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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
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You know you’re
Heading for the door
When you get that
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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
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You know your
Credit’s on the floor
When you get that
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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
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There ain’t no love
In her online store
When you’re left with an
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HANS (by John Armstrong)

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


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.


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.