Friday, November 29, 2013

God Asks Everything Of Us, Yet At the Same Time He Offers Everything to Us

That's from the Pope's new enyclical, Evangelli Gaudium. Couldn't even get a few pages into it before I wanted to blog on it. That's a pretty good sign, I think.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

It Is Right to Give Thanks and Praise

My blog statistics tell me that most of my readers are in America. So I wish a happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers, and indeed, to all my other readers.

Today I am lapping up my first ever American Thanksgiving, in Richmond, Virginia-- complete with watching Macy's parade and a national dog show on TV (I think that latter is the most brilliant and unexpected tradition imaginable), and a turkey, cranberry sauce and other delicious seasonal things sending out enticing aromas from the cooker.

Later we are going to watch The Way, Way Back and I'll see if Michelle loves it as much as I did. (We already watched You've Got Mail, which I utterly adored, and Kate and Leopold and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I also liked, though not quite as much.)

I've been to America a few times now and the more I see of it, the deeper I fall in love it. Admittedly I've only seen a small corner of it.

(Incidentally, my ridiculously protracted flight here passed over Greenland-- the pilot alerted us to look out the window and see the snowy, mountainous terrain beneath. He also told us he had switched to a route that pilots used to fly from Europe to America during World War Two.)

Christians hope to spend all eternity saying "Thank you" to God. And the moments when we are most happy are the ones when we are most thankful. This is a good festival, in a great country. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

...But She Died Twenty Years Ago, This Very Night!

Last week somebody said to me, "I read your blog. Well, the Catholic parts, anyway." Ha!

Well, I insist it's all Catholic-- whether it's with a big "C" or a small "c"-- and I make no apologies for including imaginative writing and other odds and ends here. I see no virtue in narrowness.

I won't be blogging for the next week, so I'm going to leave you with a bumper double edition of my Hundred Nightmares.

I've been having a blast publishing these tales, which lay forgotten on an old laptop for several years. It's pleased me a greatly that, after a slow start, they've become quite popular, according to my blog statistics. I've even been inspired with a few new story ideas. (Not that the tally is going to be increased thereby. Believe me, there were some pretty feeble efforts in the hundred which I'll be glad to replace.)

I'm off to the New World tomorrow. Talk to you when I get back!

Nightmare Thirty-Five: Security

“Maybe you should spend less time listening to silly stories”, said Hannigan, “and more time doing your job.”

Wilson didn’t reply. It was a cold night and he wanted to go home, not argue with this fanatic outside the security station. He’d only known Hannigan for two months, and already he hated him more than he’d ever hated anyone.

The fact that Hannigan had worked in a high security prison before he’d come here showed that the company wanted to tighten things up. But he doubted they realised just how obsessive Hannigan was.

“Can I go?”, asked Wilson, meeting Hannigan’s stare.

“Please do”, said his supervisor, with a disgusted grimace. “But don’t let me catch you making personal calls again. And especially not spreading ridiculous rumours about the lab. It’s the last thing we need. Do you really believe that stuff?”

“I don’t believe it”, said Wilson, evenly. “And I don’t not believe it. I was just telling my wife what I heard.”

“Your wife”, said Hannigan. “A woman?”

“Don’t you like women?”, asked Wilson.

“Matter of fact, I don’t”, said Hannigan, turning his back on Wilson, and swiping his card on the panel at the door of the security station. There was a high-pitched buzz, a click, and Hannigan pushed the glass door inward and stepped into the station.

He felt happy here. It was tiny, and he had always loved small spaces. It gave him satisfaction to survey the bank of security monitors, watching the feed from the compound’s seventy-four CCTV cameras.

What were they making here, in this remote stretch of the Scottish highlands, ten miles from the nearest village? Rumours abounded amongst the security staff. It was a cure for cancer. It was a male contraceptive. It was a biological weapon. Vista Pharmaceuticals had been best known for cough medicine and laxatives until now, but it was pretty clear that they were onto something big.

They had made it clear to Hannigan when they’d hired him; keeping people out was important, but keeping information in was even more important.

To Hannigan, that included ridiculous stories. Who knew what grain of truth might be hidden in them? One of the previous security guards, it seemed, had seen a creature creeping towards him, some ten months ago. An enormous worm, he had said. He’d just managed to get inside the security fence before it reached him. Weeks later, he’d retired, shattered by the experience.

Well, this line of work attracted loners and disturbed people. As long as they did their job, Hannigan didn’t care how disturbed they were. But the problem was that they hadn’t been doing their job; when he had arrived, discipline had been horrifyingly lax. Hannigan had insisted on twice as many security cameras, three times as many inspections, and codes and passwords changed at least every week. His staff had howled with indignation, their cosy number robbed from them. Screw them.

He switched monitor twelve onto its third camera, and cursed. The screen was black.

“Tanner”, he said, into his walkie-talkie. “Get your arse to the main security post. I’m going to go look at a faulty camera. No, I’ll go. I don’t want to leave it to anyone else. Just hurry up.”

It was a big laboratory, and the grounds were even more extended. It was a fifteen minute walk to the malfunctioning camera.

Hannigan enjoyed the walk. He was a fitness fanatic, and he was happiest on his feet. The stars were out, too. This was a beautiful place. If only he didn’t have to work with these numbskulls…

He reached the camera. The red light on its side had gone out. It looked busted. Well, it was easily replaced.

He turned back in the direction he had come, and that was when he saw it.

It looked just as he had pictured it, from reading his staff’s emails. It was three foot high, and at least seven foot long. It was coloured like a seal and shaped like a snake, but enormous jaws snapped open and shut as it moved, with ghastly speed, towards him. He screamed.

“What’s wrong, Hannig—“ came Tanner’s voice over the walkie-talkie. But his voice was cut off. Hannigan had dropped the walkie-talkie in fright, and it smashed on the icy earth.

He raced towards the closest gate in the seven-foot high security fence. Thank God, it was only a few feet away, and in a few seconds he was tapping the security code into its number pad.

There was no click, no green light.

Hannigan tapped in the code again, before he realised what was wrong. It was Monday. It had been his idea to change the fence’s security code every Monday. He had set the new one just moments before, but panic drove it from his mind.

He tried again, and again, and again. And the creature slid closer. He could hear the snapping of its jaws.


Nightmare Thirty-Six: Mr. Naughty

(Note: This was written at the end of the last decade.)

Katy was already bored of the party. Why had she agreed to come to the Dosshouse for New Year’s Eve? Because Sharon had asked her, that was why. Sharon had latched onto her and Katy was too polite to rebuff the girl’s overpowering friendship.

At least Sharon wasn’t pestering her right now. She’d become fascinated by a guitarist called Lee who was was explaining the genesis of his latest song, Never at Home to You. He’d had the idea while hiding from a political canvasser, he’d said. About ten times.

Since then Katie had fended off a hairdresser who had launched into a story about his latest tatooo; a design student who had asked her if she wanted to come home to his “regression party” afterwards; and a man in a grey suit who told her the Dosshouse was going to go bust within a few months.

Now, thankfully, most of the revellers had gone outside to look at the fireworks. The stragglers were lost in their own conversations.

Katy was coming back from the lady’s room when she saw him.

He was leaning against the bar, like a man in a cartoon. He wore artfully tousled hair, a fitted shirt with a thin black tie, and a grey cardigan. He looked very unhappy.

Katy always gravitated towards unhappy people. “You don’t like the New Year?”, she asked, in a raised voice, leaning beside him.

He looked up. He looked at her through glazed, indifferent eyes. He was not handsome. His features were rather too pointed. He might have been in his late twenties.

“Not this one”, he said.

“Oh well”, said Katy. “It’s only one day. What’s your name?”

The far-off light left the man’s eyes. He seemed to be seeing Katy for the first time. “Mr Naughty”, he said.

Katy guffawed. She had heard some horrible chat-up lines, but that was the worst. So bad, in fact, that it came out on the other side and hit brilliance.

“Really?”, she asked. “Mr. Naughty?”

“Not Mr Naughty”, said the man, with no hint of a smile. He didn’t look used to smiling. “Mr Noughties.”

“Oh, Mr Noughties?, asked Katy. “Like, the decade?”

“That’s right”, said Mr Noughties, looking around the club with narrowed eyes. “Like the decade.”

“No wonder you’re sad tonight”, said Katy. “Your favourite decade is over.”

His reponse was not what she expected. Now, she assumed, he’d have to at least feign a smile. But instead, he turned his eyes back to her, and heavy tears filled them.

“Hey, don’t cry”, said Katy. “I was only kidding.”

“My time is over”, said Mr Noughties. “You don’t get it, Katy.” (How the hell does he know my name, thought Katy?) “I am the Noughties. You’ve heard of the spirit of the age, haven’t you? Well, I’m the spirit of the age.”

Katy was stumped. How did you answer that? She might have told him not to talk nonsense, but somehow she knew he was telling the truth.

“But it’s past twelve”, she said. “Shouldn’t you...disappear or something?”

“Don’t be so provincial”, said Mr Noughty, and now he almost did smile. “It’s still December the thirty-first in half the world. Oh Katy”, he sighed, his half-smile fading, “what a wash-out of a decade. I did my best and I blew it. What will anybody remember me for? A global recession? Blogging? Recycled music? The war on terrorism? Harry Potter was the only highpoint.”

Katy felt bad for him. He looked so defeated. “Why didn’t you something differently?”, she asked. “Give us another Beatles? Or some kind of...great awakening?”

Mr Noughty laughed bitterly. “It’s not as easy as that”, he said. “You can’t just ride a carriage and horses over free willl. A zeitgeist’s freedom of manoeuvre is limited. Miss Sixties and Mr Seventies...they were wonder-workers. I only appreciate them now. The awesome skill required...”

Katy reached over and patted the desolate-looking man on the shoulder. “Well, I liked the noughties”, she said. “I think you were a great success.”

A grim smile touched Mr. Noughties lips. There was a glint in his eyes.

“I know you did,” he said. “And they’re all yours, Katy. You’ll live in them forever. We both will. It’s no coincidence I’m here tonight.”

“What does that mean?”, asked Katy, beginning to feel afraid.

Mr. Noughty raised his eyes to the clock above the bar. “Because I’m going out with a bang, that’s why. In this town, anyway. Fireworks are dangerous things to leave lying around… I’ve chosen you, Katy. I’ve chosen you.”

Katy stepped backwards quickly. But it was already too late.


Nightmare Thirty-Seen: Monsters!

“Peter”, said Owen, sitting up on the bed. “Peter!”

“What?”, asked Peter, groggily, turning his pillow over to enjoy the cool side. The early morning was streaming in between the bedroom curtains.

“I’m afraid of monsters”, whispered Owen. “I’m frightened monsters are going to get in here.”

“Go back to sleep, bozo”, murmured Peter.


“Monsters don’t come in the sunlight”, said Peter. “Didn’t you know that?”

“Really?”, asked Owen, brightening.

“Really”, said Peter. “Now go back to sleep.”

Of course, Owen didn’t go back to sleep. Once he was awake, he stayed awake. Peter was different. All the monsters in the world wouldn’t wake him up when he was tired. He pulled the blankets up to his chin.

* * * *
Owen was playing a game with a piece of eggshell and a spoon when Peter came down for breakfast.

“You’re not a superhero! You’re not a superhero!”, Owen was crying, in a voice even more high-pitched than usual.

“The dead have arisen”, said the boys’ mother, looking up at Peter as she poured out his tea. “Did you read that chapter?”

“Half of it”, said Peter, sliding into his chair.

“Shhh”, said a man sitting at the other end of the table. One side of his face was a mass of scars. His left arm stopped short at the elbow; he was wearing a long white shirt, and the left sleeve hung limply by his side. “I’ve always loved this song.”

Getting Better by the Beatles filled the little kitchen. Uncle Alan bopped his head, smiling. He smiled a lot, Uncle Alan, even though he was missing an arm and a foot.

“I remember when I first heard that”, said the boys’ mother. She was a thin woman, with a careworn face and dreamy eyes. Her name was Catherine. “It was a school disco. All the music was old music in those discos.”

“Old music is the best music”, said Uncle Alan. “At least we’ve been spared any more of that goddawful rap music.”

“I like some of that rap”, said Catherine, with a bashful smile.

Uncle Alan made a face. “Could you pour me some more of that tea, love?”, he asked. “It’s going to be cold today. Cold, I tells you.”

Catherine poured her brother-in-law another cup of tea, and they all listened to the Beatles in silence, apart from the voices that Owen was supplying for his eggshell and spoon adversaries.

As the Beatles faded out, a melodious female voice said: “Here is the news.”

Catherine frowned. She didn’t like the boys listening to the news, but she’d given up ushering them out of the room. Let them hear, Uncle Alan said. This is the world they’re growing up into, God help them.

“We have good news for you this morning”, said the newsreader. “Belfast has been recaptured. The offensive lasted throughout the night, and some five hundred birdmen and rhinomen were slain. Human casualties are estimated at less than a hundred.”

“It’s hard to know what’s propaganda or not”, said Uncle Alan, meditatively, laying his mug down on the table. “But even still…”

Suddenly, his fist slammed down the table. Plates, cups and sauce bottles jumped. So did Catherine and her sons.

“Goddammit, we stuck it to the bastards!”, he whooped.

Peter expected his mother to rebuke Uncle Alan—- he’d used the b-word, after all—- but she didn’t. She only smiled, and kept listening to the news.

“The battle for Manchester is still raging. Casualties are high...there are some indications that a resistance is forming in Russia. A radio signal was picked up briefly, two days ago.”

“I just wish I was out there”, said Uncle Alan, still grinning.

“You’ve done your part”, said Catherine. “More than your part.”

Peter stared out into the garden. There was frost on the grass. He remembered, in the first year of the attack, he’d reminded his father how he’d told him monsters didn’t exist. That’s what we all thought, his father had replied. That’s what we all thought, Peter.

The sun glittered on the frosty grass. Peter loved sunlight more than anything.

Because when the sun went down...that was when the monsters came.


Nightmare Thirty-Eight: Where the Party Never Ends

Samantha had been working in The Rockery for three weeks. Once you got used to the non-stop heavy metal, it was a good job.

It wasn’t just heavy metal they played. There was fifties rock and roll, blues, punk, even some of the darker, more morose brands of country and western. But here, at least, the old slogan was true. Here, metal ruled.

And the music wasn’t too loud. Certainly no worse than the clubs that Samantha—sometimes, and reluctantly— visited with her friends. The clientele weren’t rowdy, the pay was good, and she wasn’t overburdened with work. In the middle of a recession, a student could do much worse.

“Did that poster come, Sam?”

Morgan, the Rockery’s manager, had finally made an appearance. Tonight, he was even later than usual. Sam had grown used to taking charge of things herself. At least she was learning how to use her initiative.

“Yup”, said Samantha, smiling at Morgan. He wasn’t a bad guy, even though he was catastrophically lazy. “Did you know it was glow-in-the-dark?”

“It is?”, said Morgan, leaning backwards as he always did when he was surprised, as though he had blown away by some new piece of information. He was a skinny man with a mane of black hair reaching almost to his buttocks. His face was lined, his eyelids baggy. “Wow. I hope I didn’t order the wrong one.”

“Picture of some kind of demon dressed as a cowboy…”

“Spot on”, said Morgan. “Hey, tonight’s a big night, you know that, Sam?”

“Tonight is Skid’s birthday”, said Samantha. “Yeah, you told me.”

“Well, it’s a big deal, Sam”, said Morgan, pulling himself a beer. “It’s a big deal.”

“Who is he, anyway?”

Morgan gave a very affected laugh, and shook his head ruefully. “Who’s Skid Nolan…? Man, I never thought I’d live to hear that question.”

“I mean, was he in a band or something...?”

“Was he in a band? He was in every band, baby. He was a session guitarist. But…he was more than that.” Morgan was watching the head form on his pint of beer, but now he looked back at Sam, almost solemnly. “He was a hellraiser. He was a legend.”

“How old is he?”

Morgan laughed louder at this. “Baby, with people my age, you don’t ask questions like that. Not even behind someone’s back. It dates us all. Skid...well, Skid is timeless. Leave it at that.”

“Sorry”, said Samantha, shrugging and smiling. “Hey, we need more fivers and tenners for the till.”

“I’m hearing you”, said Morgan. “I’m hearing you”. He spun on his heel and strode back to his office, nodding his head to the speed metal song that had come over the sound system, his fingers strumming the air.

The club began to fill up, quicker than usual. The clientele of the Rockery were always on the older side, though there were usually plenty of customers in their teens and twenties. Not tonight, though. Tonight, hardly anyone seemed under the age of thirty, and most of those were accompanied by lovers or friends in their forties, fifties, even sixties. A lifetime of partying showed its ravages on dozens of faces. Samantha thought there would be fewer bleary eyes and wrinkled faces in an old folks’ home.

They congregated at the bar, swapping stories about the mysterious Skid, who had not yet arrived. He was sixty today, she’d gathered.

“Did you hear about the time he sneaked into the private member’s club in London—- full of peers and judges and all these goons—- with a few guys from Bill Bush’s band, dressed as barmen, and they gave them all a blast of Headbanger’s Serenade? That shook ‘em up.”

“Phil Lynnott got the idea for Dancing in the Moonlight when he was jamming with Skid one day. It was four or five o’ in the morning. That’s what Lassie Tormey told me. I don’t know if it’s true.”

“I heard it was actually Skid who played the solo on Gingerbread Judy.”

A band set up on the small platform that served as a stage. Within a few minutes, an electric guitar was filling the air with its screech, and Samantha felt the thrumming of the rhythm section in her teeth and bones. Within a few more minutes, the floor had turned into a mosh pit.

Then, finally, Skid arrived.

She knew he’d arrived from the raucous cheers and the distorted rendition of Happy Birthday To You that the band had launched into. But it was some moments before she could make him out through the press of bodies.

A woman was standing behind him, perhaps his wife or daughter. Every few moments, she wiped his lips with a cloth. He wore tight, faded jeans and a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt. He sat in a wheelchair, staring at the people around him, his slack mouth twitching. He might have been trying to smile.


Nightmare Thirty-Nine: She Wore Black

“Anybody sitting here?”.

Albert looked up from his portable chess-board. A woman dressed in a black dress-suit was standing there, holding a cappuccino. She was chubby but attractive, and she had a pleasant smile.

“Nope”, said Albert, smiling back.

She pulled the chair back and lowered herself onto it. “Are you winning?”, she asked, looking at the board.

It was not the first time Albert had heard that joke, but he smiled as if it was. “Just going over some moves. I’m off to a tournament, actually.”

“You’re a pro?”, she asked, her eyebrows raised in surprised.

“Semi-pro”, said Albert. “I wouldn’t make any money from playing, but I write and coach as well. So I guess you’re off to some crucial board meeting?”.

The woman didn’t seem to have heard him. She was absorbed by the position on the board. “When is your train?”, she asked, absently.

Victoria Train Station echoed around them. It was Albert’s favourite place in the world. How many thousands of lives, of stories, intersected here? It pulsed with possibility. And a pretty lady’s company made it complete.

“Not for another hour”, said Albert. “I’m a chronic early arriver.”

The woman gave a burst of laughter, and her eyes—still on the pieces—- lit with mirth. “Are you?”, she asked. “I can’t tell you how much I like early arrivers.”

If this was flirtation, thought Albert, it was a funny sort of flirtation. He was about to reply when she looked up, her amused smile a saucy grin now.

“I bet I could beat you, Albert”, she said. “Come on. Speed chess.”

His expression didn’t change when she used his name. A poker face wasn’t just for poker, as every good chess player knew.

“You’re Death, aren’t you?”, he asked.

Her lips pursed with momentary irritation, but soon her serene smile was back. “I’m not Death. Why does everyone assume there’s only one Death? I’m a Death.”

“Kind of like a store Santa?”, asked Albert, with a wry grin.

The Death’s lips pursed again, and her eyes narrowed. “So, do you want to play, or not?”, she asked. “Come on, I’ll make it worthwhile. Twenty years tacked onto your life if you win. And before you ask, no, you won’t be drooling and shaking for those twenty years. Twenty hale and hearty years.”

“And if I lose…?”

“Twenty years shaved off your life. Which— sorry to say— will leave you only ten years of your natural span. Well, you don’t live very healthy, do you Albert?”. She chuckled, her dimples showing, as though this was the jolliest of japes.

“Let’s do it”, said Albert. “How do we time it?”

“Leave that to me”, said Death. She reached down, clicked open her briefcase—- Albert saw a soft flash inside it as she did so-- and drew out two large, antique-looking hourglasses. “Half an hour each”, she said. “And you can be White. Well, what else could I be but Black, after all?”

She was already setting the pieces back to their starting position, grinning eagerly. Well, she won’t be grinning for long, thought Albert.

Twenty minutes later, he was staring down at his checkmated king. It was the first time he’d played to checkmate in his adult life, but who would resign with twenty years of life in the balance?

“Enjoy our remaining years, Albert”, said the Death, reaching towards his hourglass.

Albert reached out and grabbed her wrist, and said: “Double or nothing. Come on. Double or nothing.”

She sighed. “Really, Albert?”, she asked. “I trounced you, and I have the white pieces this time.”

“Double or nothing”, said Albert, setting the pieces back up again. “Come on, be a sport.”

She sat down with another sigh. This time she moved even quicker, and in fifteen minutes Albert spread his arms in the air and said: “I resign.”

The Death gave him her broadest smile yet: “Well, I guess you’re coming with me now, aren’t you?”

Albert raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I’m not sure about that."

The Death frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, according to the terms of our bet, I died ten years ago. You tell me how a dead man can gamble with Death— sorry, a Death— and I’ll come quietly.”

The Death scowled, as though wishing she had some cappuccino left to splash in his face.


Nightmare Forty: Visitors

When Suzie had first seen the wreath, she’d been curious, but nothing more.

She didn’t think her father’s grave would have many visitors. He’d had friends, but really, who came back to a grave except family? Of course, it had occurred to her that her father might have had a lover of some kind. But why would he had kept it secret? He’d had a few brief affairs after Suzie’s mother died, and he’d never been at all reticent about them.

She’d knelt to examine the wreath. There were roses and lilies and chrysanthemums. It was a full, handsome wreath that looked expensive. And there was a card, but it didn’t tell her anything. There was a picture of what looked like flames printed on it. No caption, no name, no telephone number.

It was some kind of charitable society, she’d decided. Do-gooders who went around graveyards leaving flowers on graves that had none. The thought irritated and shamed her at once. It had been a long time since the funeral. The grave had been unattended for more than a year.

But really, so what? You remembered the dead in your heart, not by keeping florists in business, didn’t you?

All the same, she didn’t leave it so long to come back.

This time, there were three wreaths. One of them was enormous, composed entirely of red roses.

And every one of them had the same card attached. They all looked as though they had been printed separately—one used gold ink—but the image was exactly the same in each one. Five flames, one large one in the centre and four in each corner. Suzie was sure she had never seen it before.

She tore one of them off, and walked out of the cemetery.

* * *
“Doesn’t mean anything to me”, said Jude, after a full minute staring at the picture.

Suzie gave an exasperated sigh. “How did I know you’d say that?”, she asked. “I’ve spent hours looking through reference books...heraldic symbols, hallmarks, alchemical and occult signs. Plenty of flames, of course, but none just like that.”

Jude shrugged and took another bite of his doughnut. He was looking back towards the counter, to the butter-haired cashier who had caught his eye. “Maybe they got the wrong grave”, he said.

“How could they do that?”, asked Suzie, striving to hold onto her patience. “It has a name, dates….they’d need to be prize nincompoops. Doesn’t this creep you out? People leaving flowers on your own father’s grave, and you have no idea who they are or why they’re doing it?”

Jude shrugged again. The way he did that had always annoyed Suzie. “Of course I’m curious”, he said. “But what can we do? Unless we kept a non-stop watch at the grave. And that’s impossible. Besides, maybe they wouldn’t come if they saw anybody there, or even in the cemetery.”

“Haven’t you got any theories?”

Jude didn’t answer for a while. He just stared into his coffee, vacantly. Then he looked up and said: “Not really. I mean, what could it be? Some kind of cult? Some kind of…secret society? Dad? I mean, he was always at home. No mysterious phone-calls or letters or assignations. He only read the newspapers for the funnies. Can you really imagine him having a secret life?”

That was the nub of it, thought Suzie, staring out the café window to the passers-by in the street outside. Her father might have been the original man in the street. She saw him now, mowing the lawn in a footbal jersey and pyjama bottoms, humming some seventies chart-topper. She had loved him, but she had never him say anything original or daring or impassioned. A man like that had no right to post-mortem mysteries.

The thought of those wreaths was beginning to torment her. She lay awake in bed, wondering whether a visitor was standing by her father’s grave at just that moment. Somehow, it felt as though an intruder had wandered into her own house. An intruder who could walk through walls, who could see her but could not be seen. An intruder who walked into her dreams.

* * *

It was perhaps a year after her café conversation with Jude. The wreaths kept appearing, one every couple of months or so. Her search for the symbol had continued. She had even searched the internet, despite her hatred of computers. But she found nothing.

She was visiting Jude, in the house that had passed to him when their father died, when the idea of searching its bookshelves occurred to her.

She didn’t know what she was expecting to find. Some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore? The few books her father had owned were about football, dog-racing and World War Two. She ended up looking through her own old books. She despised nostalgia, so revisiting her childhood through its reading matter had the appeal of a forbidden pleasure.

She found it on the flyleaves of an Enid Blyton book. She had been an incorrigible scribbler. There was no doubt about it; it was her hand, and it had traced the five-flamed symbol over and over again. She found it scrawled on a dozen more of her books after that.

Someone was walking through her soul now, soundlessly, invisibly.


Nightmare Forty-One: A Fading Picture

“It has to exist”, said Erica, staring down into her coffee cup.

Dominic shook his head and laughed, still typing.

“You’ve been going on about this ever since I knew you”, he said. “When are you going to give up?”

Erica and Dominic were the editorial board—and the entire staff—of The Flickering Casement, the film magazine they had set up thirteen years before. The first issues had been photocopied and stapled together. Now it was entirely web-based. Neither of them had ever made a penny from it, but they did have a readership. They focused on the history of cinemas in Ireland— Seventy Years of the Lux, The Glory That was the Ganymede— and on features about forgotten or overlooked movies.

“Never”, said Erica. She smiled ruefully but there was no mirth in her voice, and her eyes glinted with determination. “Even you said you saw it, once.”

Dominic sighed and swiveled on his chair to face her. “That was fifteen years ago”, he said. “And I don’t even remember saying it.”

“That’s it!”, said Erica, pointing at him, almost accusingly. “I don’t remember saying it. What is it about this film? Why do people tell me they remember it, why do they give me detailed description of a scene, and then— when I ask them about it again- say I don’t remember telling you that?”

“Because they probably never did, that’s why”, said Dominic, with an exasperated grin. “And besides...make a name up and ask somebody if it rings a bell and, nine out of ten times, they’ll say it does. Everything rings a bell if you think about it long enough.” He fell quiet for a moment, looking at her curiously. “Why are you getting so keen on this all of a sudden, anyway? It’s been a recurring motif for years and years, why is it an obsession now?”

“Because I’m remembering more of it”, said Erica. For a moment, as she said it, Dominic thought she seemed drained. Then the fancy passed, and she was her usual spirited self. “Just the one scene, always.”

“A mad monk chasing a little girl through a crumbling mansion”, said Dominic, his voice almost singsong.

“That’s right”, said Erica. “And it’s so… freaking scary. I’m not surprised people remember it. I’m just surprised they ever forget it.”

“Maybe they forget it because it’s just too scary”, said Dominic, turning back to his computer screen.

He intended as a joke, something to round off the conversation, but when it drew no response from Erica— not even a grunt, or a polite laugh— he looked back over his shoulder at her.

Her features had frozen, and there was a faraway look in her eyes.

“Hey”, he said. “Hey. Are you OK?”

She came out of her trance, gave him a distant smile, and stood up.

“This is just going to torment me”, she said. “I have to follow it up. Now.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“There’s only one cinema ever mentioned, when people remember where they saw it”, said Erica. Suddenly, she seemed intensely excited. She was already reaching for her jacket. “The Aurora in Sandymount.”

“But that’s been closed twenty years”, said Dominic.

“I know”, said Erica. “I know. There’s a furniture shop there now. Maybe if I go inside...”

“It will jump start your memory?”, asked Dominic. “Worth a try, I guess. I still think you would have found it by now if it really existed. But what the hell? Let’s go.”

“You’re coming?”, asked Erica, raising a surprised eyebrow.

“I’ve been listening to you natter on about this for a decade and a half”, said Dominic, starting to close his computer down. “You bet I’m going.”

* * * *
“Is there anything I can help you with?”, asked a short, chubby girl with long sandy hair. The name-tag on her green sweater read Anna.

“Uh...we’re just looking”, said Dominic. “Actually...”

“Actually, we’re going”, said Erica. “We’re going now”.

Dominic glanced at her, and a jolt passed through him. Her face had gone tallow-pale, and a hunted light had come into her eyes. She clutched his arm.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice dropping.

Erica closed her eyes, as though she was trying not to get sick. “You were right”, she said, in a strained voice. “Everybody else tried to forget it. I wish...I wish...oh, it’s all coming back to me now! Except this time he’s...he’s...”

Her eyes widened, and she begun to scream hysterically.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Some Clerihews

I wrote them ages ago.

Of course you know what a clerihew is. But just in case...

Vyacheslav Molotov
Told his sweetheart, “I want to call it off.
I like you, but I shudder
When I look at your mother.”

Grigori Rasputin
Had an overwhelming desire to visit Luton
But his ultimate dream
Was to settle down in North Cheam.

Attila the Hun
Was not especially proud of all that he’d done.
He would have much preferred
To be remembered as the Hun who cared.

Yuri Gagarin
On hearing that the moon was barren
Elected, with considerable grace,
To let the Americans conquer space.

Vlad the Impaler
Could never be considered a failure.
What he did, truth to tell,
He did exceptionally well.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Dillemma of a Fusty Old Library Assistant When Writing a Business Email to a Woman

Does he address her as "Dear Emma" or "Dear Marianne" or "Dear Sarah", thereby buying into the modern cult of familiarity and casual first-name use?

Or does he submit to using that awful salutation, "Ms."? A word that even sounds uncomfortable and awkward?

There's just no winning this one. But I've taken to choosing the first option as the lesser evil.

(I'm quite pleased by the amount of students who choose "Miss" as their title when they register. What a bright, friendly, euphonic word! But unfortunately most people leave that field blank.)

Put Another Log on the Fire...

...brew yourself up some hot chocolate, ignore the poltergeist in the attic and the ghost in the garden shed, and sink into three more of my Hundred Nightmares!

Nightmare Thirty-Two: The Tooth Fairy

Martin is asleep in bed. It is six o’ clock in the morning. It is dark in the bedroom, because it is winter.

It is a nice bedroom. It has Gerry the Giraffe wallpaper. Gerry the Giraffe is Martin’s favourite TV cartoon. There are lots of toys on the floor, stacked neatly. They are stacked neatly because Martin’s mother has taught him always to be neat.

Martin is a good boy. Most of the time.

Now time has gone by and the big hand on Martin’s clock points to twenty. The small hand points to six. It is twenty minutes past six.

Martin wakes up. He has brown hair and brown eyes. He is wearing white and red striped pyjamas. He is lying under a duvet with pictures of moons and stars on it.

As soon as he is awake, he sits up. He looks excited. He puts his hand out and switches on the lamp on the table beside his bed. Suddenly, the room is bright.

He turns around on the bed and lifts his pillow. Underneath, there is a shiny coin. Martin is happy.

He jumps out of his bed and runs out of his room. He runs to his parents’ bedroom, and knocks on the door.

Very soon, his mother and his father come out, still wearing their pyjamas. His mother wears red pyjamas, and his father wears blue pyjamas. His father wears glasses and has a moustache.

“Look, Mammy”, says Martin. “Look, Daddy. Look what the tooth fairy brought me!”

Martin’s mother picks up the bright coin, turning it round and round in her hands, smiling. “I told you, Martin”, she says. “When you were crying yesterday because your tooth had fallen out, I told you to put it under your pillow. I told you the Tooth Fairy would bring you money for it.”

“Let’s go into the kitchen and have breakfast”, says Martin’s father. “Then we will talk about what you can buy with your coin.”

Martin and his mother and father go into the kitchen. They have buttered toast, orange juice, and porridge. They drink tea. Martin drinks tea from his Gerry the Giraffe mug. He got that mug for his fifth birthday. He is very careful with it because he loves it.

“You can buy so many different things with your coin”, says Martin’s father. “You can buy a chocolate bar. You can buy a lollipop. You can buy a comic. You can buy a balloon”

“I wish I had more than one coin”, says Martin. “If I had more coins, I could buy a chocolate bar and a lollipop and a comic and a balloon.”

“No, Martin”, says Martin’s father, shaking his head. “Now you are being a greedy boy. You must never be greedy. Greedy boys want more and more and never have enough. They are always sad because they are never happy with what they have. Do you want to be a greedy boy, Martin?”

“No”, says Martin. “I don’t want to be sad. I want to be happy with what I have.”

“You’re a good boy, Martin”, says Martin’s mother.

They finish breakfast. Martin helps to wash up the plates and cups. He helps to put them away. They get into the car and bring Martin to the shop.

The shop is full of pretty things. Martin spends a long time looking at the sweets and comics and toys. He picks out a comic called Tommy and his Friends. His mother takes his coin and buys the comic with it.

Martin and his mother and father get back into the car. The car takes them to Martin’s school. Martin reads his comic all the way.

Martin loves his school. He loves the posters on the wall. He loves playing with the other children. He loves singing songs and learning new words.

He likes to help the teacher, too. This week it is Martin’s turn to tidy up the classroom while the other children play in the yard. The teacher drinks a cup of coffee at her desk and reads a grown-up magazine while Martin tidies up.

Today, while the teacher is not looking, Martin takes a small piece of chalk from the blackboard and puts it in his pocket. He has an idea.

That night, when he has washed his face, brushed his teeth, and put on his pyjamas, he puts the piece of chalk under his pillow. Then he puts his head down on the pillow, closes his eyes, and goes asleep.

He wakes up when the small hand of the cock is at six and the big hand is at twenty. It is twenty minutes past six o’ clock. Martin’s mouth feels strange.

He sits up and looks under his pillow. There is nothing there. He is sad. He goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

When he looks in the bathroom mirror, he gets a big surprise. Instead of teeth, his mouth is full of coins. He tries to pull them out, but they are stuck in. Martin screams and screams and screams.


Nightmare Thirty-Three: Sixty Seconds

Todd was waiting for it, of course. It always came at the same time.

And it always came when he was alone.

He had been waiting for it all day long, ever since both Shirley and Colin had phoned in sick. He could have contrived not to be alone when it came. He could have had a pizza delivered to the office, or simply left early. But he wasn’t going to spend his life running away from this thing. Whatever it was.

It had been trying to kill him— what else could it be trying to do?— for the past eight years. And it had only succeeded in bruising and scratching him so far. For a would-be assassin- a supernatural one, at that— it was singularly unsuccessful.

Even still, his heart was pumping as he watched the second hand of the clock ticking down the moments to the thing’s arrival.

Switching all the lights off didn’t work. He had tried it. The thing was made of darkness. It didn’t need light to give it life. At least he could see it when the light was on.

He stood directly under one of the lighting panels to see it better. He was ready.

How often had he confronted it now? Several dozen times? A hundred? But it never felt routine. What could be stranger, now matter how often he experienced it, than looking at his own shadow and knowing it was going to become something else in an instant?

It started with a laugh. His laugh. It had taken him a while to realise that it was his own laugh. Who doesn’t wince in incredulous embarrassment when they hear a recording of their own voice? But one night in the cinema, laughing at a black comedy, he had heard his own laughter. And that was when he realised that the thing mocked him in his own voice.

Then, as always, it lunged at him.

The tenebrous hands went for his neck. He blocked them without much difficulty. As always, his flesh cried out in protest at the thing that was touching it, the phantasmal body that had no place in the world of matter.

Perhaps it was getting stronger, because it threw him to the ground. His head struck against Colin’s desk as he descended, and his skull filled with pyrotechnics.

Knowing that the thing was going to make another grab for his throat, Todd kicked out. He felt his legs collide with his shadowy adversary. He even heard it grunt.

The blow to his head had made him lose count. He had reached ten seconds when he fell. How much time had passed since? Ten more seconds? Twenty?

Almost halfway there. He staggered to his feet and braced himself for another attack.

The grey shape was huddled in a corner, and Todd wondered if he should take the fight to it. Could he stab it? Could he choke it? Had it a brain or a heart to stop?

But a moment later, such considerations were irrelevant. The thing launched itself at Todd with uncanny speed. It had crossed the room before he had time to think, and then it was pressing down on top of him, its hands around his neck.

This is it, thought Todd. Consciousness was beginning to slip away. He felt a detached anger at himself for walking into this battle, for being too stupidly proud to step out into the street and safety.

And then it stopped. One moment, an iron grip was closed over his windpipe. The next, his lungs were filling up with delicious air, and his enemy had disappeared.

The minute had passed once more. All over the city, workers sighed with relief. Scott lay on the floor, panting, amazed to find himself still alive. The alarm on his wristwatch buzzed.

* * * * *

Todd’s sister Becky phoned him a few minutes later. She had missed her bus. Could Todd drive her home?

“Sure”, he said, and coughed.

“Are you OK?”, asked Becky. “You’re not coming down with it, too, are you?”

“I haven’t been sick this century”, said Todd. “Clean living.”

He could hear his sister rolling her eyes as she said, “Just come get me”.

She was already telling him about her day when she stepped into the car, but she stopped when she saw his face.

“Are you sure you’re OK?”, she asked, scanning his face. “You look a little...ruffled.”

“Just a touch of five o’ clock shadow”, said Todd.


Nightmare Thirty-Four: Your Spiritual Advisor

“How have you been this week, Heather, dear daughter?”

Heather forced herself to look into Servant Sawyer’s eyes, giving him a studiously sober smile.

“Well enough, Servant”, she said, bowing your head towards him. “I got that promotion I was talking about.”

Servant Sawyer didn’t congratulate her. He merely nodded graciously, almost as though he had arranged the promotion, and was accepting Heather’s thanks. His dark, deep eyes glinted in the candlelight.

“And your salary..?”

“I’ve already increased my tithe,” said Heather, quickly.

Servant Sawyer nodded again, approvingly this time. “You know we’ve opened a new drugs rehabiliation centre in Coventry?” he asked. “There is so much need out there, so many suffering brothers and sisters.”

“Yes, Servant Sawyer”, said Heather, hoping that the weekly interview was coming to an end. Of course, she loved Servant Sawyer—- how could she not love him, given his concern for her?-— but these meetings were so gruelling.

But hadn’t the Reconciler himself written: “The mildness of God scorches the ungodly?” And Heather knew she was still a long way from godliness.

“Is that all, dear daughter?”

Heather composed her features, hiding her eagerness to get away. “Yes, Servant.”

She waited for Servant Sawyer to release her with three splayed fingers—- symbolising the Three Moral Treasures-- and the blessed words Grace guide you. But instead he just sat there, staring at her, as though she had left something out.

“I think that’s everything, Servant Sawyer”, she said.

He sighed. It was a sigh of disappointment. “Dear daughter, you sadden me. You truly sadden me. I’ve...heard reports...that you have been watching lurid films in a house in Battersea.”

Heather was stunned. How could he have known about the films?

“It was our sister Alice”, said Servant Sawyer, as though he had heard her thoughts. “She listened to her conscience. I’m proud of her”.

Heather hung her head, trying to bite back the anger. Servant Sawyer would see her anger. He would see it, and he would assault it. There was no way to argue with Servant Sawyer. He was like a battering-ram of solid certainty.

“I didn’t think it was any harm...” she said, apologetically. “I mean, they’re just silly romances, chick-flicks...I grew up watching films like that”.

Servant Sawyer let the words hang in silence, as though they needed no refutation. As though they condemned her on their own.

“Silly”, he said, eventually. “Yes, silly. Films like that make promiscuity and selfish hedonism seem trivial, harmless. Can’t you see how sinister that is?”

“I guess so”, said Heather. She couldn’t bear to look into Servant Sawyer’s eyes. She was looking at the framed photograph on the table, the gently smiling face of Harold Tucker, the Reconciler. Looking at his handsome, understanding face always comforted her.

“These films must stop”, said Servant Sawyer. “You see that, don’t you? Look at me, Heather.”

Heather looked into her advisor’s eyes. He wore a sad smile now.

“Yes, Servant”, she said. “Of course.”

“You are not far from your twenty-fifth birthday”, said Servant Sawyer. “I am making researches into a suitable husband. Be assured that, with the guidance of the Reconciler, I will find a man who will help you lead a holy life, and make your marriage a blessing to all our brothers and sisters. After that, you won’t feel the slightest temptation to watch...chick-flicks.”

With that, he raised three fingers in the air, and intoned: “Grace guide you.”

“Grace guide you”, said Heather, returning the gesture. Relief seeped through her.

Ten minutes later, she was standing outside the little flat in Paddington. It was a bustling November morning. Life surged all around her, and the sky blazed a pure white.

She descended the steps, and navigated the thronged streets of Central London. She ran for a bus at Oxford Street, and just made it.

As she was paying her fare, the driver raised three fingers in the air. “Grace guide you”, he said.

“Grace guide you”, said Heather, doing the same.

Outside, on an enormous billboard, the face of Harold Tucker the Reconciler smiled down upon them.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Designing a Chapel

And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6.

I always used to think there was something suprisingly bourgeois about this Bible verse. How many people have their own room? Even though I live in the prosperous First World, I slept in the same bed as my mother and little brother for most of my childhood. And I don't think there's anything so extraordinary about this.

Then I read a gloss upon this text which explained that Jesus is not necessarily speaking in a literal sense. We can "go to our private room and shut ourselves in" at any time, no matter where we are. Our private room is our soul.

I find this interpretation very pleasing. But then, I've always found the privacy of our thoughts to be a strange and even thrilling idea.

I like films such as Inception which take place, partly or mostly or entirely, inside somebody's imagination. The possibilities are infinite. (Although I've seen that film about four or five times, in whole or in part, and I still don't understand exactly what's happening most of the time.)

I remember in school, when I was cold in the playground, I would imagine I was sitting in a private office which was snug and warm. My body was cold, but the real me was insulated. This notion delighted me no end, though it obviously didn't make me any less cold.

Sometimes we yearn so much to make ourselves known and understood-- to communicate some bewitching experience, for instance-- that this perpetual mental privacy can seem like a prison. All communication and all art is, in a sense, an attempt to break out of it-- or rather, into the mental chamber of somebody else.

But, on the whole, I think this inner sanctum is a priceless gift. Even in a crowd of a hundred thousand people, there is somewhere that is entirely our own. And it is as big as we can make it.

I've always felt that, like Tennyson, "I am a part of all that I have met"-- or rather, that all that I have met is a part of me. I'm still sitting in a kitchen on a Winter's morning, as my little brother is persuaded to go to school for the first time, and looking at scones baking in the oven, the orange flames burning beneath the grille. I'm still reading David Copperfield, lying awake in bed on the first night of Operation Desert Storm. I'm still sitting in the cinema, watching every movie I've ever seen. It's all going on, over and over again, forever, in the kingdom of my mind. Nothing is ever really gone, in that sense.

I could never finish Clive Barker's thumpingly long fantasy novel, Weaveworld, but I've always been haunted by the inscription that one character finds written on a book of fairy tales: "That which can be imagined need never be lost."

All of this to say, I have been giving some thought recently to building my own private chapel. Money is no object, but I don't think I'm going to make it very lavish.

I think it might resemble the shrine of John Neumann in Philadelphia. I've never been there (the shrine, I mean-- I've been in Philadelphia airport several times, and enjoyed a couple of cheese pretzels there). But I do like the photographs, and this three-hundred-and-sixty degree panorama.

Most of all, it would be bright and colourful, not dark and grey. I don't know why God should only be found in gloomy places. We are told he dwells in unapproachable light. Floodlighting my little chapel might be going too far, but I would like it to at least look awake.

The ceiling would be low. I can't explain why a low ceiling has always seemed exciting to me. I suspect that, like Isaac Asimov, I am a claustrophile.

There would be a great deal of polished, varnished wood, preferably with an amber-coloured tinge to it.

There would be no stained glass. I don't like stained glass. There would be paintings and framed Scriptural quotations instead.

There would be no windows. I like indoors to be indoors, without any reminder of the outdoors.

On one side wall, there would be a picture of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the figures fairly stiff and stylized, the emphasis very much upon the tongues of fire that leap towards everybody gathered in the upper room.

One the other wall, there would be a framed text, Luke 12:49: "I have come to bring fire to the Earth".

Underfoot, there would be crests or insignias of some sort-- possibly the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the Chi-Ro symbol, and the ichthys fish. (I went to a school run by Dominican nuns and I always loved the Dominician crest worked into the floor-tiles.)

There would be a heavy curtain behind the tabernacle, preferably wine-red or navy-blue. I find heavy curtains tremendously exciting.

There would be always be soft music filling the air. Some might see this as crass, and as a violation of the silence that should reign in a place or worship, the silence about which Pope Benedict wrote so eloquently.

But what can I say? To me, soft music seems to deepen and heighten the silence, to give a place a sense of presence. It would be Gregorian chant and various hymns most of the time, with Christmas carols through Advent.

That seems like a very cosy, reverential, joyous chapel to me.

But if I don't like it I can redesign pretty cheaply.

What Every Blog Post and Catholic Newspaper or Magazine Article Must Say About Pope Francis

1) That the media love him but that the honeymoon period will soon be over when they realise he is not going to revolutionize the Church.

2) That he offends both reactionaries and liberals (but not me, the author always rather smugly implies).

3) That he baffles the secular world by holding "left wing" views on social justice and uses "left wing" rhetoric about tolerance and mercy, while continuing to uphold the Church's teaching.

4) That he is playing a clever game by refusing the media any soundbites on the sex issues, concentrating instead on redemption and mercy.

5) That it's nice to hear a Pope talking about the Devil and sin.

6) That he is steelier than he looks.

7) That he is full of radiant and evangelistic joy.

8) That Pope Benedict had already said many of the things Pope Francis said, without anyone getting into a tizzy about it.

All of this is very true but I am getting rather bored reading it over and over again. We have a new Pope and he's great. Just like Pope Benedict was great. And just like Blessed John Paul II was great. And they are all saying the same thing with a different emphasis. Let's move on!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Heck, Why Not?

Three more of my Hundred Nightmares.

Nightmare Twenty-Nine: King of the Dead

This was Bill’s favourite moment of the day; standing under a jet of warm water, imagining that it was washing away all the fatigues and irritations and frustrations of the previous hours.

Regeneration. That word always came into his head as he took his nightly shower. Regeneration.

He stepped out of the ensuite shower, threw on the bathrobe that hung on the back of the leather couch, and walked to the window. He drew the blinds so that they opened a fraction, and peered out into the city lights.

From here he could see the laundrette where he’d had his first job, thirty years ago. There were memories attached to nearly every street he could see from here. Some of them glorious memories, some of them humiliating. What did it matter? Life was a game of snakes and ladders, and he’d slid down plenty of snakes.

But here he was. Here he was.

He shut the blinds and went to the couch, flopping down on with a sense of satisfaction. He reached for the remote control and switched on the television. Let’s see what the mad world is up to now, he thought.

There was a game-show on television, but this was a game-show with a difference. All the participants were dead. The host was speaking, but his face was corpse-white and his eyes were staring into space, lifelessly.

“So we’re in a tie-breaker situation”, he said. “And the category is France.”

Bill guffawed. What would they think of next? He was about to change the channel when his mobile phone, poised on the arm of the couch, began to ring. McAllister, announced the little screen. Bill groaned.

“Yeah”, he said, still staring at the freaky game show.

“Bill”, said a voice at the other end. It managed to be apologetic and whiny already, with one monoysllable. Bill felt his jaw tighten. “Are you sure you don’t want to renew Brannigan’s contract? He claims he was given verbal assurances...”

“He wasn’t given anything”, said Bill. “I didn’t give him any assurances, and nobody else better have, either. Or they’re dead.”

There was a long silence. “I think Sophie might have….”

“Look”, snapped Bill. “That’s Sophie’s problem. She had no authority. Terminate Brannigan. He won’t be taking us to court. It’s all bluff. Goodnight, Bill.”

He cursed, put down the mobile, and changed the channel.

It was a game of snooker, just beginning a new frame. Bill leaned closer. Snooker was his favourite game, the sport of the man with a brain.

It was only when the camera showed a close-up of one of the players, chalking his cue, that Bill realised that he was dead, too. In fact, he was turning green, and his eyeballs...they had fallen in. When the camera cut to the audience, he saw that they were in various degrees of decay and decomposition, too. Some of them were almost skeletons, but all of them were following the game eagerly...with or without eyes.

Bill flicked through channel after channel. A cadaver was whisking eggs. Two bodies were committing mutual necrophilia. On an infomercial, a corpse in a leotard was standing with her legs wide apart, reaching down to touch each ankle alternately. She didn’t seem in the least deterred when one of her fingertips fell off.

Bill screamed and threw the remote control at the screen. It bounced against it and onto the carpet. He leaped from the couch and ran out the door of the TV room, down the hall, and out his front door, barely remembering to close the door behind him. He ran down the stairs of his apartment complex and out into the streets, still clad in nothing but his bathrobe.

The city was full of dead people.

They were driving taxis, smooching by streetlights, coming out of pubs. And they were looking at him as though he was strange.

He ran through street after street, hoping that the madness would end, praying that he would turn the next corner and see the pink cheeks and shining eyes of living, breathing, vital human beings.

But even the dogs who wandered the paths were decomposing. The stench was worse than the sight.

He began to run, ignoring the glassy eyes that stared at him. He ran through the streets where he had blazed such a magnificent trail, where he had beaten the city at its own game.

He stopped, and bent forward, heaving great breaths into his lungs. When he straightened up again, he saw that he was standing in front of the Dazzle laundrette, the place where he had started his career.

He walked in. The stink of decay was replaced by the cleansing aroma of steam and washing-up powder. And—- glory to God!—- the people queueing at the counter were alive. Mick, the jowly and gentle man who’d run the Dazzle since it opened, was smiling at a customer, his face a beautiful sweaty pink.

Bill walked to the head of the queue, grabbed his old boss’s beefy arm, and said: “Mick, I want my old job back.”


Nightmare Thirty: Easter Eggs

“Phenomenon”, said Andrew, lingering over each syllable. “P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-O-N”.

His mother smiled at him, proudly. “You’re the phenomenon, chicken. You’re the phenomenon. You must be the cleverest child I’ve ever met.”

She reached out and ruffled his hair, and Andrew beamed. He loved lessons.

“Enough for today”, said his mother, closing the book. “Do you know, most kids hate school?”

“They must be weird”, said Andrew, putting his copy-books and pens into the drawer of his desk.

His mother laughed, just like Andrew knew she would. “Maybe you’re the weird one, Andyman”.

“Is Dominic coming to visit again soon?”, asked Andrew.

His mother’s smile faded a little. “No, chicken”, she said. “But Leo will come visit soon. Won’t you like that? You can play your football game with Leo.”

Andrew nodded, without much enthusiasm. “I like Leo”, he said. “But not as much as Dominic.”

“Well, never mind”, said his mother. “There’s a treat for you today. Andyman, do you know what day it is today?”

“Sunday, April the twelfth”, said Andy, promptly.

“Yes”, said his mother, rising from her chair. She was wearing her nightgown, and Andrew was still wearing his pyjamas. “But more than that. It’s Easter!”

“What’s Easter?”, asked Andy, eagerly. He liked learning new things.

“Easter is an ancient religious festival, chicken”, said his mother. “These days, it’s been taken over by Christianity. You remember Christianity, don’t you?”

Andrew nodded cautiously. He’d been fascinated by the story of Jesus, but his mother-— though she answered all his questions—- didn’t seem pleased by his show of interest. He could always tell. So he’d stopped asking. He’d looked for more information on the shelves of the house, but all his mother’s religious books had titles like The Ancient Goddess or Spirits of the Earth. There was one very old one, which his mother often read but wouldn't let Andy read, called The Hidden Arts. They didn’t say much about Christianity, and when they did, it was as though they expected you to know about it already.

“Well, when Christianity came, it took over Easter”, she said. Her eyes narrowed a little. “Like it took over a lot of other things. But that doesn’t mean it belongs to Christians. It belongs to everyone.”

Andrew nodded, unsure of the right thing to say.

“Never mind all that”, said his mother, clapping her hands. “The fun part of it is that Easter is celebrated with chocolate eggs. Chocolate eggs, Andrew! You love chocolate!”

Andrew smiled. He did love chocolate.

“And the even funner part of it is that we hide the chocolate eggs and you get to look for them!”

Andrew stood up, eagerly. Any kind of puzzle or problem or search was heaven to him. “Are they hidden already?”, he asked.

His mother laughed, and her eyes shone with pleasure in his pleasure. “Yes, chicken. They’re somewhere in the house. Now, Mommy is going to take a shower, and Andyman can start looking for chocolate eggs. Don’t open the door if anybody rings. Don’t answer the telephone.”

“No, Mommy”, said Andrew, automatically, his eyes already moving around the room.

His mother didn’t move. She stayed standing where she was, gazing down at her son. A look of intense love came over her face. All of a sudden, she knelt beside him and hugged him around his shoulders. Her grip was so tight it almost hurt.

“Oh, Andyman”, she whispered. “You’re wonderful. You can do anything. You hear me? Let me hear it say. Say I can do anything.”

“I can do anything”, said Andrew, who hated and loved these moments.

“I love you”, said his mother, kissing his cheek. “Have fun, Andyman”.

As soon as she had left the room, Andrew launched into the search. He looked under the couch, behind the cabinet, behind the books on shelves. He looked in his mother’s desk.

He found the hidden drawer at the bottom.

Inside, there was a grey plastic folder. It was full of documents. Andrew was a precocious child, but most of the words were beyond his comprehension. Words like “compensation”, “negligence”, “fatality”. One of the pages had the words CERTIFICATE OF DEATH at the top, and his own name underneath.

He put them all back, somehow guessing he wasn’t meant to have seen them, and went on looking for chocolate eggs.


Nightmare Thirty-One: Sisters

“Are you alright, honey?”

Bonny woke up from her trance, and stared at the old lady sitting beside her.

“Oh...I was just..”

“Are you going to an interview or something?”, asked the old woman, smiling sympathetically. She was looking at Bonny’s carefully-chosen clothes.

“Yes”, said Bonny, touched by the woman’s concern, but eager to avoid a conversation. “That’s it.”

The old woman patted Bonny’s knee with three brisk, hearty pats. “Oh honey, don’t you worry. You walk into that room thinking they should beg for you on their bended knees.”

Bonny gave a smile that she hoped looked grateful. “Thanks”, she said. The woman nodded, looking pleased, and turned back to the window.

Relieved, Bonny reached into her handbag and pulled out her old and battered mobile phone. She called up the latest text in her inbox.


She felt a nervous tugging in her stomach as the bus lumbered on towards her destination. What had happened to Caroline?

The feeling of strangeness became more oppressive with every moment. Bonny wasn’t the one who was supposed to watch over Caroline. It had always worked the other way around. Caroline was the wise one, the straight B student, the one who saved money, the one who had never had a hangover in her life. Bonny was the ladette, the party girl, the one who had to be coaxed from the wrong path by her big sister, time and time again.

The bus rolled on. This part of town had a shabby, tired, heavy look. A street sign told her they had reached Frogmarch, the area where Caroline had been spotted, discreetly followed, and seen going into a second-floor apartment.

And there it was...those squat, brown-brick apartments. Bonny put her phone back into her bag, pressed the bell on the rail beside her, and rose to her feet.

Caroline had disappeared five months ago. She had given notice at the solicitor’s office—- telling nobody but her boss—- paid off the rent arrears on her flat, and stepped off the face of the Earth. Or that was how it had seemed.

She refused to answer phone calls. She had sent one curt text, and no more.

Bonny got off the bus—- the only passenger getting off at this stop—-and began to walk towards Frogsmarch Way. It was an airless, heavy evening. Summer was almost over. Bonny hated this time of year. It felt rancid, used-up.

As she climbed the metal stairs of the apartment complex, she thought of the bedroom she had shared with Caroline for seven years. They had disagreed about everything. Music. Politics. Religion. Clothes. They had quarreled incessantly. But, underneath it all, they had been halves of one whole, like an upper and lower denture champing against each other.

Bonny had to find her. Even if she didn’t want to be found.

She was standing before number seventy-six. The paint of the blue door was faded and chipped. She rang the bell. Hearing nothing, she knocked.

She stood in the grubby hallway, waiting, for a minute or more.

The she heard somebody coming, and the rattling of a chain, the creaking of a handle. The door drew back a few inches.

Standing in a slice of orange light was a man. He was an old man, a scrawny old man in a heavy pullover and huge glasses. His grey hair was matted, his eyes were bloodshot, and his teeth—- when his mouth opened in a horrible grin—- were badly discoloured and crooked.

He’s the one who sent the tex
t, thought Bonny, panic flooding her. Caroline is wrapped up in plastic somewhere inside—-

But when she spoke, her voice was calm and polite. “I’m looking for Caroline Hall”, she said, managing a smile. “I’ve heard she might be here.”

The man grinned again. It was a fiendish grin. At that moment, she caught the smell of stale sweat and long-unwashed clothes. It made her want to retch.

“She’s here alright”, said the man, hoarsely. “Come in”. A stream of salivia dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand, still grinning at Bonny.

He took her into the dim kitchen. Caroline was sitting at the table, drinking tea. She was dressed in a voluminous lime-green nightie.

She was heavily pregnant. Her hand rested protectively on her swollen belly. She gave her sister a nervous, pleading smile. Her eyes shone.

Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t get the chance. The old man had grabbed her around the shoulders, and he was pressing his lips against her own. The stench was overpowering now, but she didn’t recoil.

Instead, she pressed her body against the filthy old man and returned his kisses with a desperate fervour. Suddenly—- even as her whole soul protested with disgust-- she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.


That's the Irish for "horrible" or "horrific". In what sense it applies to the latest trio of my Hundred Nightmares...well, I'll let you decide for yourself!

Nightmare Twenty-Six: The Outsider

Hetterton was village Marshall had dreamt about all his life. It was the sort of place he’d planned to move to in his retirement. But when a manager’s job came up in the Old Colours Hotel, he was happy to get there twenty years ahead of schedule.

The job wasn’t onerous. Marshall was glad. He’d worked hard all his life, but never thought of hard work as a virtue. Anyone who did was a fool.

There weren’t many fools in Hetterton. Marshall’s favourite pub, the Man and Maid, was never deserted. Within a week, he knew everybody who drank there.

Except for one.

She sat by the fire, always. She was a pretty enough woman, though not the stuff of dreams. Her clothes were unfashionable but not tasteful—- pleated cardigans featured heavily—- and she always seemed to be reading some mystery novel or other. She might have been in her late thirties.

There were so many other people to get to know, at first, that Marshall hardly thought about her. It was only when he’d reached first name terms with the rest of the regulars—- and most of the town—- that he asked about her.

“Who’s she?”, she asked, while sharing a table with Jerry, the village postmaster.

Jerry, a red-haired, red-faced man, always had a smile on his face, but when he followed the direction of Marshall’s eyes, it faded.

“Think she’s called Holmes”, said Jerry. “Keeps to herself.”

“Looks like kind of lonely to me”, said Marshall. “Every now and again she looks she wishes she could join in.”

Jerry shrugged his broad shoulders. “If you say so”.

“Let’s go talk to her”, said Marshall.

“I’m just going to finish this one and go”, said Jerry. “Got to get a few things”…he looked down into his beer a little bashfully.

“Suit yourself”, said Marshall, intrigued now. “Catch you later, Jerry.”

He walked to where the woman was sitting, put his pint down on her table, and sat opposite her. She looked up, her eyebrows raised, surprise in her hazel eyes.

“What you reading?”, asked Marshall.

Murder Isn’t Polite”, she said, turning the cover of the book, revealing a picture of a an old man in a smoking jacket raising his arms protectively. “Dolores Harney.”

“I’ve read it”, said Marshall. “I gorge on those things.”

They talked. Marshall found himself wondering why the lady was so friendless. Her name was Julia. She was warm, funny, witty, well-informed. They spoke for three hours, then he walked her back to her cottage. She lived alone.

Before she went inside, she clutched his arm, looked into his eyes and said: “Marshall, you’re sweet. It was really sweet of you to talk to me today.”

“There was nothing sweet about—“

“Listen”, she said, an expression of pain crossing her face. “Please don’t do it again. Some people...they just have something about them. And I’m like that. It’s best to leave me alone.”

“Don’t be absurd”, he said, impatiently. “This is just an idea you’ve got into your head. It’s just…”

She leaned forward, kissed his cheek, and said: “Please don’t talk to me again.” There were tears in her eyes. He called her back, but she kept walking.

* * *
It was late. Marshall went straight back to the Old Colours Hotel, and took to bed after a quick look around.

The next morning, he had a dental appointment in the city. He found himself thinking about Julia as he got dressed. He wasn’t going to respect her self-imposed quarantine, that was for sure. Whatever she said, the longing for companionship was plain in her hazel eyes.

He thought of her as he read a wildlife magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, as he had his teeth examined, and as he stood in the Halley’s Comet afterwards, nursing his usual post-dental gin.

He only stopped thinking of her when he spotted Jackson, his college friend, doing the crossword on a stool by the window. He crossed towards him.

“Still struggling with that thing?”, he asked. “Do you ever give up?”

Jackson looked up. The pleasure Marshall had expected to see light up his pale blue eyes was not there. In fact, there was no welcome in them at all.

“Actually, Marshall”, he said, standing up and rolling up the newspaper, “I have to rush right now”.

Nightmare Twenty-Seven: Stutter

“What would the government do if all smokers did give up tomorrow?”, asked Maureen, stuffing the packet of John Player Blue and the few coins of change into her coat pocket. “Their coffers would be empty.”

“But we keep on buying them anyway, no matter how much tax they slap on them”, said the shopkeeper. A cigarette hung from his own lips, in casual defiance of the law. “More fool us”.

“Guess you don’t have many inspectors dropping in on you here”, said Maureen, looking out the window of the shop, down the road that disappeared into the horizon.

“Closest house is three miles away”, said the old man, with an impish grin. “Closest town is ten miles away. The government’s remote control doesn’t reach out here”.

Maureen laughed. She was happy today. Coming back to the place where she and Jimmy had grown up hadn’t make her sad, as she’d partly expected. She felt girlish.

“Had you got the radio on in the car?”, asked the shopkeeper.

“No”, said Maureen, a little nervously. “Why, has something happened?”

“I don’t know”, said the man, shrugging and squinting into the sunlight. “Can’t get it in here. I phoned my wife and she says there’s no television signal.”

“What do you think it could be?”, asked Maureen, looking out the window again. It was such a beautiful summer morning, it was impossible to feel concerned.

“God knows”, said the man, shrugging. “Nothing like this has ev—ev—“

The man’s expression had frozen. He was staring straight at Maureen. His eyes, so lively a moment before, had become glassy.

“Ev-ev-ev-ev-“. The voice was monotonous and strangely nasal now.

“What’s wrong with you?”, Maureen blurted out, taking a step backwards.

The old man continued to repeat his single syllable, and then—- only for a moment, but Maureen saw it—- his eyes flashed. For a moment, they were lit up by a bright green glow.

She turned, and ran. Behind her, the shopkeeper repeated: “Ev-ev-ev-ev-”.

She pulled the door of the car open, slid into her seat, and said: “For God’s sake, let’s go”.

“Why?”, asked Jack. She didn’t look at him—- she stared straight ahead—- but she could hear the surprise and anxiety in his voice. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know”, she said, her voice shaking. “But that guy’s going crazy. He was like..a robot. Get out of here, for God’s sake.”

As Jack revved the car up, she reached forward and turned on the radio. She fiddled with the knob. Nothing but static; not even the hint of a voice.

“What’s wrong with the radio?”, she asked, the panic in her voice rising.

“Probably solar spots or something”, said Jack, in his usual nonchalant purr.

His familiar voice calmed her. They drove five minutes, ten minutes, as she explained what had happened in the shop. They passed three cars. Every one of their drivers waved as they passed. People had always been friendly here.

“How can you be sure that his eyes...glowed?”, asked Jack. “Maybe it was just a reflection...”

“Stop!”, screamed Maureen, and the car’s brakes screeched.

A teenage girl had been crossing the road some distance ahead of them. Maureen was watching her at the moment she stopped walking. One foot was extended in the air, and one arm was swinging backwards. She had simply frozen.

The car came to a halt mere feet away from the girl. Maureen and Jack sat in silence, staring at the eerily motionless figure.

“There was something on the radio this morning”, said Jack, in a low voice. “While you were having your shower. A rumour about some...signal from space. The thing was…”

“What?”, asked Maureen, still staring ahead at the motionless girl.

“They couldn’t make sense of it, but somebody thought it might be related to...ancient Sumerian, I think it was. There was a scientist on saying it must be some ingenious prank. It didn’t even make the headlines.”

“What’s wrong with her, Jack?”, cried Maureen, unable to keep the panic from her voice any more.

“Calm down, Maureen”, said Jack, reaching across and grasping her arm. “It’s probably just—just—just---just—“

She looked across at him. He was staring at her. His eyes flashed green.


Nightmare Twenty-Eight: Never Again

Terry Harte shifted in his soft leather chair. He had never sat in a bank manager’s office before, never mind been invited in.

“I’m a little bit worried by this cash order you want paid”, said the manager, smiling across the desk at him. He was a rangy man with a neat goatee.

“There’s nothing to worry about”, said Terry, hastily.

The manager raised his eyebrows. “That’s your entire savings with us, Mr. Harte”, he said, “All to a dog’s refuge. I mean, it’s very laudable, but what are you going to do?”

“Go live with my sister in Donegal”, said Terry, promptly.

“Mr. Harte, you realise that it’s bank policy to contact the police if any transaction strikes us as suspicious?”, asked the manager, frowning.

Terry shrugged his shoulders. “That’s fine”, he said, politely.

The silence stretched. Then the manager sighed, shook his head, and said: “Well, I guess that won’t be necessary. But are you sure everything is OK, Mr Harte?”

“Everything’s fine”, said Terry, already rising from his chair. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate are going to process that order, aren’t you?”

“It’s your money,” said the manager. He stretched his hand across the desk. “Good luck, Mr. Harte. Good luck”.

What more could I do?, thought the bank manager, as the old man’s rough hand grasped his own. Nothing’s going to stop him if his mind’s made up..

* * * *

The streets were all but empty as Terry made his way to Mortimer Bridge.

He didn’t feel sad, or frightened. He felt...hollow. Ever since Chisler had died, he had felt this void in his soul.

It was too much. Every time one of his dogs had died, Terry had sworn never again. Joey, Empress, Phantom, Draco, Baskerville, Mastermind. One black labrador, two German Shepherds, one boxer, one terrier, one rottweiler, and the Jack Russell that he had buried last week. Companions from his boyhood to his old age. Why had God allowed the bond between man and dog to be so deep, when it had to be so brief?

He felt as though he had died seven times already. Tonight was just...well, like putting a book back on the shelf after you were finished with it.

He was walking up the stone steps of the bridge when he heard a growling from behind him. He turned.

A young man in a bomber jacket was standing feet away, holding a pitbull on a stout metal chain. He grinned with malevolent excitement. The dog’s teeth were bared. It looked as though it had been made vicious by years of teasing.

“Where do you think you’re going?”, asked the youth, stepping closer.

“Nowhere”, said Terry, eyeing the dog’s spit-flecked fangs.

“Hey, I recognise you”, said the kid, peering at Terry’s face. “You have a crappy little Jack Russell, don’t you?”

“Used to”, said Terry, helplessly. The pitbull was straining on the chain now.

“Aw, did it die?”, asked the youth. “Poor little runt. How much money have you got on you?”

“I don’t have any money at all”, said Terry. “I gave it all away. Really.”

“Why the hell did you do that?”, asked the boy, angrily, as though infuriated by the unexpectedness of Terry’s reply. “Who did you give it to?”

“A dog charity”, said Terry. “Hey, could you watch that dog, please?”

The boy stared at him expressionlessly. Then a great grin crossed his face and he bent over, overpowered by a sudden fit of laughter.

The pitbull took the opportunity to break free of the his grasp, and hurled itself at Terry. The old man turned, trying to run, but only succeeded in falling in a heap on the wet concrete of the path.

It was hard to say exactly what happened next. The pitbull’s barking seemed to mutiply, growing more agitated as it did so. Soon, the air was full of howls.

Terry looked up, and cried out with astonishment. They were all there; Joey and Empress, Phantom and Draco, Baskerville and Mastermind, each of them snarling and snapping at his attacker. Even the Jack Russell, Chisler, was yapping valiantly at the cowed pitbull.

The terrified hound turned and ran, still howling from the injuries he had sustained, and his owner raced after him, into the night.

* * *
The old man travelled from town to town, from city to city. He begged, stole chocolate and sandwiches from the shop shelves, and even—now and again— filched from the same rubbish bins as his companions. He washed at public bathrooms or in the bowls of fountains, when he washed at all. His dogs followed him, guarded him, lay beside him at night. He was happy.

There would be no more hollowness; there would be no more farewells. Never again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Letter in the Irish Times Today

I had a letter in the Irish Times today, defending the timelessness of the Church's teaching, as well as my blogger buddy Fr. Levi.

This is the letter to which I was replying:

Sir, – Revd Fr Patrick Burke (November 8th) displays a breathtaking ignorance of the history and evolution of the doctrines to the Roman Catholic Church. On almost all major issues the position adopted by the Roman Church has been transformed, if not reversed, over the centuries.

In such major issues as the calculation of the date of Easter, the celibacy of priests, the role of Mary, the status of the unborn (which once allowed for abortion) and the unbaptised child, the status of papal pronouncements, and many more, official doctrine has changed radically, often more than once. In many cases, those who chose to maintain their belief in the earlier doctrine were poorly treated, if not excluded from the church community.

As the Roman Catholic Church has changed its opinion on so many fundamental doctrines, I see no reason why there should not be an acceptance of a revised doctrine on marriage, to include same-sex couples. Hopefully, this can be achieved without excommunicating those who hold to the present version of approved beliefs. – Yours, etc,


Convent Avenue,


Co Wicklow

(Someone, with the title of "Reverend", also wrote from Finland to complain that Fr. Levi was explaning the "Catholic" view of homosexual relationship when he himself is a minister of the Church of Ireland. Of course, members of the Anglican Communion would consider themselves a part of the historical Catholic Church. But I wish all Roman Catholic priests were as steadfast in orthodox Christian teaching as this particular Church of Ireland priest.)

This was my letter:

Sir, – It is Gordon Davies (November 9th), and not Rev Fr Patrick Burke (November 8th), who is breathtakingly wrong about the evolution of Catholic doctrine. His list of supposed changes in Catholic teaching is merely a misrepresentation of the fact that the church – far from being the authoritarian institution it is made out to be – often takes a very long time to make a definitive decision on a matter of controversy, during which time differing views are permitted.

He should know the celibacy requirement for priests is a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. The Vatican could choose to remove this requirement, though I think it would be a mistake to do so. The teaching of the church never allowed for abortion – he is thinking of the controversy around ensoulment, which St Thomas Aquinas believed occurred after conception. (Even the Angelic Doctor was sometimes wrong). This did not affect the fact the church always regarded abortion to be a grave moral evil. The role of Mary as the Mother of God was a matter of lively controversy in the early centuries of the church; the doctrine was only proclaimed definitively at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Other Marian doctrine such as the Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into Heaven were declared later. Although the idea that unbaptised infants could not be saved (that is, could not attain the beatific vision) was commonly held until recently, it was never a declared doctrine. The controversy over Easter is complicated and often obscure, but here again church practice evolved rather than zig-zagged.

Quite simply, when the teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church solemnly declares a belief to be required as a matter of orthodoxy, she never revokes this, no matter how much pressure is put upon her to do so. This, I would argue, is one of the many signs that the church is divine in origin. – Yours, etc,


Woodford Drive,

Clondalkin, Dublin 22.

I was quite pleased that this letter appeared. I've had a few letters in various newspapers, defending Christian and Catholic doctrine, but very often it seems like a tit-for-tat argument where everybody knows what you are going to say before you say it, and there is no hope of anyone changing their mind even one half-inch. But I got an opportunity to say something substantive in this letter and it could be that it will help erode some misconceptions, or stop some misconceptions from being formed.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This Man is a Wonderful Homilist

Fr. Wade Menezes, as seen on EWTN.

I like his homilies because they are structured and well-thought out. I like them because they're about something. (A homily shouldn't be about everything.) I like the deliberateness of his diction and his willingness to repeat key sentences.

But most of all I like him because he is so serious, even solemn.

I think there is a tremendous temptation on Christians to laugh it up all the time. We don't want to seem too holy. We don't want to seem pushy. We don't want to resemble the popular culture of zombie-eyed, fanatical Bible-bashers.

But if you don't take yourself seriously, nobody else does. And if you don't take what you're saying seriously, nobody else does.

I like sermons. I like the idea of sermons, and I always have. I don't know why there is the idea out there that sermons are necessarily dull. "Not preachy" is one of those unthinking compliments, like "not sentimental". Well, there's nothing wrong with sentimentality, and there's nothing wrong with preaching.

When you have an inspirational teacher-- like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society- he's always preachy. He (or she) is not only transferring information or skills but inspiring his or her students with a particular view of the world, a particular ethic.

I'm not a fan of the late comedian Bill Hicks, but why is he esteemed in a way that most other comics are not? Because he preached.

On an unrelated note, I ask for your prayers for my wife Michelle, as she is going through a hard time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Recycling At Work

I posted this poem in May of last year and it continues to get a lot of "hits", according to my blog statistics. I have no idea how these statistics work. Are these "hits" real visitors or are they spam bots, or some other intangible and unguessable cyberspace current? I have no idea.

In any case, I thought it might be worth re-posting it, if it really is popular. I like it myself. It's an expression of frustration with those who demand a rationale for being a traditionalist or a nostalgist. To me, the question is why anyone wouldn't want to cherish old things, and to perpetuate them. (For the record I have never used a lawnmower or a scythe!)

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative

I'm tired of invoking Edmund Burke
And tired of the shuttlecock of debate.
I really don't care if the new ways work,
I'll always root for the out-of-date.
I'll always root for the long-in-the-tooth
Though the new be better a thousandfold.
No more shall I hide the terrible truth;
I like old things because they are old.

I like old things because they are slower
And cruder and leave us a chance to laugh.
Give me a scythe, not a new lawn-mower;
A daguerreotype, not a photograph.
I like old ways because they wander
I like them because they don't make sense.
I can't add seven and six, but I'm fonder
Of shillings and farthings than pounds and pence.

I like old things because the dust
Of custom and habit have fallen on them.
I like them because they've been blessed and cussed
And joked about since the time of Shem.
I'm all for cooked-up and fake traditions;
There's not a quaint fiction I won't uphold.
Let Christmas be laden with new additions;
I like new things that pretend to be old.

I thirst for cobwebs and rust and dog-ears
By ivy and lichen I take my stand.
I am not pleased when nostalgia's fog clears
And leaves us standing in no-man's-land.
I like a verse more the more it's recited;
I like a tale more the more it's told.
So call me backwards, blockish, benighted;
I like old things because they are old.

You tell me my sort have been moaning and mourning
Since someone rubbed sticks and discovered fire;
That mankind lives in an endless dawning
From tin to typeface to telephone wire.
You say that the past is doomed, you sages,
And tramp on its deathbed to prove you're bold;
By God, I don't think you so very courageous;
I like old things because they are old.