopped me.

He stood in front of me, blocking my way, and he stopped me.

And he chatted… the bugger actually had the gall to chat to me.

And as for me?  I chatted back.  It’s how I roll, I’m a forgiving person.  It’s not a trait I admire in myself, this lack of vengeful grudge-bearing but it’s in my genes or something.

So we chatted.  The weather, where’s your friend (sick), economy, road works and weather again to close.  Then we went on our way.  I felt better, I like to think he felt better too.  The day went well.

You can guess the rest.

The other morning they were reunited again, the walking half-dead.  I gave them my best cheery ‘Good morning’ as they approached me.  I focused on the chatty one.  That made no difference.  They both ignored me, completely.  They didn’t even acknowledge I existed.

If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t mind – actually, strike that too, of course I would mind.  But this has happened to me a few times now with different characters involved.  People on their own are friendly and nice, people in pairs are absolute bastards.

I haven’t figured out why this is yet but you can be sure a follow-up post will appear just as soon as I do.

I bet you cannot wait.