Friday, May 30, 2014

Imaginary Realms of Childhood

I am reading yet another biography of C.S Lewis, The Authentic Voice by WIlliam Griffin. (I got it from the book exchange outside the library, which is a wonderful facility. Free books! I do put books and DVDs on it myself, but apparently that's not even necessary-- so I was told by one of the head librarians.) The distinctive feature of The Authentic Voice is that it sticks as close as possible to Lewis's own words, diaries, letters etc. (I've always felt that a person's best biographer is themselves.)

It begins at the commencement of Lewis's Oxford career, but I've reached a part where he revisits his childhood home and comes across the stories and pictures he created with his brother in childhood. The land they created together was called Boxen. It was a kind of merger of his brother's imaginary world, which was full of trains and steam-ships, and Lewis's imaginary world of 'dressed animals' and knights in armour.

This amuses me, because myself and my younger brother did almost exactly the same thing. We both had imaginary countries, though they never merged. My brother (whose name is Turlough) called his Turlogia. Mine was called The Kingdom of Hoc (pronounced Hock), after a nickname I was given by local kids.

My brother was always more radical than me (he is now a Marxist) and our countries reflected this. His was a republic, as far as I can remember. Mine was a monarchy and an aristocracy, though it also had a parliament. His philosophical materialism and my bent towards the supernatural were also manifested in our respective lands, for his was strictly realistic while mine was full of all kind of wonders, such as lakes of bathwater.

My flag was halved turquoise and purple. I forget whether his country had a flag. Our countries played each other at computer soccer games, and so forth. At one point I created a national parliament, fully populated with different parties. I even had an election and parliamentary reports. In truth, I was closer to being a young adult at this time than I was to being a child.

The computer soccer game I mentioned was a game called Striker! We played this together, but my brother would play whole tournaments of it by himself, against the computer, and keeping precise records of the results. (I imagine they are lost, sadly.) I remember how much it used to bother me that these were in real time, and that he wouldn't, despite my advice, simply have an entire season played out in, say, a month.

But they influenced a dream I had not so many years ago, a dream that might well be the most extraordinarily vivid dream I've ever dreamed. My brother, in this dream, had become utterly obsessed by a stash of records he found in a little hollow in the ground, a kind of muddy cave that was no bigger than a very poky attic. (One could not stand upright in it.) The papers were a record of a vanished civilization-- terrestrial or extra-terrestrial, I can't remember, but the essential part of the dream's atmosphere was that they were the only record and my brother was the only custodian of this entire civilization's history. The notion that this entire chronicle was only real insofar as it existed on fragile and long-lost pieces of paper was so powerful that I don't know how to express it adequately. Nor can I really justify why I am recording it here. I must confess to an urge to get everything that strikes me as significant into written form.

Only later did I learn we were in distinguished company in inventing our imaginary countries, since-- as well as the Lewises-- the Bronte children had their own fictional land, Gondal.

I shared a bedroom (and bunk beds) with my younger brother for years and years and years. It often intrigues me that many of the debates I have in the 'big' world, or on this blog, or in other forums, are in many ways replays of the long-running debates (sometimes flaring into rows) that we had for so many years, on almost every subject. Now we seldom get into debates, by unspoken common consent (I think). He is a film-maker and a docu-drama he made on the 1913 Lock-Out was shown as part of the Dublin Film Festival this year.

I often find myself asking him, 'Do you remember this?', or 'Do you remember that?'. Somehow, the more one sees of the big world, and of the gallery of characters that populates the big world, the more and not less significant that private world of childhood experience, whose thousands upon thousands of hours can never be shared with anyone who didn't experience them, comes to mean.

(I actually saw Lewis's Boxen chronicles being sold as a book in a bookshop once. I can't imagine being such a Lewis fanatic that I would buy or even read such a book.)

Don't Be Shy

I only seem to get spam comments recently. I do wonder who reads this blog and what real people are behind the numbers in my statistics. Thirty-nine people have read today's instalment of The Snowman so far, and a hundred and fifteen read the first three chapters; I wonder who they are, where they are, whether they like horror, whether they're Catholics or agnostics or anything else, whether they're old and young, male or female, and so on. And the same with all my other posts. I sometimes hope to spark some discussion with them.

I used to put my email address on the bottom of my Catholic Voice columns, thinking people might have some response to make, but I only ever got one email so I stopped doing it.

So I suppose this little post is just to say, I do deeply appreciate it when people comment, even if it's to disagree with me. I like knowing I have a reader in Sacramento and one in Sardinia and one in Santry. (And, indeed, one in the Phillipines and in the UK and in Kilkenny!) I know you might not have anything to say, but if you ever do, don't be shy. Tell me about yourself! Or if you have a prayer intention you'd like me to put up, anonymously or otherwise, don't be shy about that either.

But, even if you'd rather lurk, I do appreciate you reading, and thank you.

This is a Good Article from the Catholic Herald

Are British People Racist, or Have They Just Been Taught to Believe They Are?

American readers won't know the background. We've recently had elections to the European Parliament in all the EU member states, and there has been a surge of support for parties hostile to mass immigration and to the European Union in general. Newspaper and television pundits have been quick to label these parties 'far-right', 'populist', and 'extreme'. In fact, it wouldn't be so much of a problem if it was only pundits using these terms, but supposedly objective news reports are using them too.

I don't really want to get into a debate about immigration. I have to admit I do feel a certain inner conflict on this subject. The Church has generally supported and spoken on behalf of immigrants, seeing the immigrant as the stranger we are told to welcome as one of the corporal works of mercy. But as a social and cultural conservative I feel an aversion to mass immigration and the social and cultural effects it seems likely to bring about-- principally, the erosion of the native culture. I am also, however, aware that the word 'mass immigration' is broken down into many stories of individuals and families trying to better themselves, or simply trying to make ends meet. Not faceless statistics, but human beings. I am also less certain than I used to be that immigration does erode a native culture. America is the most robust culture in the world, and it is a nation of immigrants.

For this reason, I don't want to get drawn into the debate, but I do really object to the way those terms 'populist', 'extremist', and 'far-right' are bandied about. We are constantly told that immigration is an economic benefit to everybody. Presumably, then, people who feel themselves thrown into unwanted and drastic competition for housing, health-care, schools and jobs are deluded. I find this difficult to believe.

But even if it's true, surely those anxieties are legitimate and surely people who vote according to those anxieties are not to be labelled extremists. And surely one of the defining features of a nation is that it has control of its borders. (My own vote, as usual, was given to a no-hoper independent candidate whose policies I can't even remember, but who wasn't tainted with the anti-Christian social policies of our political parties.)

The Snowman: A Horror Story, Chapters Ten to Twelve

The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race is, unfortunately, fictional. As well as bath tub scenes, I like to include made-up board games in my stories. I love board games-- of a certain kind. (I don't like board games that take ages to learn, or board games that are too silly and gimmicky. Even Scrabble is a bit too skillful for my liking. I like board games that involve some element of skill, but not so much that any particular person-- usually me-- runs the risk of being utterly humiliated. I also like the boards to be tasteful. The original Trivial Pursuit is the greatest board game of all time, and the board itself was a work of art.)

Chapter Ten

“Where was Dracula when the lights went out?”, asked Fiona.

Lisa sighed. “In the dark, Mum”, she said. “If that’s not the oldest joke in the world, it’s in the first few pages.”

“You’ve just heard them all”, said her mother, a little proudly. “You seemed to know it all from the time you were born.”

“I don’t know anything”, said Lisa, without any false modesty. “Are we going to close up and go home, or what?”

“Leave it another half-hour” said Fiona, looking at her watch. “The power might come back.”

They were sitting in the kitchenette, cradling cups of lemonade in their hands. Outside, the wind was whipping up the most terrific snowstorm either woman had ever seen. Snow was battering the windows with a constant barrage of soft thumps. They’d managed to find two small candles, and were sitting in the puddle of light they threw. Outside, there was only the faintest memory of sunlight. They’d been blacked out at twenty minutes past seven. Timeless Toys stayed open until half-eight on a Thursday; it was their busiest time of the week, aside from Saturday.

“I don’t think it’s going to come back”, said Lisa. “Not anytime soon, anyway. Nobody is going to go shopping in these conditions. What if it gets worse? We might be better off setting home now.”

“It’s amazing how a storm can suddenly die”, said Fiona, a little sheepishly. She just didn’t want to go back to their house, Lisa knew. It seemed filled with his presence now. Danny.

They had got the phone call a few hours after he had been taken to hospital. He had regained consciousness there, and rushed out into the accident and emergency waiting room, screaming that he had to get back to Higginstown. It was ten minutes past ten. A man who had come in with injuries from a fight, and who seemed to be mentally unbalanced—naturally, or with chemical assistance—took out a knife and stabbed him in front of everybody. He died within minutes.

“That’s what they call a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Lisa had said, trying to hide her horror, but both woman thought immediately of his matter-of-fact prediction hours before: By midnight I’ll be dead.

They had made an unspoken agreement never to mention Danny or the incident again, and both women were happy to lose themselves in the (not too absorbing) business of the shop. Until the electricity went, that was.

When the lights went out, and the noises of civilisation were stilled, you were stuck with yourself.

“I can’t believe you sold that doll’s house, Lisa”, said Fiona, with a smile that tried to be easy but was more artifical than the light that had been cut off. “Three hundred and fifty euros! I never thought we were going to sell it. I thought it was good for window-shopping, that’s all.”

Lisa avoided her mother’s eyes, and stared back into the maelstrom outside. “I’m not too proud of that, Mum”, she said. “I’m not sure the woman could afford it. She looked…”

“You gave her fifty euro off”, said Fiona, who never sold anything for less than its asking price. “And she didn’t even ask for a reduction. I think you were very fair. Too fair.”

“I saw the light in her eyes”, said Lisa, as much to herself as to her mother. “I saw that she was seeing the doll’s house of her dreams, the doll’s house that she never had when she was a girl.”

“Did you want a doll’s house when you were a girl, honey?”, asked Fiona, a little anxiously.

“No”, said Lisa, truthfully. She was on the point of admitting that she never wanted toys at all, but she stopped herself, sensing that it would make Fiona sad. Her mother had loved buying toys for her, and made up for the forbidden Christmas by impromptu gifts through the whole year.

Fiona was opening her mouth to say something, when there was a thump in the shop outside. Something had been put through the letter-box.

Lisa sat up and reached her hand to the door of the kitchenette, but her mother grabbed her arm. When she turned around, Fiona’s face was white.

“What if it’s a petrol bomb?”, her mother asked, in a frantic whisper. “What if it’s those kids again, the ones who vandalised our door?”

This struck Lisa as coming within the suburbs of possibility, and her heart beat faster. “We’d better go out the window”, she said, as calmly as she could. She crossed the narrow floor, started undoing the latches and braced herself for the blast of snow and wind. Did petrol bombs explode immediately? She had no idea.

The wind howled with triumph as she let it in, and a shower of flakes gusted into the kitchenette. “You go first”, said Fiona, who was visibly writing with nerves.

Lisa climbed up on the sideboard and stepped onto the sill over the sink. A moment later she was over, and reaching her hand out to her mother. Fiona negotiated the window more awkwardly, but soon they were both running away from the shop, hugging themselves in the sudden, lacerating cold of the snowstorm.

This is probably insane
, thought Lisa, but she kept running down Canice Street until she thought she was well beyond the reach of any blast. Her mother was a bit slower, and was gasping for air by the time she reached her. It was so cold that tears were coming into Lisa’s eyes.

A purple car pulled up beside them, on the sludge-heavy road. A grey-haired woman was looking out at them with concern. The car door opened.

“What’s wrong?”, asked the woman, in a Yorkshire accent. She was well-dressed and had short, curly hair and stylish glasses.

“We think there might be a bomb in our shop”, said Lisa, feeling ridiculous.

But the woman looked startled, and said, “Well, get in. You’ll die out in that cold.”

Lisa and Fiona clambered into the car, and for a few moments all they could do was luxuriate in its warmth.

“Which shop is it?”, asked the woman, looking around the street anxiously. There were two newsagents’, a pharmacy, and a fast food shop in Canice’s Street, as well as Timeless Toys.

“The toy shop over there”, said Lisa, pointing, feeling more silly by the second.

“I can’t call the police”, said the woman. “My phone seems to be down.”

“All the phones are down”, said Lisa, wondering once more what on earth was going on today.

“We’d better not leave the shop door open”, said Fiona, under the weight of two worries now. “We’ll give it a few minutes…”

“What exactly happened?”, asked the grey-haired woman, and when Lisa had quickly explained, she said: “If it was a petrol bomb, it would have exploded long ago. Let’s go have a look. Maybe it was a dead bird or something. Kids can have a pretty nasty sense of humour. My name is Lucy, by the way. Lucy Sherry”

“I’m Fiona Heffernan, and this is my daughter Lisa”, said Fiona. “Thank you so much, Lucy. I hope you don’t think we’re gone mad.”

“This snow is driving us all mad, I think”, said Lucy, driving towards the shop. “You stay here. I’ll put on my coat and check what it is.”

When they had pulled up by Timeless Toys, and Lucy had gone to investigate, Lisa’s eye fell on the car radio. Was that gone, too? With trepidation, she reached forward and turned it on.

Rock music blared through the car, and though Lisa winced at the sudden assault on her ears, her spirits shot up at the sound. She lowered the volume, and twiddled with the tuning dial, looking for a voice.

She hit on an interview on some news channel, where a teachers’ trade union official was defending a claim for a five per cent salary increase, and hinting at a one-day strike some time next week.

“Well, the world is going on outside Higginstown, anyway”, she said. “Maybe it’s just us.”

“Higginstown isn’t powered off one grid”, said Fiona, absently. Her eyes were fixed on the shop. “Don’t you remember how our power would be cut off while a few streets up still had theirs’?”

“Maybe the house will be OK, then”, said Lisa, switching the radio off. “I hope so. I want to see Breakneck Alley tonight. I hope that bitch Ruby—“

But now Lucy was coming back from the shop, and she was clutching something that Lisa recognised immediately, even though the whirling snow and the dark evening made it hard to make out anything other than outlines.

“Oh my God”, she said. “Look what it is.”

“What is it?”, asked Fiona, the familiar anxiety back in her voice.

“It’s one of Sheridan’s…things”, said Lisa, who felt more uneasy every time she saw one of the figurines.

Lucy seemed uneasy, too. As soon as she had got into the car, she passed the thing to Lisa, and made a face. “I didn’t know what to expect”, she said. “But I wasn’t expecting that. Do you know what it is?”

“It’s something we were selling”, said Lisa, wondering whether Lucy took them for a pair of lunatics now. “It’s…by a local artist. This is the second that we’ve had returned.”

“I have to admit, I’m not surprised”, said Lucy, staring at the thing with dark fascination. “What does surprise me is that anybody bought one at all. It gives me the spooks”.

“I’ll put it away then”, said Lisa, slotting the figurine underneath her seat. A man had come in that very morning, eager to return another of the things to them. He didn’t ask for his money back, and she didn’t offer. He seemed horribly embarrassed, and eager to get out of the shop as soon as he possibly could. He said so much craft had gone into the thing—even though he found he didn’t like it so much, after all-- that he didn’t want it to end up in his garage.

“What are you going to do now?”, asked Lucy. “Do you have a car?”

“We don’t live far away”, said Fiona, who always seemed to feel a kind of shame at their lack of transport. “We usually walk.”

“Well, you can’t walk today, that’s for sure. Let me drive you home. I don’t think anybody is doing any more business this evening. Why don’t you go to lock up?”, she asked Lisa. “You’re young and hot-blooded. You’ll survive the cold”

A few moments later, Lisa was inside the shop. She took care not to look at Sheridan’s creations, though she was intensely aware of their presence. Somehow, she imagined them looking even more baleful in the near-darkness.

As she was emptying the till, a strange thought occurred to her. The more that she was creeped out by the things, the more fascinated she became with Sheridan himself. She kept on seeing his face and recalling little moments from school. Everything he did seemed to mutiply his mystery, down to the way he stared into the air as he ate his sandwiches in the hall. As if he could see things that nobody else could.

She switched off all the lights, in case the electricity came back, put on her own coat, collected her mother’s assortment of outer garments, and turned the key that lowered the windows’ shutters. She had shut the door behind her, to keep out the snow, and as the shutter descended, so did complete darkness descend on the shop. A tingle passed through her spine.

Where was Dracula when the lights went out? Everywhere.

The Things were only feet away, to her left. She imagined them looking at her. But what the hell was she doing, anyway, suddenly imagining things? Imagination had never been her forte. Now she was seeing claws, and fancying that wooden figurines were ready to jump off the shelf at her. Suddenly, she was ablaze with indignation at her own childishness.

She forced herself to walk to the corner, and reach out to where the Things were shelved. Her hand closed around one immediately, making her start. Why was it so warm to her touch? But, of course, that was her imagination, too.

She let go of it quickly, went out and locked the door, and hurried back to the car.

“You go right down the end of this road—“, she began as soon as she’d sat down and shut the car door. She was taking off her coat and starting to put on her seatbelt in one fluid movement.

“Oh, your mother’s given me directions already”, said Lucy, with a little smile. She had a pleasant face, a face that seemed strangely at odds with her smart suit. Lisa found it easier to imagine her rolling out pastry with an old wine bottle than chairing a meeting. “It’s extraordinary how much geriatrics over twenty-five can manage on their own.”

Lisa flushed, and she heard her mother laughing. The laugh was a little too pleased for her liking. Was she that bad?

“Lucy is a hypnotherapist”, said Fiona, as the car revved up, and Lisa could hear that her mother’s eyes were sparkling. Anything to do with psychology or therapy awed her.

“I’d rather not call myself a hypnotherapist”, said Lucy, steering the car along the uphill road. People had been advised not to drive for the last couple of days, but several cars had already passed them, at a crawl. “It’s just my job. God save us from the people who become their jobs.”

“I wonder what skeletons you’d would find hiding in my cupboard”, said Fiona. The idea seemed to fascinate her and disturb her at once.

“I’m a bit tired of skeletons”, said Lucy, and though she spoke airily, Lisa could hear how much she meant it. “I could happily spend the rest of my life around dull people. People are so proud of their complexes.”

“You’d like Higginstown, then”, said Lisa, looking out at the rows of identical houses, the curtains glowing with candle-light, none of the living rooms awash with the blue-grey glow of television. The sight disturbed her, somehow. Unlike most of the people she knew, who claimed to hate television, she loved it. “It has so much dullness it could export it.”

“Except for toy shops that sell toys so disturbing that people buy them and give them back”, said Lucy, raising her eyebrow. “Turn left here?”

“Yes”, said Lisa and Fiona, simultaneously.

When their house came in view, mother and daughter started simultaneously, too. Lucy noticed it from the corner of her eye, and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“There’s somebody in our house”, said Lisa, softly, staring at the yellow glow of gleaming through the gaps in the living-room curtain. “Nobody should be there.”

Lucy didn’t say anything. She stopped the engine of the car, though they were still a few doors away from the house, and they sat there for a few moments, just staring.

“Is there a police station—“ she began to ask, but she was cut off by a cry from the other two women.

She looked back at the house. The door was opened, and the figure of a man had stepped out. It was too dark to see what he looked like, but he began to run towards them. He was carrying something.

“Who the hell…”, asked Lisa, but her voice trailed off as the figure moved closer. There was something blood-chilling about the way he moved, as if he being chased by the devil himself. When he was close enough to be seen by the light of the car, Lucy was frightened by the shock of black hair, the intense eyes staring from behind thick, square glasses, and the statue of some saint he was brandishing like a club.

Lisa screamed and Fiona fainted as Danny lifted the statue of St. Francis in the air. Lucy was trying to start the car, but nothing was happening.

Chapter Eleven

“Still, it might be a blessing in disguise”, said Brendan, moving his cyclist three squares and landing on a picture of William Ewart Gladstone. “I didn’t think I could take any more of those football chants. I think I’d rather be caught up in an honest-to-God riot than one of those mortifying banter sessions.”

Eleanor smiled. All the ice seemed to have gone out of her tonight. “Well, here’s the question. Who said, “I never could figure out what those damned dots meant?”, and what was he talking about? For five shillings apiece.”

“It was Randolph Churchill”, said Brendan. “And he was talking about decimal points. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.”

“OK, no need to show off”, said Eleanor, with a hint of genuine dudgeon, as she added another two shillings to Brendan’s score. “So you have twenty-five pounds, five shillings. I have twelve pounds.” She put the pencil down and rolled the die, sighing when she only rolled a one. She moved her London Bobby piece one place, onto a picture of Charles Dickens, and sighed even heavier. “Bloody books.”

It was at least fifteen years since Brendan and Eleanor had played The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race, and Brendan still remembered most of the answers. Eleanor always seemed to forget them as soon as the game was finished. She’d always been reluctant to play, so Brendan was amazed that she’d kept the game all these years. Not a single piece was missing; even the record of their old games had been preserved. His sister, who thought old buildings were good for nothing but demolition, could be surprisingly sentimental about the most unpredictable things.

“Well, you might get this one”, said Brendan. “Who wrote: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?

“I don’t know”, snapped Eleanor, showing a flash of her usual impatience. “Some big girl’s blouse poet who stayed in bed all day feeling sorry for himself, I’ll bet.”

“It was Tennyson”, said Brendan. “He was so strong in his youth than it was said he could could lift a bullock.”

“He was better off lifting bullocks than writing…nonsense”, said Eleanor, with a little smile. Brendan laughed spontaneously.

Her mood had definitely improved since Brendan had come to stay. He wondered how lonely she must have been before he arrived. She had never been used to living on her own. Ever since their mother had died, she had always lived with a boyfriend or a female friend or two.

“This is nice, though, isn’t it?”, said Brendan, putting the die back in its drum and rattling it.

“Nice enough”, said Eleanor, grudgingly. The candlelight softened her face, giving it an unfamiliar gentle look. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without the lift, though.”

“This can’t go on too long”, said Brendan, rolling the die. “Until then, I’m your servant.”

“God help me”, said Eleanor, smiling again.

Brendan was happy. He’d always loved it when there was a blackout, in childhood. He watched as much television as anybody else, until he was about fifteen, but he’d always felt a resentment towards it. Even back then, he wanted to be like the kids in the story-books, who discovered secret passages in old houses, or set up clubs in caves and attics, or found themselves happily washed up on islands that might have been designed for their convenience, with an abundance of firewood and edible fruit. None of the kids in the stories came home from school and watched dubbed Japanese cartoons until it was time for dinner.

He remembered, when the lights would go, making hand-shadows on the wall by candle-light, and telling ghost stories, and the sound of the saucepan boiling water for tea on the gas cooker. He remembered everything suddenly seeming more real, more palpable.

“I wish we could just live like this all the time”, he said now. “Get used to it. Save electricity for life-support macines and incubators and combine harvesters. Bring back storytelling and ballads and hospitality and using our imaginations.”

“Nothing’s stopping anybody doing that now”, said Eleanor, with audible patience.

“Oh, yes it is”, said Brendan. “Custom. Custom is the most effective police force in the world. There’s no appeal against it.”

“Maybe we should go all the way, bring back human sacrifice and treating women like cattle”, said Eleanor, plucking a card from the box. “Technology. What year was the first cinema opened in Britain?

“1898”, said Brendan, knowing it was the wrong answer. He thought Eleanor might start losing her temper if his lead stretched too far.

“Ten years later”, answered his sister, unable to hide her pleasure at his mistake. Then she yawned, and suddenly Brendan realised she looked very, very tired.

“Aren’t you getting any sleep?”, he asked, trying not to sound concerned. Where the old Eleanor fished for other peoples’ sympathy, the new Eleanor resented it ferociously.

“Oh…” said Eleanor, and he could see she was troubled. “I was never much of a sleeper.”

“Is it your…visions?”, asked Brendan.

She put the die-drum back on the table with a click, and looked up at her brother. Neither of them had mentioned her visions since the day Brendan had arrived.

She looked him in the eyes for a moment, and then looked away, down at the board of the Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race. “I know it’s all imagination”, she said, embarrassment weighting her voice. “But I still get them. In the night. It’s always when I’m falling asleep, when I’m just on the edge of sleep. Suddenly it hits me like…” she waved her open palm through the air, as if she was slapping somebody.

“I saw something myself”, said Brendan.

Eleanor looked back up now, her eyes suddenly alert. “You had a vision?”

Brendan hesitated. He liked the paranormal when it was a story, a tale traded over cottage fires through generations. But he’d never taken any of it seriously. As a mirror of the social unconsciousness, fairy tales and ghost stories were endlessly fascinating. The thought of them being literally true was somehow…disappointing. It took all the poetry out of it.

But Eleanor’s gaze held him like handcuffs, and he said: “Not a vision, not like yours. I wasn’t asleep. I was awake. I was going to work, on my first day.”

“To the Champion?”, asked Eleanor, who was looking at him with more interest now than he ever remembered her showing him before. It almost made him squirm.

“To the Champion”, he echoed. “I went through the park. And I saw…well, I saw a snowman”.

“A snowman?”, asked Eleanor, and it seemed like her eyes flashed in the light of the candles. She didn’t seem to find anything incongruous in the story so far, like he had expected her too. She was enthralled.

“A snowman”, he said, encouraged. “The best snowman I’ve ever seen in my life. It was huge, and it looked…it looked almost alive.”

Eleanor swallowed, and nodded, and kept staring at him.

“Well, when I went back, it was gone. It hadn’t been knocked over or anything. There was nothing left on it. It was as if it had just…”

“Walked away”, finished Eleanor, in a whisper.

There was silence between them for a moment, and all they could hear was the howl of the snowstorm outside, which somehow seemed to be coming from millions of miles away.

Eleanor, unconsciously, reached towards her chest and grasped the silver cross that she was never seen without. Her first boyfriend had given it to her, when she was fourteen. She looked pensive; it was the perfect word to describe her. She looked as if she was immersed in a pool of thought, as if she could neither see nor hear anything around her.

“I’ve seen him, too”, she said.

Brendan felt as if his body had suddenly become entirely hollow inside. He remembered feeling like this when he had attended a First Aid course, and suddenly became aware of the awful vulnerability of the human body, how little it would take to stop the heart from beating. He felt like he was made of glass, at that moment. Now he felt…

He felt like he was a mouse in a field, above which dozens of birds of prey were circling.

“In your visions?”, asked Brendan, and his throat felt horribly tight. He squeezed the words out.

Eleanor nodded, still looking as if she was in a trance. “And the feelings I have in my dream...they’re horrible and somehow wonderful at once. I feel like…have you heard that story about the guy who acted as Superman, in the original series? How he became convinced he was Superman, and jumped out the window and died?”

Brendan nodded. “It’s not true”, he said, softly.

“Of course it’s not”, said Eleanor, with the shadow of a frown. “The point is, I feel like I could jump out a window and fly, when I have visions of this Snowman. I feel a kind of…delight….but it’s an insane delight. Insane, and almost cruel.”

“When I saw the snowman first”, said Brendan, feeling as if some long-lost childhood memory was coming back with extraordinary force, “I laughed and laughed. I felt so giddy.”

“What does it mean?”, asked Eleanor, awoken out of her trance, and staring into her brother’s eyes as if she as trying to catch him out in a lie.

“Well…” started Brendan, feeling like he used to when one of the bus tour passengers asked him a question he couldn’t answer.

“Don’t give me some claptrap about rational explanations”, said Eleanor, with surprising bitterness. It was as if she was angry that his last explanation had let her down. “Snowmen don’t just disappear. There’s nothing rational about that.”

“An elaborate practical joke…” began Brendan, knowing how much his hedging would irritate Eleanor, but feeling that anything was better than facing the other possibility. The one he had dismissed within ten minutes of seeing the snowman gone. “When the park was closed would be the best time to do that.”

“It’s a lot of effort for a pretty stupid practical joke”, said Eleanor, still fondling her cross. “And besides…”

But she never finished her sentence, because at that moment there was a crash of glass as the window smashed into a hundred pieces. Brendan felt fragments of the pane smack against his face, his body. Then something else was launching itself against him. It was a battering ram of snowy wind, so strong that it knocked him against the wall. The pieces of The Great Victorian Rags to Riches Race were fluttering about in the air.

The first gust was the worst, but even after that, it was difficult to stand his ground. And Eleanor was on the floor, lying face down. He propped one hand against the wall, and leaned down to turn her over, his pulses soaring. When he turned her around, she had a bloody nose. Her eyes opened for a second, looked at him incuriously, and then closed again. His insides seemed to seize up for a second, but he put a hand on her chest and could feel that she was still breathing.

Snow was everywhere. It was already stuck to the blood that was dribbling from Eleanor’s nose.

He picked her up, with difficulty. She was a thin woman but Brendan was far from strong. He thought of her wheelchair, but then realised it wasn’t going to be any use. He had to get her out of here. Maybe next door. She knew the neighbours, and they might know what to do. Brendan’s First Aid course had been more than ten years ago, and he didn’t remember the slightest thing from it.

He dragged her to the living room, but he saw that the same thing had happened there. The window was smashed open, and ornaments and DVDs and magazines were being hurled around the room by the force of the wind. And the snow; it was already clinging to everything, somehow. There was a film of snow over the walls, the carpet, even the ceiling. And even from here he could hear the wind raging in the other rooms. He had to get out this flat.

He dragged her down the hall, holding her by the armpits. How was there a layer of snow on the hallway carpet, already? Eleanor left a trail behind her as he slid her along it.

But, dammit, they’d need coats and jumpers. He left her in the hallway, hoping that she’d come to while he went in search of them. But she was still out cold when he got back, and she didn’t come to her senses while he was wrapping her in her wine-coloured sweater and fur-lined winter jacket.

He felt an overwhelming urge to get out of the flat, to get both of them out of the flat. He wasn’t going to worry about what was happening until…well, until he was out of this madness, whatever it was. Brendan was good at postponing worries. He’d been doing it his entire life.

A few seconds after he’d got them outside the front door, the door of the neighbouring flat opened and a man in one of the bushiest beards he had ever seen stepped out. He was a short man, but broad-shouldered, and giving the impression of immense power. Eleanor always called him Moses when she talked about him.

Moses caught sight of Eleanor, and his face tightened with concern.

“Is she…?”

“She’s unconscious”, said Brendan. “Our windows blew in…”

“Same with me”, said Moses, who was dressed in a long brown overcoat. “Give me her legs. We’d better get her out. Get her….somewhere.”

They had both closed their front doors behind them, but they could still hear the storm’s contortions in their flats, its fury outside the walls of the apartment complex.

“We’d better make for the open spaces, brother”, said Moses. He had the deepest accent Brendan had ever heard. “It feels like the whole place might be blown down.”

“The whole place?”, asked Brendan, trying to hold back the tide of hysteria. “It’s not made of plywood, is it?”

Moses looked up at him, and Brendan found it difficult not to flinch from his dark brown eyes.

“This isn’t any normal wind and you know it”, he said. His voice was gentle, but unwavering. “Whatever it is, it wants us out of here.”

“Whatever it is?”, repeated Brendan, hating the petulant, sarcastic sound of his own voice.

“Don’t you hear it?”, asked Moses, unperturbed.

“Hear what?”, asked Brendan, somehow feeling more scared at these words than at all the events of the last five minutes.

“The laughter!”, said Moses. “I’m talking about the laughter.” He said it impatiently, as if he didn’t want to mention it at all. “Now let’s get her out of her before we’re all out of it, permanently.”

As they dragged her towards the stairs, Brendan did hear it. He heard it reluctantly, but he heard it. The wind sounded like it was laughing. The wind was laughing. There could be no mistake about it.

It wasn’t like the laughter of some mad professor in a corny science-fiction film. It was wild, jolly laughter. It was like the laughter of some gigantic, monstrous eight-year-old.

Now he heard it, he couldn’t get it out of his head. It made every square inch of his skin come out in goosebumps. It made his stomach tighten, and his teeth clench. But, somehow, it made him want to laugh, too, just like an outbreak of laughter in a room makes you join in, even when you don’t know what it’s about.

Now Moses was laughing, too. They dragged Eleanor’s senseless form down the stairs, both of them giggling like schoolboys, both of them expecting the apartment to fall around their heads any moment.

Chapter Twelve

Joe Gubbins was walking his dog down Holland Street when he saw it. A car slowing and stopping, and a man running from his house towards it, carrying something heavy-looking in his hand. Even from behind this distance, he could recognise madness. The man wasn’t just angry. He was demented. Nobody sane moved with that kind of abandon.

He hesitated. Dukes had pricked his ears, but he hadn’t even begun to bark. The lunatic was still too far away for that. Joe could turn away now. After all, what was he armed with? A Jack Russell terrier? Dukes had a lot of fight in him, but he could hardly be classed as a deadly weapon.

He tugged on Dukes’s lead, turned, and began to walk away. But he’d stopped before he took the third step. He had a sudden, painfully clear vision of the future; spending the rest of his life knowing that he’d turned his back when he might have helped. What if he read tomorrow that a maniac had murdered some old lady in her car, in Higgistown? He’d spend the rest of his life trying to wash out a stain that could never be removed. He kicked the ground in frustration, sending a shower of snow into the air. Dukes leapt for it, trying to snap at it with his jaws. But the next moment, man and dog were racing back down Holland Street, Dukes joyously, his master reluctantly.

The man running towards the car didn’t slow down, or look around. He must have heard Dukes’s barking, but he was focused on his goal with all the horrible intensity of the insane. From here, Joe could hear the stuttering of the engine as the car tried to get away. Only a few minutes ago, he had passed a car that had broken down. Three men had been looking into the engine with that unique absorption he had only seen in men looking into car engines.

What was going on today? The thought hardly had time to flit through his mind. Right now, it was hard to think of anything except the figure who Dukes was already straining the leash to reach.

Joe had only ever been good at one sport, and that was running. It had been years since he’d even run for a bus—being on time was overrated, he reckoned—but those years disappeared in a moment, and he might have been back in school again, leaving all the other kids behind him on sports day. Dukes was a young dog, but he could just about keep up with him now.

The lunatic was standing right above the car when Joe caught up with him. Even so he, Joe hesitated. Tackling a maniac seemed an intrinisically unnatural act, like sticking something sharp into your own ear, or lying down on a train track.

For the first time he saw what the man was holding. It was a statue of St. Francis. He remembered his own mother had one like it. He’d drawn a crayon moustache on it once, and she’d disappointed him by merely laughing when she saw it. The staute was lifted above the maniac’s head, ready to swing down onto the windshield. He didn’t look into the car but he had a vague impression of women sitting behind the glass, panic on their faces.

It was now or ever. He let go of Dukes’s lead and grabbed the madman’s forearms in the moment before they swung downwards.

The strength in that downward swing was greater than anything he could have imagined. He had expected to stop them in mid-air. Instead, he found himself being hurled over the man’s head. His back smashed against the glass, which still did not shatter. The shock was greater than the pain. He heard the statue whistle into the darkness, thrown out of its course by his intervention.

He lay on the bonnet of the car, stunned. But then the man was leaning over him, and now there could be no doubt of his madness. The eyes that were staring at him held no flicker of reason at all; they were the eyes of a wild dog. He was shouting, and it seemed as though the shouts were intended as words, but there was no sense to be made from them. He grabbed Joe by the collar of his jacket, and flung him with devilish strength to one side.

First there was the pain of impact, then there was the sting of the cold. The snow burned into the skin of his face, and when he managed to raise himself, he saw the awful contrast of his own blood against the glowing white of the ground. My God, he thought, there’s so much of it.

He rolled around, and saw that the man had rushed to the side of the car, in search for his statue. The car was still shuddering in a vain attempt to start, and Dukes was rushing towards Joe. He manged to lift his arms in time to stop the dog in its tracks. The thought of its hot tongue licking his face was agony, right now. He knew, without trying, that he wouldn’t be able to get back up for a few more moments at least. Icy panic gripped him.

But the madman seemed to have lost all interest in him. He was smashing the statue against the windscreen again, and now the women in the car were screaming. It only took a few strikes for the glass to shatter. The man howled in triumph—a horrible, rasping, primal howl—and raised his statue, this time to collide with flesh and bone, rather than glass.

But then the howl of triumph was followed by a howl of pain that was even more sickening. The man fell backwards, and Saint Francis landed with a soft thump in the snow.

It was too dark to make out what happened then. The man was howling louder every second, and he seemed to be struggling with something invisible. And another noise was coming from him; it was like Dukes’s growl. But it wasn’t Dukes. Dukes was running away, as fast as he could, with worried glances over his shoulder every few moments. He didn’t stop until he was eight or nine houses away, and barely visible in the gloom of the evening.

But now blood was spurting from the man who had been attacking the car, and if Danny had been shocked by the copiousness of his own blood on the snow, he was horrified by the torrents coming from the attacker. Was the man ripping his own throat open? His hands looked to be wrapped around his neck.

And then he saw the most horrible thing he had ever seen in his whole life. Five years before, he had been caught up in a traffic accident, whose aftermath had given him years of nightmares, and made him sure he would never sit in a car for the rest of his life. No sight could ever be more gruesome than what he had seen that day, but what he saw now was somehow more disturbing.

He saw what looked like a tiny man run away from the body of the maniac, as if in an enormous hurry. It was moving in the opposite direction from Joe, so he saw nothing except the silhouettes of its tiny legs, arms and head. But there was no mistaking it. It wasn’t some kind of wild beast. It had the dimensions of a human being who had been shrunk to a fraction of his real size. And it was chuckling. Joe could hear that distinctly. The chuckles didn’t sound very different from the growling that he had heard a moment before. It scampered away so quickly, as if driven by some call, that it was only visible for perhaps five seconds. But those five seconds seemed to stretch out like a summer’s day.

Meanwhile, the madman’s howls had ceased, and Joe was sure that the man was dead. He seemed to be staring up into the sky, as if enthralled by the snowfall. His arms were spread at crazy angles, and a pool of blood was still spreading from him. In the car, the women had stopped screaming.

It was so cold.

Joe closed his eyes. He wanted to shut the vision he had just seen out of his mind. The way the thing had scurried! It had looked like a bad special effect from a fifties film. Those bad special effects had always spooked him. Seeing it for real made him feel…soiled, somehow. As if there were creepy-crawlies under his skin.

He opened his eyes again when he heard the whimpers of Dukes coming closer to him. He forced himself to a sitting position, and gathered the dog up in his arms. Though his whole body groaned with pain, it wasn’t quite as bad as he expected. And now—delayed a few moments by his astonishment—relief coursed through him. If that thing hadn’t stilled the maniac, Joe was sure he would never have risen again.

He pressed Dukes to his chest, and slowly lifted himself to his feet. He was more than a little shaky, but at least he was sure he wasn’t going to fall over. The next moment a wave of dizziness passed over him, and thought that he was going to throw up, but that passed, too.

He walked past the body lying on the snow, deliberately not looking down at it, and moved to the car. Memories of the crash five years ago flashed through his mind, both horrors merging in his mind. He half-expected to see the same carnage in this car. But he forced himself to look through the shattered windshield.

There were two women staring out at him. One was a young girl. She was watching him, white-faced but amazingly calm, considering the circumstances. The other was grey-haired and professional-looking. She was still staring at the body in the snow, as if time had stopped for her. Behind them, he could see another woman slumped in her seat, but all he could make out was her sandy and profuse hair, which was covering her face. He guessed she had been knocked out, or fainted.

“Thank you”, said the girl, watching him.

“You’re welcome”, said Joe, automatically. Dukes gave a short, confused bark and struggled in Joe’s grasp. He set him down on the snow, going slowly for the sake of his aching bones.

The girl turned towards the older lady, and gave her a gentle shake. “Lucy”, she said, in a loud whisper, as if frightened that anything louder was going to bring the maniac back to life.

“What just happened?”, said Joe, watching her.

Lisa looked up at the man. She guessed he was about forty-five. He looked like a retired rugby player who had put on a lot of weight, and he was dressed in a bomber jacket and jeans. He had that craggy look she disliked so much in men, and his hair was a wiry, reddish-blond. He didn’t look like somebody she would trust without hesitation, or even like somebody who entirely trusted himself.

“I don’t know”, she said. She had seen the thing—the thing that Sheridan had created—springing past the broken windshield and leaping towards Danny. She had seen it rush away from him afterwards. She wasn’t going to think about it. Not yet. There would be time.

“Who was that?”, asked Lucy. Lisa looked back at her. Shocked a moment ago, she seemed entirely returned to her senses now, and Lisa felt a surge of approval. She liked people who could get a grip of themselves.

“That was Danny”, said Lisa, turning towards her mother, checking to reassure herself that she was still breathing. “He’s a nutcase. He was in the same church as my mother and me. But we left.”

“How did that thing…” began Lucy—as if this was the question she had wanted to ask the first time— but she trailed off. Her expression said all that needed to be said. Why ask a question that nobody can answer, a question that has no rational answer?

Joe looked around the street. People were openly looking out their windows and standing in their doorways, barely visible in the feeble candelight, now that the danger was over.

Lisa was shaking her mother, and from her groans, it seemed as though Fiona was subconsciously resisting the attempt. It was as if she wanted to remain in the cool black world in which she had found refuge.

“Do you know anything about cars?”, asked Lucy, looking up at Joe. She had a few cuts on her face, but she seemed entirely oblivious to them.

“No”, said Joe. The snow was stinging the wounds on his own face, and he wanted to get away from this scene. He wished he hadn’t turned back. He wished he had never seen that horrible little creature, whose fast-forward motions were still haunting him.

Fiona was awake now, and she was sobbing, weakly. She had taken one look at the shattered glass, turned her face away again, and begun to cry, her hand raised to her face as if she wanted to block out everything else.

“It’s OK, Mum”, said Lisa, putting her arm around her. “We’re safe now.”

“We’re never going to be safe”, said her mother, the words broken by sobs.

“We’d better all get out of here”, said Fiona, released the catch of her safety belt and taking one, final look at the bedraggled form lying a few feet away. “I assume there’s no other maniacs in the house?”

“None that I know of”, said Lisa, taking her arms from her mother and trying to suppress her feelings of irritation. She had always wondered if her mother would rise to the occasion of a genuine crisis, as melodramatic people always did in movies and books. Evidently, the answer was no. She released her own safety belt. “Come on, Mum. Let’s get inside.”

Joe stood uneasily in front of the car. Blood dripped from his nose onto his jacket, and he wiped his face absent-mindedly. What was he supposed to do now? Nobody seemed to need his presence here. Nobody even seemed to want it. He watched the women climb out of the car, and took a step towards the older one, dithering over whether he should offer her his arm or not.

But at that moment, the same great wind that had devastated Eleanor’s flat reared up, and pushed Joe and the others back towards Danny’s body. It knocked every one of them flat, and Dukes was sent flying through the air.

Fiona felt herself smack against something warm and soft, and when she raised herself up, and saw what it was, she began to scream as if her flesh was being torn with pincers. Danny was lying beneath her, staring up at her with dead eyes. It was as though the world was determined to bring them together, no matter how hard she tried to escape.

But another titanic wind send her flying further in the same direction. The screams were knocked from her lungs by its sheer force, and the thought of Danny was driven from her mind by the panic at this power that was tossing her about like a paper bag.

She felt a hand grasping onto her arm, stopping her just as the wind was about to drive her forward again. She turned her head; even doing that was difficult, right now. A tall man with reddish-blond hair was holding onto her. A wave of gratitude washed over her—here was a protector!— and she clutched at him with her other arm, and with all her heart.

She didn’t look behind, or she would have seen Danny’s body being hurled along in the gale after them. But looking behind would have been almost impossible, anyway. Eventually, Danny was doubled up against a lamp-post, where he remained fixed. But Joe and the three women continued to be pushed forward by the snow-heavy wind, and it occurred to each of them simultaneously that the wind sounded like an enormous baby’s laughter. Soon they were all laughing with it, not even aware they were doing so.

Dukes did his utmost to keep close to his master, but his little body was helpless to steer its own course. He was barking louder than he had ever barked. Nobody so much as heard him. They were all listening to that intoxicating, sky-filling laughter.

The sheets of snow were so thick that they couldn’t see the figures in front of them, or the figures to their side. All over Higginstown, people were being driven from their homes by the invading wind, pushed towards the same destination. Some died in the pandemonium, with brains dashed out by a flying brick or hearts stopped through sheer shock. But they died laughing, and what death could be happier, after all?

Nobody noticed that the sky was already growing brighter.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Poetry from a Decade

I spent most of my life thinking of myself as a poet, and I worked really hard at it from the time I was about sixteen to my late twenties. (Not without interruptions, but my regimes of daily poetry-writing would have covered much of that time.) I started writing poetry seriously when my family got a computer around 1994. I was composing a collection called The Great Event, at first, and (subsequently)Ambiance Music. (If I were to publish a collection of poems tomorrow, I would call it Ambiance Music.)

I had a poem published in Books Ireland when I was in my first year of college. I remember how proud I was that my sister photocopied it as a beginning of a 'portfolio'. I didn't realize how rare such appearances were going to be. In fact, that and a subsequent poem in Books Ireland were the only poems of mine that ever appeared in what one might call a 'literary' journal. I had poems published in my college newspaper, poems in a community magazine that was edited (and mostly written) by my father, poems in other miscellaneous and obscure publications, and I won a few local poetry prizes, but all my submissions to 'serious' magazines were returned.

Am I bitter about this? Yes, I am. Without making any exalted claims (or any claims whatsoever) for my own work, I think the vast majority of contemporary poetry published by literary houses and literary magazines is garbage. I think poets have won Nobel prizes and places in anthologies for writing garbage. I think thousands of English professors and hundreds of thousands of college students are studying a lot of garbage. I don't think there has been a decent poet since John Betjeman in England, Patrick Kavanagh in Ireland and probably Robert Frost in America. I think the kind of cultural vandalism that has replaced poetry with pretentious rubbish is a grievous sore on the body of civilization, and one for which we pay a high price.

I even think poetic geniuses like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote a lot of garbage-- when they were in modernist mode. (For instance, Four Quartets by Eliot is a mixture of some of the most sublime poetry ever written, and garbage.)

It's taken me a long time to be able to say this openly, since it lays me open to the obvious accusation of sour grapes. But I don't care. It's true.

Anyway, here are some of the stronger efforts from a purple folder of poems labelled 99 Poems (1995-2004). I was an agnostic when I wrote all of these but that doesn't necessarily mean that they reflected my sincere opinions on religion, or anything else. I often wrote from the point of view of a fictional character within the poem. Having said all that, you can see (perhaps) what a dark view of life I had in my late teens and twenties. I think I suffered from depression for much of it, which is something I'm very glad has lifted. My personal favourite of these is 'Screen Five'.

Before the Operation (2004)

The nurses talk about a football match
That might never see. They're used to fear.
Next month will usher in another batch
When I am...somewhere else...away from here.

They sent a priest last night. They frighten me.
And long before these pains began, they did.
All of their incense, prayers, eternity.

I sat in chapel, when I was a kid
And felt the cosmos shrinking to that hall.
Nothing but God and angels, sin and good,
The sky stopped with stained glass. That can't be all.
I fear a universe so drained of blood.
All your anaemic angels, airy souls,
As milk-white and alike as plaster busts.
The thirst of God drowning all other goals;
No, leave me my littleness and lusts.

But-- why say lusts? That red-haired nurse...Louise...
How strange, a face can make the whole world glow!
Must all that pass, like brown leaves on the breeze?
Is God the only beauty I must know?
Soft lips and heavy eyelids...shallow joys....
But I could look on them for decades more.
For centuries! Why must I close my eyes?
There is so much here that I still adore.

Sometimes I hope there's more than what the priests say
That life's too vast to fit inside one book.
That all their talk of knowledge is mere hearsay
And somewhere else I may be thunderstruck
With all these worldly wonders...keener, deeper...
More lust, more wisdom, greater love and hate
While God dreams on like some eternal sleeper
Or far-off monarch none need celebrate.

Louise is saying that she thinks they'll steal it.
Her husky voice is beauty, here and now.
Is there another life? Let years reveal it.
I want as much as this one will allow.
For in my nightmares, every night's renewal,
An angel hovers with its vampire kiss
And light pours from all corners, hard and cruel.

I don't want Heaven, only more of this.

Blind Man's Bluff (2001)

Beyond the veil, the lure of voices calling,
Then hastening away just out of reach
Fills childhood games of Blind Man's Bluff, when each
Must serve his turn in seeking, turning, falling.
Lost without fear, wrapped in a dark, enthralling
Domain of doubt and softly-whispered speech;
One room made infinite; then light must breach
The magic, so that all is shrunk and galling.

Life without dark and doubt who could endure?
I do not seek to look within the grail
Of my own soul, or read life's runes for sure
Or see into men's fathoms without fail.
Leave truth for other men. Give me the lure
Of voices calling from beyond the veil.

Infinite Regression (2000)

You cannot remember the first time you saw the cartoon
Of the girl on the back of the cereal box who was holding
The same box raised over a bowl, but like some half-heard tune
It preyed on your mind, with its layers upon layers of unfolding
Depictions of girls and of boxes, regressing forever.
Although you examined the picture and saw that the chain
Barely made a third link, that in theory it never could sever;
And what could nag nearly as much to a juvenile brain?

And yet, even then, you felt more than just giddy distraction;
The infinite tunnel contained in a cardboard design
Brought to some recess of your mind a profound satisfaction;
A sign that some kind of perfection existed, a sign
That past all the chaos and change that the infant mind fears
There lay something deeper, stitched into the fabric of being,
An order of things that would not be brought down by the years
Or come to an end like the dawn that you half could feel fleeing.

And then there were holding two mirrors to face one another
And a corridor opening out, of reflected reflections
Of you, and of you, and of you; until images smother
Against one another, and shrink beyond any inspection
And always you felt, against reason, that your world was cutting
Itself in on others more real-- and there was the twist.
You felt the mirages knew things about which you knew nothing
And you were the one, amongst all these, who did not exist.

In the Sand-Pit (2004)

I can see Amanda's dreams from here.
She scrabbles dry sand, and dreams of gold,
And caverns unopened for many a year;
But she is young, and the world is old.
It is centuries since, to seek out surprise,
The last ship sailed to uncharted lands.
No voice has called to us from the skies.
The sands of knowledge are shallow sands.

Her five-year-old fingers tear through dust,
Her bright eyes shine like a rising moon.
What food is left for her wonder-lust?
There are worlds for discovery, late and soon.
The fairy-tale lands of her picture book,
The sea that sparkles in every eye.
Look up from your digging, Amanda, look;
There is no map of the morning sky.

Killing a Boy (2004)

I met him walking home from school near Summer's end
His brown eyes bright with tears that wouldn't fall.
Somebody had said something. He could never blend
Into their huddle of hardened hearts, for all
He tried to make fun of pain, not care about falling snow.
They called him things. He started blubbering, made me sick.
He told me everything (everything that would have to go
The world made free of his weakness with one lethal flick.)

Lying flat on the grass, the world a bright blue dome,
The wet scarves on the heater in the school,
The Eagle all but read when he got it home,
The echoes in the air of the swimming pool.
The secret words on the wall, the bus stop's cold,
The bread-crumb scent in the school's enormous hall
And a thousand things too babyish to be told.

I told him something that made his bright eyes fall.
He gazed at the dead worms on the ground, perplexed
To think of a reason I shouldn't end his life.
He knew as well as me what was coming next
And hardly tried to fight off my angel knife.

Nobody noticed he'd gone. I took his place.
(We looked so alike you couldn't tell us apart.)
But something was gone, or missing, in his face,
That silenced his mockers and broke his old mother's heart.

I didn't want to kill him, but he cried and cried;
What life has not begun with an infanticide?

Mother's Kiss (2003)

I kiss you goodnight, my darling boy,
And perhaps you silently wonder why
Our parting words are followed by this;
The wet of my lips on your cheek, a kiss.
Perhaps no words could contain my care
Or maybe the feeling itself's not there
And all of our mothers and fathers kissed
For the sake of a feeling that should exist.

My sleepy darling, I dread your touch,
And the bright eyes that trust me all too much.
For I cannot tell you the truth so stark,
That you really should be afraid of the dark
And the monsters you dream of at dead of night
Will walk our street by the morning light.
Dear, all of our promises have to fail
And love is just finding a kind betrayal.
You will learn before too many years go by
That Santa Claus was my smallest lie
But lies are the language of love, you know,
When truth is cruel; and it's always so.

Dear, bending over you, tucked in bed,
I think of the day you will see me dead,
And crouch to kiss me, as once I did,
Before they draw down the varnished lid.
Then please don't think that I wasn't fair
To promise you I'd be always there
For you yourself, my darling boy,
Have learned to lisp a pleasing lie
And well I know, when my hair grows white,
You will grow impatient to kiss goodnight.

There are years to come, still, before those years
And here we are now, conspirators
In tender falsehoods. I have to go.
You will hear me moving about below
And sleep come on you at last, like truth.
With the pain of age I have bought your youth
And with endless death, your existence brief;
But every good must be bought with grief.

I will teach you, before I fall to dust,
That the dearest words should not win your trust
So I truly say, as I've said before,
That I love you; but then I close the door
And switch the light off. So learn from this
That every kiss is a Judas kiss.

Rewind (2002 or maybe 2003)

This is the way he would have wanted to go.
Do you think he knows what we're saying? Passing water
Is hurting him. She says her father taught her
What's life about. She says he doesn't know
The first thing about life. His temper's shorter
Since June moved out. They've moved to Enfield Row.
Don't wrap her in cotton wool. She's got to grow.
They're going to call her June. You've got a daughter.

So they're getting hitched. I hear it's on the rocks.
He was playing football when he first saw Joy.
We're proud of you. You'd better pull up your socks.
Why are you sulking? Lads your age don't cry.
How can he know it's Nana in that box?
Do you think he knows what we're saying? It's a boy.

Screen Five (2004)

This is the place outside of place,
The never-ending room.
The scarlet curtain's clumsy grace
The hot dogs' thick perfume.
The nothingness of deepest space
The darkness of the womb.

In waiting here, within these walls,
A life from life apart.
A silence more than silence calls
like music to my heart.
The lights go down; the darkness falls;
A world's about to start.

Those Golden Years (1997)

With wistful thoughts of safety sheets
She shrivels in the morning cold
And though her mother still repeats
How school years should be years of gold
She knows how recollection cheats;
Escape is wasted on the old.

The night was one long spread of frost
And now the ground beneath is hard.
How much these golden years have cost!
And ten years old she's battle-scarred.
At ten years old her war is lost;
She stands defeated in the yard.

Come all you boys and girls so brave
A standing target must be hit.
She does not ape how you behave
So you ape her with gibe and skit.
Come, dance upon her spirit's grave;
You were the ones who shovelled it.

I watch her turn her face to jeers;
Her childish heart has grown too hard
To melt her anguish into tears.
Her path to liberty is barred
By railings and by ruthless years
Ahead of her inside this yard.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I've Been so Critical of Michael Voris...

...that I feel I should link to this (mostly) excellent video of one of his lectures.

One of the reasons I find Voris so frustrating is that he is so right about so many things, and his zeal is so admirable, that all the heavy-duty pugnacity just seems such a wasteful shame, obscuring his many good points.

A point he makes in this video-- that Satan only really moved against Our Blessed Lord after he revealed himself in the Eucharist-- is one that had never occurred to me and is fascinating.

I do, however, find his rhetoric about absolute truth, as demonstrated in this lecture, quite irritating. The point of pluralism is not that we claim truth itself is plural. The point is that we don't impose that truth on others. Please note that I say impose. I don't mean that we don't seek to persuade, to evangelize, to convince, to sway, or to awaken. We should do all those things, given the proper time and circumstances. But in a pluralist society, unlike a theocracy such as Iran or a totalitarian society such as North Korea, we don't impose our vision of the truth. (Except in some cases, like a parent imposing the truth on her child.)

And I think that this social philosophy should go further than simply not coercing another person to accept the truth-- it implies a certain respectfulness towards their opinions and beliefs, mistaken though they may be. We enter the dictatorship of relativism only when "you have as much right to your opinions as I have to my own" slides into "your opinion is just as good as mine". (Because if it's really your opinion, as opposed to your preference or your sensibility, you can't possibly think like that; it's a contradiction. Unless, perhaps, the opinion was so tentative that you have no great confidence in its rightness.)

Is it possible that a human being can seriously believe that two contradictory claims can both be true? Surely only if they mean that they are both true in different senses. It's true, people do sometimes talk as though there is no ultimate truth in philosophical or ethical or aesthetic matters; but what they are really saying is that there is no truth in those fields, rather than that contrasting truth claims can both be true. (I think it's quite possible for there to be no truth in a particular matter. There is no truth about what underwear Ebenezer Scrooge wore, for instance.)

The Parables are Not Always Metaphorical

Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house and search thoroughly till she found it? And then, when she had found it, call together her friends and neighbours, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, I have found the drachma I lost." (Luke 15:8-10)

This parable came to mind yesterday and the day before, when I thought I'd lost a thousand euro in prize bonds and couldn't find them anywhere. Then I discovered I'd put them away somewhere reasonably safe. They are now somewhere safer, believe you me. Praise God!

(A quick internet search reveals I probably could have just got the certificates replaced anyway. But I never expect things like that to be possible. Which might be why I'm so stern on callers-in to the library who just assume they can come in for free, students who just assume exceptions can be made, etc. etc.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

More Nightmares

The Last Sunrise

The old man picked his way over the rocky terrain, hot sand blowing into his face. It barely stung his eyes any more. He had been walking for over a month now, barely sleeping, only stopping to drink from the sap of ancient, deathless trees.

He met nobody. There was nobody to meet.The old man was the last of his kind. It had been so for many years.

Even in his youth, the world had been a tomb. In the monastery, the novices’ time was devoted to studying the history of the dozens of civilizations that had flourished and died on this world. He had passed many of their ruins in the past month, and in the decades leading to it

All of their wise men and priests and philosophers had asked themselves the question that he would see answered this very day.

His masters in the monastery had done a fine job of quenching his pride.

He was the most important man in history—in a hundred histories—but he walked towards destiny feeling nothing but an overwhelming sense of his own smallness. His own unfitness. If there was any satisfaction at all, it was that he had defied the elements—hunger and thirst, hot and cold, and a hundred other hazards-- to see this day.

“You have all the virtues except care”, Watcher Darak had told him during his third trial for the brown cloak. The plump old man had chastised him for fasting too severely, keeping vigil too long, excessive labour. “There are few enough of us left now. Every life is precious is beyond words.”

Vows of celibacy had been lifted generations before. The old man had tried to parent children himself, but—like most others, for the past century or so—he was sterile.

So he had travelled the world, searching for suvivors of his race. Far to the West, animal and vegetable life still flourished. But all over the world, disease and sterility had extinguished the race of man.

And, even if anybody else had somehow survived, they were not here. The old man had surveyed the barren landscape from headlands, had shouted into the emptiness for weeks. There had been no reply.

Mankind had dreamed of this day, this place, through all their history. Now the day had come, and only one frail old man staggered towards the Sacred Valley.

He could see it from here, despite the flurries of sand that the winds sent scudding through the air. Centuries had eroded the two mountains that had flanked it, so that they were little more than barren and rocky hills.

The statues stood, as they stood for millennia. The old man had never seen them before. They were not to be looked upon, save for once in a lifetime. But he had seen so many pictures that he might as well have been looking at them all his life.

Were they gods? Were they angels? Were they demons? There had been thousands of creeds, through the generations. But the statues had stood through them all, untouched. Not even the most arrogant ruler dared to build his palace within a hundred miles of the Sacred Valley.

There were twelve thousand of them, each one carrying a sword in one hand a flower in the other. The carvings on the massive columns around them left no doubt. They were astronomical charts, and they looked forward to this day.

And the oldest of prophecies—a prophecy so deeply embedded in tradition that few ever questioned it—was that “life would give life” on that day. Or, as the Great Harram put it, “Man will give birth to the Gods.”

An old man, staggering towards the mystery of mysteries, in the red light before the last sunrise.

He had forgotten his prayers. Words no longer seemed to have any meaning. He had not spoken in years. No, he prayed without words now.

He walked into the Sacred Valley, as crimson light began to flood into the sky.

He stood before the first statue, the one that stood a little before all the others. It was the statue of a boy, with a look of holy awe upon his beautiful features.

The old man would not have believed how much his own expression resembled the boys, as he stood staring into his stone eyes.

And then the snake struck.

It was an emerald adder, and the old man thought they were all dead. It had been coiled behind the statue of the boy, waiting to strike. Its low hiss had been audible, but the the old man had stopped listening for such things. He had all the virtues but care.

It jumped straight at his neck, plunging its fangs into his flesh. Blood spurted onto sand and stone.

The sky burned a brighter red with every moment, and the disc of the sun began to look over the horizon as the last of the old man’s life ebbed away.

But the blood that had spattered onto the stone boy’s neck melted into the statue, and—as the sun rose—the statue began to come alive.

The old man lay dead on the sand, his staff still clutched in his hand. How he came there, who he was; that would be debated for centuries to come.

You Must Never Go Through The Blue Door

Barry’s life was built around rules. He had to do everything that Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine told him to do. He had to be quiet, especially when Aunie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine were sleeping. He had to put all his toys back in the red box when he was finished playing with them.

And most important of all, he could never, ever go through the blue door.

Barry was frightened even to look at the blue door. It haunted his nightmares. He never went into the room with the blue door. Even the way Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine looked at each other when they mentioned it frightened him. Their eyes became circles and their skin grew paler.

But, most of the time, Barry was happy. He had his books, and he had his toys, and he had Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine, who he loved more than anything in the world.

And today was Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday was his favourite day of the week; party day!

He crept up to the door of Auntie Evelyn’s room and put his ear to it. That was against the rules, too, but it wasn’t a scary rule. It didn’t matter too much if that rule was broken; his aunties were never very angry when they caught him doing that, and they even smiled at him as though they thought he was funny and cute.

So he put his ear to the door.

“It’s getting worse out there”, said Auntie Evelyn. “Clients are getting…more difficult.” Her voice was rough, like a crow’s.

“They’ve always been difficult”, said Auntie Katherine, in her smooth voice. Barry liked Auntie Katherine most, though he never would have admitted it out loud. That would make Auntie Eveln jealous.

“Still….” said Auntie Evelyn. She would often start off saying something and then seem to forget about it. “And that weird guy was looking at me again. The guy in the leather jacket.”

“Why don’t you tell Steve?”, asked Auntie Katherine. (Barry had never seen Steve. He imagined him as tall and dark-haired and always frowning.)

“I will”, said Auntie Evelyn. “But….you know Steve. How he overreacts.”

“You can say that again.”

“Is Barry asleep?”

When he heard that, Barry took a few quick steps backwards, and quietly slunk back into his room. A few moments later, he was underneath his duvet, reading his Silly Squirrel book. The one with the astronauts

Auntie Katherine and Auntie Evelyn came in a moment later. They were smiling. They were excited.

“What time is it, Barry?”, said Auntie Evelyn, laying her hand on his head.

“Time for a party”, said Barry, eagerly. “Time for a Wednesday party.”

Both his aunties laughed, and Auntie Evelyn ruffled his hair.

They all went to the kitchen. The table was full of crinkly paper bags. Barry could smell the doughnuts. As always, he helped them lay out the party; there were gingerman-shaped biscuits, fizzy orange, apple drops, eclairs, and—of course—doughnuts, his favourite. Sometimes Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine called him the Doughnut Dude.

They were singing a party song—Jolly Jim and the Jolly Roger—when Auntie Evelyn’s mobile phone rang. She made a face and lifted it to her ear.

Barry hated that mobile phone. It always interrupted fun, and it was blue. He hated anything blue; it made him uneasy.

“Hey, dearie”, she said into the phone, with a tight smile.

For a little while, Auntie Katherine and Barry kept singing the song, but it was obvious that Auntie Katherine was more interested in the phone call now.

“For fu—for God’s sake, Steve, what do you expect me to do about that? No. No. I’m coming over to you. Just calm down and I’ll be right over. Love love.”

She snapped the mobile phone shut, and cursed under her breath. Then she looked at Barry with a big smile. But it was a smile with sadness underneath.

“I have to go, pinkie”, she said. “I’m sorry. But I’ll be back later. And you know what happens later, don’t you?”

“Cowboys!”, said Barry, waving his doughnut in the air. It was his favourite TV show.

Auntie Katherine clapped her hands and Auntie Evelyn laughed with delight.

When Auntie Evelyn was gone, Auntie Katherine gave Barry his bath. Barry loved bath-time even more than party-time. He loved the bubblebath, the sound of water plashing from the taps. He loved playing with his rubber frogmen. But what he liked most was when Auntie Katherine told him to be very, very still, covered his face with foam, and gently sung to herself as she shaved him.

A Sweet Savour

Les was walking past Dimples Babywear when he first caught the scent.

It was impossible to describe exactly. But it immediately brought to his mind the smell inside a bakery. Like that, but more so, as though the bakery had just taken a hundred mouth-watering cakes out of some giant oven.

It was the richest aroma he had even experienced; it was like the smell of childhood and Christmas and first love and a thousand other good things all mixed up. It was the odour of the wind that blew from Eden.

He looked around. The street was busy, but it only took a moment to see where the smell was coming from. It didn’t make any sense, but there it was.

A man was leaning over a pram, fussing over his baby’s clothes. He was a fat, squat man in jeans and a khaki t-shirt. Les thought he was one of the ugliest men he had ever seen. His baby—Les couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl—was remarkably unattractive, too.

But the most delicious smell that had ever greeted Les’s nostrils was emanating from them.

Somehow, he knew straight away that it was the smell of love. He recognised it as surely as if it was sweat or smoke or cut grass.

The fat man looked up, perhaps sensing that he was being watched. When he saw Les, he smiled.

“Little bleeders, ain’t they?”, said the man.

“Are they?”, asked Les. “I never had one.”

“Don’t, mate”, said the fat man, with a gurgling laugh. “Don’t.”

Then he was pushing the baby along, humming a jingle from a peas ad.

But the scent lingered. After a few minutes—during which he simply stood on the spot, transfixed by this new sensation—he realised that it was coming from the entire street. It was fainter than it had been, but now and again, it would grow stronger as people passed by. An old man and an old woman, hobbling side by side, talking about biscuits. A boy and his labrador. Three young girls passing a magazine between them, laughing.

Les’s mobile phone rang. He barely heard it at first, he was so distracted by the all-pervading scent of love. Then he snapped back to awareness, and hurriedly drew it from his pocket.

“Betty?”, he asked.

“Are you on your way home? Can you get some butter and some tinfoil?”

“Sure”, said Les. “Betty, the most amazing thing has just happened to me—“

“I’m watching Down the Road”, said Betty. “You can tell me when you get home.”

“Sure”, said Les, and Betty hung up.

All the way home—he lived within walking distance of the office—Les was buzzing with excitement. His had been a very ordinary life. Not that he minded that, but he had always had a secret hankering to be part of something special, something different. Sometimes he had fantasised about being caught up in a bank robbery, or even being the first case of some horrendous new disease. He would recover, of course, and give many interviews. He would be the famous Patient Zero.

Les was such an invincibly modest man that it never occurred to him to rehearse a Nobel prize speech, or imagine an interview with a Sunday arts supplement.

As soon as he was home, he rushed into the living room, where Betty had passed from Down the Road to Fit for a Princess. She looked up with vague surprise.

“Did you remember the tinfoil and butter?”, she asked.

“Sure”, said Les. “Hey, Betty, you’ll never guess—“

He stopped suddenly. It had hit him, or rather, it hadn’t. The smell was entirely absent from the room. From the whole house.

“Never mind”, said Les, and Betty went back to watching Fit for a Princess.

* * *
Later that evening, he thought about suicide methods as he stared into his Guinness. He always had a Tuesday night drink with his friends Davy, Matty and Frenchy. He thought they had been friends. But he didn’t get the scent from them, either. Not the slightest suggestion of it.

He had made an excuse to move to the other pub in his street—The Pavilion—and now he was trying to imagine what drowning would feel like, and how painful hanging would actually be.

Then the scent struck him, stronger and more delicious than ever. He looked up.

Jenny, the pretty red-haired barmaid of the Pavillion, was taking his empty glass away. And giving him a sweet smile that he had never guessed, even in his wildest fantasy, was reserved for him alone.

Written in Stone

It was on his second visit to his mother’s grave that Gerry noticed the inscription.

It was six months after her funeral. Gerry had spent all that time trying not to think about her death, not to brood on regrets. Now it was time to remember.

He bought a bunch of daffodils—her favourite—and drove to the cemetery. It was on the other side of the country, in the country town where she’d grown up. She’d never even visited it since moving to Dublin thirty years ago, but she’d asked to be buried there. “Dublin is no place for a ghost”, she’d joked.

Once he’d laid the flowers on the grave, and read the inscription he’d chosen himsef—there were so many perfect lines he’d thought of when it was too late, but they’d gone with gentle Jesus give her rest—there wasn’t much else to do. He’d never been one for contemplation. But he couldn’t just go, could he? Even the dead demanded etiquette.

So he looked at the neighbouring headstones. The one to the left was ordinary enough, though sad. A mother who had died in her twenties, to be followed by her six-year-old daughter. There was a photograph of the little girl; she didn’t look sickly or doomed. She looked quite like Gerry’s little girl.

But the headstone to the right was a little strange, if only in its bareness. It was sleek black marble, about half the size of his mother’s headstone, which was modestly-scaled itself. There were no crosses, no pictures of Jesus. There was no decoration at all, simply the words:

survived by his wife

It was a little strange, but not strange enough to detain Gerry for long. He spent another fifteen minues or so staring at down at his mother’s grave, trying not to think of tonight’s episode of Skullduggery or whether the weather would let him go fishing this weekend. He said a prayer, awkwardly, and started back towards the car.
* * *

Gerry was a quantity surveyor. He never had to write down a telephone number. He could remember telephone numbers he’d used a handful of times ten or twelve years before. Numbers stuck in his head.

So a jolt passed through him the next time he looked at the black headstone. It was a year later, and this time the inscription read:

survived by his wife

Gerry stood there, staring down at it, this year’s daffodils hanging limply in his hand. He knew he wasn’t remembering it wrong.

Suddenly, the empty cemetery seemed even colder, and the whistling of the wind had a menacing sound.

He took out his mobile phone, and flashed a photograph. He left the daffodils on his mother’s grave and walked out of the graveyard, torn between the desire to run and the desire to go back to the headstone for another look.

* * *
A promotion, a move to another neighbourhood, and an extra job coaching the under-sixteens of his old football club….none of it seemed to have happened, hardly seemed to matter, the next time he walked into the cemetery where his mother had been laid.

He had barely slept the night before. It had been difficult, in fact, to stop himself from coming back before his mother’s birthday came round. He hadn’t mentioned the inscription to anybody, though he had been on the point of telling his wife and his best friend, towards the end of boozy nights.

He forced himself to look at his mother’s headstone first. He stared at it for fully five seconds before he turned to its neighbour.

It said:

survived by his wife

He reached into his pocket, almost triumphantly, and plucked out his mobile phone. But the year-old photograph might have been taken today. Richard Wolff, both tombstone and photo declared, had died four years ago.

* * * *
A year later. Gerry had scoured the internet for a mention of a recently-deceased Richard Wollf. But he only found him in his dreams.

This time he didn’t even try to look at his mother’s grave first. This time his eyes sought out the terse marble marker straight away.

It said:

survived by her husband

The Little Monsters

“How many are there?”, asked the old man in the check shirt and corduroys, loading his rifle.

“Hundreds”, said the woman in the tracksuit. “Maybe three hundred.”

The old lady in the heavy black dress and thick wollen sweater put her hand over her mouth. “And they’re all children?”, she asked.

“They’re not children”, said a bearded man wearing football shorts and a bright orange t-shirt. “Whatever they are, they’re not bloody children.”

“Then what are they?”, asked the old woman, almost whispering.

“Demons, maybe”, said the man with the beard. “Monsters. Zombies.”

“But zombies are dead people come back to life”, said the old woman, staring out the window. The scene outside was peaceful, almost idyllic. Hens clucked on the lawn, and cows grazed beyond an electric wire. But the younger woman had a deep gash on her face, and her clothes were torn.

“Let’s not worry about definitions now, Judy”, said the old man, slamming the gun barrel into place. The three others started at the sound.

“They’ll kill us”, said the woman in the tracksuit, lingering over each word as though it caused her pain. “Unless we get them first. Believe me.”

“What the hell happened?”, asked the old man, peering through the window. “I mean, we heard some kind of—“

Signal”, said the bearded man, with a strange kind of eagerness. “It was a signal, wasn’t it? A kind of high-pitched wail, like an air-raid siren, maybe…”

“And the kids went wild”, said the woman in the tracksuit, shaking her head as though she still couldn’t believe it. “They killed four of the supervisors right away. Just…tore at them with their teeth. They went for their throats…”

“We’re not going to kill children, are we?”, asked Judy, looking from face to face, her face dough-coloured.

“Here they come”, said her husband, raising the rifle.

The others stepped closer together and looked out the window. A mob of brightly-coloured figures were climbing over the hedges that walled the farm. They were all wearing sports-bibs, either red or green, over t-shirts. None of them looked older than ten or eleven years old.

It was hard to tell their age, though. They didn’t look like children. They moved with an urgency and a speed that bore no resemblance to childish giddiness. And their faces…no child had ever looked so furious, so utterly devilish.

“Don’t shoot, Stanley”, said Judy, grasping her husband by the arm. “Don’t shoot. Let’s go up to the attic. Please.”

But Stanley, now standing against the kitchen the wall, had already raised the rifle. “They’ll just follow us, Judy”, he said, quietly. “Look at them.”

The children—the things—had already closed half the distance between the hedge and the window. They were howling with eagerness.

“God help us”, said the man with the beard. He reached towards the oven, and grabbed a heavy frying pan, giving it one or two experimental shakes.

“They’re going to kill us”, said the woman in the tracksuit. “They’re—“

But there was no more time for words. The children were already upon them. They didn’t bother to try breaking down the door. They simply hurled themselves at the window, a dozen at a time.

Chaos broke out it in the tiny kitchen. Stanley fired shot after shot into the huddle of attackers. They echoed loudly in the tiled and sparsely-furnished kitchen. Judy, standing behind her husband and burying her face in her hands, was screaming. So were the children.

Blood was everywhere. The horrible sound of a frying-pan coming down on juvenile skulls blended with the racket of gunfire.

The woman in the tracksuit, mobbed by children, fell to the floor. As soon as she was down, a little girl with honey-coloured ponytails fell to her knees and lunged for the her victim’s throat. The woman howled with pain.

Then a new sound cut through the pandemonium. A harrowing, ear-piercing, resounding screech. It seemed to come from the sky itself, and lasted perhaps five seconds.

Everybody stopped moving. Only the moaning and screaming and sobbing of the injured and dying went on. Gunsmoke filled the air.

“What happened?”, asked Stanley, lowering his rifle.

A boy who had taken a steak-knife from the kitchen drawer stood with it poised inches from the bearded man’s groin. He looked up at the supervisor, as if wondering how he had got there, and where the activity camp had gone.

Suddenly, forty of fifty children began to sob at once. Within a moment, they were wailing. Fifteen or twenty little bodies were lying dead on the tiles, and the tracksuited woman, still lying down, was making a horrible gurgling sound.

Crawling through the Desert

Milton saw Philip in the bathroom mirror before he felt the hearty clap on his shoulder.

Bloody good presentation, Dale”, he said. “I don’t think you have to be a fortune teller to predict—bloody hell, man, are you OK?”

Milton tried to smile. His face was wet with the water he had just splashed onto it.

“That really took it out of you, didn’t you?,” asked Philip. “And you were so smooth in there!”

“I guess so”, said Milton. “I’ll be OK”.

“You’ll be more than OK”, said Philip. “You’ll be flying before very long. That went down like a bloody hundred megaton bomb.”

He gave Milton a gentle punch on the arm before he moved on towards one of the cubicles. He never would have guessed how much that light nudge ached.

Milton closed his eyes, and prayed for his dizziness to pass. As far Philip was concerned, the presentation had broken up two or three minutes ago.

But for Milton, it had been hours. Hours crawling throught the desert.

This was the fourth time it had happened, and the weird interludes were getting longer all the time. One moment he had been walking towards the bathroom after outlining to the executive board of Happen Insurance his anti-fraud proposals.

It had been a triumph. He had been euphoric. And just as he was reaching out towards the bathroom door, everything had changed. Again.

He was standing on the undulating surface of a desert that stretched in every direction. The sun blazed directly overhead, and the heat scorched his skin.

After the first wave of horror had passed, he began to march forwards. What else was there to do? There was nothing on the horizon, nothing to strive towards, but the merciless sun would not let him stand still. Besides, each time he found himself in this awful place—if it was a place—he was far from sure that he would be transported back to the real world.

It was a good thing Philip had not barged through the door a moment before, he thought. If he had, he would have seen Milton lapping up bathroom water from his cupped hands. He was still ferociously thirsty. I’ll take the rest of the day off, he thought, and head down to the Saracen’s Arms. The thought of cider slipping down his throat was almost unbearably enticing.

His mother used to chide him for his drinking, even after he’d moved out at the age of twenty-two. He drank more than ever now, but he was a hundred miles away from being an alcoholic. Then again, she’d chide him for his cursing, for his “lewd” remarks, for his frank assessments of his relatives. It was funny to think of now, but she had once given him a tongue-lashing for suggesting she make a claim against the local pub, when she had slipped in the lady’s room.

He kept meaning to visit her again. But she was living with some bookish retired professor, who had been scandalised when Philip admitted he hadn’t read a novel since leaving school. Besides, they talked enough on the phone. Right now, had an appointment with a glass of cider.

* * * *

It tasted just as good as he’d anticipated. The next one tasted even better, and the one after that was no let-down. He’d only planned to spend an hour or two in the Saracen’s, but three hours later, he looked up to see John Whittaker, the managing director of Happen, moving towards him with a pint of lager in his hand. Thankfully, Milton wasn’t even tipsy.

“Celebrating?”, asked Whittaker, squeezing in beside him.

“Well…” started Milton.

“You should be”, said Whittacker. “You should be. I don’t mind telling you I see big, big things for you in this company. And I’m telling you because, otherwise, I think you might do big things somewhere else. Another of those?”

“OK”, said Milton, smiling.

* * *

The streets of Manchester, melancholy and surly as ever, slid past the taxi window. The driver was silent. Milton had snapped at him when he asked him if he was feeling OK. They weren’t far from the train station.

Take a holiday, they had told him. Milton had collapsed in the middle of his first ever board meeting, after another—and the longest—of his desert intervals. It had been plain, from the faces around him, that this would also be his last board meeting.

He was going to see his mother at last. All of a sudden, it seemed like the only place he wanted to be. He couldn’t bear to let anybody else seem like this. The trips to the weird desert were growing more and more frequent.

But something very strange had happened at the end of that last one. Just before he had been whisked back to reality—just before he had collapsed--he had seen it, glimmering on the very edge of the horizon. Silver water, and green grass.

The House of Mystery

Carl rung the bell of the House of Mystery. Then he rung it again, twice. He waited a few seconds, and rang it three times in quick succession.

There was no sign above the door at the House of Mystery. It was on a residential street and the only sign on the door was the house number, forty-four. There was a spy-hole, though.

Carl had been coming to the House of Mystery for almost three years. For all he knew, he was its oldest customer. Or he might have been its newest.

Three or four minutes had passed when the door opened. An elderly man with mutton chop sideburns, receding salt-and-pepper hair, and heavy-rimmed glasses opened the door. He was wearing a grey bathrobe. He gave Carl a gay smile.

“Carl, my boy”, he said. “Come in, come in. I was beginning to think you would never show up.”

“My wife insisted I go to some awful lunch with her”, said Carl apologetically.

“Ah, the ladies, God bless ‘em”, said Carl. “It’s been twenty years since dear Edith passed away. I tend to forget that most men have domestic entanglements.”

“Are there any female members of the House of Mystery, Vernon?”

Vernon smiled and wagged his finger at Carl in a now, now manner. “Would you like some coffee and cakes?”, he asked.

“I’m always up for your coffee and cakes”, said Carl.

As they walked through the ritzily-wallpapered hallway to Vernon’s kitchen, Carl said: “I finished Death for Slow Learners”, he said. “I thought it was good but—“

“The street signs?”, asked Vernon, hastily. “You didn’t think it would be possible to switch them?”

“Well…” said Carl, hesitantly.

“The author assures me that he’s done it himself”, said Vernon, beaming.

“When will it be published?”, asked Carl.

“Oh, you know”, said Vernon, waving his pudgy hand dismissively. “It has to be spiced up with sex and dinner parties and domestic drama first.”

Many of the mystery genre’s top writers sent an early draft of their manuscripts to Vernon. The patrons of the House of Mystery—whose membership was by invitation only— were the most discerning of mystery fans, the connoisseurs of crime. Few stories foxed them. Writers couldn’t resist the challenge of trying. Those manuscripts that were met with a howl of derision from the House of Mystery patrons usually underwent radical surgery before finding their way to an agent or publisher.

“Well, here we are, old boy”, said Vernon, ushering Carl into his airy kitchen. “I have some fine éclairs today. The éclair is under-appreciated, is it not? Put on a par with the vile dougnut by some snobs. Dear fellow, today is a red letter day for you, though you know it not.”

“Oh yes?”, asked Carl, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“Indeed”, said Vernon. “Today you have come of age. You are now a full member of the House of Mystery, and may meet other members.”

Carl blinked in surprise. He put down the coffee pot. “What?”, he asked.

Vernon laughed. “I love telling people that. My dear boy, I have been hugely impressed by your sleuthing powers, by your critical faculties. You pass.”

“I’m flattered”, said Carl, resuming his pouring.

“You should be more than flattered”, said Vernon. “You should be very, very relieved.”

“What do you mean?”, asked Carl, looking up again, struck by Vernon’s tone.

“Well, take, for instance, your closest contemporary, a Mr. Lee Somerset. He did not make the grade. I had to expel him.”

“Oh yes?”, asked Carl. “And how did he take it?”

Vernon smiled. “Well, I went a special way about it. I cooked him a long story about an elaborate mystery game, involving him breaking into a country house that I had loaned for the purpose. At two in the morning.”

“And what happened?”

“He was shot fifteen times by a hunting rifle, that’s what happened”, said Vernon, with a smile of sheer glee. “Carl, this is where the real games began. The only question is, are you ready to play?

Carl stared at Vernon for a long time. It was plain that the man wasn’t joking. “What makes you think I won’t just turn in you in to the police?,” he asked.

Vernon shrugged, and took a bite from his éclair. “Nobody ever has, dear boy”, he said. “And The House of Mystery is a hundred years old next year.”

I Dreamed About You Last Night

“Women are insane”, said Ian, stirring his coffee rapidly and frowning.

“You might be right”, said Ger, staring through the microwave door at his pizza, his arms folded.

“No might about it”, said Ian. “I mean, seriously. I’m not saying that women can’t be logical. Of course they can. But every now and again, it’s just like—there’s a bomb that goes off in their brains—“

“So what happened?”, asked Ger, with a resigned smile, his eyes still fixed on his pizza.

“Just this girl I was seeing”, said Ian. “I mean, I don’t understand what she saw in me to start with. I mean, she was gorgeous, and she was all over me. It was like she’d been hypnotized. And then, out of nowhere, she just turned.”

Ger laughed softly. The microwave pinged. “Maybe you did something.”

“I’ve thought about that”, said Ger, haplessly. “But I can’t think of anything. There was no reason for it. None. And just the other day—“

“Well, you’ll have to tell me later”, said Ger. “My stomach is begging for this pizza. Talk to you later, sir.”

“Yeah”, said Ian, as Ger passed from the kitchenette to the adjoining break room. He took a sip from his mug of black coffee. He was a short, thin young man, with dark wavy hair and a permanently worried expression.

“Hey, Ian.”

He looked up. Louise Rooney had just walked in the door. She was a well-proportioned young woman, with cascading brown-blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was looking at Ian in a way she had never looked at him before.

“Louise”, he said, tensing. “What’s up?”

“I dreamed of you last night”, she said, with an almost shy smile.

“Oh yeah?”, he asked, nervously. “Was it a nightmare?”

She laughed. “No! It was a good dream. We were…it was in a hot air balloon. It was a glorious summer day. It was a really happy dream, actually.”

“Cool”, said Ian. “Um…”

“Louise!” said Dermot, stepping through the door. “Have you seen Anna this morning?”
Louise and Dermot got caught up in a conversation about the junior manager. Ian finished his coffee, feeling happier than he had in days, and went to check his emails.

There was one, from Sharon, his friend who had emigrated to Australia last year.

Hi Ian, it started. I had the weirdest dream about you last night. We were in a gondola in Venice, and there were these golden butterflies in the air. It was the weirdest dream. But nice! How are you, anyway?

* * * *
Ian had made his mind up; he was going to ask Louise out today. She had done nothing but stare at him through the budget meeting yesterday.

It wasn’t just her, though. Almost all the women had been grinning and making eyes at him yesterday. And not just in work, either. The girl in the local shop asked him if he’d seen Dreadnought. He’d been buying film magazines from her for years and she’d barely spoken a friendly word to him before. And the question had come with a sweet smile.

Then she’d told him about her dream. Something to do with an ice palace.

They were all dreaming about him, he decided. Most of them couldn’t remember their dreams, that was all. Most people never could. Why were they dreaming about him? That was a question that barely occurred to him. Ian had stopped trying to understand the world a long time ago. He was a financial services representative at a credit union. Not Yoda.

He walked straight up to Louise as she was taking her coat off.

“Hey…Louise…have you seen Dreadnought?”

She looked around at him, but this time there was no smile. Instead, she looked perturbed. She looked down quickly, paying close attention to her buttons as she undid them. “No…yeah….I mean, it’s not really my thing”.

“Cool”, he said. “I just wondered...”

“Talk to you later”, she said, hurrying to her desk.

It was the same with everyone else. Even the blokes had been extra friendly to him yesterday. Today, everybody seemed to be avoiding him.

He was washing his hands in the bathroom when he heard Carolyn Lynch talking to Deirdre Cosgrove in the ladies’ room next door. The women seemed to have no idea how clearly their voices carried over to the gents’.

“I had the creepiest dream about Ian last night”, she said. “It was horrible. He was covered all over in scales….really slimy scales…”

The Barbaric Past

“You have very beautiful breasts”, said the stranger, gazing down at them.

“Thank you”, said Fee, smiling. “I’m lucky.”

The man smiled back. “Would you like to go to the Lu and make love? There’s one just down the street.”

“No, thank you”, said Fee. “You’re very handsome but I’m not attracted to you.”

The man shrugged, the warmth of his smile not diminished. “Well, some women aren’t. My name is Bry. Welcome to Dub.”

“Fee”, said Fee. They raised their hands in the air and placed the palms against each other for a moment.

“Your accent tells me you come from the West”, said Fee. “Are you visiting Dub for the first time?”

“Yes”, said Fee. A walnut-scented breeze gusted past, and she closed her eyes, savouring it. Bry did the same. When she opened her eyes again, she said: “I’m here with my little sister Ver. She’s seventeen today.”

“Oh, Dulty!”, said Bry. As though overcome, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the woman’s shoulders, pressing her head against his chest. “Dulty is such a happy time!”

“Yes”, said Fee. She squeezed him. “Thank you.”

“Let me show you the gallery”, said Bry, as they pulled apart again. “Unless you’ve seen it already?”

“We haven’t”, said Fee. “And that would be wonderful, thank you. Here is Ver now.”

“Anything for a Dulty girl”, said Fee, looking towards the beautiful amber-haired girl who walked towards them, grinning and clutching a stick of jolly-floss.

* * * *
“This one is called The Firing Squad”, said Bry. “Just look at the use of outline in this one! So sinuous, such harmonious proportions, such rhythm in its undulations!”.

Ver was staring at the picture, her green eyes wide. “What are they holding? What are they going to do?”

A flicker of regret passed over Bry’s face. In his eagerness, he had forgotten Ver had just become a Dulty girl.

“Well, Ver”, he said, giving Fee an apologetic glance. “Those are guns. They’re…well, they’re machines that propelled a small pellet, with the intention of…causing injury, or even death.”

Ver continued to stare at the painting for a few moments, then she threw her pale hands over her eyes, and cried: “Why? Why would anyone do that?”

“That’s a very good question, Ver”, said Bry, encouraged by the sad but reassuring smile Fee was giving him. “They invented all sorts of reasons. Before the nans provided for our needs, there weren’t enough resources to go around. Sometimes they blamed that. Sometimes they blamed differences in opinion, in belief.”

“Why would anyone kill somebody else because they had a different opinion?”, asked Ver, through her hands. She was trembling.

“Nobody sane would, Ver”, said Bry, putting his hand gently on the girl’s hair. “But that wasn't the real reason. The real reason was anger, and psychological trauma, and—especially—the natural aggression of males in their late teens and twenties. The society of that time was profoundly neurotic. Thankfully, we no longer suffer from most of those primitive drives. Nobody has to be angry when everybody is loved.” He ruffled her hair.

“And the natural aggression that remains”, said Fee, putting her hand on the girl’s shoulder, “is channelled into healthy, useful channels. Like hunting the Dij. It’s been many centuries, my love, since any human ever hurt another human.”

The girl sobbed, slowly lowering her hands, but averting her eyes from the canvas. “It’s still horrid that they ever did.” So these, she realised, were the unpleasant Dulty secrets she’d been warned about.

* * * *
“And this”, said Bry, his voice deepening with reverence, “is a depiction of King Gal leading the first ever Dij hunt. God bless King Gal!”.

“God bless King Gal!” cried the small crowd around the canvas, in unison. Ver cried the words loudest, her beautiful green eyes shining with tears, a worshipful smile on her coral lips.

King Gal, brought to life in sumptious oils, lifted his lance in the air, his magnificent white steed rising on its hind legs. Behind him, a host of gaily-dressed lords and ladies were riding, smiling with delight.

And before him ran the Dij, hundreds of them, their eyes wide, the females carrying their young, both males and females grasping crude spears in their fists. Their faces were grotesque masks of hatred and imbecility. To think they had once been considered human beings! If it was not so ridiculous, it would be horrific.