Finishing Strong –Simon Ricketts and Me

Sometimes, after posting one of my Sunday blogs, I might get a message from Simon saying something like, “I figured you’d be writing about this today so I swung by to have a read.” Simon would certainly have figured what I would be writing about late into last night and this morning but, alas, he won’t be swinging by to see it.

When a person dies, I like to say just like that, ‘they died’. But for Simon, I think ‘passed on’ is actually a better fit. Simon has died but he has also very much passed on.

He has passed on to a special place in the many hearts where he will be alive forever.

He has passed on into legend.

I was lucky enough to meet Simon a couple of times but our friendship was mostly enacted through Twitter and, more recently, over on Facebook too. A lot of the interaction was public but there was also the considerable underbelly of messaging where more personal truths were often exchanged.

At first, we were all part of a social media cohort. A loose community of folk who tended to drift in and out of each other’s consciousness. At the centre of this amorphous collective, there were a bunch of people who just seemed to get along really well. I imagine there were a thousand such collectives – maybe a million – across the entire social media universe. But ours felt a bit special… perhaps they all did. This fellowship gently disbanded over time, as fellowships tend to do, but a kernel of people never quite managed to let each other go. We might not have spoken every day or even every week but we remained strangely ‘aware’ of each other. Our little successes raising us all up a little, our trials pricking our collective hearts.

Simon was a firm part of that collective but, man, he was so much more too. He was a superb communicator, always sharp and witty, kind yet edgy all at once. As was the case with many of us then, his life played out a little week by week on Twitter. I will always remember his Saturdays in particular, going to the match, retiring with his great friend Glen to the pub for a couple of pints, taking in the ‘turn’ then home to the cats for a late pizza.

We always got on really well, Simon and me. I like to think it was empathy that played a part in loosely binding us together. We both seemed to have a lot of empathy for stuff. We understood how that could be both a blessing and a curse.

So that was it. Simon Ricketts. To me, a valued member of a loose collective. A free-flowing social media friendship, slowly formed. That was enough, it was plenty.

But then he went and did something that amazed me. He came to see me. He hired a car and he came to Ireland and he drove over here to the west coast to my town. To come to see me.

We had us a day. I wrote about it here. We drove around and I showed him stuff, we walked a little and sat and ate seafood and drank a pint or two at the end of the day after the driving was done. He said he had wanted to meet me and I sure as hell wanted to meet him.

I think his coming all this way to see me illustrates an important aspect of who Simon was. I think it can serve as a microcosm of his overall wonderfulness. Maybe he just wanted to see me, like he said. Maybe that was the beginning and the end of it. But I don’t think so. I think he sensed that perhaps I needed to see someone, someone real from out of all the internet relationships I have come to lean quite heavily on. I was so remote, you see, that sometimes my absence from the occasional meetups would make me feel isolated and not really belonging. By coming all this way, to see me, he did me a huge service. It was a boost that still boosts me to this very day, many years along. He made me feel a bit important.

And, yes, there it is. The microcosm. Isn’t that what Simon did so well? He made his friends feel a bit important. Regardless of whether they were online sketches of people or real flesh and blood folk. He made us feel important. And it wasn’t any sleight of hand or three card trick he was pulling when he did it. No. We felt important to him because we were important to him. He cared. He really bloody cared and we really bloody mattered to him.

I don’t want to paint him as an angel and I don’t want to paint him as a saint. That was perhaps the greatest part of it, the fact that he wasn’t an angel and he wasn’t a saint. He was a man. In person, he was earthy and mischievous and sometimes downright naughty. In our times together he said things that I would never repeat but which made me slap my thigh at the wonderful ‘incorrectness’ of them. I’ll sum it up as we do in these parts and I really mean this too… Simon was Great Crack. And in case you feel like correcting me and telling me that word I’m searching for is actually ‘Craic’ then, sorry, ‘Craic’ is for the tourists; in these here parts, we call it Crack.

Gibbzer was a great friend too and when those two found each other, it was such a delight to see. It’s not for me to type here how I know he felt about her but I know it and I’m positive she knows it too. They had a marvellous adventure in their too-brief time together and they travelled the hard road together too. They were each other’s prize.

Simon is gone today and I can only begin to guess how I will miss knowing he is out there. Sometimes he would message me, offering some private counterpoint to whatever was currently happening in the public online domain. I wish he would do that now, to tell me that what I’m seeing is not really true, but I know that is not to be. People who don’t know about online stuff think that it’s not really real but it is. It is all too real.

I think Simon has left me some important lessons about living. About owning the good things and also the bad things that get thrown at you. He’s taught me a little about dying too, I reckon, that you can bring people along with you quite a long way, until you can bring them no further.

The final lesson, though, is about social media and maybe that is as it should be.

All the Twitters and Facebooks and such are damaged goods now. They are not what they were and they never will be again. But we can still use them. Simon showed me how his social media became his bionic arm. Even as his body failed him, he utilised his social media so that he remained strong and sharp and witty and loving right up to the final moments of his life.

He used it to finish strong.

And he did, he finished strong.

He never shirked from his illness and the trials and tribulations that it brought along with it. He told it like it was. But he played the game, the game never played him. He never lost his empathy, his strength, his humour, not in this public arena, not for a moment.

And we will remember him this way. We will remember him as a beacon for what was best in all the myriad of online relationships that we weave. A force for warmth and truth in the world. A good man to know.

And me?

I will also be able to remember the bloke who waited outside the library for me though I was a little late and who smiled at me when I crossed the road to greet him.

And how I smiled back.

Christmas – Achieved

On the second day of January 2018, I ended my Christmas holiday and went back to work. 

I remember saying to myself at the time, “it’s going to be a while before you stop again, Ken.”

I was right.

(Photo by Richard Szwejkowski)

Last Friday, I locked up the office and started into my Christmas break for 2018. Since that previous January, I had managed just one day’s holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I had my weekends and I had most of the bank holidays too. Sometimes I left work early and I had a couple of days away early in the year but they were very far from being a holiday.

When I try to figure out why Christmas means so much to me these days, I think that must be a large part of it. The stopping. The being able to do something different. To slow down. To hibernate a little. Sit and read. Watch a film I’ve seen a score of time before. Take a walk.

It’s like a video game where you struggle and struggle and then win a little bonus for yourself. A little gold coin, perhaps. Christmas is that gold coin. Achievement unlocked.

I love Christmas because I’m stopped but it’s also important that the people I work with and for are largely stopped too. Nobody is after me.

The day I start these holidays is a strange dizzying time. It’s like being thrown, fully clothed, into the deep end of ‘nothing to do’. It reminds me of a goldfish we once had. He was in a little round bowl and he stayed there for a while. Eventually, we got him a bigger rectangular tank and put him in there. But, here’s the thing, he still swam around in that tight little circle inside the big tank. He couldn’t get his head around the space. That’s what I’m like on these first days of the Christmas break. I can’t sit for too long. I can’t rest. I clean the house like a maniac. It’s like I’m building a nest wherein I will hatch Christmas.

At this moment, I’m just about over that ‘lost goldfish’ stage. I’m starting to settle into this different routine. There’s still a hundred things to do but they’re a different hundred things. I’ve still got a small bit of shopping to do and the bedroom needs a good going over but the carols are on the speakers as I type this and the fridge is well stocked and nobody is calling me and there’s no place that I really have to be.

It’s a moment to savor. The holiday stretches out like an endless thing but I know that feeling will only last for the shortest of times. I have to be one place on one day, I have to be another place on another day. Soon the gentle rise of the long break will be peaked and the end will be there in full sight below. Long before the holiday is over, my mind will return to what I have to do and how I will do it.

The holiday is never as long as it seems, not in my mind.

But that’s Christmas future. For the present, there is peace in this preternaturally tidy house. The voices on my speakers proclaim a ship sailing in and the lights of the little tree here in my room are flat and white and even.

I wish you a Happy Christmas. I really do. I hope there are a few moments that are markedly different from the rest of the year.

I’m going out now, to explore the unfamiliar corners of my Christmas.

Who knows what I might find?

Saying Thanks to Nobody

This will probably be a weird one.

It’s usually a sign that a weird one is about to come out when my mind keeps on saying, “Write something else, Ken, you can’t write that.”

So, you know, brace yourself or whatever.

When I go to bed every night, I have a very simple routine. I read. I can’t sleep without reading. Well, I probably could but I never try. Even it was four o’clock in the morning, I would still be reading before sleep. As I’ve described elsewhere (in what is oddly one of my favourite posts) there comes a moment when the words on the page meld into the words in my head and I start to read a strange dreamlike story that is not in the book. That’s when I know it’s time for a kip.

That might be a bit weird but only a bit. It’s not the actual weird thing. I’m trying to work myself up to that.

After the book is put down and the bedside light is switched off, I go to sleep. I tend to go to sleep really quickly and easily. The sleep may not always continue all night but it often does and I get there pretty quick.

But just as I’m heading off out, sleep descending, I do the weird thing.

I say thanks.

I run through some of the best things that happened in that day. They are tiny things, often. Something funny, something sweet, something that deserves a little acknowledgement. Something to be grateful for. And I say thanks for them.

Then I go to sleep.

“Not so weird, Ken,” you might say, “not so bad at all.”

You’re right, of course, it’s not weird at all. It’s kind of nice really. Except… well, except to me. It still seems kind of weird to me. I like doing it and I think it sends me off to sleep in a good and positive frame of mind. But, yes, it’s still weird to me. I mean, who am I thanking, exactly?

That’s a simple question but there’s no easy answer to it.

I was brought up in the same religious regime that most of my peers were. A Catholic schooling with all the trimmings. Mass on Sundays and all of the holy days. Being a thoughtful kind of a young fella, more of that stuff may have rubbed off on me that it did on many of the others. But, then again, many of the others are probably still going to mass every Sunday and I am not. I like to think I know more about Catholic stuff than most of the people I know. I did years serving on the altar as a kid and I had a religious instruction teacher who delighted in briefing us on the minutia of the dogma, something that was always interesting to me.

So, yeah, that all makes sense. Easy, really. I’m giving thanks to God every night. Sorted.

The trouble is. I don’t believe in God anymore. I haven’t in a long time.

Even when I say that out loud, it sounds rather belligerent and confrontational to me. But it’s not. There’s a kind of dull sadness attached to my saying that, rather than any ‘stand up and I’ll fight you’ mentality. Something that was given to me as a child has been lost and I guess some childish comfort has probably been lost with it too. I think I envy people who believe in their God. They can derive strength from knowing they are not on their own in the universe. That someone will be waiting for them at the end of their road with some tea and possibly a nice piece of cake.

So, if that's the case, and it is, who do I talk to when I say thanks at night?

Well, the truth is, I know who it is and I will tell you but you’re probably not going to like it.

Yes, you may have guessed it. It’s God.

As I just finished telling you, I don’t believe in God. No great reason. At some point it just came to me that there is no tangible reason for me to believe that God exists and that there is a shed load of tangible reasons for me to believe that he/she does not. To think otherwise is to deny my own mind, my own reason. I’m not an atheist, at least I don’t think so. The definitions of those things mix me up a bit sometimes. I think I’m a cheerful agnostic. I’d be quite happy to find a wonderful existence beyond this one, where all those gone before reside. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t believe it.

So, about that thing I do at night, before I fall asleep? What the fuck is that about so?

I’m not sure. It’s a sleepy thing. My theory, for what it’s worth, goes like this: In that sleepy moment, where I am cosy and warm and all wrapped up, I allow myself a moment to revert to a time when questions and answers were easier and not to be challenged. I want to thank someone or something for the good things of the day, if only to acknowledge to myself that I am at a lucky and happy time of my life, to acknowledge that this cannot last forever and that I must treasure it while I can. Because there is nobody obvious to thank, I call upon my memory and find somebody there to whom I can express my gratitude. And I do.

So that’s it. This week’s weird thing. Before I go to sleep, every night, I appear to say thanks to a God I don’t believe in.

You might scoff and say, “Get over yourself, Ken. You obviously still believe in God and you might as well stop trying to convince yourself otherwise.” It’s a thought and I do sometimes think about it. But I don’t conclude that it’s right. When I look as deep as I can, I can’t see that inside of me. Once I even wrote about how I should perhaps just decide to be a believer, despite what I think. To make it an act of faith of the kind that religions often promote. I can’t manage to do that either, though. We can only be true to ourselves and what we believe, that’s all we’ve got.

I think the main proof that I don’t believe in whoever I thank every night is this. I never, ever ask for anything. No matter how dire the circumstance, I never seek any intervention or help from on high. I just don’t think help is there to be had. No, I just run through a few good things from the day, say a quick ‘thank you’, and then toddle off to sleep.

Who am I thanking?

God only knows.

Jumping Up and Down for Sally

I want to jump up and down a bit for Sally. I think I just might.

I’ve been really good up until now. Understated, mature, that kind of thing. I’ve said things like, “That’s great, isn’t it?” and “Gosh, how really well deserved that latest award is.”

But, damn it all, it deserves a little more. It deserves a jumping up and down, doesn’t it?

I’ve known Sally Rooney since she was quite young and we’ve been pals for a long, long time. That might sound a bit odd because, you know, she’s young and I’m old but it’s not odd at all. We both liked writing and reading and doing plays and stuff and our families knew each other in a number of different ways. Sally was in - what was it? - I’ll say four of my plays and she came to the local writer’s group every couple of weeks. The first thing we did was write a little radio play together, her and a group of kids her age, and then we performed and recorded it. Once, at an open mic thing, when I was stuck for someone to read a little two-hander play of mine with me, she stepped in, sight-unseen, and read the shit out of it. The earlier posts on this very blog are peppered with her encouraging comments.

Fond memories, all.

And she dreamed a dream of writing. And she wrote. And she beat the world with her writing. The whole damn world.

And I just think it’s fucking fantastic. It makes me want to jump up and down. It makes me want to bake a cake and put candles on it and blow them all out. It makes me want to get a pinata and hang it up and thump it with a stick and eat all the sweets that fall out of it.

I’ve been good up until now but this is not a time for being good. It’s a time for jumping up and down.

I can feel proud too. Well, I feel proud whether I’m supposed to or not. I feel proud because I knew she was a great writer at a time where I think only she and I knew it. I used to joke with her that we were the two best writers in Mayo and I always knew I was only ever fifty per cent right but, man, was I ever fifty percent, right?

When she got into Trinity and was able to study English Literature, I was sure that something wonderful would result. I sent her a quote on one of these social media things, “Sail on silver girl, sail on by.” The Castlebar phase of the writing development was over. This fledgling genius friend of mine was now going away to soak up the best stuff that literature had to offer and to take it and meld it with her own natural brilliance. It was almost inevitable that something bold would ensue from all of this. Almost inevitable, mind, not inevitable. For these things to work out, it’s not enough to be brilliant. There also has to perseverance and commitment and faith and hope in copious measure.

Hang on. Let me jump up and down for a minute.

That’s better.

“Look at this git”, some might say, “prattling on about his involvement in this wonderful story. Trying to get a few more clicks on his blog off the back of the success of his friend.” Nah. You’re missing the point. I’m not suggesting I actually did anything. I didn’t do anything. When Sally came to the writing group as a teenager, she was already a fine writer and the seeds of the work she would come to do were already well planted. So, no, I didn’t do 'nuttin' for nobody' and I know it. But, wait, strike that, I did do one thing. I saw her coming, from a long way off, I saw that. I can be pleased about that, can’t I?

Another part of the joy is that Sally remains such a lovely person through it all. She is kind and self-effacing and generous and considerate as well as being colossally smart. And yet another part of the joy of it all is the thread of steel that runs through her. An unerring sense of social injustice. A willingness to pursue the argument when she knows she’s on the right side of it. A barely contained rage against many of the awful things in our world.

She’s a good person and good people don’t always beat the world like this.

So. Here. I. Am. Jumping. Up. And. Down.

And those people who look at Sally now and who say, “She’s going to do amazing things in the future.” To those people, who I know only mean well, I have to say, “Wake up!”. Look around you. Totally amazing things have already been done. If Sally never wrote another word, she has already written herself into the league of literary heavyweights. You read her books and the stories stay with you but it’s the building blocks of those stories, the thoughts, the phrases, the ideas, these are the things that tickle our subconscious and let us know that there is more going on here than just a narrative.

Sally’s life isn’t perfect. That’s not any kind of insight. Nobody’s life is perfect. There will be stress and worry and pain and trouble, just as there is with all of us. Wanting to be a writer and then becoming a wonderful one does not guarantee anyone a blissful existence or any kind of happy ever after.

But it is still something amazing. Something rare. An ambition fulfilled. A battle won. A real-life dream-come-true. It may not be everything but it is certainly something. Something really, really big. And it warrants a little more than the polite pleasure I’ve been expressing up until now.

It warrants a bit of jumping up and down.

Well done Sally, you’ve only gone and beaten the entire whole wide world.

I just couldn’t be more delighted.

Dear Nice Lady, Dear Kind Man

Dear Nice Lady, Dear Kind Man,

I am writing to you here because I could not speak to you in person. You were gone too quickly after your acts of kindness towards me and there was neither the time nor the opportunity for chat. Although you will never see this, I thought I should write it for my own good and also in case someone who has never done me such a kindness might read it and know never to do such a kindness themselves.

What did you do that was so kind and yet so terrifyingly dangerous that I hope to never see anyone do it again? 

What could it be?

Well, it’s not much really. Only a little thing. A passing moment in a busy day. But still, without any shadow of a doubt, a true act of kindness. A moment of unselfish generosity. A moment of reaching out and caring for someone you never saw before and who you will probably never see again. Let’s hold that in our minds, as I proceed to tear it all apart. How truly kind a thing it was to do.

I imagine you reading this now, wondering, “Could this be me? Was I the kind one? What did I do?”

You waved me across the street, that’s essentially what you did. And I appreciate you doing it. Can’t you tell? I just hope against hope that you never ever do it again.

I should explain.

Down in the town, somewhere between my house and my office, there is a very busy road. The cars in both directions are a pretty constant stream and the people inside them rarely look left of right, so intent are they on their destinations and the insulated worlds in which they sit.

Luckily, to help with crossing this road, there is a pedestrian crossing. It’s not a fancy zebra or pelican or any animal like that. It’s just a traffic light, green orange red, and a green and a red man for the pedestrians to know when to cross.

I have seen awful things at this pedestrian crossing. Cars that sail through the red light at speed, their drivers having no apparent clue that the light is even there. Mostly those drivers are on their phones, chattering away or, God help us, texting furiously, their face down deep into the steering wheel. Once, an oncoming car stopped righteously on the red and, as I was walking across, the car behind that one overtook it and tore through the red light, very nearly taking me with it.

These terrible things anger or irritate me, depending on what type of day I am having. Sometimes I shrug it off and carry on with my day. Sometimes I shout after the light-breaking fool and flip them an angry finger. Mostly I’m alarmed as I envisage what might happen as a result of this behaviour. Because I’m fairly okay, really, I’m a grown man who has navigated impossible traffic in London and Bangkok and Sydney. I can handle your ill behaviour. But this particular pedestrian light is on the route to and from school for so many young kids. When the little man goes green on the light, and they step out into the melee, do they know that the car bearing down on them might not be inclined to stop? It is a worry.

But, Dear Lady and Kind Man, you are the polar opposite of these maniacs. You are possibly the last caring people in the world and here I am about to put you down. I’m sorry but it’s for all of our own good.

Here’s how I met you.

It’s an awful day. The rain really pelting down. I arrive at the pedestrian crossing, just wanting to be home. I push the button and there’s a wait. There’s always a wait. The traffic is busy and demanding and it doesn’t grind to a halt easily.

So I wait.

And then, Nice Lady and Kind Man, here you come. Not together of course. You are separated by months and sometimes years but still here you come. You see me from your car when hardly anyone ever sees me and you see that it’s raining and that I’m getting wet and you note that you are warm and dry in your car and you do it. You do the most decent thing that anyone will probably do anywhere in that day. You slow your car and you stop. You smile at me warmly and you wave me across.

But the light is still green.

You shouldn’t be stopped. You shouldn’t be waving me across the road.

The road to hell is paved (or, in this case, tarmacked) with good intentions.

You mean well, you mean the very best, but you have to become aware that with your kindness and good intentions you are possibly waving me onward to my doom. The light is still green and the cars behind you may not be able to go anywhere but the cars coming in the other direction see only the green light and they know nothing of me being waved warmly across the road.

You mean well but you are killing me.

At first, I smiled warmly at you and waved you onward. And you went, obviously baffled at my lack of acceptance of your kind offer. But, as time went on, and more and more of your lovely kind appeared, I became ever more frustrated and even angry. As with the non-stopping fools on their phones, I thought of the kid on his way home from school. I thought of you stopping and smiling and waving him out into the gloom and the faint glow of the green light. I thought of the car roaring the other direction, impervious to the child marching out into their path.

These days, when you stop on the green light and smilingly wave me across, I tend to back off as if you have attacked me. I tend to scowl and I try to look mean and upset. I don’t do this to be mean. You can’t hear me in your car and it would take too long for me to try to explain and I would probably terrify you if I tried to do so. All I can do is try to show some visible annoyance at your kind offer and hope against hope that you might suddenly realise why that might be. I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in this.

So thank you Dear Nice Lady and Dear Kind Man. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and kindness and warmth. But please, don’t stop when you have a green light and please don’t wave me across. It may be the worst kindness you will ever do.

Have a nice day, though.

Thanks for seeing me there.

Dicing with Story – Joey the Bear and The Twenty First Apple

For the 9 to 12 year old 2018 Roolaboola ‘Dicing With Story’ session, we threw the Story Cubes and we got  an Apple, a Car, a Lock, a lightning bolt, and a Vampire. 

Godzilla also featured rather prominently in the story development process so we put him in too.

This is the story we all came up with.

Joey the Bear and The Twenty First Apple

Joey the Bear was actually Joey Smith but he called himself Joey the Bear because it really annoyed his mother. In fact, his mother secretly loved it but she knew if she told Joey that she loved it he would stop using it immediately so she didn’t.

Joey the Bear was very good at most things. He was lucky like that. He was good at school and good at sports and good at making jokes and good at being nice. Important things like that. But Joey the Bear had one problem, he wasn’t the best at anything. In fact, he was pretty much second best at everything.

Did you ever hear of anything quite like that? A guy who was second best at everything he did? Well that was Joey the Bear. His friends called him ‘Mister Second Best’ when they weren’t calling him ‘Joey the Bear’ and that made him sad and frustrated.

It wasn’t just one person who was the very best at all of the things. Several people were very good at things and each of them were number one in their own field. But when it came to school stuff, there was really only one guy. Miles Long was the best at everything in the school, homework, sport, punctuality, popularity… you name it, Miles Long was it.

And, yes, that really was his real name. Miles Long. He was quite short too. It was the kind of name that people would inevitably make fun of. Except they didn’t. Miles Long was just that kind of guy. You didn’t make fun of him.

Joey the Bear longed to come first at something in school just once and he was constantly on the lookout for some way to make this happen.

“Don’t worry about it,” his Mother used to say, “Also could you please stop calling yourself Joey the Bear?” As we know, she meant the first part but she didn’t really mean the second.

But Joey did worry about it. He didn’t really have any close ‘call-around-to-the-house’ type of friends so he spent quite a lot of time plotting and calculating how he could ever manage to be first, just once. He sat on the floor in his bedroom, in among his huge comic collection, and wondered how he could ever make his dream come true. Sometimes, on really bad days, he would even ask the heroes in his comics how they always managed to come first and whether they had any tips on how he might do the same. Sometimes it felt like the comic heroes were almost building up to giving him an answer but they never did.

Then the ‘Eat an Apple a Day’ challenge came along and it seemed to offer the perfect solution to Joey’s troubles. Miss Brody announced that March would be ‘Healthy Eating Month’ and that everyone who ate an apple at lunchtime in school every day would get a gold star on the chart on the wall and that the person with the most gold stars at the end of the month would be the winner and would receive two of Mr Brody’s most collectible comics as a surprise.

Nobody cared about wall charts or about gold stars. Those things were from the era of first and second class and were now things to be actively mocked and sneered at. But Mr Brody’s comics were another matter altogether. Mr Brody was married to Miss Brody who was only a ‘Miss’ to suit the conventions of the school. She was a ‘Mrs’ everywhere else. Mr Brody’s comics were legendary. He literally had everything. The two comics on offer to the winner of the ‘Eat an Apple a Day’ challenge were there on display in the classroom, right beside the dopey wall chart and its dopey gold stars. There was a superb edition of ‘Vampire Man’ from the early Nineties and, prize of prizes, there was a first edition ‘Beast from Beyond’ from the late Eighties. Vampire Man was pretty self-explanatory. He was a blood sucking beast who had vowed to fight crime after he was bitten by a bat and his coffin was stolen by mobsters. ‘The Beast from Beyond’ was a lot like Godzilla except his tail was shorter and he didn’t roar in Japanese.

Joey the Bear wanted those comics. He loved Vampire Man and he positively revered The Beast from Beyond. But more than all of that he wanted to come first. He wanted to win just once. To be honest, he didn’t really think he could win. Miles Long was just too good, too consistent.

But, here’s the thing: Joey the Bear thought he could probably achieve a draw.

All he had to do was eat an apple every day and, if he did that, he simply could not lose. The worst he could possibly do would be to come joint-first and joint-first was still first, wasn’t it? He and Miles Long would both be first and they would share the comics and he would no longer be Mister Second Best.

And you might well wonder what of the rest of the class. Couldn’t someone step up from their ranks and also become joint winner? Well, yes, of course that might happen but it really wasn’t terribly likely. The rest of the class were fine, in their way, but they didn’t really care about things like Apples or Comics or Coming First or even Second. They cared about things like Soccer and GAA and Girls and Non-Mainstream Rap Artists and Video Games.

It all came down to Miles Long versus Joey the Bear and the race was on.

Jump forward to the morning of 29th of March. It’s Friday and it’s the final day of the ‘Eat an Apple a Day Challenge’. Of course there are thirty-one days in March, we all know that, but the challenge could only be run over school days as Miss Brody could hardly be expected to call around to students' houses to see if they had eaten their daily apple on the weekends.

On the morning of 29th of March, Joey the Bear carefully packed his twenty first apple into his lunchbox and sealed the lid. This was quite a job in itself because the apple tended to sit up higher than the lid so that the lid sometimes bruised the apple and made it a little less appetising when lunch time came. That didn’t matter though, the apple had to be eaten and that was all there was to it.

It was a dark gloomy morning which promised a storm later. You could feel it in the air, tingling and simmering nervously. The lunchbox was packed in the schoolbag and the schoolbag was packed in the back of Mum’s brand-new second-hand car, which was her absolute pride and joy, and off they drove to school in the gradually deteriorating morning.

Everything was fine.

Except for one small thing, which was very much not fine.

In his push to get everything right, Joey the Bear had neglected to attend to one small detail. He had forgotten to fully zip up his school bag, which was effectively a small rucksack. And although the suspensions of his Mum’s brand-new second-hand car were very fine indeed, they did not prevent tiny road vibrations causing the lunchbox to slip out of the open rucksack and fall down behind the front passenger seat of the car.

When Mum parked in the disused car park on the hill, as she always did, Joey grabbed his bag and Mum grabbed her briefcase and off they went to school and work respectively, never guessing that Joey’s world was about to implode.

Joey sat at his desk and waited for his adversary to arrive. He gazed over at Mile Long’s empty desk and thought about how Miles was a cool kid really and how it was a shame that their unspoken combative relationship seemed to prevent them from being friends. He gazed at the desk until the roll was called and he gazed at the desk until the maths lesson began and he gazed at the desk until…

…until he suddenly realised with an electric shock to his system.


But what wizardry was this? Miles Long was always in. He had a perfect attendance record where Joey only had a second-perfect one. Joey shot his hand in the air, interrupting some trigonometry.


“Yes, Joey, what is it?”

“Miss… where’s Miles?”

“Miles is off sick today. His mother phoned in.” Miles’ Mother was friendly with Miss Brody and they talked often on the phone. Miss Brody looked at Joey and then suddenly realised the implication of this news, “Gosh, Joey, you might win.”

There was no ‘might’ about it. The rest of the class had fallen away in their usual show of apathy and world-weariness. There was only Miles and Joey and guess what?


Miss Body smiled benevolently at Joey and then continued with her explanation of what a triangle was. But Joey could not just sit and think about acute angles and obtuse angles. He shot his hand up into the sky again.


“Yes, Joey.” The smile was perhaps not quite so benevolent this time.

“Miss. Please… could I eat my apple now?”

Miss Brogan’s mouth gathered itself into a strongly worded retort. But then she saw the little boy in front of her. The expectation on his face. The need to come first just once. Her nicer smile crept back.

“Eat it quietly, Joey, and keep paying attention and then, at break, you can collect your prize.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

Outside the storm was gathering itself to strike. You could feel it coming.

Joey lifted his rucksack up onto his desk. He noticed that the zipper on the lunchbox compartment was hanging open.

Outside the dark clouds flickered with lightning. A distant rumble of thunder.

Joey plunged his hand deep inside of the lunchbox compartment of his rucksack.

And, right then, the storm hit, in all its rage and power.

Joey the Bear’s Mum always liked parking in the deserted car park on the hill because it was like her little secret. It was close to the school and a good healthy walk to her work and nobody ever went there ever, which was admittedly a little strange.

By the time Joey the Bear ran back to the car he was soaked through and he was shivering uncontrollably. The storm was at its zenith as it roared and boiled around him. Of course the car was locked up tight. Mum always secured her most prized possession. Joey pulled and pulled on the door handles but there was no way in.

Looking around in a blind panic his eyes fell on an old wire coat hanger on the ground. He bent and picked it up. He had seen it on the telly once, a guy had opened a locked car with a coat hanger. He had eased the wire through a gap in the door window. But there was no gap in the door window. Mum would not leave any gaps in the windows of her most prized possession. Through the rear window, Joey could see his lunchbox peer out from behind the front passenger seat.

Joey’s rage and frustration spilled over to match the rage of the storm. He raised his arm to the skies and shouted his defiance to the fates that had driven him to this place. He actually saw, in his mind’s eye, the comics being blown away from his grasp.

The arm he raised held the coat hanger aloft. High into the sky it pointed, as the storm raged about him, on the highest point of the deserted car park on the hill, which was the highest point in the entire town.

“Vampire Man,” he cried, “Where are you now?”

The lightning was always going to strike.

To Joey the Bear, it felt as if he had been pushed hard by the world. He never saw the blue bolt shooting from the heavens and striking the tip of the wire coat hanger. He never felt himself drop senseless to the muddy earth.

All he knew was the darkness.

When he opened his eyes it was still dark. He was sheltered from the storm but he could still hear it rage outside.

Outside? Outside of what?

He reached out in the darkness. The ‘thing’ that enveloped him was silky and smooth beyond belief. Panicked, he thrashed against it, struggling to escape its embrace.

“Be easy my child.” The voice was silky like the cape. It was strong and sounded faintly Eastern European, like some of the better-looking girls in his class, “You have been burned by the sky and you are weak.”

“Who are you? Where am I?”

“You are where you were. I am who I was.”

Joey the Bear found a gap in the silky envelope and he crawled weakly out. He struggled to his feet, he was wobbly and sick and the palm of his hand burned. He turned to meet his saviour.

The man who stood before him was seven feet tall at least. He wore a huge black cape and his long hair was pushed back to reveal a prominent widow’s peak. His teeth were not teeth at all. They were fangs.

“Vampire Man?”

“I prefer Marius, for that is my name.”

“Marius Cazacu, bitten by a Vampire Bat in deepest Congo?”

The vampire bowed deeply.

“At your service.”

“But how…?”

“You have called to me many times before but the barriers between legend and reality are heavily policed. This storm allowed me to ‘slip through’.”

Joey looked down at his aching hand. It was red and raw and it hurt as much as anything ever could.

“Can you help me?”

“You need to obtain the fruit that is inside the carriage.”


“Alas, I cannot help.”


“I have tried, while you slept beneath my cape. I assumed the shape of a bat and flew through the engine but there is no way inside. Besides, I found I would have had to be invited in for this carriage is revered like a house.”

“Then I'm finished.”

“All is not lost. There is a comrade nearby who can surely help us but she will not come unless you call her again.”

“Who is she?”

The vampire smiled his dangerous smile. “Joey the Bear… you know who she is.

Joey did not think twice, he closed his eyes and wished for the Beast from Beyond.

There is an old saying that goes, “be careful what you wish for.” When Joey opened his eyes it was to see a vast taloned foot embedded in the car park mud in front of him. The claws were already sunk deep into the ground. Joey looked to his right and saw the other foot and leg at the far end of the car park. When he dared to look skyward, the green and yellow scaled form vanished into the low-lying clouds above long before arms or head could even be seen. The thing filled the earth and sky and all around.

Joey had almost forgotten about Vampire Man but now he spoke.

Kaiju or the Beast from Beyond, as you know her, will open up this box with a single tear of her claw and your goal will be returned to you. I need only say the word and it shall be done.”

Above him, Joey could hear the rough breathing of the Beast as it awaited the command.

Joey looked at Vampire Man, whose teeth were fearsome but whose eyes were strangely kind. Then he looked at his Mum’s beloved car, which she had struggled so long and worked so hard to finally get.

“No,” he said.

Vampire Man muttered a single phrase. It sounded to Joey like ‘Creatură fi Plecat’. The gargantuan foot suddenly hauled itself from the mud and withdrew. There was a distant crash as it put itself down again in the next parish. Kaiju was gone.

“Will she damage the town?” Joey asked.

“She steps with care.”

Joey looked around. The car was fine. His apple was still inside. The footprint in the mud was already filling in with water.

“What now?” he asked.

“Now,” the vampire said, as he passed his thin hand over Joey’s face, “I exhort you to sleep.”

When Joey woke up, he was on the ground beside his mother’s car. He was wet through and alone but the storm had passed. There was no sign of a mark on the ground. He made his weary way back to the school.

As he arrived at his classroom door, he felt quite good despite his aching hand. He had defended his Mum’s car, he had met his heroes in person, and he would still get to be joint first with Miles Long.

Things could have been so much worse.

Except they were.

Joey opened the door to his classroom to find only two people in there. It was lunchtime, after all. Miss Brogan was sitting behind her desk and there, down the classroom and sitting at his desk was the only other person in the room.

Miles Long.

In front of him, on his desk, sat a large red apple.

Joey could have passed out then and there. His disappointment was beyond description. He would not be joint first after all. He would be Mister Second Best, just like he always was.

But, just as his misery was about to overwhelm him, a memory came. A memory of a pale hand passing across his forehead, it’s touch as cool as a gravestone. The words spoken, “Sleep” but also something else, a final benediction just as he faded away, “Be Generous.”

Be Generous.

Joey the Bear walked to Miles’ desk and he extended his burned hand.

“You won,” he said, “fair and square. Congratulations.”

Miles Long looked as if he might cry.

“Miss Brody called my Mum, they’re friends you know. When I heard what happened to your apple, I had to come in even though I felt like crap.”

Mile took up the apple on his desk and handed it to Joey.

“I don’t understand.”

“Take a bite, Joey. You’ve earned it.”

The apple was sweet and crunchy and good.

Miss Brody appeared at Joey’s shoulder and laid the comics on the desk in front of him.

“Congratulations, Joey, you won.”

Some of the other students had come back in from break and they actually cheered when they saw that Joey had prevailed. It wasn’t a sneery cheer either. It wasn’t one that would be taken back later. It was for real.

Joey grinned at Miles.

“You could call around at the weekend and help me read these if you like.”

Miles grinned back.

“I’m feeling a bit sick but, yes, I’d actually like that a lot.”


“Now finish your apple.”

Joey bit down hard into the fruit. A trickle of sweet warm juice ran down his chin and onto his collar.

And somewhere, far away, a vampire smiled.