Friday, 16 December 2016

Today without Tomorrow










What would you do if there were no tomorrow?









Most of us never give the future a second thought, we assume its coming, and there will be plenty for all we wish to achieve.

What if you knew there was going to be no tomorrow, or even a limited amount of them? What would you do differently should you know the last date on your calendar?

Would you change the big things or concentrate on the little?
Would you do something for another or something for yourself?
Would you chase a goal or live for the moment?
Would you give rather than receive?
Would you hold a hand, love a lover, kiss for the longest time, smile, dance, play or sing?
Would you make your dreams come true or be the dream to another?
Would you make the world you're leaving better or grab the last moments for yourself?


Tomorrow is never guaranteed. We may have a thousand, we may have none. It is only when we think about such a possibility can we truly judge the importance of what we do. It is only in the light of finality that we can weigh action against the outcome. Too often I think we get caught up in the delusion of infinity which blinds us to the true treasures in life. 


Take a look at your day and ask yourself, is this want I'd do with my last? 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Let it Snow

Sometimes memories are connected to the strangest of things. It might be a smell, or a particular sound or something else entirely that whisks you back to a moment in time which will live with you forever. One such thing for me is snow, and seeing those first fluffy white crystals falling from the dark clouds above. I know most people love snow and it reminds them of snowball fights and building snowmen and frozen fingers. It reminds me of those things as well but also another more precious memory. 

When I was growing up, things in Ireland were particularly tough. Interest rates on mortgages had reached as high as twenty percent, and a huge amount of people were out of work. My Dad had a good job in a factory, but when the government benefits ran out for the owners, they simply pulled out and left hundreds of people high and dry.

I was only small, six or perhaps seven, and although we never wanted for anything, even I noticed how tight things were. We had to sell our nice big house and move to an old cottage, further out in the country. It was basic, to say the least. No running water, no central heating, there wasn't even a toilet; but that didn't matter to me. It was all one big adventure. The great thing about being small is you don't care how new your clothes are, or if your shoes had an owner before you. The only thing you want is to be loved, to have fun and feel safe. I had all of those things in abundance.

It wasn’t so easy on the grownups. Now that I’m older, I know they would have wanted to give us the best of things, and when they couldn’t, it hurt. That time was very hard on my Dad in particular, who was doing everything he could to keep bread on the table. For a while, he had no car and had to thumb or walk where ever he needed to go in search of work.

This particular year, Christmas was coming, and I can tell you we were as excited as any kids in the country, just dying to see what Santa would bring. By the time Christmas Eve rolled around I’m sure we were stretching every nerve our parents possessed. Then it happened; snow!

Some of what happened I remember, and some my Mom told me years later, but as soon as the snow began to stick, my Dad vanished. Night fell, and he still hadn't returned. I remember going to bed half excited about Santa coming and half worried about where Dad. When the morning came, which might have been the middle of the night, because what kid can sleep late on Christmas morning, we found a huge timber sledge under the tree. It was big enough to take all three of us, it had a rope handle for pulling it and tin runners to make it fly down the snow-covered slopes. We nearly never get snow over here, so I would bet we were the only children with a toboggan that snowy Christmas morning.

What we didn't know was that Dad had gone to our old house as soon as the snow began. He walked there and it must have been nine miles. He might not have been able to buy us much, but he was a wizard with his hands. In our old shed, he spent that whole dark night building us a once in a lifetime gift. I have always pictured him, trudging through the freezing night, dragging the sledge home for us.

That is the image that comes to my mind every time it snows, and I can honestly say, no children ever had better parents. Thanks Dad. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thanksgiving and Stuff

I wanted to wish all my friends in America (and Canada for that matter) a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I hope you really enjoy the holiday.

So, on the drive home from work, I began thinking about that word, Thanksgiving, and being thankful in general. I asked myself if I had to point at one thing that I was truly thankful for, what would it be?

I started running through the list of stuff which might make the top ten list:

I am thankful for the roof over my head. Sure it could be bigger or newer, but I love it, and it's mostly mine.

I am thankful for the fact I have a good job, but sometimes I would love a wee holiday.

I am thankful for my health, its good, not great but I have all the bits I started out with.

I am thankful for my friends, the few I have are cool people, and I like them.

I am thankful for my writing, its fun and I have gained more satisfaction from it than most deserve.

I am thankful for my family, the best a man could ever have but I would imagine most would say that about theirs.

I am thankful for the few euro in my pocket, it's a few more than many have.

I am thankful for the food in my belly, and the stuff still in the fridge.

I am thankful for my dogs, the best four-legged little hunger machines you have ever encountered.

I am thankful for the loves I've had in my life, and that none of them has treated me too bad.

I am thankful for the peaceful time I live in, I know not everywhere, but in this place, at this time, things are cool.


I considered all of these, and yes, I am very very grateful for them all, but none of them stood out as the thing I would shake God's hand for giving me. Honestly, I might well be just as happy with less or still unhappy if I had more.

I changed the question and asked myself, what is the one thing, that one tiny thing, which would make it all useless if it were taken away?

I came up with only one answer for that one.

Tomorrow.

So, I would like to thank whatever great creator there exists for the fact there is going to be a tomorrow. A day where I can find a new love, make a new friend, tell my family I'd pick no other, remember the good times, make sense of the bad ones, help another find a roof, share a euro where it's needed, pass on a little knowledge, spread some peace and leave this place better than when I found it.

That would be a fantastic tomorrow.

Oh!! I nearly forgot. Holly and Lofty, my dogs, both get as many belly rubs as they want.


Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and to you all a wonderful tomorrow.

Squid

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Poison

She looked at me with those huge almond-shaped eyes of hers, her face unreadable, and waves of pure innocence radiated from them. She moved closer, causing the leather seat to groan with pleasure as it flexed beneath her bare skin. Her irises were deep brown, with tiny flecks and imperfections, and to me, they were bottomless pools of happiness. Our faces were only inches apart, I could feel her breath play across my skin. She inhaled, making the gold chain I'd given her, twinkle in the reflected light of the dashboard. She rolled her bottom lip and bit down on it, making tiny indents on the cherry red skin.

How many times had I tasted those lips? She was a flavour I would die for. Love made my heart hammer at my chest but my mind was filled with doubt. I wanted to be in this moment forever, and at the same time, something screamed at me to run. The magnificence of her eyes held me in a wordless stupor, while her scent invaded my body and dulled my senses.

“I need you,” she whispered, her voice husky with sex. I felt my pulps expand to their maximum so I wouldn’t miss an ounce of her beauty.

“You’re the only one I can trust,” she said, cupping my face with tender fingers. Her long lashes fluttered as she closed in on me with aching slowness. Sparks of desire crackled through my mind, threatening to send me insane, and then, at last, our lips collided and I was hers.

All too soon she pulled away. I was ravenous for her and tried to draw her toward me. I wanted to devour her, but she resisted. She leaned across me and opened the car door. Outside, the night was crisp and bright, illuminated by a full moon. A lane ran up the hill and finished in front of an expansive house. I looked back at her and thought I saw something unnerving in the depths of her eyes. For a moment she seemed older, colder, but then I looked again and she was my love once more.

“I'll be yours forever,” she said and smiled. I looked down at the blade in my hand and knew I was powerless to resist. I had to have her and this was the only way. Afraid to look back, afraid to pause, I hurried into the unknown.

The building seemed to fly toward me like a living thing. The doorknob turned silently in my hand, just as she’d promised it would. On weightless feet, I glided up the stairs and paused at the top. To the right was the half-open door which flooded the darkness with deep animal-like snores. The sound was fitting for the beast which nested within. I tightened my grip on the blade and felt my gut knot with hate. I didn’t have to look inside to witness the vast bloated body, floundering in a sea of silk sheets. She'd described the scene to me a hundred times, my mind endured what she endured and my soul was as tarnished as hers.

The sounds he made conveyed every slobbering twitch of his jowls while he grunted his way through debauched dreams. In the darkness, my ears had become my eyes, and I could see all. I could see the monster forcing himself on her, defiling her in unnatural ways, revelling in her shame.  How many times had she described her torment at his hands? How had she survived? Had she survived? I’d lost count of the times we'd made tender love, while tears still glistened on her perfect face. Once, as she lay collapsed on my chest, she'd said she’d always known I'd come to save her.

I watched the moonlight dance on the edge of the blade and imagined driving it deep into his gut. How I wanted to send that bastard straight to hell for what he’d done to her. I knew I’d be doing the world a favour, but she insisted the weapon should not to be used. The knife was just a threat, should anything go wrong.  

The door on the left was her dressing room. A royal bounty of clothes to make a prisoner into a queen. I moved as quietly as a cat, but the door gave a tiny squeal. I froze, listening. The pig grunted once, then once again, before settling back into a deafening slumber. Inside the dressing room, the walls were lined with rails which groaned under couture gowns. The deep rosewood drawers held a thousand treasures, but I sought only one. In the middle of the back wall, I knelt and eased open a door which looked like all the others.  The cold steel face of the safe was hidden inside. The only thing the beast guarded more diligently than his queen, was his gold.

When she'd left the house earlier, she'd told him her sister was ill in hospital. Unfortunately, that meant she couldn’t get her valuables out of the house. He checked the contents of the safe every night. One more way he had of keeping her chained to him. We need time to disappear or he would chase her down; this is why I find myself sneaking into the house in the dead of night. A new life is expensive, and these were her jewels, she'd paid for them in blood and tears.

As I readied myself to enter the code, I pulled some dresses from the rail. She’d said the safe would beep and that I should use something to hide the noise.  I typed in the numbers she had given me and twisted the handle. The door opened easily. Inside were fist-sized bundles of money lying on a small mountain of black-satin bags.

“What the blazes are you doing?” snarled a whisky roughened voice behind me.

The beast was awake! I barrelled my way through the dark and collided shoulder first with his flabby stomach. I heard the air whoosh through his mouth which would have made his multiple chins wobble.

Run. Run. Run!!! My mind screamed, and thankfully, my leg’s obeyed.  

I was at the top of the stairs when all the lights came on. My foot was midway toward the first step when I saw her standing in the hall. Why had she followed me in? Had she come to save me? Run my love! I thought. In that instant, an explosion filled the air and fire ripped through my back. I was hurled into the void and began to drop. Time slowed down as I fell and I saw the edge of the step rise up to crash into my exposed neck. I counted the bones' as they snapped, and watched helplessly as the marble floor rushed up at me.

I lay twisted at an impossible angle with my sweetheart looking down on me. Her face was calm and radiant; I tried to extend an arm to her, but my body wouldn't respond.

“Careful, he’s got a knife!” cried the beast from the top of the stairs.

“I don’t think he is any danger-not anymore,” she said, her tone flat. She must be in shock, I thought. I tried to tell her I was alright but I only managed to cough up some blood.

“I’m calling the police,” he said.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “You get some clothes on before they get here.”

That’s my girl, I thought. Give us time to get away. I tried to smile at her, and I think I managed it. She walked forward, hunkered down and reached for me.

“I’m just winded,” I managed to whisper. She smiled, but her hand didn’t take mine. Instead, she lifted the knife from my gloved hand, stood, and walked into the kitchen. I heard the water running for a second, and when she appeared, she was drying her hands on a tea towel. Again, she hunkered down. This time, she pulled the gloves off my hands and placed them in the pocket of my jacket. I couldn’t understand what she was doing, but she must have some sort of plan. Then she took the cordless phone from the wall.

“Help me up,” I groaned, the words were agony to get out, and more coughing came. This time I managed to raise my hand and was shocked to see it covered in blood. I could feel the heat rushing from my body. She shuffled back a step, avoiding my fingers, but her eyes were still soft and innocent. She watched me, the phone dangling in her hand. First her head cocked left, then right, before lifting the phone to punch in three numbers. She waited in silence.

I heard a click on the line and it was like something inside her snapped. She bellowed and screamed, saying in between heaving sobs. “Please, please hurry. My husband shot him! He’s dead! He’s dead!" There was more sobbing before she choked out the address and then started to scream again, this time she yelled at nobody in particular, “No, no, no, no! Don’t kill me! Don’t kill…” then she smashed the phone on the marble floor.

As quickly as she became agitated, she became calm again. I couldn’t feel my legs, my head was swimming with lightness, and I could hear my heart hammering a mile a minute in my chest. I tried to speak, but no words would come. In some ancient part of my brain realisation struck. She was like one of those beautiful forest mushrooms, the ones with fantastic colours that promised bliss, but delivered only poison.

As darkness crept into the corners of my vision, I saw her run her hands through the blood on my arms and chest before rubbing it on her face and clothes. She ripped open her blouse and bashed her head viscously three times against the edge of a hall table. With the last ounce of life in my body, I forced my eyes to stay open. Her beautiful face was already beginning to swell when she said, “I knew I could count on you.” Then she smiled, and my world was filled with those amazing lips, those poison lips.



“What the hell is going on?” roared the beast from above. She turned her face up with a scowl and flipped him the finger before calmly walking out the front door and into the night. 

If you liked this little tale, you would love the book. Click the link to take a look.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why?

Wall Street. It's the centre of the universe, or at least it is to men like Andrew Bergen.

The day was over, the trades had all been made, and once that final bell sounded, the universe slept once more until Andrew, and his ilk prodded it into life anew.

He loved the thrill of the trade, the rush having millions of dollars pass through his fingers. A buy here, a sell there, dispensed with a flick of his pen. Whenever he was tossing in the maelstrom of the trading floor, he felt truly alive. His blood surged, his mind hummed with electrical current fizzing from his nerve endings as he calculated each possible outcome. A rush like that can only last for so long, and like every high, the accompanying low is devastating. It was the end of the day that killed him, the tumble from such a lofty realm sucked the marrow from his bones. Drained, deflated and dejected he filled out his returns, dotted his I's and crossed his t's, before joining the thousands of faceless drones leaving the city.

As he was spat out onto the street by the revolving door of his office, his end of day doom seemed even worse than usual. Was this all there was to it? Was this what life was? An endless series of days chasing wisps of greatness? Why did winning feel so hollow? He felt smothered and looked around for somewhere to catch his breath.

While Wall Street is synonymous with wealth and success, the actual street fails to impress. It is narrow, overcast, without a tree or a blade of grass to be seen. The real display of power sits at its confluence with the mighty Broadway. Trinity Church. Andrew looked at the spire rising high above him and felt in need of enlightenment. He trudged toward it, carrying his seven hundred dollar briefcase, and wearing a thousand dollar suit, but he was lost in a vast sea of similar men. He mounted the steps and paused just shy of the top. As his foot hovered over the threshold he felt like a fraud, it had been years since he'd been to a service and in the end, he contented himself with sitting on the top step.

City life is strange. Everyone always has someplace to go, always in a rush. Andrew became acutely aware he had abandoned the herd as soon as his keister touched the cold stone. In the city that never sleeps, he dared stop for no reason at all. He could sense others veer away as they passed this strange seated man in a suit, afraid whatever aliment afflicted him might jump their way.

"I'm Sophie, what's your name?" a high confident voice floated in the air. He looked around and standing behind him was a little girl dressed in dungarees, with ruby red shoes, and blond hair falling over her shoulder in a ponytail. She may have been five or even six, but her words were as well formed as any he'd heard while working. A lady stood beside the tiny girl having one of those New York phone conversations, loud and unabashed because she was as good as alone among a sea of strangers. The lady held the little girl's hand firmly, but that was where her attention finished.

Sophie extended her chubby little hand and smiled. She held it there, undaunted, as Andrew wondered what he should do. In the end, social compunction drove him forward. He gripped her tiny fingers softly and gave the hand two good shakes and said "Andrew." It was his boardroom handshake. Why had he given this little girl his boardroom hand shake?

"Why are you sitting down? Are you tired?" she asked simply and regarded him with incredibly old eyes.

"Yes, a bit. It's been a long day."

"Me too. I go to school, over there," she said pointing toward some point that made sense in her mind.

"Excellent," said Andrew hoping this kid would leave it at that.

"Where do you go to school?"

"I don't, I work," said Andrew feeling compelled to answer.

"Where?"

"Down there," he said pointing along the winding length of Wall Street.

"What do you do?" she asked and tilted her head to one side.

"It's hard to explain," he said not wanting to try and dumb down his job for some kid he didn't even know.

"Do you make something?"

This kid wasn't going to give up. "I make money, sweetie."  As soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew the answer was far too glib for a five-year-old, it had gotten him plenty of attention from tanked up twenty-five-year-olds, but for Sophie, the answer seemed too childish.

"Wow, you're the man who makes Dollars!" her tiny face exploding with excitement.

"I don't actually make them, I sell things and buy things."

Sophie’s smile slipped a bit, "You work in a store?"

"Not a store, it’s complicated."

"Why?" she asked her smile vanishing and her look becoming serious. Andrew turned slightly on his step to face the little girl.

"It's like this. People give people like me money. I take that money, and I buy stock, and when I think the time is right, I sell that stock to somebody else and I make money."

"Sounds easy."

"Sure does, but it’s hard to do right."

"What do people do with stock?"

"They don't do anything, they sell it to someone else."

"Everyone is buying and selling the same stuff all the time? Stuff you don't do anything with?"

"I guess."

"That's silly," she said smiling.

"It's not silly, it's called commerce, it's what keeps the world working. You will learn about it one day."

"But nobody makes anything, how do you get stuff?"

"I buy things with the money I make, lots of stuff."

"Like in a store?"

"Yea."

"It's making my head hurt," said Sophie with a sad smile.

"Mine too sometimes. Commerce is just math really."

"I'm good at math, but my teacher is terrible," said Sophie sticking out her bottom lip a little bit.

"Why do you think that?"

"Yesterday she asked me if I had three apples and I got two more at the store, how many apples would I have? I told her three, but she said I was wrong."

"The answer is five apples," said Andrew helpfully.

"No, the answer is, I don't like apples, so I'd buy oranges in the store. I'd still have three apples, but I'd eat the oranges because they are yummy!" said Sophie rubbing her belly and licking her lips.

Andrew's face cracked wide open with a laugh, and he slapped his knee. "You're one clever girl."

She leaned in conspiratorially and cupped her hand over her mouth as she whispered, "I know."

She looked at him seriously and said, "I have an idea."

"What is it?" he asked charmed an intrigued by this little creature.

"You should build a machine that makes hours. Mom says there's never enough hours. You could sell them to the stock people."

"That is a great idea, you could help me build it."

"I can't, silly," she giggled.

"Why?"

"I'm only five," she laughed and smiled her knowing smile.


At that moment Sophie's Mom finished her call and tugged on the girl's arm without even looking at who she was talking too. "Come on Sophie, we're late."

"See," called the little girl happily as she was hauled down the steps and into the flow of people, "told ya!"

Andrew watched the little blond head bob away into the distance, skipping by her mother's side and he realised that his cloud of doom was gone. He began the walk to the subway with a grin a mile wide. Step by step he replayed the conversation in his mind. The more he thought about what she had said, the more sense it made. Layer on layer of truth began to appear in such simple questions. Was this the reason for his unending conflict of emotions? He scratched his head in wonder and as insane as it seemed, he was sure he'd just bumped into one of the most incredible people on the planet.

With his whole life laid bare on a slab before him, there seemed to be only one question that needed answering.


Why?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Stopped in My Tracks by the Moon

Tonight is a perfectly calm, crisp and cloudless night in Kerry. I finished up in the pub, did all my bobs and jobs before driving home as normal. The roads were empty, and the temperature gauge on my car showed a brisk two degrees. The way I come takes me over a low hill, from the top of which you can see right across the valley to the hills in the distance. Tonight when I rounded that last bend, something spectacular was waiting for me.

A huge crescent moon hung just above the floor of the valley, in a night sky so dark, it may as well be painted black. It looked as if the moon was hanging directly over a tiny town in the distance, shining down on it in utter brilliance. The whole scene was serene and otherworldly. I know this is a trick of the atmosphere, bringing the moon so close you think you could touch it, but I really did feel that way. Right there at that moment, the universe held up a tiny part of its beauty to be compared alongside the work of man, and our efforts looked puny in comparison.

I pulled the car over and got out. It was amazing! Then I did the same idiot thing everyone seems to do these days, I took out my phone and tried to take a photo of it. After a few shaky looking snaps of a bright dot in the sky, I realised I was an idiot and put the phone away. I stood there for a good ten minutes, undisturbed by even one other car and watched this huge astral artwork move slowly skyward.

When I eventually got back in my car, I knew I had seen something very special, and the only sad part was, I had nobody there with me to share the experience. I may have been the only person in this part of the world, who saw that moon, from that angle, at that moment, and that knowledge made me sad. I wanted to wake everyone I knew up and let them see what I had seen, I wanted to be able to share that moment with someone special, it may well have acted as a wedding ring for the soul, but that wasn't meant to be.

So what better way to celebrate the gift's of the heavens than with music.




Here are the crappy phone shots just to prove how silly amazing things look when we view the world through a phone.



(This one was taken lower down the valley closer to the village.)



Thursday, 20 October 2016

Poker Face

God, weddings can be the most boring and drawn out things in the world, particularly the speeches. I nearly lose the will to live when I see a microphone being passed to a nervous father of the bride. All that changed the day Bridie and Eamon got married.

I'm sure weddings all over the world are a bit different, but in Ireland, we tend to sit down for a meal with the wedding party on one long table at the top of the room, while the rest of us sit at tables of ten, or twelve. Sometime you get to choose where you sit, but then there are times you don’t. Those are extra torturous occasions, where you end up sitting beside people you’ve never seen before, and will never see again. It’s not so bad if you're a couple, but at Eamon's wedding, I was that awkward single workmate. It was like feeding a live mouse to a room full of snakes.  

Eamon, the groom, was about the only person I knew at the wedding. During the pre-dinner drinks reception, I got a look at the table-plan. I was pencilled in on table thirty-two, right at the back of the room, but at least it was near the bar. I pulled out my chair and sat to the right of two elderly ladies who turned out to be spinster sisters. They were lovely, in a sipping sherry kind of way. At the other side of me was a couple who seemed to be fighting; talk about frosty. Thank God there were a few younger people at the table as well.  

Grace was said, and the and meal started. As the courses vanished, it became clear that Brian, one of the younger men, was determined to be the centre of attention. He had a good few pints under his belt and was dominating the conversation while his much younger girlfriend tried to set a world record for free wine top-ups.

The other dominant force at the table was, Fiona, who clearly knew Brian. Fiona was gorgeous and bubbly, if not the sharpest chisel in the box. Her boyfriend, Tony, smiled in all the right places, laughed at all the right jokes, but seemed a little distant. It was around the desert time I found out why.

It seemed, Brian and Fiona had a short-lived relationship while they were at college. While they seemed comfortable with this, Tony clearly wasn't. Fiona didn’t help the situation when she laughingly grabbed Brian's arm to stop him recounting some saucy titbit from their past. As tea was served, a hotel manager appeared behind the best man with a microphone in his hand.

"Oh Lord, the speeches are starting," I said out loud, my words heavy with impending doom.

"Great stuff!" said Brain, as he pulled an empty wine glass toward him. "Are yea all up for a game of, The Groom Thanks."

"What's that?" I asked as Brian rifled through his wallet for a note.

"It's easy," he said, waving a tenner in the air. "Everyone puts money in the glass. When the groom starts his speech, every time he says the word, Thanks, the glass moves right, one person. Whoever has the glass at the end of the speech wins the money."

It sounded like a bit of fun so I said, "Count me in," and I pushed a note into the wine glass along with Brian's. Fiona had her tenner in like a flash, the warring silent couple said nothing but the man stuffed a twenty in. The spinsters had a quick discussion among themselves about the evils of gambling but still added a tenner between them; they would count as one person. Tony reluctantly put his money in. Brian's girlfriend's head was swivelling around like an orange on a toothpick; she had no idea what was going on.

"Don't mind her," said Brian dismissively as she slumped against his shoulder.

We had to endure the priest, the father of the bride, the father of the groom, Aunty Peggie; whoever the hell that was, and the best man before the groom’s speech started.

"Here we go," said Brian gleefully, pulling the glass in front of himself which caused a giggle of excitement to emanate from Fiona. Tony gave a sideways glance at her. Even to my ears, the sound was vaguely sexual.

"Why does the glass start with you?" Tony asked.

"I was the first to put money in," Brian said, snootily.

"I'm not sure that’s fair."

"Fair me arse. Anyway, it's where the glass ends up that counts," he said, getting a bit tetchy.

"Now comes the moment you have all been waiting for, let's hear it for the man himself, Mr Eamon Ryan." said the best man, passing over the microphone, a movement that caused a burst of feedback.

"Jesus," said Eamon, when the screeching died down and glanced over at the priest who was glaring at him. "Sorry, Father." There was a rustling of paper while he got his notes in order before he raised the mic to his lips and said, "How yea," in a thick bog accent that got the whole room cheering. "Thanks for coming," he said.

"And were off," hooted Brian as he moved the glass to his right.

"I never thought I would see the day ..."

I have to admit I started to zone out for a bit but then Brian thumped me on the shoulder.

"What?" I asked.

"He just thanked some auld bat who taught him in primary school. Yea got to pay attention and move the fecking glass around."

"Oh, I missed that one," I said, shoving the glass toward the two spinsters who eyed up the money like hungry dog eyeing up steak. So much for the evils of gambling.

"I want to thank the bridesmaids for looking ..."

"Whoop! There is another one! Move it on girls, come on now," teased Brian as a sad looking spinster shoved the glass in front of the grumpy man. It had hardly stopped when Eamon said, "I don't know how Bridie would have done it without yea, Thanks."

The grumpy man shoved the glass in front of his misses, and gave her a filthy look, as if she’d somehow cheated him out of something.

"I want to thank Father Tom for ..."

The glass moved on again.

All through the speech, the glass moved. I have to say it was getting very addictive. We hung on Eamon's words, waiting for that magic one. When he said it, low cheer ran around our table. Even the spinsters were getting in on the act but it was Brian and Fiona who were leading the charge. People were starting to notice what we were at.

"Th....(Schreeech!)"

Whatever Eamon tried to say was blotted out by a burst of feedback, but he powered through. "…as she searched every shop in Ireland for pink roses, so thanks a million."


The glass moved in front of Tony, but Brian shot out his hand and grabbed the stem. "He said thanks twice there, it's got to go to Fiona.

"I only heard one," said Tony, trying to pull the glass back.

"Nope, there were two. One just before the static, then one at the end."

"Hang on a minute, he only got a T out, it could have been anything."

"What else could it be, for flip sake."

"Think, threw, timed, tempted, tits; who fucken knows!"

"Nobody says tits in a wedding speech," said Brian, deliberately not seeing Tony's point, and moved the glass.

Reluctantly, Tony let go, but the mood at the table was very much darker from then on. Tony didn't join in with the cheering as the glass moved, which seemed to make Fiona determined to make up for him.

Ten minutes later, and a thousand thanks’, Eamon was drawing to a close.

"So, to finish, I want to raise a glass to my beautiful bride and thank her from the bottom of my heart for having me
." Everyone in the room stood, and our table was on tender hooks because the glass now rested in front of Tony who smiled for the first time since the barney with Brian. It looked like he was going to claim the cash.

"Right, the bar is open, and the band is ready to go, so let's have at it, have a great night everyone, and Thanks again."

Eamon put the mic down on the table, and with a half-sad face Tony moved the glass in front of Fiona, which caused Fiona and Brian to cheer at the top of their voices. Lots of people looked in their direction, including Eamon, who thought they were cheering his speech. Sure enough, he picked up the mic and said, "Thanks, Lads!"

Another huge cheer came from Brian and he grabbed the wine glass. He held it aloft like a conquering hero.

"Ah, hang on! That's not fair!" said Tony, sitting forward.

"He said Thanks!" said Brian, waving the folded money in Tony's face.

"The speech was over."

"No, it wasn't, but it is now."

"And that other thing earlier, if that were any other word besides thanks, the glass would have ended up in front of Fiona, not you!" he said, his eyes ablaze. I sensed trouble was coming so I shoved my chair back from the table.

"Come on guys, it's only a game," said Fiona.

"You stay out of it," snapped Tony. I saw the shocked look on her face as she glared at her boyfriend.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You've been drooling all over this moron all evening, I'm sick of it. Just because you let him shag yea in college," snarled Tony. I knew a line had been crossed.

"What did you say?" said Fiona, coldly.

"What did you call me?" demanded Brian at the same time and getting up from the table. In the process, he dislodged his drunken girlfriend who woke for the first time since the speeches began.

"I said, you SHAGGED HIM!" yelled Tony, pointing an accusing finger at the man across the table from him while glaring at his own girlfriend. Everyone in the room was now watching. Oh, God. Why did I get put on this table?

From nowhere the slurred word, "Bitch!" rang out. A haymaker landed Fiona on her arse while the drunken girl flailed at her.

Well there you have it. That was how the battle began. It took two squad cars, and a half dozen bouncers, to bring order. I never knew what happened to the money, but I do know this, if I ever get married, there’ll be no table plan, you can bet on that!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Love in an Elevator

The airplane banked and Brian caught sight of Las Vegas shimmering in the vast expanse of arid desert. It looked like he was about to land on an alien planet. Living in Ireland he was used to rain, rain and more rain. When the door opened he was slapped in the face by a wall of dry heat and by the time he reached the baking hot tarmac, the suit he was wearing started to feel as heavy as armour. It didn't take more than a minute to get inside the terminal but the first thing he thought was, Thank God for air-con. He had flown in to pitch his company at a medical conference taking place at The Mirage, but the bean counters were so tight they’d booked him into some off strip place he’d never heard of. But after traveling for nearly twenty four hours straight, he couldn't care less where the hotel was, as long as it had a bed for him.

It turned out the hotel wasn't that bad at all. Sure, it was a little dated, but it seemed fine. It seemed fine right up to the moment he put his key into the lock and it wouldn't work. He swiped the credit card sized piece of plastic again and again, red light every time. What was wrong with an actual key he thought as he scooped up his suit carrier to head back down to reception? The elevator was one of those ornate copper covered jobs which were supposed to look vintage, but had really been made only yesterday. He'd just pressed the Lobby button when a woman appeared on the hall, running in a billowing white dress while waving and calling, "Hold the door!"

Brain didn't know what to do as the doors had already begun to slide closed, so he pushed his hands into the gap and forced them apart. He had to push quite hard, but it worked. She ran all the way into the car and narrowly avoided crashing into the mirrored back wall.

"Thanks," she panted, and Brian let go of the doors. They closed over with a funny squealing noise, and the elevator began to drop. Something was wrong. As they moved the squealing got worse, and after a second or two, the car bounced, stopped, started again, before grinding to a shuddering halt.

"No, no, no no," said the girl busting past Brian to punch the lobby button six or seven times.

"You got to be kidding me!" she yelled, kicking at the door with a bejewelled white stiletto.

Brian watched the woman pace the car as if he wasn't even there, pounding her forehead with balled hands and muttering to herself. She stopped and shot him a look as if he had just appeared out of thin air.

"I need your cell," she said holding out her hand. Cell? Brian had no idea what she was talking about.

"Pardon?"

"Your cell phone, I got to make a call."

"Oh right," he said digging through his pockets and taking out his phone. She grabbed it and punched numbers, but it seemed to him that nothing was happening. After two more tries, she checked the screen and gave him a dirty look.

"No network?"

"I'm from Ireland, I don't think I have roaming," stammered Brian, wondering why he was explaining himself to a complete stranger.

"What kind of a cheap-o has no international calling? Jesse!"

He didn't appreciate being called a cheap-o, but now he felt like one.

"Why don't you use your own phone," he said taking his back. She held out her arms like Christ on the cross and looked at him open-mouthed. "Does it look like there are pockets in this thing?"

"Fair point," said Brian going even redder. He thought he'd better get some help before this woman flipped out and killed him. He looked at the control panel and spotted a button with a bell sign. He pressed it and waited, but nothing happened. He pressed it again, still nothing.

"Let me do it," she said pushing him aside again jammed the button home with a manicured thumb. At last, a woman's voice came from the speaker slot. "Hi, what can I do for you today?" said the woman cheerily.

"Get us out of this God damn lift!" screamed the woman at the speaker.

"Has your lift stopped?" asked the speaker in the most laid-back way ever. The crazy girl in the wedding dress did a jig of fury before shouting back. "Of course it has you loon? Why do you think were pressing the emergency button."

"Please stay calm, help is on the way," said the speaker as if she was dealing with a child.

"Thank God. How long?" the stressed out bride asked resting her hands either side of the speaker slot, letting her head hanging in apparent exhaustion.

"They are coming as quickly as possible. Please remain calm, you are in no imminent danger."

"I think I might be," mumbled Brian.

"I understand this is inconvenient, but we are doing all that can be done," said the speaker in such a telly sales manner that Brian expected hold music to appear at any minute.

"Do it quicker, I have a wedding to get to," snapped the woman knocking her head against the car wall. This time the voice in the box said nothing. The crazy girl in white pushed herself away from the wall and stood swaying on her six-inch heels. Brian watched as the redness of rage dissipated, and the corners of her mouth turned down. It was like watching a wax figure slowly melt. Brian was shocked to see this grown woman drop down on her bum like a toddler and begin weeping. A crazy woman he could deal with, a crying one was out of his comfort zone. He moved to the panel and pushed the call button again and again.

"Hello? Are you in there?" Brian said into the speaker. Nothing happened so he kept his finger on the button like the girl had done. After an age there was a click and the woman's voice came back on the line.

"Please be patient, you will be out in no time at all," not quite so nicely this time.

"I don't think you understand, this girl is going to a wedding, her wedding by the look of it."

On hearing the words tumble out of Brian's mouth the girl's cries got even louder, like an old episode of We Love Lucy.

"I do understand, help is on its way," said the woman in such a deadpan way that it may as well have been a recording. There was a click and silence followed. Brian looked at the woman sitting in a puddle of white satin and felt terrible for her. He hunkered down and said," I'm sure they will get us out in plenty of time."

"It's a disaster, the whole thing has been a disaster!" sobbed the girl, throwing her hands in the air. "The flowers came in bowls when they should have been in tall vases, the wedding chapel double booked our time so we had to move the ceremony forward two hours and because of that I couldn't have the car I wanted. They gave me a limo, a black one of all things. How tacky is that? It's like someone up there doesn't want me to get married."

Brian lowered himself down on the ground to sit beside the girl, at least the flow of tears was drying up. He held out his hand and said, "I'm Brian, by the way."

She didn't take the hand but instead wiped away tears with the back of her's, trying not to smudge her makeup too much. "Diane," she sniffled.

"So, how long before the ceremony?" he asked.

"Forty minutes," she said sadly.

"Forty minutes, that is great. They will surely have us out long before that. How hard could it be?"

"I guess," she said, not sounding convinced at all.

"The important thing is, the man of your dreams is waiting for you, even if you end up being a little late. In the end it won’t matter what the flowers look like or the car for that matter," said Brian trying to be as comforting as he could be.

"Hump, shows what you know," she said as if he’d said the most ridiculous thing in the world.

"Sorry?"

"You men, think it’s all about you, don't you? I have been dreaming of this day my entire life. Get it, since I was about nine years old! I had it all planned out in my head, the perfect dress which made me look like a movie star, an ivy encased church in the Hamptons, a horse drawn carriage with two stunning white stallions trotting in unison, me being walked up the aisle on my dad's arm to the one true love of my life. That was the dream, my dream. Instead I have this, stuck in a lift in Las Vegas with a complete stranger."

"It's not quite the same, I guess, but at least you have someone you love waiting."

"Las Vegas was his idea. It was more convenient for his family. I never wanted Las Vegas," she said, fresh tears appearing in the corner of her eyes. Brian had no idea what to say, so he said nothing. As it turned out, silence seemed to be exactly what the crying woman needed.

"I only think he asked me to marry him because he was about to turn forty. I guess he thought his wild oat's days were coming to an end. We've only been seeing each other for two years," she said sadly.

"So why are you marrying him if you have doubts?"

"I'm not getting any younger either you know?"

"You're not old."

"Thirty three is old! All my friends are married, some are even married divorced and married again. It seems like I was twenty five only yesterday, with a bar full of hot guys trying to buy me drinks and not a care in the world. One morning I woke up, single, over thirty, and I realised my big day was going to slip right past me unless I did something about it. So I did."

"Why are you telling me all this?" asked Brian, not feeling one bit comfortable.

"Because you’re a nobody and I got to tell someone."

"That's not very nice."

"You know what I mean," she said sadly, and the truth of the matter was, he did. He remembered back to the day of his wedding and how nervous he had been. How his mind has been in a fog and his stomach churned like a concrete mixer. He did know what she meant.

"Did I tell you I'm married?" he asked after a while.

"No," she said sadly.

"Yes, six years now. On the morning of my wedding, I nearly didn't turn up."

"Really? Why?" she asked, dragging herself out of her pool of self-pity to snatch as the titbit dangled in front of her.

“Yes, Really. Cold feet or second thoughts, call it whatever you like but I nearly chickened out and left her at the altar."

"But you didn't?"

“No.”

“Why?”

"Stuff, I guess. Stuff kept pushing me forward. My best man came around and cooked me breakfast, making me get out of bed whether I liked it or not. The suit came from the dry cleaners, so I put it on. The car turned up at the front gate so I just got in it, but all the time this voice inside my head was asking, “What the hell are you doing?"

"So stuff made you get married?"

"No. Stuff stopped me being a coward. What made me get married was simple. I was standing at the top of that church when the organ started to play. Even then, I was ready to say I don't, and run as fast as I could. But when those notes filled the air I looked over my shoulder and there she was, my princess, the only woman I had ever really loved, would ever love, and she was walking right toward me.  In that moment I knew that saying yes to this wonderful creature would be the best thing I would ever do."

"And has it? Was it the best thing ever?"

"It's not been easy but we have had more good days than bad. Marriage is hard, it’s maddening at times but there's never a day I regret being her husband."

"So you are saying I'm stressing out over nothing, it's all nerves."

"I wish I could say, Diane. In my case, stuff happened to keep me going when my feet got cold. Stuff seems to be stopping you and your feet are so hot you are literally running to the altar. It could be that stuff is giving you time to have a think, to ask yourself, is this your dream?"

"You're a romantic, aren't you?" she said looking at him sternly.

"I guess, I might be, in a clumsy kind of way."

"The one thing life has taught me is that romance is for movies and books," she said coldly.

Just then, the car moved a little. It jerked and started to go up. It jerked again, and then once more. Both of them got to their feet, Diane checked her makeup in the car mirror. They watched the door and waited. Something clicked and the tips of chubby, grease covered, fingers forced the doors apart and a smiling dirt smeared face appeared.

"Let’s get you folks out of there," the maintenance man said holding out a filthy hand toward Diane. She slapped it away before it could touch her dress and ruin one more thing on her big day. She hitched up her hem and stepped out of the unlevelled elevator. By the time Brian had climbed out, she was already heading for the stairwell.

"Diane!" he called. She stopped and looked back with sad eyes. He didn’t know what he should say. She looked so lost, but she may well have a point, not everyone gets to be a princess, but everyone should.

"Good luck," was all he could offer. She gave a smile and a wave before vanishing from sight.


For the rest of the day he couldn’t get the sad bride out of his mind. He hoped she turned up at the church, like he had done, to find her prince had been waiting all the time, but some tiny part of his brain feared she may well have said yes with disappointment in her heart. That thought was like a boil on his soul. It was getting dark by the time he picked up the bedroom phone and dialled home. She was sleepy when she answered, he had forgotten how late it would be back in Ireland but she still sounded happy to hear from him. He lay in the dark of the night, watching the Las Vegas lights twinkle in their neon brilliance and let the sweet sound of his princess's voice heal the wounds of the world.  




Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Blacksmith and the Ruby

Morning mist hovered above the meandering river undisturbed by even a breath of air. Kingfishers darted from the overhanging trees to spear minnows through the crystal-clear water. Over rock and around root the torrent babbled, filling the air with nature’s music. In the sky, birds sang to welcome the coming day as they danced on invisible currents, snatching freshly hatched insects from the sky.

In the distance, another noise joined this morning chorus. The faint sound of a horse and rider approaching, but the timing was askew. Cling, cling, cling, clang, rang the falling hooves. Cling, cling, cling, clang, in lazy repetition. High on the hill above the river a lone horseman appeared, his cowl drawn up to ward off the dew; his mount seeming to favour one leg, laying the hoof more gently than the others.

The rider paused and looked down on Rosendale, a tiny community built on an ancient fording point. Smoke from early morning cooking fires was beginning to pool above the thatched roofs. He gently urged his mount forward, demanding no more than the animal was comfortable to give. Their progress was slow, but it was determined. Before long he clopped betwixt the sleepy houses. He rained his steed to a halt when a rangy boy appeared in a doorway.

"Good morrow, Lad. Do you have a Smithy near about?" he asked, folding back his hood and the morning sun glinted on his long golden locks. The boy looked at him with awe. It was a reaction he was accustomed to. He radiated power and vigour, his face was so handsome it could stop time itself, and his smile was so beguiling the birds would fall from the trees at the sight of it; or so he had been told. The boy stood slack-jawed which made him laugh good-humouredly.

"I see the cat has been away with your tongue," he teased, which broke the spell fallen over the child.

"Aye, Mr Shipman is our Blacksmith. Yonder is his yard," said the boy, pointing to a cluster of mud-walled buildings near the banks of the river.

"Much obliged, young Squire," said the rider and he dismounted to lead his horse the last stretch of the journey. When he reached the Blacksmith's forge, the fire had not yet been stoked for the day, so he tethered his mount to a post. He stroked the beast’s neck with affection, blowing air across its mussel, something he knew she loved. The animal whinnied and nuzzled his neck.

"There, there, Girty. We'll have you fixed up in no time," he said, stroking the horse’s velvet ears with the touch any lover would envy. 

"A fine animal," called a voice, making him jump slightly. A bear of a man stood behind him, watching. He was powerfully built, if not overly tall, with a thick growth of curly-black hair on his chin, and more to match across his ham hock shoulders. The man smiled kindly, offsetting what might otherwise be an intimidating stature.

"Mr Shipman?"

"The very same."

"My mount has thrown a shoe. Can you accommodate us with a few hours rest and a new set of iron for my friend?" he asked, patting the animal on the neck.

"You're a stranger to these parts," said Mr Shipman. It was not a question but an observation.

"I've travelled a long road, with longer to go, but my journey is my own, so I have time, and coin to spend," he said, taking the man’s questioning with good humour.

"Coin be coin, no matter what quarter it travelled from. You are welcome, Mr ...?"

"Lonsdale."

"You're welcome to my home, Mr Lonsdale. Come, you must be hungry," said the Blacksmith, gesturing toward an open door.

"It's hospitable of your sir."

"There is pottage on the fire, but I can't attest to its quality. I'm a fine worker of iron but there my talents die."

"Is there no Mrs Shipman?"

"Sadly, she was taken by a fever seven winters back."

"You never took another wife?"

"If you knew my Mrs, you'd know there could never be another. She'd come back and haunt me should another lass ever cross my threshold," said the Smithy, his voice full of good humour and giddiness.

The rider nodded, as if happy with the reply, then entered the home. The two men warmed themselves in front of the cooking fire while they ate oats stewed in goat’s milk, and they drank a tankard of cloudy ale.

When the meal was finished, the Blacksmith set about examining the horse's leg. She was holding it slightly off the ground, putting as little weight on it as possible. The bushy ironworker cooed soothingly as he took her forelock on his aproned leg. He cleaned the area with a pick and nodded sagely, before gently resting the foot back on the ground.

"She's not yet lame, but not far off either. The shoe was badly fitted if you ask me. It has come loose and has been chafing the poor thing with each step. We'll make a new set for your girl, but she should rest two nights, mayhap three, before being shod again."

The rider nodded, and although the length of the wait pained him, he said, "What you think best, Mr Shipman."

The Smithy pointed to an open-sided hay manger. "You may loge in yonder rick, if it would please yea."

"It looks as fine as any tavern I've ever encountered," he said, smiling through the lie. He slipped the saddle from Girty and rested it on the fence. Mr Shipman led the horse into his paddock and left her there with a friendly pat on the rump.

The hay was soft and mostly free of insects. He lay back and drew his cowl around his body, feeling every mile of the road he’d travelled pushing down on his eyes. He gladly fell into a dreamless slumber.

The sun was in its final quarter when the sound of hammer on metal roused him. He stretched himself and rose, calling a cheery greeting to the sweat covered Mr Shipman before strolling into Rosendale. The village wasn't big, but it was beautiful. Pigs squealed in pens as they nosed through the mud for remnants of their last feed. Chickens ran wild in the spaces between houses. He could see children minding sheep, goats, and a few thin cattle, in the surrounding grassland. Women waded in the babbling river, slapping sodden garments against the rounded rocks. The air over Rosendale was heavy with happiness which infected everyone who called it home. It was a tonic for his heart.

He purchased eggs, a creel of potatoes, a chicken for the pot, and a skin full of ale. He knew Mr Shipman would insist on offering him vittles, sadly he had been right about his cooking abilities, and the rider had seen just how bare his cupboards had been. Once back at the forge, Mr Shipman had made a good show of refusing the offered supplies but not good enough to make the refusal anything more than politeness. Later, they shared a meal and anyone would have guessed they were life-long friends.

***

Being a Blacksmith is a proud profession, but it’s a hard one. When he’d first seen the tall, handsome man standing at his forge, he felt uneasy, but when he smiled, he did so with both his face and his eyes. He saw the way the rider dotted on his animal, and that more than anything told him the rider was a good man. When Lonsdale appeared, laden down with food, this virtue was placed beyond doubt.

They shared meals, and good conversation, for three days, but his guest had an otherworldly quality. Perhaps it was his beauty. On the riders last night with him, he was woken by a sound he knew as well as his own heartbeat; the sound of his bellows breathing life into his forge. He rose from his sleeping mat and crept to the window.

The night was moonless and the tall stranger stood before the forge, warming himself against the chill of the night. He had stoked the coal into a fiery glow and shadows danced across his face. He appeared to be speaking, but to who? He was alone. A fountain of sparks rose from the forge while the tall man spoke. Perhaps he was praying. That was when something strange happened.

One glowing spark didn't rise like all the rest. It seemed to dance around the rider’s head; glowing brilliantly, and growing by the second. When the spark reached the length of a man’s middle finger, the Smithy finally recognised it for what it was. A fairy. Everyone knew such magical creatures existed. They were responsible for both good and bad fortune, but he had never seen one before. His heart raced, and his eyes remained glued to the unfolding scene. The fairy darted in and whispered into the rider’s ear, causing the tall man to nod and scratch his chin. The riders winning smile was nowhere to be seen, if anything, he seemed to be brooding. The fairy and the man conversed; the magical creature seemed deferential to the rider. In the Smithy's mind, the pieces of a puzzle clicked together, and it was with fear and trepidation he realised who he’d been sharing his days with. The man standing at his forge was the Fairy King!

The Blacksmith watched as the rider held out his palm and the fairy flew down to land there. Without anger or compassion, the man closed his fingers, crushing the tiny being. The blacksmith was shocked, why would he do such a terrible thing. The rider squeezed his hand for ten ticks of any clock, then opened his fingers. Something glimmered in the light of the forge as the rider looked at it. He seemed satisfied, and stowed whatever he held in his cloak. Shipman moved to get a better look and the rider looked in his direction; as if he’d heard the him. The man’s eyes searched the darkness for the one who spied on him.  Shipman dropped to his knees and scurried back to his sleeping mat. Whatever the Fairy King was up to, it was no business of his. That night, he failed to find even a moment’s sleep. 

In the morning, he completed shoeing the chestnut mare in record time. The man, or whatever he was, complimented him on a fine job and held out three silver coins for his work, and his kindness. The Blacksmith took the coins, gushing his thanks, but the truth of the matter was he'd gladly forgo the money just to get rid of the stranger. Every moment the rider took to saddle his beast seemed to last an age. The man finally placed his foot in the stirrup and swept his leg over the horse's rump causing his cloak to flare. Something flew from it and landed in the hay where the stranger had been sleeping. He thought about telling the rider but the truth was, he wanted the man gone. Instead, he raised a hand in salute as the man rode away.

Once he was alone, he sifted through the straw and his hand found something hard. He hoped it was another silver coin but when he opened his fingers, he got the shock of his life. Sitting in his hand was a ruby, as big as a robin’s egg and a red as blood. The value of such a jewel was beyond imagining. He stood there, dumbfounded. He considered racing after the stranger to return the gem, but the thought of chasing down a being from the underworld strained his bravery. He rolled the ruby across his fingers and let the light play across it. He had never seen anything so beautiful.

He started to walk down into the village, eager to show off his prize but doubts crowded his mind. Would they make him give it back? Would they want him to share his fortune? Would one of his neighbours steal up on him in the dead of night, to stave his brain in? In the end, he turned around and walked back toward his house. The rider may well return for the jewel, so he’d better keep it safe. There was no point in telling anyone else. He lifted the hearthstone and scooped a tiny hollow in the dirt below. He put the jewel in the hole and replaced the granite slab. All day he worked, but his mind was filled with dancing red light and the desire to hold the gem once more.

The day passed, and the stranger failed to appear. That night, the Blacksmith bolted his door, a thing he had never done before, and removed the ruby from its hiding place. Late into the evening, he watched flames dance through the gem. That night his dreams were filled with castles and banquets, fine horses and silken robes. When he unlatched the door in the morning, his treasure hidden once more; the yard was empty. As the hours passed and the stranger failed to appear, he began to believe he might get to keep the stone.

Days turned into weeks, and people started to comment on the changes in Mr Shipman. He never came to the village to share a tankard of ale with his friends anymore, in fact, he never strayed more than a few yards from his home. His naturally friendly demeanour soured, and those who turned up with something to mend were dealt with brusquely. None were invited to share an ale or a meal. Slowly, fewer and fewer people called to the forge. Then came the day when the coals weren't lit at all, and Mr Shipman's door failed to open.

The darkness that hung over the Blacksmiths home deepened and started to spread. One by one, misfortune fell on all the houses of the village. Small things at first, like a lame calf or hens refusing to lay, but early in September there came a night so cold it froze the ground solid for two days. By the time it thawed, every vegetable waiting to be harvested was black and rotting in the ground.

With no crops to gather, the villagers had to resort to killing or selling their livestock. By mid-winter, famine had settled on the inhabitants of Rosendale. Over those long dark months, every family lost people to starvation or sickness. Even Mr Shipman was suffering, he’d eaten the last of his hens and was on the brink of starvation, but he refused to speak about his treasure. His soul was devoured by greed, his mind as black as the spuds rotting in the fields. He had the power to save himself, and all his neighbours, but he couldn't make his fingers release the ruby.

It was the darkest night of January that the storm came. He lay on his sleeping mat, floating in and out of dreams, while the roof above his head creaked in the fury of the gale. Something made him open his eyes and was shocked to see the rider standing over him. With a flick of his elegant wrist, every candle in the room burst into life, and the fire embers roared upward, renewed by fairy magic.

"You have something of mine?" said the man sternly, standing over him. In his withered state, he had no hope of defending himself. He was powerless to stop the man taking his precious ruby. Lonsdale, or whoever he was, held out his hand and the flagstone flipped into the air. The ruby floated across the room to land softly in his palm. The tall man closed his fingers on the gem and hunkered down to glare into his eyes.

"Did you think I'd be so careless with such a thing? Did you not imagine I knew you had it all this time? You're truly are a foolish man, Mr Shipman."

"I was keeping it for you," he said, levering himself up against the mud wall of his hut. Thunder split the sky, and the hut was lit up by lightening.

"You take me for a fool? You kept this for yourself, even when it could have saved your friends and your neighbours. You let so many die, and for what? A pretty pebble? I gave you the chance to be different, Mr Shipman, an opportunity you squandered. You would be suffering still, but for Girty. You can thank her for my compassion. She said you had gentle hands."

Fat tears ran down the Blacksmiths face, unsure if he was going to live or die. The rider stood to leave and he couldn’t help crying out for his treasure. The Fairy King stopped and turned, "What was that?"

"Please, don't take it from me," he sobbed.

"This thing?" asked the rider holding out the ruby.

"Please," he snivelled, holding out his hands, begging.

"So be it," said the tall stranger with a sorrowful look, and tossed the gem to him. He fumbled, but managed to catch the gem, clutching it with both hands to his chest.

"Thank you, Sire," he croaked and fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. He couldn’t believe his luck. It was really his to keep.

"Look again," said the rider.

Shipman opened his fingers, and his face was bathed in golden light. There in his palm stood a tiny fairy, with gossamer wings. The creature stuck out it’s tongue and zoomed away, leaving a trail of sparkles in its wake. It shot up the chimney and was gone.

The Blacksmith cried out in agony. "Things are not always as they seem," said the rider striding out into the storm.

The next morning the tempest had passed. The village was damaged, but it still stood. Every house would need repair and fences were down, but with no livestock to keep penned, that was a job that could wait. Trees had been uprooted, and the river was in flood. In the heart of such devastation, cries of delight echoed. The rangy boy who had directed the stranger toward the Blacksmith all those months ago had discovered huge wagon, filled with food, abandoned in the middle of the village. The whole community gathered and discussed what to do. Hunger might have had something to do with their decision because they declared the wagon, a gift from God.

It was decided that every man woman and child in the village would receive an equal share of the bounty, and should an owner appear, they would all work in unison to pay off the debt. Even Shipman, who still remained locked in his house, was allocated a fair portion. His oldest friend offered to bring the Blacksmith his food.


When the man pushed open the Blacksmith's door, he found Mr Shipman sitting up on his sleeping mat. His body was as cold as ice, his face seemed to be frozen in a scream. In his outstretched hand, he held a lump of dirty grey stone, as if offering it up in his final moments.