Thursday, 31 October 2013

It's tough being nine.

Let me tell you being nine is tough and it is even harder when you have a cousin like Tommy. First off, Tommy is ten, and makes sure everyone knows it. Second, he does karate. I’ve nothing against karate, but the way he was always chopping and kicking things made me sick. He thinks he’s so much better than me. Sometimes I hate him, most of the time, I want to be just like him.

In the summer, every kid in my village would hangout above the weir, where the water was deep and slow. Spending long lazy days taking cooling dips in the cold river water. There was a rope hanging from a branch and we would take turns launching ourselves out over the water. Some of the biggest kids had it down to a fine art. They would run hard, letting go of the rope at just the right point, sending them flying impossibly high in the air, seeming to stall before gracefully dropping into the water. They’d stroke back to the shore, under a cloak of hero worship, from us lesser mortals.

One day, Tommy and his gang came biking down the street in a V formation. Tommy was in the middle, his hair slick with hair gel, sweating in the black leather biker jacket. A folded playing brushed the spokes of his wheel and rattled like a machine gun. They threw their bikes into the long grass basicly took over the weir, pushing others out of the way as they took over the swing.

Tommy stripped to his swimming trunks and grabbed the rope. He ran, but still only managed a feeble swing, hardly getting him clear of the bank before he let go. He spun, like a fat white starfish, and landed with the most painful looking belly flop…ever. Everyone laughed, me more than most. Tommy struggled out of the river, glowing red with embarrassment. He stopped in front of me and said. "What are you laughing at, Dumbo?"

"You did a belly flop," I said, rubbing salt in his open wound.

"You're too scared to even try it," Tommy said, with rage in his voice.

"I'm not," I said. "Anyone could do what you just did."

"Prove it," he said, wrapping himself in a towel to hide his glowing pink belly.

"I will so," I said getting to my feet intending on trying the swing dive.

"That's too easy, get dressed, I’ve something better for you," he said, smiling at his group of goons.

Like I said earlier, most of the time I hated Tommy, but here was my chance to prove myself. I just had to take it.

When we were dressed, we rounded up our bikes and cycled off into the countryside. After nearly an hour, mostly up hill, my legs were getting sore.

"Where are we going, Tommy?" I asked, trying to keep the whine out of my voice.

"We're nearly there, only a few minutes more," he said, smiling over his shoulder at me. You would have sworn he was actually nice. A few minutes later, we dismounted and pushed our bikes through the knee-high grass. We entered a glade which ended in a giant stone buttress. It reared out of the ground like the bow of a mighty ship. At the base was a small opening.

Tommy faced me, like a headmaster addressing his class. "What we're going to show you is top secret," he said. "Only members of our club have ever been inside to see the bones. Do you accept this challenge?"

I was scared but more than anything, I wanted my cousin Tommy to like me. I stood taller and said, "I do."

From under a pile of rocks, Tommy scooped a battered biscuit tin. Inside were a dozen candles and a pile of match boxes. Tommy handed each of us a bunch of candles and a box of matches. Following the lead of the others, I put all but one candle into my pocket and lit the one I held, cupping a hand around the flickering flame, protecting it from the gentle summer breeze. Tommy ducked into the opening, followed by his friends with me in last place.

Under my hands, the rocks were slippery. The passage angled down sharply, the stone roof just inches above my head. I climbed and scrambled over boulders, following the light of the boys strung out in front of me. Soon, the only light visible came from the procession of candles. I felt the cave growing around me, rather than seeing it. No longer did the sides of the tunnel rub my shoulders, the glow of the candles no longer reflected off glistening rocks, it just died away in the never-ending darkness. Down and down we ventured, mainly in a straight line. We were all walking upright now, with lots of room overhead, the floor levelled out and became a smoothly polished grove in the earth. At last, we reached a part of the cave that echoed like a cathedral.

Tommy and his friends formed a tight circle around me, the flickering of their candles making horror masks of their faces.

"No one has been in this cave for hundreds of years, except us," he said.

"Is this where the bones are? Is it an accent bear, or even a wolf?" I wondered, getting excited about seeing them. "Where are the bones?" I asked Tommy.

"The only bones in here will be yours, if you can’t find your way out," he said, shoving me to the ground. My candle spilt out of my hand and quenched on the wet floor. The others sprinted away, howling and shouting in the darkness, taking the light with them. I scrabbled around on my hands and knees, searching cold floor until my finger brushed the warm, soft wax of the candle. I dug the matches from my pocket, and only then, remembered the spare candles I’d had all the time. Shouts echoed all around me, they could have coming from beside me, or miles away. In the complete darkness, I couldn't tell. I struck a match and lit my candle then turned in circles, looking for something I would recognise, but every rock looked like the next.

I thought I could make out the grove of the path, and having no other choice, I started to follow it. Just then, the shouting stopped, not faded out, just stopped. With no idea whether I was going further into the cave, or back for the entrance, I blundered on. I thought I heard voices but they were very faint. Tommy and his friends must be watching me panic, they would surely come and get me.

Time passed, but no one came. I couldn’t just wait here forever. I had to do something, so I pushed on through the dark, guided by the weak light of my candle. I just wanted out of this place.

Soon, my candle burned down, and died. I had to light another one. It seemed like I had only just done that, when I needed to light my last one. I realized by rushing forward the flame was fluttering in the wind, making the wax melt faster than if I walked. My last candle was dwindling when I felt the floor begin to slope upwards. I must have found my way back to the entrance. With tremendous relief I rushed forward, following the grove in the earth as it rose, climbing over boulders and rocks towards, each step taking me closer to safety. The candle burnt down to my fingers and I had to drop it. I felt my way forward on my hands and knees, inching along, finding my way by my fingertips.

I felt the walls and roof bare down on me, like it had been when we first entered the cave. I kept moving forward, bumping my head from time to time. Now and again, I lit a match from the box to see what lay ahead. Every time, it was just more dark.

Panic swamped my excitement. I kept moving, lighting one match after another. The tunnel had narrowed to the size of a barrel. I knew it was not the way we’d come in, but I still hoped it would lead me out. Going up had to be a good thing. The second last match fizzled and died, I lay crying in the moss and dirt for a long, long time.

At last, I wiped away the water from my face. Some was moisture from the cave, but mostly were the tears of a nine-year-old boy. Rubbing them made me realise something, the blackness wasn’t as black anymore. I concentrated on the way ahead, I was sure it was brighter. Light must be coming in from somewhere. It had to be a way out.

I crawled on, and it was definitely getting brighter, but the walls were closing in all the time. I had to wriggle now, there was no space for anything more. The hint of light grew into a promise. Every inch forward made the glow stronger. I could feel the first hint of a breeze, and smell fresh air, but cave was now no bigger than a drain pipe. I stretched my hands out ahead of me and pulled myself forward by my fingers. My shoulders squeezed against the rocks and I fought them for every inch. Freedom was in front of me, I could smell it, I could nearly see it.

One more push and I’d break through. I squirmed hard, but a rock above me shifted, crashing down on my lower-back. I tried to free myself, but the rock was jammed in its new position. I couldn't go forwards, nor backwards. I couldn't even take a deep breath. I kicked my feet behind me, and my hands stretched out in front, looking for a hand hold. Uncontrollable panic gripped me. I beat my fists against the rocks, tearing my skin, as I fought with every ounce I had. Only exhaustion stilled my body, and my mind. My fingers touched the match box and with trembling fingers, I struck it. It flared into brilliant life and lit up my tiny world. Just ahead of me lay a bunch of withered fingers, covered in blackened leathery skin, tipped with long broken finger nails, stretching out towards me. A lifeless skull framed with wisps of wild hair screamed silently in my direction. As the last light my eyes would ever see faded, my screams filled the dark.

Like I said, it’s tough being nine.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Rip

It was a gloriously bright Tuesday in September when he crested the ridge and got a glimpse of the ocean stretched out to the horizon. He'd never approached his secret cove from the mountain before and the view was breath-taking. It was as if a whole different world lay hidden behind a bend in the road. He eased his vehicle to a stop and rolled down the driver’s window to take in the magnificence of the scene.

"This is what it must feel like to be an eagle," he whispered to himself, as his eyes took in the islands in the distance, dwarfed by the vast undulating water. White lines of surf, tiny from this vantage point, broke on a sliver of golden shore.

He looked down at his tattered wool jumper and fingered his jeans which were ripped from age, rather than fashion. A smile spread across his face as he realised he was the luckiest man alive. Whatever money he had jangled in his pocket, and when the van ran out of petrol, he’d call that place home. He wasn’t ashamed to say, he’d eaten from more than one dumpster, but at moments like this, he wouldn't trade lives with any billionaire you may care to mention. 

He slid the camper into first gear, and steadily descended, past boulders and waterfalls. He inched down the mountain until the road levelled out, and his destination neared.

Once the distraction of Gods personal view was removed, his foot lay harder on the accelerator. He was eager to be one with that vast body of water. The cove was known only to few, and the first time he had stumbled upon it, it had been an accident. The waves were pristine, and looked lonely. He felt they had been waiting an eon for him to come and carve them up with the fins of his surfboard.

With the thought of what was waiting for him looming large in his mind, each second seemed an hour, every foot a mile. At last, he turned into the unmarked Bohereen which ended before he’d reached his destination. He unloaded his board and wet-suit, shouldered a backpack, and trekked the last mile across the fields. As he marched, he thought about the word Bohereen which meant little road. It had such a musical sound, perhaps Irish was the language of happiness. Once he'd asked an old man in a pub, what made a Bohereen a Bohereen? The old fella wiped a Guinness moustache from his top lip and said, "A Boher is a road where two cows can pass. A Bohereene is where there’s only room for one." Such a simple, but beautiful, explanation sums up Ireland nicely.

At last, he stood looking out over his promised land. He salivated over the huge glassy waves, forced to die a virgin death upon the unfeeling shore, without ever knowing the caress of a surfer’s fin. Such an ending is a travesty for waves as perfect as these. Zipping himself into his wetsuit, he had his first twinge of doubt. From the shore, the waves looked substantial. but perfect. The substantial part would be magnified when he got in the grip of them. The question in his mind was not, if he could ride them, but could he get past them.

He strapped the board's leash to his leg and sprinted, undaunted, into the chilly Atlantic swell. His board skimming the surface of the foaming white water with ease, powerful strokes drove him further into oncoming waves. Some waves broke before he reached them and he had to power through the boiling froth, others paused just long enough to let him crest the lip before he plunged down the valley they left behind. Muscles aching, he battled the massive swell. Stroke after stroke taking him into deeper water. Then the feel of the waves changed. The colour of the water darkened from foam flecked grey to dark brooding green.

The water was freezing and his battered wetsuit did little to keep him warm. His fingers were already numb, and his feet were turning blue. He sat up to take a rest, confident he was past the impact zone. He scanned the horizon for an approaching set, and the horizon was filled with promising shadows. Wave after wave marched toward him, but none broke. He wasn’t sure how long he bobbed in the water before it dawned on him that something was wrong. The massive waves should be breaking, but weren’t.

He turned, but the beach was gone. The only land in sight was the upper reaches of the hills he had so carefully navigated earlier. “Damn,” he said and turned his board toward shore. He had paddled right into a rip-current.

Despite his experience, panic made him do the ridiculous. He tried to paddle directly back toward shore. Each frantic stroke sapped him of vital strength. Where he gained a foot, he lost two. Every second, the flow of water carried him further from land. The ocean seemed to have discarded all the heat it gathered from the sun and was now as cold as the grave. Layers of protective rubber couldn't stop the fingers of icy water probing his skin, robbing him of his most precious resource - heat.

He battled the rip for what seemed like hours before the shakes began, torturing his already jaded muscles, but fear made him push through the agony. Slowly, the shakes dwindled, and the cold seemed more bearable, but he was so very tired. He continued to paddle, but his arms had gone to jelly. It wasn’t just tired, this was something more. He knew he was in trouble…big trouble. His body was shutting down. He’d heard about hypothermia but never thought it would happen to him. He dug deep and gave it one last try, but it was futile. He collapsed on the board, in utter exhaustion, letting his arms hang below the surface of the frigid water.

His could see his ragged breathing create tiny waves on the top of the water. He felt drugged, as if he were tripping. Piece by piece, his body was closing down. All the pain was gone, all the fear had vanished, and a state of complete calm descended on him. Euphoria engulfed him with warming hands and he felt start to take him. Heavier and heavier his eyes grew, until he could hold them open no longer. He was past caring when a wave tipped up his board and his body slipped into the ocean. Some ancient part of his brain sensed the danger and forced his eyes open one last time.

In the depths, shadows condensed, moulding themselves into gracefully swirling nymphs. They danced as if to welcome him to the kingdom of Neptune, a brother eventually come home. Without fear, or sadness, the surfer surrendered the last of his strength and accepted this final embrace.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Liebster Blog Award

The Liebster Blog Award is a way for bloggers to highlight Blog's and Bloggers that have small followings but deserve acknowledgement for their hard work, excellence and contribution to the world of Blogging. I was honoured to be Nominated by AJ Long who is one of the best bloggers out there always ready to give encouragement and advice when it is most needed.

So here we go!

The rules for accepting the Liebster Blog Award:
1- List eleven random facts about yourself.
2- Nominate eleven other bloggers.
3- Notify these bloggers.
4- Ask eleven questions that the bloggers must answer upon accepting the award.
5- Answer the eleven questions that you were asked when you were nominated.
6- Link back to the person who nominated you.


11 Facts about me you might not know.

1.       I have been a surfer for 18 years and still in love with it.

2.       I won a jumper once at a Christmas party for having the hairiest chest.

3.       I have wrote off one car.

4.       I have been back stage at a London west end show by accident (During the show)

5.       People are always asking me things in shopping centres as they think I work there

6.       I have a corgi – Holly and Half a corgi – Lofty (More precious than diamonds)

7.       I have slept in a phone box, the boot of a car and a bath to name only a few places.

8.       I like to collect my own fire wood, it makes the fire seem more deserved.

9.       I listen to classical music when alone, studying or writing.

10.   I spend more time on G+ than writing but this is a hobby after all and I Like G+

11.   I still can’t spell to save my life, thank god for spell check.


The 11 Bloggers that I would like to nominate for this award are as follows in no particular order.

Karie Thoma -
M.A. Barr -
Nikkah Lubanga -
Amy Galmos -
Ben Roach -
Matt Ewens -
Lynn Marie Le -
Dyane Forde -
Francine Hirst –  Puts her posts directly on Google +

It was super hard to just pick 11, I avoided picking ones that I knew AJ or others had already nominated.


11 Questions for the people I have nominated.

1.       Where were you when you had your first kiss.

2.       Your house is on fire what 3 things would you save (Kids and people excluded)

3.       What is your favourite blog post of your own blog.

4.       If you could switch with one person for 24 hours who would you pick

5.       What 4 famous people would you invite round to your house for dinner (Alive or dead)

6.       Your guilty pleasure.

7.       Nicest thing another person has ever done for you.

8.       Nicest thing you have done for a stranger

9.       What is your partners (Present or past) most annoying trait

10.   Greatest Fear

11.   Your new year’s resolutions from last year.


Here is my Answers to AJ Longs questions.
1. What was the funniest movie you have seen?
The life of Brian – hands down the funniest ever

2.What’s your earliest memory?
I remember trading my tricycle for a bag of marbles when I was 3, mom was not pleased 

3. What was your favorite school subject?
Building Technology and Tec Drawing

4. Have you EVER had a need to use algebra away from a school environment? (No, seriously!)

What’s algebra??? Only kidding, no

5. Do you understand modern art (or even know if it’s hanging the right way up?)

Understand it – no, like it - yes

6. Most enjoyable book?
Loved the first half of the stand by Stephen King, it made a great impact on me partly due to where I was in my life but then it got a bit airy fairy in the second half but still a great tale.

7. Ever spent money to buy something you really wanted, although you could hardly afford it at the time?

Yes I once got an advance on my wages to buy a surfboard I fell in love with, wish it was still with me but sadly it went to the surfboard heaven a few years back.

8. Apart from when you were a child, have you ever danced in the rain?
Yes and done a few other things in the rain as well. You should try it.

9. What country would you like to visit that you have not yet been to?

10. What makes you grumpy?
Stupidity in all its ugly forms

12. What’s your ’Go To’ switch to make you feel better on a gray day
Lofty and Holly my dogs 100% happy all the time.


So looking forward to hearing back from people listed above with their 11 answers and once again Thank you AJ and everyone that I could not nominate for making the world a more interesting place to live in. 

Squid McFinnigan

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Seventh and Lombard

Peg Magner and her family tumbled from a rotting ship onto the dock at Ellis Island, and thanked her lucky stars to be alive. It was a miracle they’d all survived the journey, while so many others bobbed in the waves between here and Ireland.

That joy was shattered the moment she set foot in the hellhole called The Five Points. After two weeks of that place, a quick death at sea seemed like blessing. Two weeks was more than enough to convince, Peg, that her family needed to find someplace better to live.

In the year 1872, Philadelphia was growing out of all proportion. It was turning from a waterside town, into a burgeoning metropolis. A constant flood of immigrants streamed from the harsh boroughs of New York to make their home there. Sean, Peg’s husband, was worried they would starve on the roadside before the journey was complete. However, in the end, the ragged family didn’t have to walk one mile.

Sean made a deal with a steam-boat captain. He agreed to load and unload the cargo, as well as paying a small fee, for which four miserable Irish wretches could sleep on deck among the casks of whiskey. Even though the fee was small, it represented nearly half of the family’s worldly wealth.

By the end of the loading, Sean’s hands were the colour and texture of minced meat. The day was all but gone when the boat slipped its mooring, and the smokestack belched dirty plumes into the night air. Sean staggered over to where Peg and the kids were huddled, and dropped to the deck.

“Sweet Mary above, what have they done to you?” she asked, seeing the blood drip from the ends of his trembling fingers. Peg bandaged his flayed hands with strips torn from her underskirts, and let him rest his head on her lap while he slept. The warmth rising from her body kept him warm as a stiff breeze whipped across the deck. Soon, she felt the waves raise the nose of the boat and a sheet of spray rained down on them. Peg gathered the children to her and wrapped her shawl around the tiny family.

The journey took two days and the passage was mercifully calm. The girls, both four, loved the adventure. But Peg herself did nothing but fret. How would they ever survive in this strange new world. The twins use the boat as their playground and raced between the stacks of barrels. Youth is an armour against the world. One girl was called Aishling, the other, Aine. Twin cherubs with flaming red curls and a face full of freckles.

On the afternoon of the second day, the ocean swell lessened dramatically and they entered the Delaware. It was such a huge expanse of water Peg wouldn’t believe it was just a river.

“Sean, is everything in this place so big?  Rivers as wide as the sea, land you couldn’t walk if you lived to be a hundred, and so many people,” Peg pondered, shaking her head at the water. He just made a comforting sound and put his arm around her shoulders. A few hours later, the banks closed in on them and she started to make out building behind the treeline. Soon, the buildings multiplied until there was no trees left.

A fog of smoke hung over the dock, as they moored in Philadelphia. Sean braced himself for the backbreaking task of unloading the boat. Peg had made pads from her only jacket, to cover his hands.

“Ah Peg, you’ve gone and destroyed your coat! Winter is coming, and you’ll need that more than I need these,” he said, when she presented him with the stitched woollen mitts.

“I need a husband able to work,” she said, and shoved him gently toward the gangway.

While Sean toiled, Peg and the girls went in search of lodgings. Wherever she looked, there were signs which said, “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish.” It was a mantra that she’d encountered often in New York. At first, she’d been shocked, but she soon became accustomed to the ignorance. She moved further and further into the city. At last she came across a segment of clapboard-houses, thrown up so shoddily, they seemed to be held up by the one next door. This teeter-totter of buildings housed dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Whole families living in one tiny room. Ten such families shared a privy if they were lucky, they slopped piss-buckets into the street, if they were not.

At last, she arranged a lease on a single room. She paid in advance for a month, and that dispensed with any money they had. They had a home, at least for a month, and that was something. It turned out that they were one of the few white families living in this part of Philly. It sat in a no-man’s land between Seventh, and Lombard Street. When Sean finished unloading the steamer, they carried all they owned on their backs, and moved into their new home.

It took a while, but Sean found work at a Tannery on the docks. He moved the stinking hides which were still slick with tallow. Every night, he washed in the freezing water of the Delaware, before making his way home. Even so, the smell of rotting flesh never left his skin.

It wasn’t all bad in their new home. Peg even found a little bit of Ireland in the shape of a small park, aptly named, Star Garden Park. The parks paths were lined with majestic trees. Someone had even hung a swing from a low-hanging bough. The girls loved to play there. Aine was a right whelp, and was always causing mischief. But Aishling was a pet.

On the last day of October, Peg and the girls were in the park, as always. Aishling and Aine were taking turns on the swing, while Peg sat on a nearby bench and fretted over the looming rent. It could have been a minute, or it could have been five, before Peg noticed the chatter of little girl voices had stopped. She looked up and Aishling was alone on the swing, gently swaying over and back.

Peg got to her feet and walked over, calling for Aine to come out of where she was hiding, but she didn’t. Peg checked all the bushes and trees, but her little Aine wasn’t hiding behind any of them. Dread filled Peg’s whole body. She grabbed Aishling from the swing and dragged her along as she searched every inch of the park, yelling herself raw. As a last resort, she ran back to the tenement, hoping against hope that Aine had come home by herself, but the tiny room was empty. Her unnatural cries of agony rang, they soon drew a crowd of black faces to her open door.

“What is it, Lady?” asked one girl.

“My baby is gone. My baby is taken,” Peg wailed at the gathering crowd. The slim young woman who had spoken ran away down the stairs. In minutes, she reappeared, shadowed by a huge breasted woman the colour of a starless night. The crowd parted before this woman like the Red Sea had done for Moses. Her face was a patchwork of long healed welts, raised by an expertly laid whip. Her eyes were brown, with yellowed whites. Her substantial lips were pursed and the flesh of her neck wobbled as she walked. The crowd fell back, respectfully bowing their heads.

“Lady, Lady,” said the thin girl, shaking Peg by the shoulder in an attempt to break through her hysterical crying. “Diss be Mama Tess, she is come to help, Lady.” The elderly woman squatted low on creaking knees. She roughly grabbed Peg’s face between two paddle-like hands. When Peg continued bawling, one hand lifted an inch, then landed a thunderous slap. The sound caught in Peg’s chest and her eyes finally registered the dark face floating inches from her own. Holding Peg’s chin, the woman gazed into Peg’s eyes. It was hypnotic.

After a second, the woman looked away, fixing her gaze on the tiny red-haired girl cowering in the corner. At last, the huge woman spoke, her voice deep and melodic; the words exotic. The thin girl translated the strange dialect for Peg’s benefit.

“Mama says it is not too late, the bond between such girls is strong. Your daughter can be found, but you must take us to where the little one was lost,” the young woman said. Mama dragged Peg to her feet with one beefy hand, while lifting Aishling into the crook of the other. Peg was shoved past the still growing crowd and down the stairs.

To begin with, her legs moved without her mind realising. What was happening was too much to cope with. But sanity returned and Peg burst into a run. This was her only hope of finding Aine.

Peg reached the swing well ahead of anyone else. Collapsing to the ground, she threw her arms around the plank of wood her daughter sat on not an hour past. A moment later she was roughly pushed aside by Mama, who placed a shocked Aishling on the seat. Mama kneeled, getting face to face with the child, then she began rocking over and back. From her huge chest a low hum of noises grew in strength until the air was filled with wild sounding words. Peg’s head began to spin. The crowd following them had swelled to nearly fifty, but none approached the Mama Tess, who they clearly held in awe. As the huge woman stroked Ashling’s cheek, her words grew in volume, and speed. Aishling’s eyes glazed over, Mama was now nose to nose with the child, peering deep into her hypnotised eyes. A second grew into two, two into an age. Peg and the crowd held their collective breaths. It was Mama who broke the spell by bounding to her feet and dashing off towards the far end of the park without even a word.

The crowd sprinted after her, like a pack of hounds on the scent of a fox. For an old woman, she was unbelievably fast. Even Peg, who was driven on by terror, found it hard to keep up. Mama Tess ran out of the small park, heading for the river. Down streets and lanes she led the still growing gang, Peg at the head of them all, with Aishling crushed to her chest as she ran.

Without warning, Mama Tess stopped at the door of a back-alley tavern. She flung it open with such force, she split one of the planks in half. Inside sat a group of rough looking mountain men. They wore untamed-beards and their clothes were made from animal pelt. Mama approached the group and pulled the one sitting nearest to his feet. He struggled in her grasp, but she had no problem holding him. She drew him close and her deep voice erupted in a fountain of blood curdling words. Her clawed hand carved symbol in the air, and the man shuddered. Her voice grew louder, foam appeared on the man’s lips, his eyes bulged and filled with blood. With a tremendous scream, Mama pushed the man away from her. He swayed on his feet, then gurgled, then crumpled to the table, dead. The rest of the mountain men were rooted to the spot. Mama Tess reached out and grabbed another man. This time her words were nearly English as she asked, “Girl chille!”

Mama Tess dropped the man from her grasp and watched him scurry to a bench along the back wall. He shoved a bench away to reveal a trap door. Mama Tess hooked the door with one meaty finger and threw it open. Inside huddled, Aine, her bright red curls shaking with fear. Peg rushed forward and plucked her precious girl from the dank hole, bedraggled, but alive.

As she cradled, Aine, she looked at the strange, Mama Tess, and knew she would never be able to repay her…never. As if reading her mind, the huge black lady smiled, then simply walked away.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Cliff Dive

There are times in your life when going back, or going forward, seem equally impossible, but staying putt is unthinkable.

Since graduating as a fully-fledged grown-up, these situations mostly present themselves in the guise of mental dilemmas; choosing between the right thing and the easy thing. Whenever I have one of these decisions to face, I remember a time when I was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I was fourteen and the summer holidays were more than half gone. I was making pocket money by doing odd jobs for neighbours and bringing in hay for local farmers. A few houses up the road lived a widow called, Mrs Ryan. Every Saturday morning, I would cut her lawn and earn fifty pence. It was only a small lawn and back then fifty pence would buy four bars of chocolate. This particular Saturday morning, when I pushed my Dads rusty petrol mower up the road towards Mrs Ryan's, I found that the normally empty drive was occupied by a brand new car with a Dublin registration plate.

New cars were a bit of a novelty, but the grass wouldn’t cut itself, and I had two more lawns to do. I pulled the ripcord and the mower spluttered into life. I was making short work of the lawn, racing up and down like a kid possessed, when I noticed her watching me. She was about my age or a year older, she stood taller than me, with shoulder length blond hair. She wore a Duran Duran tee-shirt, skin-tight jeans and white deck shoes. My heart spluttered, just like the battered lawn mower, and I was sure it was going to cut out.

I got to the end of my cut, stopping directly in front of her. A cool kid would have said, Hi, or waved, or something. I just turned and started another cut. The sweat was running down my back and my face was as red as a beetroot. I eventually got to the far end of the lawn and was forced to turn back. The excitement in my heart died, she was gone.

In the space of one strip of lawn, I’d fallen in love, ended up broken hearted, and alone. It took another ten minutes to finish the job, but she’d not reappeared. I was giving serious consideration to starting the job over again when she walked around the corner, with a glass of lemonade in her hand, and a snarl on her face.

"Gran said to give you this," she said, thrusting the glass at me.

"Thanks," I said, getting even redder.

"Is your name really Squid?" she asked.

"Yea," I said, not seeming to be able to say more than one word at a time.

"Gan said to give you this as well," she said and held out a fifty-pence piece. The tiny wage shamed me. I really wanted to say, keep it, but money is money.

"Thanks," I said, quickly taking the coin and making it vanish into my pocket. My fingertip brushed the skin of her palm and electricity jumped from my skin to my brain. It was like touching a piece of heaven. She must have felt it because she pulled her hand away like she had been stung.

"Is that your car, " I asked, finally getting my voice to work a little.

"It's my Moms. She made us come," she said with the hint of a sulk in her voice. "I didn't want to come, culchies are boring. It smells like cow shit here."

I was a bit offended but not enough to overcome the stars in my eyes. Actually, her comment just made her appear more worldly. I was quite literally, sunk.

Her name was, Denise, and she was not alone in her enforced visit to her grandmother, who seemed equally grumpy with the invasion of her house. Denise had two brothers, one older than her, one younger. It was great to have people my own age on my door step, it only took us minutes to make friends.

They were world-wise, big-city slickers, and I was the country bumpkin determined not to be left behind. The week seemed to slip by so quickly. We made a rope swings and tied it to the branch of the big pine tree at the end of the garden, we cooked potatoes in tinfoil by tossing them in a bonfire, they told me tales of the city while I tried not to stare at their sister too much. 

Towards the end of the week, Denise made a throwaway remark about how a black-tee shirt made a man look sexy. That night, I begged my mother to get me a black-tee shirt because, 'MY LIFE DEPENDS ON IT'. I’m sure she only wanted to make an eejit of the dumb cluchie, but I didn’t care, I was getting a black tee-shirt, come hell or high water.

The Saturday before they were due to leave, Denise, her older brother Daren, and myself, rounded up three bikes and headed for the ocean. Denise said she wanted to go out along the headland, it was a lovely day and Daren kept racing past, showing off. Truth be told, I wished he'd never slow down, or vanish completely. That hour, riding along beside this gorgeous girl, was perfect. For a time, she even forgot I was a culchie. Freewheeling down a hill, her hair spread out behind her in the warm summer breeze, she was beautiful.

We ended up out on the tip of the headland and abandoned the bikes to walk to the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t very high but standing on the edge, it felt high. I looked straight down into the dark green of the Atlantic Ocean and felt my toes tingle. It was only about twenty or thirty feet to the water, so we sat on the edge, letting the sun bake our already crispy skin.

"I bet you wouldn’t jump," Daren needled me.

"Neither would you, " I countered.

"Ok, I will, if you will," he said.

 My stomach bunched. I don't like heights, but I am a good swimmer. It looked so far down. Perhaps I was wrong about the height, it was growing by the second. I glanced over and saw Denise watching me. She was leaning back, her long legs dangling over the edge. I desperately wanted her to see me as something more than a geeky kid who lived next door to her Grandmother.

"Right, you’re on," I said. Daren and myself got to our feet and began stripping off. He went all the way to his y fronts but I kept my jeans on. No way I was going down to my underwear in front of Denise.

"You first," Daren said, standing back from the edge.

I inched forward, hooking my toes over the edge of the rock and looked out. My legs began to shake, I was sure I was doing something that could actually kill me. I was truly terrified; I could feel the sting of tears come to my eyes. How did I get myself into this? I was sure I was going to wet my pants. How could I get out of this without looking like a total prat?

I was frozen, behind me was a girl I was mad about, in front of me, certain death. That was when I felt a tear slip over my eyelid and escape down my cheek. That tiny tear set me free. There was no way that I would cry in front of her. I launched myself out as far as I could and plunged forever through the air.  The world was silent and even seemed to slow down. The water got closer and closer, but seemed to take forever to arrive.

Boom, it exploded around me, in a cloud of white bubbles. I vanished below the surface. At first, I sank, but when I realised, I was still alive, adrenalin coursed through my veins. I kicked for the light and exploded into the air. Two shocked faces peered down at me from above as I hollered and punched the air.

Then an amazing thing happened, she smiled at me and I was falling once more. Daren never jumped, and the climb back up the cliff was nearly as scary as the jump, but I had done it, and survived.

Then next day, she went back to Dublin. I never saw her again but that's not the point. For one second, nothing was impossible. In that look, I got a glimpse of paradise.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Blood Red Rose

My great aunt Betty married an English man by the name of James Ramsey, in 1950. It was a chance meeting during a trip to Dublin. The importance of grasping opportunities for happiness was a lesson drilled into them by the horror of war, so recently ended. After the wedding, she and James made the move to London, where there were plenty of opportunities for work. She tried to settle in England, but it was a step to far for a girl from west Kerry. Three months later, Betty arrived back, leaving James behind, a heart broken man. Our poor Betty was a ruined woman, well at least she was for forty-eight hours Two days after Betty arrived, a tall handsome man came wandering up the tractor path on Kerry head, with a battered suit case swinging jauntily from his long arm. James was home.

Don’t underestimate how difficult life was for an English man in Ireland at that time, but James was a resolute individual, who was decent to his core. It wasn't long before he was deeply in love with west Kerry, and grew more in love with Betty every single day. In the following years, even the most die-hard republicans were won over by this quiet, happy, gentleman. They went as far as conveniently forgetting his nationality, and rechristening him, “Posh James,” because of his rolling Yorkshire accent.

Stories of life on this most westerly point of Europe will have to wait for another day. Today, I wish to tell you a story of death. The death of a great man. Uncle James passed away quietly in his sleep, aged seventy-eight years of age. Betty was ten years his junior, and still in the prime of her life, according to everyone. The evening after James died, I was called to their small cottage. My mother and Betty sat beside the open fire, warding off the chill in the air. Winter still had the world in its relentless grip. 

“Harold, we need you to go with Betty, and Uncle James, to France,” Mom said.

“Why France?” I asked, skipping over the fact that Uncle James was in no state to take trips anywhere.

“It's a request in James' will. He wanted to be buried in Dunkirk Town cemetery. He's had a plot there for well over forty years. Did you know that James was part of the Miracle of Dunkirk?” Mom asked?

“No, but I read about it in school. Was James there?" Aunt Betty nodded but it was too painful to talk, she just folded her hands in her lap and let her tears fall upon them.

As amazing as the escape from Dunkirk was, my tale is not about that day either. The only reason I mention it at all, is to explain how it happened, on a miserable winter’s day, Aunt Betty and myself took off from Shannon Airport, with poor Uncle James all boxed up with the luggage, heading for the green fields of France.

When we arrived, we cleared customs and waited in a private room while the arrangements for Uncle James’s burial were completed. A hearse, and a car for us, had been arranged. When all the paperwork was in order, we were fetched by a stoic official and escorted to a side entrance. It would seem the sight of a coffin going on or off an airplane did nothing for the comfort of other passengers. Outside the weather was bitterly cold, the snow that had fallen a few days ago was now frozen solid on the ground. Even with strong shoes, and two pairs of socks, my feet were numb.

The drive to Dunkirk took over four hours in the treacherous conditions. At last, we pulled into a little graveyard on the edge of town. A substantial memorial was erected to the fallen of the Great War, many of whom lay here in final rest. A small group stood beside an open grave, the priest came and opened the door of the car for my Aunt. They spoke briefly, before the pole bearers took James on their shoulders and began the ceremony with an air of deep respect. 

The small procession neared the edge of the grave. Prayers were said with efficiency and care, Uncle James was lowered into the still frozen earth, and Aunt Betty cried as she tossed a hand full of soil on the polished wood that held her whole world. In the distance I heard singing; sad and mournful. The priest stopped in mid-prayer and looked beyond us. We all turned to see what had distracted him. Coming up the path, directly toward us, was a group of people at least a hundred strong. At the head of them all was a slight lady, who was just as old as Aunt Betty, or even older.

She was a dozen paces ahead of everyone else but none of the group made any attempt to assist her, they just followed. Every head was bowed and all were singing quietly. The old woman's white hair hung to her shoulders, around which hung a heavy shawl. Her legs moved determinedly under her long woollen skirt, but the feet which poked out from beneath were bare. Even from this distance, I could see the pink stains she was leaving behind on the ice as she walked. The frozen ground had cut her skin to ribbons. It must have been agony.

None of us moved as the group neared the grave. Step by step, the older woman approached and I could see she had tears running freely down her face. From under her shawl she produced a perfect red rose, with fully open petals. She laid the bloom in the snow at the foot of James' head stone, a monument which had been erected years ago. She touched the inscription with trembling hands, and traced the words, “Bombardier James Ramsey, 1918 –  “ the final date yet to be added. The lady spoke in a language that I couldn't understand, and caressed the name again and again. It was clear she was saying her good byes. 

At last, she turned to Aunt Betty and embraced her as if they were lifelong friends. Only then would she let anyone assist her. A group of young women came forward and lead the lady away on bleeding, agonized, feet. One by one the huge crowd came forward and embrace my Aunt with unashamed tears in their eyes. I was dumbfounded at this display of raw emotion from a group of complete strangers, until one man shook my hand and said in English. “We’ve come to say thanks for all our lives. To your, Mr James,” he said, with a huge smile.

“I don’t understand, who are you? Who is that lady?” I asked, pointing to the old woman being helped into a shiny black limousine.

“That's my Grandmother, Hattie, we're from Belgium. During the war, Mr James was shot down on the way back from a bombing raid over Germany. He parachuted out near Zulte. My great-grandparents came across him, hanging from a tree, he’d been knocked out cold. They took him to their farm and hid him in a barn. Hattie was sent to the barn with soup, when the solders came. Hattie wanted to run back to the house and fight, but James held her tight, covering her cries, as the solders tortured and killed the whole family. That day, she lost her Mother, Father and two brothers. None of them broke under torture, knowing if they told, Hattie would die too. 

When the solders left, James released his hold on Hattie and she cursed and hit your Uncle, saying that if he'd never come, her family would still be alive. She blamed him for everything. He knew they would die if they stayed where they were and insisted, they try to escape. My Grandmother fought him at every turn, but Mr James refused to abandon her. He kept her with him, gave her all the food they managed to find, and covered her in his clothes. He even gave her his boots filled with straw when hers fell apart. 

It took them three weeks to reach the French border, and another one before he found sanctuary for my Grandmother with the French resistance. The last thing she did before your Uncle left was to spit in his face and slap him hard. She knew by the look in his eyes, that he blamed himself a thousand times more for her family's death than she ever could, but her anger would never let her admit such a thing. In life, she never got the chance to forgive him, and now it is too late. The day she heard of Mr James’s burial she knew she had to make right that insult, after all, without him she would have surely died. We are her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. She gathered us and told us it was time to honour a man who was father to us all. She told us for the first time how she escaped the Gestapo. Once we heard it, nothing would keep us away. When we arrived at the square in Dunkirk, Hattie made us stop the cars. She stripped off her shoes and said if James could walk for a week barefoot in such cold, the least she could do was walk the last five miles to say sorry.”

I looked at my Aunt as she was embraced by yet another tearful stranger, and I saw her bewilderment at this amazing, heart-warming, outpouring of emotion. I felt pride swell my heart, proud that I'd known this amazing man; a man who had chosen to share so little of his greatness, but always gave his love to others without question. My Uncle James.