Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Sound of Breathing: A Short Story

Jessica was the luckiest girl in the world, because her father was the greatest father in the world. He wrote books. He gave talks. He made videos. Everybody admired him. People sent him cards and gifts telling him how much he’d changed their lives. They came pretty much every day, and they were hung all over the hall and sitting room and dining room of their beautiful home.

He’d written three books; Make It Happen, Make It Real, and Embrace Your Fears. He flew all over the world giving lectures (he always called them “lectures”). He seemed to be working all the time. Jessica only realized that other fathers were not like that when she went to school-- for the little time she’d gone to school. She’d been taken out of school when she was seven, and after that she was educated by private tutors and by Daddy himself. Sometimes he would wander in from his study and sit in on her lessons, which always made the tutors nervous. Twice he’d actually stopped the lesson and told the tutors they could go.  They would never be seen again. Then he either got new tutors or just taught her that himself.

Jessica’s mother had died when she was three. Nobody would ever tell her what she died of, and Jessica had learned to stop asking. There was a photograph of her in the hall-- dark-haired and thin, just like her daughter. Jessica always thought she had a sad look on her face, even though she was smiling. But maybe that was just her imagination. Daddy so often warned her against the dangers of the imagination.

Daddy only ever talked about her when Jessica raised the subject. She knew he didn’t like talking about her. Probably it made him sad, though Daddy never seemed sad.

Jessica wanted to please her father more than anything in the entire world, so she very rarely asked about her mother. They couldn’t even visit her grave because she had been cremated and thrown into the sea-- that’s what she wanted, Daddy said.

Once Jessica had asked him if Mommy had gone to Heaven. It was at breakfast one morning, when it was blowing wind outside.

“Jessica”, her father had said, looking square in her face. “There is no Heaven. It’s just a story people tell to make themselves feel better about death.”

When she had started crying at this, he’d lifted her from her chair and hugged her tight to him. She loved his smell, the smell of cigars and aftershave and-- well, Daddy-ness. But this time it wasn’t enough to stop the tears streaming.

“I could lie to you and say that there’s a Heaven”, he said. “But I’m never, ever, ever going to lie to you. You deserve better than that. Lies never make anything better.”

Daddy worked harder than other Daddies, and Jessica also worked harder than other little girls. Lessons went on all day, up until dinner-time, and then sometimes in the evening, too.

“Your mind is at its most flexible now, Jessica”, he told her. “And that’s the magic ingredient, flexibility. Yes, you’re working harder now, when other kids your age are watching TV and playing computer games and just hanging out. But, believe me, when you’re older, you’ll appreciate it. The headstart you are getting now will make a big, big difference. Believe me.”

Then he would start on his favourite subject-- the world that she was growing up into and how she needed to be flexible, adaptable, creative. His eyes would light as he spoke about it.

“It’s going to be a different world, Jessica”, he said. “A lot of the jobs that people do today are going to be done by computers. There may not even be jobs like there are today. Things are going to change so fast, so very fast, that people who can’t change with it, people who can’t be flexible...well, they’re going to get left behind.”

“What will happen to those people?”, Jessica had asked.

Her father shrugged. “There might be some kind of basic income by then”, he said. “Money that the government gives to everybody, whether they work or not. I hope so. But it’s probably not going to be very much. And, however much it is, it means that you are always depending on the government. If you want to be free, if you want to have independence, you’re going to have to be flexible. To make things happen for yourself. To make things real. And you will be, Jessica. You will be.”

“I feel sorry for all the other people”, Jessica had said. “The people who won’t be like that”

“Me too. I hope they get taken care of. But this is the reality. And what do I always tell you about reality?”

“Imagination sees reality”, Jessica recited. “Fantasy hides from reality.”

“I love you”, her father, had said, giving her a huge bearhug.

Jessica didn’t really mind working so hard, although she often wished she had more time to do her own stuff. She knew she was smart and she liked learning. Every time she had a new tutor she could tell how surprised they were at what she could do.

She studied French, German, and Chinese. She studied science and technology. She studied mathematics and geography, music and art. Daddy would often tell her how important creativity was. Knowledge opens doors, he said, but imagination lets you fly.

All the toys she was given were creative toys. She was given paints, modelling clay, building blocks, jigsaws (usually of maps), keyboards, puzzles-- things like that.

Daddy had let her have dolls when she was younger, since she’d begged him for them. But that had stopped when she was five-- the day she’d started talking about her doll, Miss Perfect, talking to her.

“She doesn’t talk to you, Jessica”, Daddy had said. They were sitting in the garden at the time, on a sunny summer’s day. He was in a deck chair and she playing with Miss Perfect. He was smiling but his voice was stern. “You pretend she talks to you, that’s all. And that’s OK.”

“No, Daddy”, she’d said. “She speaks to me. She really speaks to me.”

Daddy had looked worried, then-- worried, and kind of angry. “No, sweetheart”, he said. “It’s a fun game to pretend she speaks to you. I know that. That’s OK. Every kid does that. But she doesn’t really speak to you.”

Jessica had started crying then, because she already knew it was wrong to lie. Daddy took Miss Perfect away from her and she had never seen her again-- her, or any other doll, or action figure, or anything like that.

She’d heard him speaking on the phone a few nights later, as she was coming back from the bathroom, very late one night. “I don’t want her to go the same way as her mother”, he’d said. She thought about that pretty much every day.

Now that she was nine years old, she knew that Daddy had been right. Miss Perfect hadn’t spoken to her, because dolls couldn’t speak. They were made of plastic. She’d only imagined it.

But sometimes, still, she caught herself thinking that Miss Perfect had really spoken to her after all. And then she cried to herself, feeling very guilty. Because Daddy said that was impossible, and Daddy was always right. He was the best father in the whole world, and he was always right.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Jessica would walk softly to her father’s bedroom and listen at the door. She would listen anxiously, trying to hear the sound of breathing, and she would only creep back to her own room when she’d heard it.

She was terrified that her father was going to die. When she’d told him about that, he’d laughed and said that all kids worried about their fathers dying.

“But you might die”, she’d said. They were in his study, and Jessica was sitting on his huge wooden desk-- the desk with the globe of the world, and the Panda bear made of green glass, and the box of cigars.

“Yes, I might”, Daddy had said. “Anything could happen. A plane could crash through this house right now. But it’s almost certainly not going to happen. I’m only forty-seven. I’m fit. I’m healthy. There’s nothing to worry about.”

The silence in the room had stretched, as Daddy smiled at her, and Jessica worked up the courage to say this next thing. She knew that, if she didn’t speak quickly, he would go back to work, and then he would be lost in work for the rest of the day.

“When you fell down the stairs”, she said. “When you were taken to hospital--”

“I only broke a few ribs, sweetheart”, he said. “That kind of thing happens. Besides, I’m extra careful now. I don’t want to spend any more time in hospital. I have too much to do!”

“I dreamed about it”, she said quickly. “The night it happened. I dreamed about it. Except in the dream-- you died.” Now she could barely speak through the tears.

He pulled her towards him, and hugged her. “No, you didn’t dream about me falling down the stairs that night. You imagine you did. You probably dreamed about it afterwards and now you think you dreamed about it the same night. The mind plays tricks. Memory plays tricks.”

Jessica rubbed her eyes. There was no point arguing with Daddy. He was always right. Besides, she wanted him to be right. Because in the dream-- she couldn’t remember why-- she had pushed him down the stairs. And then she had woken up and heard him falling--

But it wasn’t like that. Now she was crying tears of relief, and hugging Daddy. It wasn’t like that because the mind played tricks.

* * * * * * * * * 

Jessica told Daddy everything, except for one little thing she didn’t tell him.

She didn’t tell him about Kid.

Kid was her dog. He was an imaginary dog. She’d started to imagine a dog because Daddy wouldn’t let her have a real dog.

“You can get a dog when you’re old enough to take care of a dog”, he’d said. “When you’re thirteen, at least. You’re too young to take care of a dog now.”

She hadn’t said anything to that. There was no point arguing with Daddy. But that night, she’d started to imagine Kid. That was almost a year ago now.

He was a German Shepherd dog. He was big, strong and he had deep, soft brown eyes. He followed her everywhere, and went everywhere she went. He protected her.

She would often think about him during the day. In swimming lessons, he would be standing at the age of the pool, waiting to jump in if she sank. (But she never sank.) During her lessons, he would be sitting at her desk, looking at her lovingly as she learned. Somehow it helped her to concentrate.

Even when she slept, he would be lying by her bed, in the dark, so she could hear his breathing…

She pretended she could hear him breathing. Sometimes she caught herself imagining she could really hear him breathing. Then she felt very guilty and remembered Miss Perfect. She listened more carefully and she felt relieved-- it was actually her own breathing.

Kid was her protector. He made her brave.

Once, at a birthday party-- sometimes Daddy let her go to birthday parties, but not very often-- two girls had started to pick on her. The grown-ups were in the kitchen and the kids were all in the large garden, playing. These two girls-- Mandy and Ciara-- had been playing with her in the corner of the garden, a little bit away from the slides and the swings. They’d been really nice until Mandy had said:

“I know about your mommy.”

Jessica had stared at her. “What about my mommy?”

Mandy, who had been so friendly just a moment before, gave her a nasty smile and said: “She was crazy.”

Ciara was also smiling--- a horrible smile. But she said: “Don’t tell her, Mandy. She’s just going to go crying to her Daddy and get us in trouble.”

“No, I won’t”, said Jessica, defiant.

“Bet you will”, said Mandy.

“Who said my Mommy was crazy?”, asked Jessica.

The two girls just stared at her in silence, smiling; then Mandy started to flap her arms in the air, roll her eyes, and groan loudly. Ciara began to laugh. Hot tears came into Jessica’s eyes.

And at that that moment, Jessica had imagined she could hear Kid growl, right beside her. It was a deep, slow, scary growl. 

Ciara and Mandy suddenly looked terrified, and hurried away from her. They didn’t speak to her for the rest of the party. They hadn’t really spoken to her since.

This is what had happened, Jessica had decided. It only took her a few seconds, standing in the garden, to realize what had happened. She had imagined Kid growing. Kid’s imaginary growling had made her brave, and Ciara and Mandy saw the look on her face. It had frightened them so much they’d run away. That was what had happened.

Sometimes she felt guilty when she thought about Kid, and about keeping him a secret from her father. But wasn’t her father always saying that imagination was good, but fantasy was bad? Kid was just imaginary, so he was good. There was no need to tell Daddy. It didn’t matter.

Now and again she would think about her Mommy, lying in bed, in the dark. She would find herself wishing Mommy was in Heaven, and then she would feel guilty about that, since Daddy had told her there was no Heaven.

Sometimes, lying in the dark, thinking about Daddy saying those words-- “There is no Heaven”-- she imagined she could hear Kid growl, lying beside her bed. Then she would remember she had the best Daddy in the entire world, and before long all she would hear, once again, was the sound of breathing.

* * * * * * * 

Jessica never argued with Daddy. There was no point.

Well, almost never.

Sometimes, when she wanted something so badly, she would argue with Daddy, even though her heart was hammering. In those moments, she would imagine Kid standing beside her, feeling his warm body breathing against her side.

One day in early June, Jessica asked Daddy if she could go to see Sparkle Sisters, a new movie that had just come out. Her friends Linda and Gemma were going to see it, and had invited her to come with them. Gemma’s elder sister was coming with them. They were so excited, they made Jessica excited, too.

She lay awake for a long time that night, gathering the courage to ask Daddy in the morning. He might say yes. He was going to say yes.

“He’s going to say yes, Kid”, she told her imaginary dog. “I know he’s going to say yes.”

He said no.

“But why?”, she asked, sobbing. Daddy was finishing his second cup of coffee, after breakfast. When he finished his second cup of coffee, that was when he went upstairs to work. He didn’t come down again until lunch-time. Sometimes not even then.

“Because it’s rubbish, Jessica!”, he said. “We do go to the cinema. We go to see good movies.”

“How do you know it’s rubbish?”, she asked. She was terrified he was going to walk out of the kitchen and upstairs. It was all over if that happened, she knew.

“Because I’ve heard about these Sparkle Sisters”, he said. “Do you know what it is? It’s just advertising for stupid dolls that are probably made in China by children your own age, in sweatshops. You won’t like it. It’s moronic.”

Jessica’s whole body was heaving with sobs now. For once, Daddy didn’t come to comfort her. He looked like he was in a hurry. He looked disappointed, even angry, like she’d let him down.

“Do you know why you want to go?”, he said, pushing his mug away and standing up from the table. “Because your friends want to go. It’s called peer pressure, Jessica. And I will never, ever let you give in to peer pressure.”

He turned and walked out of the kitchen, and soon she heard his footsteps going up the stairs.

The kitchen swam before her eyes, which were flooded with tears. They stung. She pressed her fists against them, and leaning her head forward, crying as she hadn’t cried in a long time. All she could think of was Linda and Gemma going to see Sparkle Sisters without her, and talking about it afterwards. She would never get to see it in the cinema, even if she lived to be a hundred. It felt like the worst thing that had ever happened in the entire world.

At that moment, she felt something wet and hot against the side of her hand.

She looked up.

Kid was standing there. Just as he had always imagined him. Staring at her with his big, brown, loyal, loving eyes.

“Kid”, she whispered, reaching out. She reached out, and stroked his face. “It’s really you. It’s really you.”

Suddenly, she felt more joy than she had ever felt in her life-- so much joy, it seemed like the entire world floating.

Kid licked her hand again. She sat there, staring into his brown eyes, smiling. “I knew you were real all along”, she said. “I knew.”

Then she heard her father’s voice from upstairs. He was on the phone, his voice raised. “Don’t give me that garbage, Clive. It’s garbage. It’s all lies--”

Suddenly, hearing her father’s voice, guilt hit Jessica like an electric shock. She wasn’t pretending now. She really thought Kid was real. It was fantasy. It was like Miss Perfect, or Mommy in Heaven. It was the worst thing in the entire world, worse than wetting yourself…

Suddenly, Kid growled.

She looked into his eyes. The loyal, kind, gentle eyes had gone. Now he was looking at her with a dangerous, scary look.

“Kid, no”, she said. “I didn’t mean to-- I didn’t mean to--”

The dog lunged towards her, and pain exploded through her mind as she felt his fangs sink deep into her neck. She could feel the hot blood trickling down her chest, and she fell over. Everything was going dark and spinning and confused.

I’m sorry, Daddy, she thought.

She heard the door open, and she heard her father shout his name. But then he was screaming, too, and Kid’s growls and barks seemed to be all around her.

Her father screamed and screamed, and then he stopped screaming. She heard him fall. She heard Kid’s growls move further and further away, out of the kitchen, through the hall..

She lay there, all in darkness and pain and guilt, listening to the sound of her own breathing, as she hacked and gasped and choked.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Smoking Hot Babe for Christmas, Again

Well, it's time for another of my little blog traditions, posting "The Burning Babe" by Robert Southwell, the Elizabethan Jesuit and martyr. 


I've loved this poem for many, many years. What I appreciate most in poetry is depth and power combined with polish and elegance. This poem, I feel, achieves that combination masterfully.

Prolonged metaphors (or conceits) are usually tiresome and laborious, but here the conceit seems natural, lively and in no way incongruous. I love fire imagery in poetry (the Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon is one of my favourite poems), and it works especially well in this seasonal poem. I'm not sure whether the "cosy" aesthetic of Christmas was established in Southwell's time, but in our time, the poem is a pleasant departure from this. (Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas cosiness as much as anybody, and probably more than most. But surely the meaning of Christmas, or of any season that touches upon sacred mysteries, cannot be confined to one aesthetic, and can even be stifled by the monopoly of one aesthetic.)

As I've said in previous years, I think the sixth line ("as though his floods...") is very clumsy. In days before the cult of the author had become exaggerated beyond all measure, anthologists had no hesitation in "improving" the works of authors, even revered and deceased authors. I feel sorely tempted to hack at that awful sixth line. But I'll forebear.

The second last line contains a deft piece of stuffing-- Christmas stuffing, I suppose. "With this he vanished from sight and swiftly sunk away". Were they two separate actions? Surely the one is the same as the other. But the ear is not offended, and so the mind is happy.

The line "so will I melt into a bath to bathe them in my blood" is very satisfying to me. The sudden change from fire imagery to blood imagery is startling, and yet similarly dramatic, even lurid. This is a very elemental poem.

For the last two years or so, as I've mentioned before, I've been memorizing lots of poetry. I have about ninety poems memorized now. "The Burning Babe" was a fairly early addition to that list, so I've been reciting it mentally for a long time now. (I don't remember poems I've put to memory unless I regularly "refresh" them.) Reciting a poem over and over is a real "stress test" of its power as a poem, and this one stands up admirably.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, 
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near, 
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, 
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, 
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, 
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good, 
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A Response to my Article "In Defence of Conservatism".

A little while ago, I had an article in defence of conservatism (from its critics on the right, rather than the left) published in the Burkean-- a conservative journal published by Trinity College students.

It prompted this article in response from a Donnacadh O'Neill, which makes some fair points, though I still disagree.

As someone who relishes the exchange (and even the clash) of ideas, I was very pleased that someone took the trouble to reply to one of my articles.

Miscellaneous Musings

My blog has been so neglected recently, I decided I should write a kind of "catch-up" blog post.

Life has been very different recently. I've moved house and I've been living in Ballsbridge (closer to my work) for the last few months. This is the longest time I've spent living outside Ballymun, other than short spells in lodgings and rented rooms (when I was half-living in Ballymun, anyway, coming home regularly). Ballsbridge is in Dublin 4 (as is University College Dublin), a postcode that has long been shorthand for the liberal intelligentsia in Ireland. (It also houses RTE, the state broadcaster, which is not noted for its love of the Catholic Church or any kind of conservatism.)

The apartment is in an apartment complex, with a lobby and two outer doors. This pleases me vastly, as I enjoy the feeling of living in community. I like hearing voices and footsteps outside my front door. It's cosy. I can see the sea from my window, and I can hear trains passing by all day, and much of the night. Traffic, too-- I'm right beside a main road. Some people might enjoy the constant rumbling of cars and trucks, but I do. I find it soothing and reassuring. I grew up in a noisy house and noise doesn't bother me. Its absence sometimes does.

The apartment is tiny, but that doesn't bother me, either. All I really need is somewhere to sit and somewhere to sleep.

I can also walk to work. This is a big difference after twenty years of taking two buses into work. A new bus route, the 155, came into operation in the last few years, and went straight from Ballymun to UCD. But sometimes I would miss it and still find myself taking the two buses.

I like the idea of a "home town" and growing up in Ballymun was certainly memorable. Everybody knew Ballymun and its grey towers and flat complexes, offset by green fields, were instantly recognisable on television-- or even from the air. It also had a reputation as a "tough" area, though it certainly didn't make me streetwise. (Maybe it did a little. My wife, who grew up on a farm, often comments on my "antennae" for people and situations to be avoided, when we're out and about.)

I want to be sentimental about Ballymun, but I haven't been so far. I guess nostalgia takes a while to kick in. Besides, nostalgia for Ballymun (and it is more widespread than you might think) is generally directed to the "old Ballymun", before the towers and blocks of flats came down, and Ballymun came to look like every other suburb. In fact, there is a Facebook group called Tribute to the Old Ballymun which has new posts every day.

As for myself, I find myself suffering more and more from "cultural guilt" right now. I recently read a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and I was greatly struck by the fact that a survivor of the gulags looked upon Western pop culture with almost as much horror as he looked upon communism. It's humiliating, really-- the untold hours (years?) that we've all spent watching rubbishy television shows, listening to rubbishy music, and watching rubbishy movies.

I could have been reading all that time. I could have been improving my mind, my grasp of my cultural heritage-- both Irish and human. I could have been writing. Yes, I did a fair amount of writing and reading and drawing and painting in my childhood. But it seems a drop in the ocean compared to all the mindless pap I sat through on television.

I'm even coming to regret my twenties spent in the cinema, although my feelings here are more mixed. The ritual of cinema-going certainly seems more worthy than the casual, half-aware, passive consumption of most pop culture. But I could have been reading all that time.

I guess, at forty-three, I realize I don't have all the time in the world anymore. I've probably lived more years than I have left to live. Granted I was unlikely to be doing much serious reading for my first decade, what have I covered in the subsequent three?

Whenever I do my stint of shelving in the library (a task I hugely enjoy), horizon after horizon of terra incognita looms into view. I accept now that I'm never going to read Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, or the Icelandic sagas. Well, probably not.

My ignorance of the Bible irks me especially. Even when I was an agnostic, I aspired to a knowledge of the Bible, purely on the grounds of its literary and cultural importance. After more than a decade as a believing Catholic, I feel I've hardly made any inroads.

Then there is poetry.

Then there is the Irish language.

Then there is Church history.

As well as this, I am embarking on a project that I don't want to say anything about (out of a superstitious fear of jinxing myself), but that will require an awful lot of research.

So I feel the weight of my ignorance pushing down on me.

But also, I feel a sense of excitement about life, the world, and the drama of being alive. The clash of ideas, and of ideals, is intensely exciting. It surrounds us every moment, even when we are sitting alone in a chair, reading a book. We get to play a part on that battlefield, in our brief moment walking the earth. In what direction can we swing our swords to best effect? That is the question that preoccupies me more and more. Especially as I strive to live up to the example of my father, whose sword never slept in his hand.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

My Latest Article in The Burkean, and in Ireland's Own

My latest article for The Burkean is a defence of conservatism against its critics on the right. The comments on the article, and on social media, were mostly in disagreement.

I'm somewhat disquieted by the radicalization of many on the right, especially among young "red-pilled" right-wingers. Some of this is trolling, but I don't think it all is. As with all online discourse, it's hard to tell whether it's simply a vocal minority, or whether it represents a wider shift of opinion.

I also have (to my great pleasure) an article in the Christmas edition of Ireland's Own, on the ghost stories of the English author M.R. James. Montagu Rhodes James (1862-1936) was an English academic who wrote ghost stories as a kind of sideline to his scholarly work. They were originally told in his college rooms at Christmas-time, and they have traditionally been broadcast on BBC TV and radio during the Christmas season.

I have many happy memories of reading the Ireland's Own Christmas edition, down the years, so I'm proud to have a part in it this year.