Friday, 3 August 2018

Zara's Emporium of Wonder

The kitchen door flew open and the handle slammed into the wall, denting the plaster.

"Benny McAlister! How many times have I told you not to slam that door?" she shouted, an accusation that halted the excited ten-year-old in his tracks. He'd made her heart jump and that added considerably to her ire. His manic grin melted ever so slowly, like an ice-cream-cone in the summer heat. He looked like a scolded puppy, how could she stay mad at him? In a much kinder tone she asked, "What is all the rush about?"

Kids are like Geiger counters for adult emotions, he knew he was out of trouble. His smile got hoisted back to full mast as he rushed forward waving a colorful flyer. "It's the circus, Mom! The circus is coming! THE CIRCUS!" he cried spinning in a circle. She thought her son was half human and half springier spaniel.

"I love a good circus," she said taking the flyer from his little fingers. The circular depicted a big top with a golden-caped woman standing in the ring masters position, her hands were raised and beaming smile crowned her magnificently. Around her, trapeze artists tumbled, jugglers juggled, clowns threw buckets of confetti and beautiful ladies balanced on the backs of snow-white horses. At the bottom of the page an adoring sea of faces looked on in amazement. The masthead declared, in big bold letters, For one day only, this Friday! Zara's Emporium of Wonder! 

"I don't know, you might be a bit old for this?" she teased.

"Moooooooom," he wailed, turning his face into a crumpled mask of disapprovement but she knew him too well, he was only playing along with her joke.

"Well...if you're sure," she said and let the half statement, half question, hang in the air.

"Mom!" Benny said stamping his foot.

She broke into a grin; she couldn't help herself. He was such a little man. "Alright, we'll go," she said and it was like striking a match to a fire cracker. Benny danced around the kitchen chanting "Yes, yes, yes,"and pumping his little fists in the air.


Benny spent the rest of the week counting down the minutes to the arrival of the circus. On Thursday he rushed in from school to say the big top had gone up.

"You should see it, Mom. Its HUGE!" he said with his eyes bulging and his arms spread as wide as they would go. Its red, yellow, green, blue, orange...its like a rainbow but one you can touch," he said excitedly.

"Did you see any elephants?"

"No, no elephants."

"What about lions or tigers?"

"Nope," he said a little disappointed.

"Well perhaps its not that kind of a circus, it might be a people circus. Did you see any circus folk?"

"None of those either," he said sadly, all the fun was gone out of his big news.

"I bet they were all inside putting out the seats for the show," she said. 

"Yeaaaa! Betcha that's it," he said, joy radiating from his face once more. He bounded away toward his bedroom and she called after him. 

"Don't forget your homework or there'll be no circus at all."

"No Mom!" came the cheery reply from the hallway.

Friday night took forever to get here, according to Benny at least. Trying to get him into his good clothes and his hair brushed was a nightmare, he wouldn't standstill for a second. By the time they got out the door it was dusk. They walked hand in hand toward the town green. Before long they could hear the music being piped through the Tannoy system, a music teacher once told her it was called Entry of the Gladiators, but to her it would always be the sound of the circus. On the evening breeze she could smell sweet buttered popcorn and candyfloss. Around them children ran past dragging adults toward the source of all the excitement. Benny was soon pulling on her arm, eager to join the fun.

When the big top came into view it was just as Benny described, only better, because it now twinkled under a constellation of electric light bulbs. She bought a stick of candyfloss for Benny and a tub of popcorn for herself before lining up to purchase tickets.

Klunck! Klunck! went the brass plate beneath the ticket vendors window and two pink tickets shot out. It looked like the booth was sticking its tongue out at them. She felt Benny squeeze her hand as she ripped away the stubs. He was on tender hooks and she even felt a few butterflies herself. Perhaps the magic of the circus never leaves you. They crossed the threshold and it was like stepping into a different universe. Beside her Benny said, "Whoha." It was dark, but not gloomy. Strings of bulbs hung from the roof of the big top and it looked like someone captured the night sky and moved it inside. Benny ushered her toward the front row and picked seats for them ringside. A circus has its own smell and this one was no different. She inhaled a lungful of earthy air overlayed with warm tarpaulin and a hint of sawdust. Under all that lingered the musky smell of animal. Perhaps Benny would get to see some tigers after all.

Soon the lights dimmed and two follow-spots sprang to life, dancing over the excited crowd before settling on a red velvet curtain across the performance area. A splendidly attired ring master appeared and strode purposefully to the arena. His voice boomed over the crowd without need of amplification. His curling mustache danced as he spoke. The first act to perform was a troupe on the trapeze. Benny was mesmerised. His little body swayed over and back in time with the swinging gymnasts and when they let go...he held his breath, tensing every muscle in his tiny body, until the catch was made. When the act was over he jumped to his feet and clapped like his life depended on it.

The next act was a sword swallower, followed by a fire breather, then came the jugglers and a contortionist. Not a sign of an animal but if anything the smell of beast was getting stronger.

A huge boom rang out and Benny nearly jumped out of his skin. The velvet curtains flew apart and a gang of clowns ran into the ring chasing a tiny police car. Round and round they went, crashing into each other, slipping, tripping, falling and tumbling until the whole crowd was cheering, well everyone except Benny who was hugging her arm and trying to hide his face behind it.

"Whats wrong?" she asked having to raise her voice to be heard over the laughter.

"They're not nice, I don't like them," he said and she knew by his voice he was terrified.

"Oh honey they're only men in funny clothes and makeup. They are just trying to make people laugh."

"They're monsters," he said and hid behind her completely.

"No they're not," she said. She never thought her adventure loving little man would be afraid of clowns.

She thought she heard him say, "They have teeth," but she couldn't be sure. He refused to come out from behind her shoulder until the clowns had finished their routine and departed the ring. Benny was still shivering when the ring master came back and braced himself for his next announcement.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Prepare to be amazed! I present to you...Lady Zara!" Drums rolled and the lights went out completely. When the drums reached their crescendo the spotlights came back on and a very tall woman, dressed from head-to-toe in glittering gold, had appeared in the middle of the ring. The crowd drew in a collective breath and went, "Wooo!" Without a word Lady Zara began her act. The ring master was right, she did amaze.

She made a box levitate into the air and then passed a hoop around it to prove there were no wires. With a flick of her hand the box shot into the air, where it opened by itself, and rained down confetti on the crowd. She put the ring master into a large box and then cut him in half before putting him back together. She made a pair of doves appear and when she let them go they flew up and vanished in a ball of flame.

For her final trick some helpers rolled a tall black box with a curtain hung across the front of it into the ring. Lady Zara walked toward the crowd and looked directly at Benny. With a long finger, Lady Zara beckoned him to join her. Benny didn't move straight away instead he looked up at her for approval. She worried he was still shaken after the clowns but this was a once in a lifetime chance, the chance to see magic up close and personal. She nodded her approval and Benny sprang forward, eager for this new adventure to begin. He clambered over the edge of the ring and joined the tall woman who was hold out her delicate hand toward him. The audience applauded as Lady Zara led Benny to the box and pulled the curtain open. There was nothing inside. The magician rapped on each side to let the crowd would know the box was solid before placing Benny inside. The crowd grew quite and held their breath. Lady Zara pulled the curtain across with a snap of her wrist and the drums rang out three times. The sorceress threw the curtain back and Benny was gone.

All around people clapped and cheered but she couldn't join in, she was frozen to her seat with terror. Inside her chest her heart was thundering, her boy was gone. Yes, she had expected the illusion but there was something unnatural, something wrong about the whole thing. She was about to rush forward when the gold clad woman flipped the curtain closed and open again. It happened so quick the result could only be described as magic. Benny was once again standing there, gazing out of the box with his mouth hanging open ever so slightly. The sound of clapping grew louder and the crowd climbed to their feet in appreciation. The tall woman took Benny's hand and escorted him back to the edge of the ring. He was not smiling, he was not crying, he was...well...nothing. He looked dazed.

When Benny reached her she hugged him and said,"You're the star of the show, honey!" Her heart was still aflutter but she expected Benny to be uncontrollably giddy. Instead, he stood unmoving in her embrace and she thought she felt him tremble. She pulled back and looked at him. His eyes were far away.

"Are you ok?" she asked seriously and starting to get worried. He didn't respond so she gave his shoulder a little squeeze and that seemed to do the trick.

"It was dark and filled with voices," he said cryptically. She started to understand. Benny must have gotten a fright when the curtain closed. The sound of the crowd in the dark must have terrified him. She just held him close in a tight embrace to let him know he was safe now and as she did the lights in the tent came back up to full power. The show was over and it was time to go home. She stood and handed Benny the popcorn left in the bottom of her tub but he didn't want it. He took her hand as they prepared to move and his skin was shockingly cold on hers.

All the way home she asked Benny questions about being the star of the show but he refused to answer, he just walked along limply at her side. When they got home she tried to get him to eat but he refused, he even refused hot chocolate and marshmallows. She got him dressed for bed and thought he might be coming down with something. She put her hand on his forehead, expecting it to be warm, but it was like touching stone. Benny was freezing.

"Are you feeling bad, baby?" she asked but he shook his head and said.

"Feeling funny, tingly."

Tingly? That couldn't be good. She was going to get Doc Foster to come straight over. What ever was going on was not right at all. She tucked the duvet in all around Benny and he didn't stir a muscle. Only his head poked out the top. "I'll be back in a minute, if you need anything give a call," she said and planted a kiss on his cheek.


"Yes Benny?"

"They were all calling my name."

"Who honey?" she asked rubbing his hair.

"The voices in the dark."

"Oh, baby, it was only a trick. It wasn't real," she said seeing a tear gathering at the corner of his eye.

Benny sniffled once and gave a little nod before saying, "ok."

"I'll be back in a jiffy. Are you sure you wont have a hot chocolate?" he just shook his head sadly.

She left the door ajar as she made a five minute call. Once that was done she went straight back to tell Benny that Doc Foster was on his way over but the room was empty. The duvet still was formed to his shape and it looked like he had evaporated.

"Benny," she called and went to check the bathroom but that was empty too. She ran back to the bedroom with dread in her heart. She checked the window but it was locked, as were all the other windows and doors. She called his name over and over again as she checked every room twice before rushing out of the house, calling his name, no screaming his name. A light sprang to life on her neighbours porch and Dale appeared in his PJ's.

"Whats going on?" he asked, worried. All she could say was Benny's gone, as she dashed into the street continuing to call for him at the top of her lungs. All along the road lights began appearing. When Doc Foster arrived there were already two sheriffs cars in the driveway with their bubblegum bars flashing. He had wanted to give her something to calm her down but she refused. She needed her wits about her or what was left of them. She tried to make the police understand the Benny had not gone out, he had vanished, but they didn't get what she was saying.

They started checking all the houses around the area and asked her to call his friends to see if he had turned up over there. No matter how many times she said, "One minute he was there... then he was gone," they just didn't get it. In the end she just went along with what they asked, they were the professionals after all.  

It was the small hours of the morning when they took her to the station, to take her statement. She was loaded into the back of a cruiser and driven into town. At the passed the green she was shocked to see the big top was already gone. That was when she realised she had not told the cops about the trip to the circus. It had to be them, the carny folk, they took her boy!

It took a long time for the officers to understand her frantic pleas but eventually they got it and one got on the radio.

"Dispatch, Missing ten-year-old, Benny McAlister attended the circus tonight and his mother believes someone from the circus may have snatched him. APB on all circus vehicles leaving the area, stop and search." In her heart a tiny sliver of hope shone in what was otherwise a black place. They'll find the circus, she thought, they had to.

Over the next hour or so she recounted her story again and again, answered the same questions asked a thousand different ways and none of it got them any closer to finding Benny.  It was morning whey they dropped her home. She asked the officer if they had found the circus. The guy turned his head around to give her the benefit of one eye.

"No Ma'am. Not as much as a piece of sawdust. Its like they were never here, but they were, my young'uns went to it. It sure is a mystery."

She dragged herself inside and collapsed at the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably for what seemed like ages. When she eventually did raise her head the first thing she saw was the gayly coloured flyer Benny had brought home at the start of the week.

For one day only!  Oh God, why did you have to come, she thought and something about the flyer made her look a little closer. Lady Zara was just as she remembered her, shimmering and magnificent. It was the clowns that caught her attention. Yes their makeup was smiling but it their real mouths were turned down in a growl, and one, one seemed to have fangs. She wiped the tears from her eyes and gripped the flyer in both hands, drawing it closer so she could inspect it minutely.

Now that she was looking closely, none of the other performers were smiling, only Lady Zara and that was when she began inspecting the tiny faces in the crowd. What she had taken for open mouthed wonder before seemed more like crying out. All those faces, terrified faces, and right in the middle, one she'd known all his life. Benny, his eyes raised to hers, his arms outstretched, and his mouth open wide as he cried out...pleaded, for her to save him.

She started screaming again but this time she knew she'd never stop.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018


Her eyes fluttered reluctantly as sunlight warmed her face. Was it morning already? She stretched and heard the whisper of crisp linen as the sheets pulled away from her body. One by one she let her legs drop over the edge of the bed. The room was blindingly bright and made her squint.

She padded out of the bedroom on autopilot, her brain still foggy from sleep and turned toward the half open nursery door. She pushed it and tiptoed across to the crib.

A tiny lump lay peacefully under the snow-white comforter. She smiled proudly down on her little man but didn't try to wake him. As the seconds ticked by she realised how quiet the room was. No creaks of timber expanding in the warmth of a new day, no leaves rustling on the tree outside, no cars passing, no voices on the street - no anything. Most importantly, no baby snores coming from under the blanket.

"Billy?" she said gently and laid her hand on the swaddled bundle. Not a stir. "Billy?" she said again, her fingers drew back the cover. She could only see his face in profile and Billy's lips were half open, her eyes registered the blue tinge to his skin and the utter stillness of his chest. It was a vision so horrible it splintered her mind into a thousand pieces.


BILLY! she screamed and shot bolt upright in the bed. Her arms were stretched out as she instinctively reached for her child. Tom bounced out of the bed, disorientated and frightened. From the nursery, an urgent shriek joined her cry. April sprang from the bed, her skin drenched in sweat, her heart racing a mile a minute as she ran toward the baby's room. She snatched Billy from the cot, inspecting his screaming pink face but her mind was having difficulty piecing things together.

"You're ok! You're ok!" she said as she rocked him. The vision of Billy- blue and unmoving was still too real, too vivid to be dismissed. She kept looking at him, kept checking him, even though he was making enough noise to wake the dead.

"Jesus Christ! What was all that about?" demanded Tom from the door. April could only cradle her boy as her brain tried to recover from the shock. Tom's fear turned to anger as he threw his hands in the air and stormed from the room.

"You're ok," April told Billy, over and over again, until she finally started to believe it herself.


When Billy's cries dwindled to whimpers, she picked his blanket from the crib and wrapped him in it. There was no way she could make herself leave him down so she took him with her to the kitchen. Tom was standing over the sink with a glass of water shaking slightly in his hand.

"You scared the life out of me," he said, no longer mad.

"It was horrible," she said holding the back of Billy's head as she bounced him gently in her arms. 

"What was?"

"I saw him dead in his cot, he was blue!"

"It was only a dream."

"No, I know a dream when I have one. This was something else, it was too real. I could see everything, feel everything. It was real."

He put the glass down and came toward her, taking them both in his arms and hugged them to his chest. "You're exhausted, we both are. Look at him - he's fine." She did look down and Tom was right, Billy was even starting to close his eyes for another sleep. She was too tired to argue, to tired to explain, so she let her own eyes close to enjoy the warmth of Tom's love. She couldn't explain it but she knew - knew- that this was more than a dream. 


Two nights later the dream came again and this time it was worse. This time she knew what was coming even as she went through the motions. When she drew back the cover she knew what she would see but if anything the vision of Billy was even more horrible, more realistic. Again she woke the house with her scream and it took her even longer to get a grip on things. This time Tom, was not angry, he was something more worrying. He was frightened, frightened for her. He tried to reassure her, tried to reason with her but she just pushed him away. He didn't believe, he couldn't believe, because he had never seen. April was no fool and she knew there was more to this than a stupid night terror. 

The next morning, after Tom had gone to work, she began researching dreams on the internet. It was mostly rubbish about unresolved childhood issues or daily conflict being lived out in dreams but then she found something called Psychic Premonitions. Dreams of the future or possible future. It made terrifying reading. Story after story of people dreaming their own deaths only to swerve it in real life at the final moment.

She thought about her own dream and her fear grew deeper. Was her premonition unavoidable? She thought about showing Tom the articles when he came home but instead she wiped the history on the computer. He just wouldn't understand.

That night the vision didn't come but she hardly slept with worrying. Tom tried to sooth her off to sleep but it was pointless. If she was honest with herself, she didn't want to sleep, she was afraid of dreaming.

She started the next day groggy and cranky. Breakfast was a sullen affair and Tom had barely said "Good bye," before she had the laptop open, scowering the internet for advice. Eventually she found a chatroom dedicated to psychic phenomenon and decided to log in. She posted a question about premonition dreams and was bombarded by interest. They all agreed on one thing, psychic dreams were real and they were a signposts for the future.

Spiritguide443 gave the most useful advice, she said that you had to figure out what you did in the dream that made the terrible thing happen, then change that in real life.

It made sense to April and all night she tried to figure out what it was in her dream that caused Billy to die. She could only think of one thing. Billy stopped breathing for some reason, she would have known - if she hadn't been asleep. That was it!

That night over dinner she explained her theory to Tom, leaving out the bit about Spiritguide443 and the internet. Tom said it could do no harm to get Billy checked out by their doctor and suggested she get a check up herself.

"There's nothing wrong with me," she snapped.

"Jeez, I'm not saying there is. It's just...well...the dreams and...everything." Each of his words were hand grenades going off in his face, but he failed to see the danger of his actions. The rest of the night passes in sulky silence but eventually she relented and an appointment was made with the doctors office for the morning.

They were sliding into bed, April turned to Tom and asked, "Will you stay up for a bit and watch him while I sleep?"

"April," he said, the sigh in his voice said everything. It said he thought she was being silly, overreacting, irritational.

"Please," she said softly and gave him her biggest doe-eyes.

"Alright, if it will make you feel better," he said sitting up and taking his book from the bedside table. April rolled over and for the first time in days felt secure enough to close her eyes.

It might have been minutes or hours before she woke, thankfully a waking that wasn't accompanied by manic screaming. She rolled over and saw Tom snoring! She sprang from the bed and raced into the nursery waking Tom in the process. She didn't even have to go inside the door to hear Billy breathing and as if knowing she was there, he farted. Little rascal. She went back in to their bedroom leaving both doors wide open. Tom was rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"You promised," she said glaring at him.

"I must have nodded off, what's the big deal. I would have heard him if he cried," said Tom fluffing his pillow. April got back into bed but sat rigidly against the headboard with her arms crossed.

"Come on, get some sleep," he said trying to draw her lower in the bed. She shrugged off his hand and huffed. "Suit yourself," he said and turned away from her. She sat there in the dark, furious with Tom, listening to Billy breath. Slowly the hours passed and the sky outside the window began to lighten. Her eyes closed a few times but before sleep took her properly she jerked awake.

The next morning she drove to the doctor's office like a woman on drugs. After a fidgetfilled hour in the waiting room they were called into the doctor's office. He gave Billy a good going over but declared him as healthy as a horse.

"You on the other hand look like you would benefit from a few days holiday," the doctor said seriously.

"I've not been sleeping so well," she said and decided to bite the bullet and tell him about the dreams. To his credit he didn't ridicule her, but he was far from reassuring.

"Vivid dreams and anxiety are not uncommon in your circumstances but the worst thing you can do is to bottle this up. You need to talk with someone who can help you." He was making it sound like she was loosing her mind, and she was starting to feel that way. He questioned her further and each probe made it sound like she was depressed or not coping. She just kept nodding and agreeing until she could get the hell out of his office.

That night Tom asked about the doctor. She lied and said the doctor thought it was a good idea to keep an extra vigilant eye on Billy as sudden infant death was not as uncommon as people made out. Tom looked shocked and asked, "Really?" She knew the look in his eye, he was working at the idea because it wasn't sitting right with him but was concerned enough to follow her lead. That night she pretended to sleep until she knew Tom had nodded of, then she slipped out of the bed and spent the night on the floor beside Billy's cot.

Tom found her in the morning and went mad. Before she could stop him he was on to the doctor demanding to know what was wrong with Billy. He listened in silence, his ears glowing red and when he hung up the phone he turned and this time it was he that glared.

"The doctor said Billy is fine! Why did you lie to me?" She started to cry and tried to explain herself but it all sounded so mad when she said it out loud. Tom said she was round-the-bend, and he was going to make sure she saw someone about it before things went too far. She begged but Tom was not for changing his mind. Tom stormed out of the house, slamming the door which startled Billy into crying. April knew she had to do something, she need help but not the type Tom intended.

That night she again pretend to sleep and had to fight her mind to stop it shutting-down for real. She was so tired she was having difficulty concentrating and remembering things. Tom had let her down, he had abandoned her when she needed him most. Now there was only one person she could turn to, her mother.

When she felt Tom's weight settle fully in the bed, she slipped out and stuffed a bag with essentials before going to Billy. She picked him up, being careful not to wake him, then slipped out of the house. She strapped Billy into his baby-seat and sat it beside her on the passenger seat. She had to steady herself as a wave of dizziness washed over her. It was only twenty minutes to her mothers and she would believe her and help protect Billy. Twenty minutes and she would be safe.

She scraped against a garbage can as she backed out and knocked it over. She knew Tom would have woken and she knew he would try and maker her stay. She put her foot on the gas and peeled away from her own home. How had it all come to this?

She managed four turns before headlights appeared in her rear-view mirror and she knew in her gut it was Tom coming after her. She pressed harder on the accelerator and felt the car shimmy. Up ahead a bend loomed and her wheel pumped across the white line as she fought for control of the car. She was starting to see double as her mind struggled to stay alert. She wrenched the car back across the white line but it was all too much for her exhausted body. Her mind wobbled and her vision spun. She blinked her eyes closed and no matter how much she tried she could not open them again. Her world went black.

Her eyes fluttered reluctantly as sunlight warmed her face. Was it morning already? When had she fallen asleep? She stretched and heard the whisper of crisp linen as the sheets pulled away from her body. She moved her leg to let it drop over the edge of the bed but it collided with something solid.  The room was blindingly bright and made her squint. She looked around and recognized nothing, she wasn't at home, this wasn't her bedroom. She moved her hand to the side and felt the restraining bar and she heard the rhythmic beeping of some sort of machine. She looked to her left and saw Tom slumped in a chair, his hair a mess and a few days growth of beard on his chin. She tried to get up but she was so sore she winced. The sound woke Tom and he shot out of the chair and came to her side.

"Where am I?" she crooked.

"The hospital, you went off the road," he said taking her hand.

"Where's Billy?" she asked looking around the room. She saw something terrible in Tom's face, a pain so deep, so crushing, she knew the answer to her own question. As the first tears flowed over Tom's face she closed her eyes, searching for darkness and she hoped she would never come back from it. 

Friday, 29 June 2018

Magic in the Kerry Sky

Sometimes my breath is taken away by the majesty of nature, like this morning when the sky above seemed painted by the hand of a genius. 

I wanted to share some amazing photos I have managed to click on my phone over the months.

This mornings sky on my way to bed.

The Magic of Banna Beach

Lofty getting in the picture.

 Fire on the Mountain.

 A procession of fluff.

 Holly with a peak of the man above. 

Thursday, 21 June 2018


The door of the cafe squeaked as it opened and a wave of conversation washed over me. At once I felt at home. The air was filled with the smell of roasting coffee and chocolate. The room held every kind of person imaginable, all happily rubbing along together. There's nowhere in the world like a New York coffee shop...nowhere.

I spotted him straight away, Zak could always stand out in a crowd. He shone, it was his greatest gift and his ultimate failing. His hair swept back from his forehead in a jet-black wave. He was good looking in the way that middle aged men can be. He wore a tailored three-piece-suit, in tweed, and looked cool despite the springtime heat. As if sensing my presence he let the corner of his newspaper drop and glanced in my direction. To say we were friends would be stretching things a long way, past colleagues would be more accurate. I walked across and sat down as he put his newspaper away.

"Of all the coffee shops, in all the world, you had to walk into mine," he said with a smirk. The Bogart quote suited him, he had the same laid back swagger, the same level of disinterested elitism.

"Zak," I said in greeting and draped my jacket over the back of my chair. I should be suprised to see him, but I wasn't. He had a habit of popping into my life when the mood took him.

"Judy," he said and grinned. There was a smarmy tone in his voice because he knew he was pushing my buttons. My name is, Jude, not Judy. I knew if I snapped at him, or showed my annoyance, it would only make his day. I decided to play him at his own game and said nothing. I waited, and little by little the humor vanished from Zak's face. It was he that broke the silence.

"You're looking well," he said and smoothed an already razor sharp crease in his trousers.

"That's nice of you to say," I said and refrained from repaying the complement, another tiny victory. Instead I asked him, "What brings you to New York?"

"I had a bit of business to take care of, a few contract defaulters."

"And you came all the way here to do that yourself? I thought you'd have minions for that kind of thing."

"I shouldn't have to tell you what idleness makes. Anyway its good to step down on the shop floor from time to time. You can miss a lot of the subtleties when you rely on second hand information."

"I guess that depends on the quality of those you have reporting to you." I couldn't resist having a pop at him. He abandoned our organisation a long time ago and set himself up in opposition. Nobody could deny the level of success he enjoyed but he never managed to get the upper hand on my boss. To give Zak his due, he never stopped trying.

"That is a bit judgmental, don't you think? Aren't you the one who is always saying there is good in everyone."

"Some more than others. Look, Zak, you know I shouldn't be talking to you."

"But you are talking to me," he said with a wicked grin.

"It's a free country but..." Zak jumped on that like a dog pouncing on a dropped sausage.

"Free country? Ha! Freedom - the greatest lie of all."

"Are you going to start preaching? If you are I've better things to do," I said, not relishing one of the long winded rants he was famous for.

"Freedom is a myth used to control the masses so the powerful can get more powerful, so the rich can get richer."

"And you are complaining about that? I thought something like that would have been your idea, if it had an ounce of truth in it."

"That particular trick came from your camp. I thought you'd have known that," Zak said talking to me as if I was an idiot.

"You do come up with some rubbish," I said and sat back in my chair.

"It's not rubbish. Your boss is always harping on about how open his company is, how everyone is master of their own destiny and in the next breath he is listing all the stuff you can't do. He makes me look like an amateur when it comes to pulling the wool over peoples eyes."

A waitress appeared to take my order and as she left, her gaze lingered on my companioin and a flush coloured her cheeks. Zak noticed and gave her a smile.

"Still got an eye for the women I see," I said when she was out of earshot.

"And why wouldn't I?" he chorkled then sipped his espresso.

"In our of business, women are weaknesses."

"Hummh! Timber with no knots has no strength! Why don't you come hit the town with me, take home a blond at the end of the night, or two and ...."

"That will be the day! Why have you tracked me down... again," I asked starting to growing weary of him.

"What's wrong with catching up with old friends?"

"We were never friends," I said crossing my arms.

"At least we are old." he said and grinned.

"True," I said, I did have to give him that one. Then it struck me - the real reason Zak was here. "You're lonely, aren't you?"

"Don't be ridiculous," he said dismissively but he crossed his legs at the knee, a sure sign I'd hit a nerve.

"You are! You're lonely," I said and slapped my own knee while I let out a belly laugh. Zak tried to control his emotions but he was never any good at that. His skin flashed an alarming shade of red and something dangerous crossed behind his eyes.

"I've got the world at my fingertips!"

"A world of what? Drooling idiots? Self centered egotists? The dross of humanity?"

"At least I chose my own path. What about you? Incredible power at your disposal but power you can never use unless your handler bids it. A brain in your head that you can't exercise. A heart in your chest you're forbidden to follow."

Handler he'd said! He was trying to make me sound like a trained mutt, and it stung.

"Are you are trying to goad me into doing something stupid!"

"How is it stupid to follow your heart?"

"I already follow my heart! I also follow my head!"

"You do what your told!" he said, getting a little bit loud and attracting a few stares.

I sat back and took a breath before I answered him in more controlled tones. "We can't go around acting like toddlers, doing things just because we get the urge. We have responsibilities to uphold."

"Responsibilities my fucking ass."

"Very eloquent."

"You accuse me of acting like a toddler when the truth of the matter is you, and the rest of your kind want the general public to believe they are free while even you are shackled."

I waved Zak's accusation away. On the surface I refused to be drawn into his madness but deep down I felt a pinch of doubt. In my darkest hours I'd wondered such things myself. I knew the importance of what we did but I could see the double standard at work. I followed the company line because I believed it was for the good of all.

"You're blind, Jude. You're a prisoner of your own making."

"Just because I don't see the world the way you do does not make me blind."

"Have you tried to see things from my point of view?"

"You know I can't do that."

"See? A prisoner. "

"Ok, I don't want to see your point of view. How's that for using my free will."

"Ha! That's not free will, it's doing as your told."

"It's because I believe...this is a ridiculous conversation."

"Freedom of choice is ultimately good."

"Yes I agree but not freedom without control."

"Surely you can see that controlled freedom is no freedom at all."

"No I can't."

"All I'm saying is that freedom and truth are subjective. A man kills his neighbor for trying to steal his wife and it's murder. A country goes to war over land or some high moral code and it's justified. Because it's a whole country it becomes acceptable but the truth is, it's all murder. You dip your hand in a man's pocket and it's stealing, a country sticks it's hand in your pocket and it's tax. I can prove I'm right."

"Are you playing games again, Zak?"

"Not at all. What harm could a small experiment do?"

"When you're involved, lots."

Zak smiled. He liked his rebel persona. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and took out an expensive wallet. He selected a hundred dollar bill and let the note flutter to the ground behind his chair.

"You'll never change, still trying to hoodwink people," I said, draining my cup.

"Not at all. Its money I don't need and won't miss. There's no way I can prove it's even my note. No one can be sure where it came from. It's a windfall, a bit of luck."

The waitress who had served me walked behind Zak with a loaded tray. She spotted the note and stooped to pick it up while we continued talking. She paused for a second before continuing to her next order. Zak smiled in victory and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table.

"I don't know what you're smiling about," I said, "she just exercised her freedom which goes against all you were saying."

"Not really. She's proven that YOUR idea of freedom, YOUR idea of right and wrong is unnatural. It flies in the face of what people do when they have the opportunity and that is why YOU and that sanctamonous asshole you work for will never win."

Zak didn't see the waitress stop behind him and he jumped when she tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, I think this fell out of your pocket," she said. Zak looked at the money she was holding toward him, and although his lips were smiling, his eyes were furious.

"Thank you so much," he said, taking the note and placing it on her tray. "A tip," he said and the woman's jaw fell open.

"There is no need, its far..."

"I insist," said Zak and gave her a killer smile. The woman beamed and hurried away with her eyes glued to her huge gratuity.

"What was that you were saying?" I asked leaning back to bask in Zak's fury.

"She must have thought we saw her pick it up," he said like a sulking kid.

"Or she did the right thing because she's a good person and good people choose freely to respect the world they live in and the people they live in it with."

"If you're so sure of that, why don't we up the ante?"

"In what way?"

"The next person through that door," Zak said pointing at the entrance. "The very next person! I'm going to make their dreams come true. Everything they ever wanted will become possible, but only if they choose it."

"I don't see how that will prove you right or me wrong."

"Like all freedoms, there is a price. I'm betting when the offering is big enough, even the most righteous person will abandon all notion of society and gorge himself on pleasure."

"Only if they are already that way inclined," I parried.

"Then you pick the subject," he said, and I saw the trap. He wanted this experiment to be mine. I was no wet-behind-the-ears-beginner in this game.

"This is your game, Zak, nothing to do with me," I said, and saw the twinkle in his eye when he realised I was not falling for his lure. Whatever would happen was Zak's doing but I was still interested to see the turn of the card. As if on cue the door opened and a mailman walked in. He approached the counter and delivered some envelopes, exchanged a friendly word and then turned to leave. Zak stood and intercepted him. They both moved left in unison, then again to the right. The mailman smiled and said, "My first tango in ages." He stood still and allowed Zak to move around him.

"Mine too - Simon," said Zak, reading the man's name tag, "but hopefully not our last."

The mailman watched my colleague go to the cashier with a frown. It was certainly a strange comment for a complete stranger to make but unfortunately for Simon, Zak wasn't just any old stranger. I watched the man shrug to himself then leave the cafe. I knew from that moment on, nothing in the mailman's life would ever be the same again.

The End...or is it just the beginning. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018



Her name echoed through the house and she knew by her mothers tone, she was in trouble. She shuffled off the bed but decided to say nothing, if she was quiet enough, her Mom might give up calling her.

"Megan!" her Mother yelled again. Looked like that plan backfired.

"Coming," she called, opened the door and stepped out on the landing. She looked over the banister and saw her mother standing in the hall with her fists planted firmly on her hips.

"You brought more of those pests into the house, didn't you?" demanded her Mother which made Megan look down at her shoes. Now all the yelling made sense.

"They're not pests," she whispered into her chest.


"Nothing," she said sadly, twiddling her fingers in front of her dungarees.

"Get down here before I start squishing them!"

"Mom! You can't!" she said rushing down the stairs as quick as her eight-year-old legs would take her. Her Mom wasn't joking, she would squish them, she'd done it before. What Megan didn't understand was how her Mom had found them. She had been very careful to keep the box hidden when she came in from school. She didn't even take them out of her bag. By the time she got to the bottom step everything became clear. Her school bag had fallen from the hook on the wall, her math and English books were lying on the floor along side an empty box with it's lid half popped off. All over the floor were silver snail trails. It was no wonder her Mom was going crazy. Megan scooped up the box and started collecting the snails and popping them back in side.

"They're disgusting!" said her Mom poking one slow moving guy with her foot.

"They can't help the way they look," said Megan, stooping down to gently pick up the snail before her Mom did more than nudge the little guy. Megan didn't understand why people thought snails were icky, she thought they were great. In her opinion they were the best pets ever.

As she gathered the rest, her Mom noticed a particularly wide slime trail vanishing into one of her shoes lying on the floor. She bent down and picked up the bright red stiletto and peered inside.

"That't it!" yelled her Mother as she began whacking the shoe against the banister to dislodge the snail inside.

"Stop, Mom. You're frightening him."

"I'll do more than frighten him when I get him out. Those shoes cost me eighty euro and now they're covered in slime. Look, look! What's that stuff?" Inside the shoe the snail was blowing white foam everywhere, making an already bad situation worse.

"That's Ed Sheeran and he is doing that because you're trying to bash him," said Megan, holding out her hand to take the shoe. Slowly her Mom handed over the footwear, like the guys on TV do with a gun when a cop tells him to. Perhaps that was what she was - Megan, the snail squad. Now she had the shoe she was able to see the mess Ed had made but it was but noting a cloth and some washing up liquid wouldn't fix.

"Come on, Ed, she didn't mean it," said Megan gently picking her hard shelled friend out of the shoe. Ed made a little squeak which was why she'd called him Ed Sheeran. He was a great singer, for a snail that is.

Once she had all the snails gathered she put the lid back on the box and made sure it was secure. She had her foot on the first step of the stairs when her mom said. "And where do you think you're going, young lady?"

"Up stairs," she said, which was silly because anyone could see she was going up the stairs.

"Not with those you're not. They're going back in the garden where they belong. I am not having a repeat of the bat situation."

Oh! The bat situation - again. Grown-ups never let things go. Megan didn't understand what all the fuss was about. A while back, Dad left the attic ladder down and Megan went exploring. She had found the most gorgeous creature. It had dark fur, nearly black, and was about the size of her hamster. Best of all was he had wings! A hamster with wings! She called him, George. Gorgeous George, and she fell in love with him. He was really quiet and slept a lot but that was only to be expected because George was a bat. He only woke up at night when she was asleep. Megan thought George would be hungry when he woke up so she went to get him a snack. She got a block of cheese from the fridge and left it beside him. The next day she pulled a chair onto the landing and managed to get the attic hatch open with the stick Daddy used. The ladder came down and Megan was able to go check on her friend. She was very upset to see that George hadn't eaten any of the cheese, but he was still there, sleeping. This time she left George some ham.

Everyday she brought George something new but he didn't eat anything. One day she was trying him with some carrots when the lights came on and Megan turned to see her Mother's head poking up through the trap door. She got so mad, she said the place was full of rotting food and the rats would come. Megan told her the food was for George, the bat, not rats. When Mom saw George she said he was not sleeping at all. That night Megan cried so hard she thought her eyes would break. Bat situation or no bat situation, Megan thought her mother was being a meenie about the snails.

"That's not fair, its cold outside," she said, crossing her arms and stamping her foot for emphases. Megan was not about to give up on her friends, not without a fight.

"Either you do it or I will," said her Mom, crossing her own arms and putting on the face she thought was scary, but it wasn't.

Megan shook hear head and tightened her arms across her chest.

"Megan," her mom said. This time her name was said in the voice that was serous, not pretend serous, or serous that Megan could wiggle out of, this was serous serous and Megan knew she had lost.

"OK," she said and dragged herself toward the front door as if the worst possible thing waited on the other side of it. Megan could feel little tears at the corner of her eyes but she wasn't going to cry, she didn't like crying even though sometimes she couldn't help herself. Her mom opened the door and stood to one side as Megan walked to the bottom of the garden and sat down at the base of the wall. She opened her box and picked out the snails one by one, resting them under leafs and flowers, where they would be sheltered from the worst of the night. She left Ed for last and whispered to him as she held him against his favorite place, under the lip of concrete at the top.

"I'm sorry Mom scared you, Ed. She just really likes her shoes, like really really. And you're not disgusting, you're handsome, and talented, and really really wonderful. I guess we might look weird to you too." As she spoke, Ed slowly began to poke out his head and uncurl his eyes on the end of stalks. She kept whispering secrets to Ed until he had a good hold of the wall and she could finally let go of his shell. The very last secret she told Ed was to hold on till tomorrow and she would pick them all up again on her way to school.

Megan turned and walked past her mother sulkily, taking each step up the stairs like the sad girl she was. When her Mom came to her room later with a bowl of ice cream and kissed her head, she was still worried about Ed having to spend the night out in the cold. As her Mom left the room she turned and said, "They like it out side, really." Then she pulled the door closed. Megan put the ice cream on her bedside table and took out six boxes from under her bed and opened the lids. Every box was filled with snails.

"Do you like it outside better?" Megan asked. From deep inside a box came a little squeak and Megan smiled. "I didn't think so," Megan said to her friends and began feeding them tiny bits of ice cream which they seemed to love.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Bang Bang, Baby.

Granny Begley had her brood reared by the late seventies, most of them had already started families of their own. Only Uncle Mike and PJ were still living in the little cottage with Granny and Granddad. The cottage stood on top of a hill in the middle of the country and was surrounded by a few fields, wild hedgerows and scattered stands of trees. It was an ideal place to call home.

PJ and Mike were typical young lads, always on the go and only seemed to pass through the house. They would fly in the door and wolf down whatever Granny had dished up for dinner before scooting off to some other great adventure. When they were not taking cars apart, or working, or planning some stunt or other, the two brothers loved to go shooting. Both of them had shotguns and brought home the odd pheasant or rabbit. Nothing went to waste in the Begley home and what ever the boys shot ended up in the dinner pot.

Ireland was far from ideal during those years. Our island was still ripped in two by conflict, an occupation of our shores which had now stretched nearly eight hundred years. The six counties in the north were still controlled by England and this was causing a bitter and violent division. On one side lay the nationalists, who wanted Ireland reunited and on the other side lay the unionists, which wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. It was a dark time in our history and I don't believe any right minded person on either side would ever willingly return to it. The blood of both camps pooled the soil of the six counties.

Around that time a wild cat started turning up Granny Begley's yard and he was one savage feline. He'd clearly had a tough life and was somewhat of a survivor. Around the cat's neck hung an old rabbit snare and it seemed to have been in place for a long time. Granny tried to take it off but the cat would let nobody go near it. The animal would spit, hiss and growl when anyone approached it, making such an awful racket. He reminded her of the Reverend Ian Paisley, a particularly confrontational leader of the Unionist movement  and who was famous for his thunderous preaching against anything nationalist. That was how the cat got the name Paisley. Uncle Mike had the bad luck of accidentally cornering Paisley in the turf shed one night and received a dozen claw marks in a dozen sensitive areas for his trouble. After that night Mike and Paisley were sworn enemies.

One evening Granny Begley was listening to a news report on the radio when Mike came trundling in from work. During the report there was a clip of Reverend Paisley loudly proclaiming that, "Ulster says NO!" to whatever the other side had just suggested.

"Holy God, that Paisley is an awful thorny yoke," Granny said, shaking her head. Now to his credit, Uncle Mike was half listening to her as he struggled to get out of his concrete stained overalls.

"Thorny is right," agreed Mike, before lumbering away toward the bathroom to wash up for dinner.

"Somebody is going to shoot him one day," she professed aloud.

"What was that, Mammy?" yelled Mike from the bathroom.

"I said, Someone will shoot Paisley!" she called back and started dishing up Mikes dinner.

A minute or two later a shot boomed through the house, causing Granny to clutch her chest in fright but sadly she was holding Mikes dinner at the time and it ended up all over the place. Then there was a second deafening explosion from the direction of the bathroom. Granny raced into the hall to find a half dressed Mike coming out with a smoking shotgun in his hands.

"What the blazes are you doing!" yelled Granny.

"Shooting Paisley," said Mike bewildered.

"Not that Paisley!" said Granny swatting Mike with the tea towel.

"Oh feck!" said Mike relising his mistake. "Tis alright, Mammy, I missed the slippery yoke and he escaped down the field."

When PJ got home and was told the story he laughed so hard he got a pain in his side. Over the coming weeks, the story of how Mike tried to shoot Paisley made the rounds of all the pubs in South Tipperary, and by accident, he became a local legend.

Understandably enough, the furry Mr Paisley never set foot inside Begley's yard again and to my knowledge, either did his two legged counterpart.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Shuffling Joe

I didn't set out to become homeless, but it still happened. Now I call a whole city home.

Before, I thought there were plenty of spots to take shelter in New York: shops, subways, doorways, malls, libraries, museums. The city seemed littered with warm welcoming places but by my second night sleeping rough, those doors started to slam in my face. Day by day  I drifted further into invisibility until the multitudes passed me blindly.

Everyone has their own route to the street and mine was booze. It was a slow decay. First, I didn't even notice it myself. It was a beer after work, then a few more. Then came the liquid lunches and a quick shot in my morning coffee to stop the shakes in my hand. As things gathered momentum, I kept telling myself that I could stop, if I wanted to. By the time I admitted the truth, my job was hanging by a thread and my marriage was on the rocks. The only sensible thing to do was to take a few more shots to block out the pain.

The last months of my old life went by in a haze. When I finally woke up in the shadow of a dumpster, it was too late for anything. The cold of the concrete soon seeped into my bones and I began to hate the people who dropped quarters in my cup. Assholes, one and all. I did manage to make one spot own; a tiny arch under an overpass. It smelled of trash but it was dry and out of the wind. It was here that I first bumped into Shuffling Joe or more accurately, Shuffling Joe bumped into me.

It was a terrible night, the rain was coming down in sheets while I lay cocooned like a human taco in my alcove. I had nearly drifted off, with the help of a half bottle of Tequila Rose, when something crashed down on top of me. I lashed out at my attackers, fighting for my life, or so I thought. The truth is, when you live on the street, life is cheap and nobody much cares if yours gets taken or not.

"God-damn-it! Get the hell off me!" I screamed as I battled my way out of my sleeping bag. I expected to feel the bite of a blade, or have my brain rattled, but none of those things happened. Instead, my attacker scrambled away and huddled in the far corner with a haunted look in his eyes.

"Get out of here, this is my place!" I yelled at him and managed to sit up. The traffic rumbled past overhead, the wind made the weeds outside dance as water dripped through the cracks in the roof but my uninvited houseguest was as still as the grave. He just crouched there with a box cradled to his chest and gazed out into the blackness of the night.

"Can't you hear me? GET OUT!" I yelled, but he didn't budge. I thought about getting up and evicting him but this guys elevator didn't go all the way up. He was damaged and damaged people were dangerous. Hell, who wasn't dangerous? The tequila was wearing off and I was feeling less than brave if the truth was known so I decided to stay as far away from him as I could. As long as he stayed in his corner, I'd stay in mine.

"Crazy as a bag of frogs," I huffed and pulled my sleeping bag around me once more. I'm not sure when I fell asleep, but I did, and when I woke the stranger was gone. I jumped up and checked my stuff, sure the guy would have robbed me, but he hadn't. Well, I guess we can all be wrong about people from time to time.

A few days later I saw my visitor again, this time in the food queue at St Mary's community centre. It's a good spot for a warm meal but he arrived late. The kitchen was about to close and only the dregs would be left in the soup pot. I watched as he edged up to the counter and stood there. He didn't take a tray like the rest of us did, he didn't try to pocket a few extra bread rolls like I had done. He just stood there as the volunteer apologised for the condition of the liquid which slopped into a bowl. The man just nodded his thanks and hurried over to an empty table on the far side of the room. I could tell he was starving by the way he lapped up the first four or five spoon full of the grease-covered liquid. But something happened, I saw it in his face, it was as if he had been caught doing something naughty and he slowly straightened up, forcing himself back from the steaming meal. With a shaky hand, he laid aside the spoon, then slowly stood. In a blink of an eye, he was gone.

I wolfed down my own meal. I had a date with a bottle of Wild Turkey that the Holy Rollers would confiscate if I broke it out here. As I passed my visitor's empty seat, I spotted his half-full bowl and an untouched bread roll. I checked nobody was watching as I slipped the roll in my pocket and made my escape. He might be a looney-tune but I wasn't.

That night, winter kicked in for real and the raindrops were so cold, they pinged as they landed. He appeared out of the night like a ghost, I nearly thought it was my double vision playing tricks on me until he moved into my cave and hunkered down as far from me as he could. The box I'd seen before was with him but nothing else. How could he have so little? Even on the street, we all have possessions, this guy didn't even have a blanket to throw over his shoulders.

"So, your back," I slurred. The ghost said nothing.

"God damn cuckoo. That's you? Are you a cuckoo going to shove me out of my nest?" I asked. It made sense in my head. "Well, I'll cuckoo you if you try it!" I slurred and rolled into the corner, turning my back so I didn't have to look at him lurking in the shadows. I felt the bread roll press against my leg. I had forgotten I had put it there. I took it out and held it in front of me. There was nothing in my stomach but gut-rot hooch.

"Cuckoo," I said to myself and devoured the bread. It was a dog eat dog world and I would have two if they were on the menu.

After that night he started coming more regularly, particularly as the winter closed in on us. No matter what I asked, he never spoke a word to me. I thought he might have been a mute but he sure as hell could hear. I knew he was clever, an educated man, you can just tell, even through the dirt. The more I got to know him the more I was convinced he was different to other street folk. I still knew he was crazy, bat-shit-crazy, just different crazy than the rest of us. After a while I christened him Shuffling Joe, because of the way he walked. It was as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Over the years I got used to having Shuffling Joe about the place and, hard as it is to admit, I missed him when he wasn't there. His silence suited me. I talked enough for the two of us particularly when my tongue was loosened up by cheap whisky. We were like an old married couple in the end, right to the end.

Joe left this world as he lived. Silently.

I woke one morning and found him still rolled up in the corner. I got up and gathered my belongings but Joe didn't move.

"Up you get," I said giving the soul of his boot a gentle nudge. His foot flopped over and settled at an unnatural angle.

"Joe?" I said, my voice hushed, my heart heavy. I knew he was gone before I laid my hand against his cheek and found it cool. I sat back and rested my head against the concrete.

"Guess I'll never know your name now," I said to my cooling friend and felt something hard try to climb its way out of my throat. I forced that feeling back down, right back down, and hammered it home before it got the better of me. Joe's troubles were over but I had issues of my own. It was a new day and it wouldn't block itself out! Time to feed the beast and quench the thirst. I thought about dragging his body outside where someone else would find it but I didn't have the heart to do it. I decided just to give my cave a swerve for a while, surely someone would find him eventually. I was about to leave when I noticed Joe's box and he still had one hand wrapped around it.

"You don't need this no more, buddy," I said, pushing the stiffening fingers from the aged cardboard. The box had been wrapped in string, secured with a bow knot. I pulled on one end of the string and the knot fell loose. I lifted up the lid with no idea what I would find, money I hoped. What I did find left me baffled. Inside the box, on a bed of crumpled newspaper, lay a small pair of pink ballet slippers and nothing else.

"You really were a screwball, Joe," I said to my recently deceased cavemate. I was about to toss the box aside but I remembered how much Joe cared for the box, it meant everything to him. As stupid as it seemed, I couldn't make my fingers let go. With a roll of my eyes, I put the lid back on the box and stuffed it in my pack with the rest of my stuff.

"If they guys down the mission see you with those," I said to myself, "you better stay out of the showers for a month or even a year." I shouldered my bag and before leaving my cave for the last time I took one more look at Joe and wondered who he was. An enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in rags.

That night, I got more out of my head than ever before. The booze blacked out everything and it was only when I found the shoes in my pack the following day did I think about Joe again. I sat on a bench in Central Park and took out one of the slippers. It wasn't new, I could see the way the inside had been moulded to fit a delicate foot after hours of practice. Although the Satan still was lush it held a smudge here and there. Whoever wore them had a tiny foot. It hadn't been Joe that's for sure but it might have been someone Joe loved. As I sat there I knew I had no right to keep these things, they meant nothing to me but someone else might find them to be a treasure. I rummaged through the papers but there was nothing else in the box. That was when I spotted a yellowed label on the underside of the lid. It had the name of a shop on it. Suzette's. The address was in the West Village which wasn't so far away. With nothing else to do and a hangover to walk off, I headed south into unfimillar territory.

I never felt comfortable in Manhatten, I guess I was never a Manhatten kind of guy. When I eventually found Suzette's it turned out to be a brownstone building on an idyllic tree-lined street. It was a dream place to live, a dream from a life I once knew. I tried the door but it was locked. I pressed the bell, but nobody came. I was tired so I took a seat on the steps to rest. About an hour later a lady in her sixties mounted the step and gave me a wary look as she swerved past me. She smelled expensive and existed in a cloud of floating scarves. She put a key in the door and I decided to ask if she was Suzette. The lady stopped with one hand on the key as she turned to look at me.

"In a way, I guess I am. Why do you ask?" she said, her accent sounded like money but it wasn't hard. Still, she was far from welcoming. I took out the box and handed it to her.

"Are these from your shop?" I asked. She took the box and opened the lid as if she expected to find a turd inside. When she saw the shoes her face softened and she lifted one out with great care.

"Why yes, yes they are. These are some of my early work, I haven't seen any of these in...well... twenty years or more. Where did you get them?"

"A friend of mine had them. I was hoping to get them back to his family if I could." I said.

"And what was your friends name," asked the lady still stroking the side of one pretty slipper.

"That's the thing. I don't know." The woman looked at me and I could see all the questions flitting behind her eyes but she chose not to voice any of them. Instead, she turned over the lid of the box and gazed at the label which had got me this far.

"You're lucky that this is the original box. It has a ledger number on it. Wait here and I will see what I can find out." The lady unlocked the door and once she was inside I heard the security chain rattle. I didn't blame her. I wouldn't have let me in either. When the door opened again, she had the box and a piece of paper in her hand.

"I'm sorry to say but I have very little. It's a girls name, Annie Leisman, but the delivery address is an investment house on Wall St. That is all I have. The bill was paid in cash so it's a bit of a dead end."  She handed over the box and the piece of paper and regarded me earnestly. "I hope you get these too, Annie. A lot of love went into these. I'm sure she will want to have them back."

"Thanks, Lady," I said hoisting myself off her stoop. I hadn't got to the sidewalk when I heard the chain rattle again. Wall St? Could Shuffling Joe and Wall St have ever gone together? Only one way to find out I guessed and headed south once more.

It was a long walk and by the time I reached the address on the paper, the doors were locked for the night. So I panhandled a few bucks from passing people, got myself a bottle and spent the night in Battery Park. The next day I went back to Wall St and the address I had for Anne Liseman. It was a typical building for this neck of the woods, old stone, new glass and miles of brass. I got as far as the lobby before a suited guerilla blocked my way.

"Not today, Buddy," he said shepherding me back toward the door.

"I'm looking for someone," I stammered trying to stand my ground.

"And who would you be looking for here?" he said with disdain in his voice.

"A friend," I said and it was the wrong thing to say.

"Yea, right." This time the hand was less shepherding and more shoving.

"I'm looking for Annie Lisemen."

The guy grabbed me by the jacket and half lifted me out of my shoes, "You're looking for a slug in the kisser. Nobody here knows no drunken bums, now beat it." he said shoving me through the door. I have been thrown out of enough places to know how to keep my balance. From the sidewalk, I give the guard a one finger salute and hot-footed it before the cops appeared. 

That night, back in Battery Park, I held shuffling Joe's legacy in one hand and a bottle of cooking brandy in the other. I was on the verge of giving up when I felt Joe's ghost watching me. A shiver ran down my spine and I knew I had to do this thing. I owed it to Joe. The next morning, the tattered box and the still full brandy bottle were in my pack when I returned to the investment house on Wall Street. I ducked my head in the door but didn't enter. The same suited guard recognised me straight away but instead of going in I beckoned him over to the door.

"I told you yesterday to beat it," he said as he got closer.

"I know. Just hear me out for a second. I really am looking for someone. I have a box I got to give them."

"Just leave it with me, I'll take care of it," said the guy. I knew the kind of taking care of he would do. Joe's box would be in the first trash can he passed.

"Can't. Got to do it myself. Look, I just want to ask that lady at the desk if Annie Liseman works here. And, I'm stone cold sober," I said hoping the guy would see that this was the quickest way to get rid of me. But it turns out he was not that kind of guy.

"You might be sober but your still a bum so, OUT!" he said spinning me out the door again.

"God damn corporate nazi," I shouted and snapped out a straight-armed salute. I goosestepped up and down the steps and could see the guy going red inside the door with his huge muscles straining under his suit. I turned my back on him and moved to the pavement. I sat outside the building with my cup on the ground to collect quarters as I asked all the women who went up the steps, "Are you Annie Liseman?"

Three days I stayed sober and three days I stayed at the door calling out for Annie Liseman. It was looking like a lost cause when a man entering the building heard me ask if a passing woman if she was Annie Liseman. The man stopped and came back down the steps. He was forty or so, rich as hell with the slicked-back hair of a guy who thought he was the bees knees.

"I knew an Annie Liseman," he said standing before me.

"Does she work in there?" I asked throwing my thumb toward the door behind my back.

"No, but her Popps did."


"Yea, the Annie I know is eight. Was eight. She's dead now," said the guy and he genuinely looked sad about that.

"Is her Popps still here? I got something for him." I said taking out my box and holding it out to the guy. He didn't take it he just looked at me as if trying to make up his mind about me.

"What's in it?" he asked at last.

"Ballet slippers, Annie Liseman's ballet slippers."

"Christ! You got to be kidding me?" The man went pale under his year-round tan and lowered himself on the step beside me. The shock of whatever he knew stopped him from realising he was sharing his seat with a bum.

"What's wrong with that?" I asked, the box still in my hand.

"Charlie Liseman was a senior partner in this company when I was doing my internship. The big cheese, you know what I mean. He was married with one little girl, Annie, she was eight. One morning they were all rushing around the house, getting ready for work and school and such. It can be crazy, I got a little girl of my own now so I know. Well anyway, Charlie's wife was going to drop Annie to school and Charlie was coming to work. The all left the house together but Charlie took a call on his cell. He didn't see Annie get out of the mom's car and go behind his. He backed out... backed out... and well he just didn't see her. She had forgotten her ballet shoes. The next day, Charlie vanished and took nothing with him except those shoes. That was twenty-five years ago. Never been heard of since." The man looked down at his shoes and seemed really broken by the story. Was it possible that my Joe had been this Charlie Liseman?

I described Joe and the guy sitting beside me nodded his head, "Sure sounds like him."

So Charlie Liseman, my friend Charlie, was a Wall St guy. You live and learn. I handed the box to the man sitting beside me and said, "Could you get these to Mrs Liseman and tell her Charlie never forgave himself for what happened. He's gone now too, I guess that's all she needs to know."

"She's dead. Five years ago, breast cancer or so I heard."

"Perhaps they will fit your little girl so," I said and shook the hand of the man who put a name to my friend. I put my bag on my back, the still full bottle of cooking brandy rubbing against my shoulder blade and walked away from the steps. I saw the man lift up the box and take out one of the shoes that lay inside.

I was on the crosswalk when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the guy I had been talking to on the steps.

"Hold up! Have you seen this?" he asked holding out the box. I look at the pink shoes and said sure.

"NO! These!" he said picking out one of the crumpled pieces of paper.

"The newspaper?"

"Jesus Christ! They're not newspaper," he nearly yelled but then remembered people were standing around us. He lowered his voice and put his arm around my shoulder to draw me away from curious ears. In a quieter voice said, "They're bearer bonds, hundred thousand dollar treasury bearer bonds. Dozens of them!"

"I don't understand," I said gazing into the box.

"Its money, lots of money. Could be two million or more!"

"I swear I didn't steal it," I said throwing up my hands and backing away from the box. The guy started to laugh.

"I know you didn't but you have them which makes them yours."

"They were Charlies, not mine."

"Charlie has nobody left. If they go back into the system they will be gobbled up by taxes and fees. I think Charlie wanted you to have them. Look, come up to my office and I will talk you through it. You can't go walking around New York with millions stuffed in a shoe box."

"Charlie did."

"I guess he did," said the guy patting me on the back. I carefully put the lid back on the box and followed the guy up the steps to the investment brokers. I didn't even register the furious look the security guard gave me as I passed, I was in too much shock. I was a millionaire.

That was five years ago and now I have a small apartment of my own. I still go down to St Mary's, but as a volunteer. I miss my friend all the time and often think the world would be a nicer place if we all talked a little less. I could never get the hang of calling him Charlie, he would always be Shuffling Joe to me. It turned out there was 2.9 Million dollars in his box and although the government took its share, I have more than enough left to see me off to the next world. At home, my home, I have two things that I will never part with, they are my life, my new life. One is a pair of pink ballet slippers, sitting in a tatty cardboard box and beside them stands a still closed bottle of cooking brandy.

I often think of my friend and wonder if he found peace at last.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Day the World Went Black.

Ben patted his pockets for the tenth time, where the hell were his keys? He'd checked the bowl by the front door, the kitchen table, the pants he'd worn yesterday, his jacket, under the couch cushions and on top of the TV. He was going to be late for work. Where the hell could they be?

"Daisy! Daisy," he yelled up the stairs and heard something being mumbled from under the duvet so he shouted again. "Did you put my keys someplace?"

There was a heavy sigh followed by the soft padding of naked feet on the landing.

"Where did you leave them?" she asked sleepily as she reached the top of the stairs.

"If I knew that I wouldn't be looking for them, now would I?" he snapped. She plodded down the stairs, her blond hair a messy cloud. She reached the bottom step, paused, and lifted his keys out of the bowl with the tip of her finger. He had checked there. Twice! She gave him a dirty look as he took the dangling bunch.

"They weren't there earlier," he said embarrassed.

"Huff," she puffed and turned her back on him before drifting back upstairs for her second sleep. He stormed from the house, late for work and he knew the traffic on the freeway would be terrible. That was a bad start to a day which got steadily worse. It was a day crowned by actually losing his car. He searched the multi-story car park for twenty minutes before finding the car five spaces from the exit. He never parked in that part of the building! How could he forget where he left his car?

When he got home he vented his frustrations at Daisy, not that she listened. She'd given up even pretending to listen these days. It surprised him when she raised her head and asked, "Why don't you get Dave to check you over?"

"I'm not sick!" he snapped.

"I didn't say you were but it's not like you to lose things. Cant do any harm to check," she said then shrugged her shoulders and went back to eating. The rest of the meal passed in sulky silence but he was sure of one thing, he wasn't running to Dave about a set of lost keys.

Over the next few days, there were more...slips. He filled out the home insurance renewal, stuck it in an envelope for posting but when it arrived they said it was blank. After that, his presentation went wrong. He'd spent hours working on a proposal for a new client but when he presented it the slides were a mess. Full of misspellings and errors, it looked like a five-year-old had done them. There were other things but nothing as bad as the presentation. Normal stuff like being sure you put something one place and finding it somewhere else. Small or big, these slips were starting to worry him and it was making him cranky. Daisy and himself were constantly at each other's throats. It all came to a head the day he arrived home to find Daisy and Dave waiting for him.

"What's she been telling you?" he demanded before they had a chance to say anything.

"Daisy is worried and from what she told me she has a right to be," said Dave, sitting forward on the couch, stabling his fingers like some dime-store headshrinker. God damn Daisy for dragging Dave into this. She had no right, no right at all.

"It's nothing. Have you never made a mistake?" he asked, his tone grumpy and defensive.

"Of course. Now and again, but Daisy told me these incidents are becoming more frequent and then there's your behaviour to..."

"What behaviour?"

"Aggressive, depressive, irrational," he listed coldly, each word like a slap to Ben's face.

"Jesus! You're making me out to be a looney!"

"Easy, Ben," Dave said holding up his hands soothingly. Ben realised he had been shouting and in doing so he confirmed at least two of his friend's accusations.

"Sorry," he said and let out a deeply held breath. He rubbed his hands through his thinning hair to steady himself. He knew his moods were swinging a bit but was it any wonder? He put his briefcase on the coffee table and flopped down into an easy chair.

"All I...we're asking, is that you come in and let me check you over."

"And what will you be checking for?" Ben asked sitting back in the chair.

"There could be hundreds of reasons for your sysmptoms."

"Such as?"

"Stress, depression, exhaustion, hormone imbalance, the list is a long one."


"You would be abnormally young to develop Alzheimer's, but it's not impossible," said Dave, clearly reluctant to discuss the subject.

"What about brain tumours, or just going nuts?" said Ben angrily.

"Stop being ridiculous," snapped Dave.

"I'm not being ridiculous, I've been doing my own checking!"

"On Google, I bet?" Ben said annoyed at the suggestion. "Most often the simplest answer is the right one. Why don't you take some time off work? Relax, take time to unwind? It's not like you need the money." Dave was talking about Ben's inheritance. He wasn't rich but two million dollars from a maiden aunt he had barely known was better than a kick in the ass. The truth was he liked his work, it give him a purpose for his days. Being stuck in the house day in and day out would drive him round the twist.

"I'll think about it," Ben said sounding less than enthusiastic.

Dave stood up and gave him a steely look. "Think about it all you like but be in my office at ten tomorrow. I'm charging you for the session whether you show up or not."

"Alright, you bully. Are you leaving?" he asked seeing Dave getting out his car keys.

"You're not my only patient you know," said Dave with a wink as he bent down to kiss Daisy reassuringly on the cheek.


The following day Dave gave him a full service, bloods and everything before sending him back to work. Two days later Dave was on the phone at stupid O'Clock in the morning. Ben wasn't even out of bed when he answered the call. "You're blood tests have come back. You need to come in to see me before work."

"That doesn't sound good."

"There is nothing definite, but there are a few indicators...look, it would be better if you came in."

"Don't nanny me, just tell me what it is."

He heard Dave exhale loudly as he thought about what was best to do. Eventually, he began speaking. 

"You have unusually high levels of Adrenocorticotropic Hormone or ACTH." 

"And what's that in English?"

"Its a hormone produced in the Pituitary Gland, part of the brain."

"Jesus," said Ben sitting up in the bed. Daisy rolled over to watch him talk.

"I don't know what it is. It could be nothing but I would feel better if we got you CT scan."

"I guess. If you think I should."

"I do and I've pulled a few strings to get you in early next week."

"Is it cancer?"

"It might be nothing. I'll email you the time for the scan. And Ben..."


"Don't worry," he said and was gone off the phone. Ben threw back the covers and sat on the side of the bed. How could he not worry after a call like that? The rest of the day was a blur. He couldn't help typing in Pituitary Gland Problems into Google and it made terrifying reading.


Between that, and the day of the scan, he had a few more senior moments. People commented on it at work. His moods got worse and he made Daisy cry a few times by being overly sharp.

When he arrived at the hospital for the scan he found Dave waiting for him. "What are you doing here?"

"What kind of a friend would I be if I wasn't," Dave said giving him a hug. Ben was never so happy to have Dave by his side. The day was punctuated by periods of waiting in between efficient bursts of testing. At the end of it, Dave discussed the results with the consultant before coming to see Ben. 

"Good news, there's no tumour or cancer, but the area is inflamed. You will need to take a course of medication to bring your hormones into balance and improve your mental state."

"Mental state?"

"You've been exhibiting signs of depression which is likely down to your hormone imbalance. Antidepressants will help."

"I'm not depressed."

"You're brain is a complex system and its not running properly at the moment. You need to take the medication if you want to get better."

Ben didn't like the idea of being medicated but he trusted Dave. "If you say its for the best, its for the best." Dave wrote a prescription before he went back to his practice. Ben left the hospital and filled the script on the way home.

Over the following weeks, Ben's condition got worse, not better. He felt strung out, more confused than ever, and his temper was all but uncontrollable. He went into melt-down-mode at the drop of a hat. In the end, he had no choice but to go see Dave again.

"These pills are doing nothing but making things worse," explained Ben after telling Dave he was going to stop taking the medication.

"You can't do that. You'll be taking a huge step back if you stop at this stage. It could be just a bad reaction to this drug. I'm going to move you onto something else. You should see a huge improvement."

Ben filled out the new prescription and like Dave had predicted, things improved, well they did up until the blackouts started. The first one was just a few lost hours on a Saturday afternoon. Daisy had gone out shopping when he started feeling funny. The next thing he remembered, he woke up on the couch and the house looked like a tornado had hit it. He tried to straighten up before Daisy got home but she knew something was wrong the minute she got back.

That night the dreams started, the most horrific and vivid dreams he'd ever had. He woke up crouched in the corner beating himself around the head and screaming. Daisy was right in front of him, in floods of tears, as she tried to calm him down. There was a bruise on her cheek which was growing darker by the second. He was still panicing when the paramedics arrived. Daisy had called them for him but they seemed more interested in her face. In the end, Daisy made them go away by promising Ben would see his doctor first thing in the morning.

Ben got to Dave's practice first thing but had to cool his heels in the waiting room until Dave's first patients had gone through. When a nurse finally showed him into the examination room, Ben was shaking and as pale as a ghost. His head was spinning and he could feel reality starting to slip.

"Crikey, you look like hell," said Dave easing Ben into a chair. He took a tumbler from his desk and passed it to Ben. "Here, drink this."

"I don't feel well. There is something really wrong with me he said once he finished glugging the water, not that water would help him. "You got to help me, you've just got to!" yelled Ben, dropping the glass as he grabbed Dave by the shoulders. He tried to get to his feet but his brain was hit by a vision so harsh it was like being kicked in the head. He staggered and felt Dave's hands go under his armpits but that was when his world went black.

Ben came around to the feel of handcuffs being snapped over his wrists. He panicked and tried to get away which only earned him ten-thousand volts from a cops tazer. As he shuddered on the ground he saw a bloody Dave being helped out of his office.

"Take it easy with him," said Dave through his split lips. "It's not his fault, he's a sick man, a very sick man." His friend's pleas fell on deaf ears because Ben was hauled roughly to his feet and frog-marched to a waiting state cruiser.

What happened next was all so muddled in his mind, it felt like it was happening to someone else. The court appearance, being remanded to custody and then sent to the state lockup. Some court-appointed lawyer had represented him when he was so out of it he couldn't put two words together. When that same lawyer came to see him in prison he broke the news they were trying to charge him with assault with intent.

"What intent?" demanded Ben, "I can't even remember doing anything!"

That started his hand-me-down idiot talking about a diminished responsibility defence. Ben's next court date was set but Daisy still had not been to see him. Perhaps the cops wouldn't let her come. He'd been there a week when Daisy finally arrived.

Ben was shown into a visitor cubicle, Daisy was already seated on the other side of the glass. He smiled at her but she just glared back at him as he picked up the handset hanging to his left. Daisy paused for longer than he liked before doing the same.

"It's good to see you sweetie," he said.

"I never thought I'd be seeing you in a place like this," she said coldly.

"Me either. I have no idea what happened, you got to believe me," he said, desperately needing to hear some comforting words. Instead, she asked a question.

"Are you still having the blackouts?"

"Not since that day, a few terrible dreams, or hallucinations, or whatever they are, but even they are going now. I actually feel a lot better."

"Are you still taking your medication?"

"Yes. I must be getting used to it."

"That's good," she said and looked down sadly.

"When are you getting me out of here?" he asked leaning forward, placing his hand against the glass as if he were trying to touch her face.

"That's why I've come," she said, but her voice held no joy. "I don't want you to come back to the house."

"I told you, I'm getting better. I'd never hurt you, you know that, right?" he said, trying to put every ounce of sincerity he possessed into his words.

"You don't get it. I don't want you coming home...ever. You're not the man I married, I don't know who you are."

"What are you saying?" he demanded, his voice rising enough to make the guard at the end of the room rise out of his chair.

"I want a divorce, I've already started the application. The papers will be served, any day," she said and wiped away a tear.

"You bitch!"

She took the phone from her ear when he screamed it again, "Bitch!".

She dropped the handset and rushed away as Ben attacked the glass, screaming and hammering it with the heavy plastic handset. The truncheon blow caught him below the ear and sent him sprawling sideways. Back to black again.

The prison gate rattled back so slowly, Daisy felt they were doing it deliberately to extend her torture. She just wanted it all to be over and get as far away from this place as she could. She promised herself she wouldn't cry before she saw Ben but she couldn't help the tears from coming. He had been in her life for as long as she could remember and now that was over. 

Outside the gate, Dave was waiting to collect her in his sleek new Cadillac. He reached over and popped the pasenger door for her. Once she was in he pulled away.

"How did it go?"

"He went crazy, started screaming and smashing the glass," she said sadly.

"To be expected I guess," Dave said matter-of-factly, as he maneuvered the car out of the prison car park. 

"I still feel guilty about it all."

"You shouldn't, it was the only way."

"The money?"

"And me!" said Dave with a cheeky smile. "We won't have to sneak around anymore, I can have you as much as I want now."

She leaned across and kissed him deeply while he tried to keep one eye on the road. Having him all the time was the only reason she had done any of it. Even on the day of her wedding she knew she was marrying the wrong man. It always should have been Dave.

It had started by accident. A look, a touch, an unspoken desire until the enevitable happened. A lingering touch turned into lust, into love. An intertwining of two paired by destiny. Ben was all that stood in their way.

It was Dave that insisted she should have half the inheritance Ben refused to touch, it was he who masterminded the plot but it was she who had made it happen.

She was the one who hid Ben's keys and then moved his car with the spare set. It was she who had replaced the insurance forms with blank ones then sent them in. It was she who messed up his presentation in the middle of the night. She had done all that but then Dave had a hand in things as well.

He had given her the pills to exchange for Ben's. Dave had given her the liquid LSD to slip into Ben's drinks and told her how much to give.

She had been so nervous that first night she nearly called it all off as she watched Ben slip into unconsciousness. Dave was waiting outside in his car, in case she gave him too much. Dave had been the one to land the punch on her cheek, and even though she pretended not to see it, there was a sparkle of joy in his eye when his knuckle connected.

She had given Ben a half dose of LSD the day he went to Dave office so he would be confused and dazed for the final act. Before Dave had let Ben in she had entered the exam room through a side entrance and hid in a closet. She overheard them talking and knew Dave had given Ben something to knock him out. As Ben lay slumped in the chair, they had sex on Dave's desk. It was quick and brutal but he was the man she wanted. When Ben began to stir, Dave made her pick up his timber nameplate and hit him with it. Before she swung he stopped her and said, "Remember, not the nose!" She had hit him gently once but then remembered the sparkle in his eye that day in her bedroom so she added a measure of intention to the blows.

"Enough!" Dave said after taking a couple of hits and he pushed her away. He pinched his burst lip to draw more blood and smeared it over Ben's hand and shirt. Daisy had slipped out the back door as Dave got Ben to his feet and shoved him groggily out into the waiting area before throwing himself on the floor to wait for help to arrive. 

They had done all of that and now they were free. The divorce would go through and she stood to gain one point six million. Dave already had his eye on a lovely place out on the coast. He had put down a deposit and financed the purchase under his own name, until the money came in that is. When it did they would clear their debts and live like they had always wanted to.

Dave looked over at her and flashed her one of his devilish smiles. "Only we matter now," he said and went back to watching the traffic. Daisy noticed the way one corner of his mouth curled up while the other stayed still. Light danced in his eyes and she had only seen that look once before, it was the moment he drew back his fist and took aim at her face. Daisy felt a shiver run down her back but she shook it off. Nothing was going to wreck this for her, nothing.

The End