Four Days on Cooper Hill

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

From the hilltop, Ted Power viewed the surrounding area with detachment. The roads, fields and hedgerows were littered with corpses, both fresh, decomposing and skeletal. Like most men of middle years, Ted had spent time in the army. The last time he’d witnessed this level of death, was on the battlefields of the Great War. His eye swept over the farmland to the nearby town of Maiden Stone. A plume of smoke was rising from a barn which had been filled with corpses and set alight, to protect the villagers from the death which now stalked the land.

The first news had come last month, from traders from the city of Aberdeen. None of the newspapers had reported on it, however, and there was no corroborating stories to be heard on the radio either. So it was that the people of Maiden Stone had dismissed it as fanciful speculation and exaggeration – the product of an over-active imagination. However, within a weak of the traders departure, people began to get sick – and it was the then the the tales began sound eerily real.

At first, the symptoms were that of a head cold. Some of the patients were irritable and cranky the day before. After that, a fever would usually develop, and the patient would become drowsy. Poor concentration and incoherence quickly followed, and finally nausea and diarrhoea would mean that they wasted away.

Such was the fear that descended upon the small down, that anyone who so much as complained about a headache was instantly exiled, for fear that he or she would pass on the deadly disease. After John Deane, the doctor in the local clinic had died of this “Seaman’s Flu” – a disease tried so hard to cure, but in vain – the rest of the medical profession decided not to see anyone. Rumour had it that they had even fled.

***

Ted had felt the first signs of a headache headache late the evening before, just as he was going to bed. During the night, he’d developed a fever – and his wife told him tearfully, that it was time for him to take his chances in the fields. With barely enough food for three days, a blanket, a pillow and a bucket for collecting rainwater, he’d left the house and walked down the main street of the town – an outcast.

Even at daybreak, there were other people on the road too. They all kept their distance from each other, each believing – he supposed – that their strain of the illness, was less lethal than that of their neighbours. They truly were a motley bunch, he thought, shuffling in their long overcoats – yet he remained mindful that he looked no better off himself.

The atmosphere in the town was eerily quiet. All the doors of the houses and shops on both sides of the road were closed, their windows covered by shutters. As he passed by the doctor’s surgery, he saw a sign nailed up on the gate: “Closed, until further notice.” There was no motorcar in the driveway, and the porch lamp was unlit – all indications that the medical profession had fled.

As he left the town, the sun rose ahead of him. Ted felt like his head was being physically hammered by the yellow light. “Dear Lord,” he muttered to himself, “I am sick.” The lonely travellers on the road ahead also looked sharply at the ground, shielding their heads with their arms. Despite the fact that the symptoms had been mild so far, Ted Power now had to admit, to his despair, that he was suffering from Seaman’s Flu. He was greatly relieved when dark clouds blocked out the sun.

Having walked until he could walk no more, he finally made his camp on the top of Cooper Hill. Although it was only two miles away from Maiden Stone, the journey had left him exhausted. He felt a perverse pride in the fact that he’d made it longer than many of the men, women and children who’s bodies he’d seen on the roadside as he’d come, but then scolded himself for thinking such uncharitable thoughts. What would his many dead colleagues from the army think?

After the elation of having made it so far, he now turned to the dreaded question of, “what next?” A sense of utter loneliness and despair began to set in.

***

Ted had seen men die from acute trench fever. Worse, many of his fellow soldiers had died from chlorine gas – coughing up froth and blood in a torturous death. On countless occasions, he had to carry poor souls, who simply could not pull their gas helmets on quickly enough, back from the front line. Even after the war was won, he’d lost many of his old friends. These brave soldiers had survived all the physical weapons the Germans could throw at them, but were felled at last from Spanish Flu. That was a black thought. Ted knew what death looked, felt and smelled like. He was acutely aware of his own mortality. Fear gripped his stomach, as he realised how precarious his situation was.

Unbidden, the hopeless words of the Dr John Deane came to his mind, “…rest…liquids…” Three days after saying that, Seaman’s flu had taken him too. Ted lay himself down on the hard ground under the shadow of a tree, and pulled a blanket over him. He drank from the water bottle and munched on a sour apple.

“Let’s see where this brings me,” he muttered.

***

His fever heightened, and Ted began to drift in and out of consciousness. He remembered his days on the western front – the Lee Enfield he had so diligently serviced every morning, the rats and their fleas, the shells that the enemy pounded on them, the incessant machine gun fire, the grenades and the sight of people dying around him – many by his own trusty rifle.

And then he remembered the death of his friend, from his school days. The pervasive green sea of gas had entered the trenches, blown by the wind from the enemy lines. They had all strapped their helmets on as fast they could, but Donald was too slow. He had held his breath for as long as he could, fighting with a stubborn strap – but at last he’d taken a desperate gasp, and he was lost. After the gas had finally cleared off, Ted had rushed to his friends side, but it was too late. His friend was as good as dead.

His mind wandered on to another episode, where his captain had been wounded by an enemy machine gun nest. Fed up with watching him lying dying on the ground, with nobody else willing to go to his aid, Ted was finally spurred into action. He’d crawled across no man’s land, until he – by pure fluke, managed to creep up on the machine gun nest. He’d stabbed the German operating it with his bayonet, and saved his captain. That had earned him a Distinguished Conduct Medal, and a promotion.

Then he reflected on how he’d come back home to his rural town, and tried to adapt back to the real world. After all that he’d witnessed serving with the Royal Scots, that was quite a task. For years he’d still suffered from flashbacks, until he met Debbie.She brought back his faith in humanity. He thought of how she’d stood by him, comforting him when he had his dark moods. She had always been there for him when he needed her… until she’d thrown him out because he had Seaman’s Flu.

***

It was the feeling of rain pounding off his face that finally jolted him back to reality on the second day. His head felt as heavy as a granite boulder, his limbs like bars of lead, and his throat like sand paper. Groggily, he reached over for the bottle of water and drained it before taking stock of his surroundings. Between rain and sweat, he was thoroughly drenched. He tried sitting up, but promptly collapsed, and resorted to groping for the food bag. Hungrily, he munched on an apple and a few grapes, before lying back down again.

Within minutes he went back to sleep, under the rain-beaten oak tree on Cooper Hill. The feverish nightmares that he experienced were unforgettably vivid. He had been captured by German soldiers under General Ludendorff, beaten and tortured. Finally, he had been tied up to a post and executed by firing squad. The sheer clarity of this nightmare, caused him to lurch into wakefulness as the imaginary bullet struck his chest. However just as soon as he woke up, he fell unconscious again.

Similar nightmares plagued him throughout the afternoon and evening. That, combined with the sweating and pouring rain, made him thoroughly miserable. He fended off dark thoughts throughout his wakefulness with thoughts of Debbie, yet that only led to worry more. Had she caught the Seaman’s Flu from him? Would this dreadful plague kill her too?

His remedy was to treat these mental invaders like he would have treated physical enemies during the war. Having seen this much, no flu would break his resolve. He systematically found the causes of his fears, and discredited and destroyed them. Through this, he achieved peace.

***

The uncomfortable feeling of diarrhoea woke him up on the third day. He dragged himself over to the ditch on all fours to relieve himself, so as to keep his water supply clean. Throughout all his conscious hours, he made sure to keep drinking water, and ingesting sea salt – a remedy prescribed to many of his fellow soldiers who had the same sickness. The incessant rain filled his pot with clean water, and that positive thought kept him from losing spirit. However the repetitiveness of going back and forth to the ditch tired him, and his morale dropped lower and lower. The energy with which he’d fought his mental enemies gradually ebbed, and black thoughts soon began to overwhelm him, as he dozed.

He imagined his son, an army captain, at his Debbie’s funeral. The eulogy the young man read, explained how much she had helped him, and how she was the best mother he could ever have had. But then it went on to say how ten years previously, she’d lost her husband to the Seaman’s Flu, and how his body had never been found. That had led to a breakdown in her own physical and mental health, until she wasted away in a lunatic asylum.

Ted found himself weeping uncontrollably when he woke.

It was almost sundown when he heard the bell. It was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard, and it jerked him out of his nightmares and dark thoughts. He strained his neck for all it was worth, trying to see what would cause such a beautiful sound in a place of such darkness and dread. Finally, he saw a Brother and a Priest praying by the body of a dead man, only twenty feet away. A small golden bell hung from the Brother’s neck, tinkling as the wind rocked it.

After crossing the dead man’s arms, the two rose and approached him. He tried to speak – but managed only a gurgle, and tried to push himself into sitting position.

“Why this one looks alive,” the Brother exclaimed, staring at him.

“I’m… not… dead,” was the only coherent sentence poor Ted could make.

The two conversed between themselves for a minute. Then the priest sat down beside him and said a prayer for his health, while the Brother went away. The priest prayed quietly, holding Ted’s hands in his, comforting him.

Some time later, the Brother returned with food, water and fresh clothes – all the things in the world he could have hoped for at that point. The holy men fed and washed him, and helped him to change his clothes. He felt better, and soon enough of his energy had returned to tell them his story.

“God gave you strength,” the Priest declared, after he’d finished. “No lesser man could have lasted so long on this windswept hillside.”

“No kindly God would have me spend three days here to begin with,” Ted grumbled.

“His ways are mysterious,” the Brother said in his deep voice. “We cannot – will not – ever, understand his mind.”

But the effort of talking for so long depleted Ted’s energy, and he began to drift off to sleep again. The Brother and Priest then decided to take their leave, but promised to return the next day.

“We’ll take a cart with us,” the Brother assured him, “and dead or alive, you will not spend a fifth day on this cold hillside. May God’s light shine on you, we’ll keep you in our prayers.”

And so they left him dozing on the hillside. Their visit somewhat heartened him, and his thoughts that evening were lighter than they had ever been, since he came to Cooper Hill. However that night, he slept worse than he ever had. The of his wife’s funeral plagued him in vivid detail, and haunting in the background were the bloody memories of his final days on the western front, and the slaughter of the Ludendorff Offensive.

***

On the forth day on Cooper Hill, Ted felt like he’d been born again. He’d emerged from the dreaded world of nightmares, too bright sunlight and birdsong. It was like the fresh morning breeze had blown away his dark thoughts. For once he believed that the worst had passed, and that thought bolstered his spirits. Although, he did not yet have the energy to stand, he was content to sit and observe the world. He drank from his pot of rain-water, and ate some light breakfast, waiting for the holy men to return.

As he sat with his back to the oak tree, surveying the world around him for the first time in three days, he realised that not much had changed. Bodies still littered the roads and fields, and the fire outside of Maiden Stone was still burning corpses. He could see some signs that a clean up operation was under way, but nothing radical. Small teams of men with wheelbarrows and carts were roving around the countryside, collecting corpses for cremation. They lacked direction, he sighed to himself. He wondered, again, if his wife had survived, or if her body was being collected from some drain.

The day went slowly by, and his water bucket began to dry up. No further rain fell, which only added to is woes. He felt he’d been born from one nightmarish world, into another. As he began to doze off again, the first threatened to take him back. The afternoon went by, and there was no sign of the holy men. Defeated, he resigned himself to a restless sleep.

It was early November 1918, a week before the end of the war. With the German spirit truly broken, and the end in sight, confidence was returning to the men. However tragedy struck. As he was crossing a canal in northern France, his dearest friend in the army was shot in the head by an enemy sniper. Ted had had to leave him lying in the water, as he desperately rowed to safety, an act that caused him to hate himself for years to come.

***

There was something hopeful about the sound of mule bells, Ted thought. The sun was sinking when he heard the sound. He sat up and saw a mule drawn cart driven by two men climbing the hill. At first he thought it was collecting corpses, and the first word on his mouth as it drove over the crest of the hill was “I’m alive.” Unable recognise exactly who was driving it, in the dying light, he croaked it out again and again – even as the driver stepped down.

“I’m relieved to hear it,” he said, approaching him, “I was praying for you – but you mustn’t tire yourself.”

It was none other than the Brother who, keeping the pledge he’d given him the day before. The holy man lifted him like a baby, into the cart, and laid him gently at the floor. He nearly wept, with the happiness and relief he felt.

“Your ordeal is over my son,” the Priest said to him quietly, blessing him, “soon you will be home again.” And then they were off, with the cart bouncing as it descended the hill.

***

First, they took him to the abbey, where a doctor saw to him at the Brother’s insistence. After Ted told him how he’d spent the previous four days, the doctor whistled in amazement.

“A fine adventure, my dear fellow, but you’re lucky you didn’t catch pulmonary consumption, in that wind and wet we had.”

The doctor told the Brother sternly, to feed him up and let him get a good nights sleep.

“I can see he needs it,” the Brother said in a conciliatory voice, and ordered that a bed and a warm bath was prepared for him.

For the first night in almost a week, Ted slept soundly, dreaming of his childhood, before war and disease entered his world.

After another check up the next day, he was deemed fit to return home. The doctor let him go with his blessing, “providing you do not make any more hillside adventures for quite some time,” he said sternly. “But the influenza has all but left your body.”

The priest then agreed to drive him home in his motorcar.

***

Maiden Stone was a ghost town, when Ted returned. Fully half of the houses had their doors wide open, a clear sign of looting. It was far worse than when he’d left. When the motorcar pulled up outside his house, he was relieved to see that it had been spared.

At his insistence, the priest got out first to knock on Ted’s door. There was no response. He knocked again, and again – until cautiously, the door was opened. His wife appeared in the door frame. At first her hand went to her mouth – having seen the priest, she was expecting the worst. But then Ted opened the door of the motorcar, and stepped out.

“Debbie,” he said slowly.

Her face went from white to red, faster than he thought humanly possible. Screaming in delight, she ran down the steps to hug him. The priest, embarrassed, quietly took his leave. Her apologies were profuse, but he did not wan to hear them. He was glad to be home again.

 

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Categories: Short Stories

In The Name of Violence

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

The old man struggled down the street, the wheels of the rickety trolley regularly getting caught in cracks and holes in the pavement. The years had no doubt been taking their toll on Séamus; he wasn’t the man he once was. Nonetheless he would struggle on till the bitter end! You had to be a fighter to live in Ballykinsela, and Séamus Hennessy was no exception. With dogged determination, he made it to the doorway of the greengrocers, to buy his regular shopping of apples, bananas, cauliflower and cabbage.

So predictable he was, John-Joe, the greengrocer usually prepared Séamus’s shopping in the morning. And as John-Joe usually had plenty of spare time, the two would chat about the local goings on in hushed tones. Who knew where the Dunnes had an ear after all? No one did – until the latest victim was found, that is – half buried in a drain, with their hands tied behind their back, a single bullet burried the back of their head. The honour of being killed in a drive-by was reserved for rivals and debtors. To default on a debt to the Dunnes was to sign one’s death warrant, and the gang made every effort to make that fact clear.

“Shocking business,” John-Joe was saying. “The poor kid didn’t know what he was being caught up in.”

“Where is the law when you need it?” Séamus demanded, outraged. “Thirteen year olds landing dead in ditches. It should be a national scandal!”

“You should have gotten out when you could, Séamus,” John-Joe said. “You’re no druggie.”

“Ballykinsela is my home,” Séamus declared proudly. “Séamus Hennessy runs from no one.”

John-Joe shook his head. “Insuring this place is costing me more than my profits. I’m selling up, and if no one buys it, the bank can have it,” he said grimly. “Now that I’m married, it’s more risky than it’s worth.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” Séamus said sadly. “Yet another empty shop window, though.” The shopkeeper was silent, and Séamus gazed despondently at the boarded up shops across the street. A good few of them were empty shells, having even been petrol bombed. It was so senseless, he thought. Perhaps he should leave after all.

“Would you put an old bag of bones like me up?” he grinned toothily at the greengrocer. “If you get a place outside here, that is?”

“For being my top customer for the past thirty-five years, certainly,” John-Joe grinned in return.

***

As John-Joe and Séamus were speaking, a youth turned out of an alleyway further down the street. He furtively peered right and left, his face shielded by a grey hoody. All clear. Taking care to cling to the wall, where his grey tracksuit offered camouflage, he made his way up the street.

He was just approaching the greengrocers, when he heard the screech of tyres behind him! One glance behind him confirmed his suspicions. Without further thought, he threw himself inside the door of the shop – right on top of the two men who had been cursing him and his kind!

He surveyed the situation before him wildly, as he heard the car outside brake noisily…… Hearing the doors slamming shut, he dived behind a crate of potatoes, and curled up in a ball, shielding his head with his arms. He knew the score – best case scenario, he’d say goodbye to his family from the emergency ward.

***

Séamus and John-Joe very nearly fell over, as the youth rushed into the shop. Acting on instinct, John-Joe pulled his old friend behind the counter. They were barely under cover, when the four men carrying Armelites charged in.

With almost military precision, they looked behind every corner. It didn’t take long for one of them to uncover poor Séamus and John Joe. The gunman’s mouth twitched, and he raised two fingers. He then shook his head, which John-Joe took to mean they weren’t the intended target. Only moments later, another voice hissed, “here’s our boy!”

John-Joe closed his eyes tightly, and cupped his hands over his ears, but could not block out the gunshot. There was no cry from the victim. The nervous system was not designed to recognise that much damage at once, or so he’d read. What he heard was more like a “hoof!” Two more gunshots rang out and it was over for the young hood.

Slowly he raised his head to face the gunman, who’s eyes were now fixed firmly on him and his friend, who remained stubbornly silent. Again, the gangster’s mouth twitched, and he raised the gun.

“Please,” John-Joe mouthed.

The gunman lowered the gun momentarily, and made a deft signal to his companions. The way he raised the gun the second time left John-Joe in no doubt. He jammed his eyes firmly shut. The last thing he felt was Séamus grasping his arm in desperation.

***

For Detective Sergeant Ciarán McGrath of the Special Detective Unit, scenes like this, which he witnessed in John-Joe’s Greengrocer were a sad norm over the past three years. The questions he asked the uniformed men who had arrived at the scene first, were also a matter of depressing regularity.

“Who was the intended target?”

“Pete Foley of Ballykinsela Cresent,” the Garda answered in a bored voice.

“The other two?”

“John-Joe Mathews, the owner of the shop, and Séamus Hennessy his customer. Both appear to have been shot as witnesses.”

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” he concluded. “Any guesses who did it?”

The Garda roled his eyes. “We both know the answer to that question, Detective.”

“Can we prove it?”

“That, my-dear-sir-in-a-dry-cleaned-suit, is up to you to prove,” the Garda said with a thin smile. “I just do the leg work.”

Ah yes, the Detective thought. The trouble always was proving it. He doubted that even if he did prove it, the Dunnes complex system of bribery and witness intimidation, would make short work of his efforts.

“You and your men, keep the body here for another while,” he told the Garda. “The State Pathologist should be here shortly.”

“Yes sir,” the Garda said, saluting smartly. “It’s not like you didn’t say the same thing three times already, this past week.”

The Detective Sergeant didn’t bother responding to that. He made a few notes and went back to his car. Once inside, he sighed heavily, rested his against the steering wheel. The hopelessness of situation in Ballykinsella had finally begun to affect his nerves. Three years he’d spent here combating organised crime, under resourced and underfunded. Why should he bother? Finally he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his mobile phone. He quickly made a call.

“Sir,” he said, leaning back in the driver’s seat, “I’m requesting a transfer to Dublin…”

Categories: Short Stories

To Patrick Lee

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

To Patrick Lee

On the bright spring morning that Eamon Lee shut the door after Patrick for the last time, he felt a profound sense of loneliness. It was not surprising – most likely he would never see his twenty-four year old son again, except perhaps every odd Christmas or so. Off he was to Canada, to find work as a construction engineer. All his friends were there already, and as he said many times, “why languish here for the next five years on the dole?” To that question, Eamon had no reply. His wife was sick, and no doubt Patrick’s departure would distress her. At the same time, he did not want his son to wait for between three months and two years, for his poor mother to pass on, just so that he could make a start in the world. A lousy situation it was, indeed, as the great recession had dried up any real opportunities in Ireland.

He silently prepared breakfast for himself – a mug of coffee and a bowl of porridge. It seemed oddly tasteless that morning, even though he’d made it the exact same way as he had for the last thirty years of his marriage. Then when he was finished, he put on some toast for his wife, and left it upstairs by her bedside. She would eat it when she woke up. Then he sighed, and went rooting around for his briefcase – it was time for work.

That day was a particularly bad one at the solicitor’s firm. As Eamon was never a particularly grumpy man, no one could help but recognise when he was in a bad mood. Their noticing made it all the worse for him.

“What’s got to himself today?” “Ah sure his son went off to America.” “Canada I heard?” “That’s the place – ’tis great that the young people get to see a bit of the world, eh?” “He’s taking it none too good.” “Sure he’s the only one looking after the wife now, poor man.” “She’s cancer hasn’t she?” “Yes, breast cancer – incurable at her stage. Poor woman, poor woman.”

Eamon shut out the gossipers, and began focusing on his desk work – an exceedingly boring and long drawn out dispute over a will. The defendant was expecting a response from him this week, telling him how to best proceed. He mulled over it some more, checked some land-law texts, and began formulating a response. As he was writing his draft response letter, boss stood at his shoulder for over five minutes, gazing at the screen as he was typing. This unnerved him to no end – why couldn’t they just keep their noses out of his own affairs? However, he kept his mouth shut. The man was his boss after all.

The first good news of the day came in the form of a phone call, as he was driving home in the car. Patrick’s flight had landed safely. He’d be staying with a friend for the next few weeks, while he was securing his position. All he needed was a work permit. The eagerness in his voice brought tears to Eamon’s eyes. However, he had to hang up early as he spotted a squad car on the road ahead of him.

The next ten months went by without any real happenings. Patrick called every Saturday to tell him how things were going. He’d gotten a job as an engineer at a big construction company based in Montréal, and was engaged to a lovely Canadian girl. He’d even sent them photos in the post, and the smile on his face as he was holding hands with her, made his wife break down in tears. That was only two days before she moved into the hospice.

It was mid November when the hospital made the decision to move her to the hospice. Not that Eamon could blame them or anything – he’d known the truth for months, as had his son and the rest of the world. His wife hadn’t spoken much about it, but he was certain that she was glad to be done with the rough treatment. Now she could finally relax for the first time in all the years he knew her.

They buried her in the local graveyard, under the shade of a silver birch. Patrick never attended the funeral, as he was not able to get leave from work.

And so all of Eamon’s life was now in his job. Indeed, no one could criticise him for the work he did, considering what he was going through.

“How’s Eamon,” Séamus, the cleaner used to always say on Wednesdays.

“He’s coping,” the secretary would say.

“The poor fellah – his wife dead and all, and his son in America.”

“Canada,” the secretary would explain patiently. “His son is in Canada.”

“Sure ’tis all the one place,” the cleaner would say, throwing his hands in the air.

And cope Eamon did; what reasonable man could say otherwise? Sure who was to criticise if poor Eamon went to the pub to get his dinner after his work? After all, he had no one at home to look after him. And if he had a few drinks with his friends as well, sure he’d just lost his wife… Natural, they said it was. Natural and understandable. All he had now was his friends – shouldn’t he have a bit of craic with them? If he was late in the next day, he stayed in late to finish work, and locked up as well. The manager never said a word, he just watched.

Soon Eamon had a reputation in all the big pubs in town. Everyone loved it when he came by, with the jokes he had. And a great man for the drink he was too! No one could down a pint of Guinness as fast as him, or as many of them too. He knew his whiskey as well. What a man, what a man! Who could keep pace with him? If the pub closed early, he’d hit the one two doors down. A bar owner would have to be mad to turn away business from Eamon Lee.

***

Spring came again, and Patrick was getting married in Montréal. He’d sent the invitations in the post, and had even offered to pay for Eamon’s flight to Canada. At first, he had half a mind not to go, but his colleagues finally persuaded him to go to the boss and get a week’s leave. It would do him good, or so they thought.

“Lee,” the manager said, as he sat down in front of his desk. “Good that you called, I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while. What do you want first?”

“My son is getting married in Montréal in March,” Eamon began, “I’ll need to take a week’s leave.”

“I see, he’s your son and it’s important,” the manager said, reclining in his black leather chair. He stroked his chin for a moment. “I don’t think you should have any trouble making it,” he said finally.

“Why thank you,” Eamon said. “That’s great news!”

He was about to get up and shake his manager’s hand, when he noticed something decidedly off about his expression.

“Don’t thank me at all,” the man facing him said, rising. “Clear out your desk, I’m letting you go.”

“What?” Eamon exclaimed. The managers words had struck his chest, like pellets from as shotgun.

“You heard me,” the manager said, already looking down at his paperwork. “I can only make excuses for you so far. You’re late every morning, you take far too many absences, and you’re just not doing enough work.” When Eamon refused to budge, he raised his head for a moment and gestured to the secretary, “Jane, please help Eamon here clear out his desk.”

***

Patrick Lee had been waiting that letter for a week. His father had never been this slow at getting back to him, or as bad at answering the phone. That was why when his fiancé Brittany found a letter with an Irish stamp on it, in the post box outside their apartment, he was shaking with excitement. After months of hard work, he’d get to see the old man again. He ripped open the cover and began to read…

“Oh my God..” he choked. “Oh dear God almighty!”

Brittany pulled the letter from his almost lifeless grasp. It only took her one glance to see what was wrong. That was no response to a wedding invitation, it was a letter from the coroners office…

Categories: Short Stories

Fire in the Suburra

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Shouts and screams resonated through the walls of Marcus Sergius Alto’s house. He immediately ran to the nearest window at hand, and stared out. It was as he suspected – plumes of smoke were rising from an apartment block further down the narrow street.

“Damn it.” he swore, and turned to his children. “Pomponius, Pomponia, tell your mother there’s a fire!”

Fires were not an uncommon event in the Suburra, a fact Marcus and his family were all to aware of. His family, the gens Sergii, descendants of the Trojans, had lived in the Suburra for generations. What once had been an affluent neighbourhood, was now nothing but a slum. As a patrician to the core, it was his ever dying shame to live alongside the populists he hated. However, in times like this, he got some understanding of their hatred of the Republic.

Finally, his wife, Aurelia came struggling from their bedroom further down the passage. She was laden down with bags filled with perfumes and silks.

“We don’t have the time for those,” he snapped at her, keeping a watchful eye on the progression of the fire.

“Then make the time,” she flared, “it’s your own fault for not moving out last summer when you had the chance.”

Marcus sighed at that. Last summer, he’d returned from governing the province of Nearer Gaul, his chests laden with gold extorted from the traders there. Instead of purchasing a house on the Esquiline, as his wife had demanded, he’d decided to use the money to fund an ill fated campaign for the Consulship. It was then that the treasonous plans of his brother Catilina had cast his family name in disgrace. Catilina had tried to capture Rome on the back of a rebel army, and Cicero’s cronies had made sure to point out his blood links from the roster. This effectively eliminated him from the race.

He was distracted from his musings by the fire, which was now burning through yet another apartment block. Calling anxiously for his children, he grabbed one of his wife’s bags and hurried towards to the front door. The street outside was in chaos, with people fleeing in every direction. The district’s ill equipped fire brigade had it tough going to drive their water-carts through the fleeing masses.

Heeding his their mother and father’s cries, the children came running from from their rooms into the atrium; their own cloth bags filled with marbles and other childish toys. The looks of dejection on their faces, told Marcus that they knew they’d never be returning. Running behind them was his trusty slave, Arrio, armed with a short wooden poll – futile protection against the mob.

“Give me the poll,” Marcus quickly ordered the slave, “you carry my children.”

Despite the loud protests, the slave did as he was told, and they struggled out the door. The party was just about to say goodbye to their house for the last time, when a disturbance was heard at the bottom of the street. A group of burly slaves, armed with cudgels, were pushing their way through the crowd, which parted before them like a shoal of sardines before a shark. As the paterfamilias, Marcus placed himself instinctively in front of his family, ready to protect them against the slaves.

It didn’t take long for the ruffians to notice them. Two of the armed slaves pushed their way through the crowd towards him. A burning suspicion began to grow in Marcus’ mind as to their intentions.

“His this your ‘ouse?” one of them shouted at him, over the sound of the crowd.

Gauls, Marcus thought to himself, when will they learn to speak Latin? “It is,” he shouted back. “What do you want with it?”

The slave with the poor Latin regarded the house hungrily. “Not me – I not want it, Crassus does.”

So that was what this was all about… He should have known about it from the start! Marcus Licinius Crassus had been a friend of his own brother, Catilina, before he ultimately betrayed him over the so called “Catiline Conspiracy.” The Roman businessman had a dreadful reputation, and one of his many perversions was to buy the houses of people in Marcus’ situation for pennies. Once the money had exchanged hands, he would send in one of his own fire crews to put out the flames.

“Never!” he roared in anger.

“Then your house will burn,” another slave said, shrugging his shoulders. “Do you want an ash house?”

“Marcus,” his wife whispered in his ear, “we don’t have a choice.”

“Fine,” the paterfamillias snapped, his face livid, “how much?”

“Three sesterces,” the slave grinned evilly.

“I know that this is Crassus I’m dealing with, but surely you can do better than that,” he retorted. “Five is the rock bottom.”

“With respect,” the slave said, pointing to the fire that was ripping through a house only three doors up, “you don’t ‘ave that much time to ‘aggle. Three sesterces, hand the return of all goods hinside the house – providing hit doesn’t get burnt down, before we can put hout the flames.”

“Ok,” Marcus groaned. “Deal.”

Almost as soon as he said that, the second slave signalled to yet another group of slaves driving water-carts up the street. The other grinned and reached for his purse. Methodically he counted out three sesterces and handed them to Marcus.

“Nice doing business with you.”

“The pleasure was all mine,” Marcus said sourly.

Homeless, and not knowing where to go, he pushed his way into the crowd. An uncertain future lay ahead. When fires began turning into a business opportunities, he started losing faith in the Republic. Perhaps it was time for him to throw his lot in with the populists, after all.

Categories: Short Stories

The Turkish Nightmare

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment
If any of you have ever seen “The Midnight Express,” you might as well put this story down right now, because you basically know what happened. The main difference between that guy in the film and me, is that I was an unwitting victim of a very simple hoax. It’s a hoax that a lot of people have fallen for, but it still happens all the time. No matter how many damned times they see it on TV or in the newspapers, people still fall for it.

My name doesn’t matter, so I won’t bore you with it. In fact, even I don’t matter any more. I’m just another lump of living meat stuck in jail here – a nobody, who’s only function in life is to be bullied by the prison guards and tougher inmates. Life in here is a constant horror – which is why I’m going to do my best to explain this, in such a way, that it will never happen to anyone ever again.

Two years ago, though, I was a somebody – a student from Ireland who went on holidays to Turkey, to celebrate his graduation from Trinity College. I was twenty-three at the time, and had my entire future ahead of me. Now, look where I’ve landed myself, eh?

I guess it all started with my obsession with Roman history as a kid. It just fascinated me, you know? From a very young age I wanted, to examine the treasures left over from antiquity. The stories of Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavian and all them guys had me transfixed – unnaturally so. I have a stack of books as high as the ceiling back at home… Not that they do me much good now, eh?

The whole purpose of this trip to Turkey was to finally get to see where this stuff all happened. It was supposed to be a dream – it turned into a nightmare pretty soon.

I was all full of high spirits going to the airport. I had picked Turkey specifically to start with, because I heard that the sites in Greece and Italy had been ruined by tourists. Turkey is not as ”overrun,” so to speak. The big cities are filled with tourists, like anywhere else in the world, but the countryside is all but untouched. It’s a tourist’s best kept secret.

Anyway, I got the flight to Istanbul, and when I got there, the place was roasting. It was about 50 C out most days – or rather, it felt like it. The first day after I landed was pretty lazy. I just hung around in the Hilton Hotel, which was pretty much packed to the brim with American and British tourists. Seriously, if you ever decide to go on holidays to Istanbul, August is the worst month for it. You get more Americans and Brits there than you get locals. I swear to God, it’s the craziest thing ever.

Seeing as I only had one week, the next day I decided to get cracking. I went on a minibus trip out around the coast a bit. We set out mad early in the morning, about seven or eight AM I guess, and we’d reached the first old Roman town by midday. The Amphitheatre was pretty much still intact and it had my imagination soaring higher than the birds in the sky. I really wished that I was alive back in Roman times, when Gnaeus Pompeius was carving up Asia Minor, and Caesar defeating Vercingetorix in further Gaul.

It’s so weird how good they could build stuff back then, in the days of the Roman Empire. I mean, our architects and engineers should be able to build stuff that good, but they just don’t. It’s a sin, I tell you – a sin against good architecture.

***

I’m not gonna to bore you by recounting my holiday day by day, ’cause I know that’s not why you are here. Also, it depresses the hell out of me – all this stuff really just makes me think about why I’m in here, and how beautiful things are outside. All you need to know is that in Turkey, you get Roman ruins sticking out of the sand all over the shop. Big huge amphitheatres, temples, you name it – it’s all there. You should seriously go see it, just don’t make the dumb mistake I did.

Right now, I’m pretty much gonna cut the crap and get to the point about how I got locked up in jail.

It was the day before I was leaving, that all hell began to break loose. I’d spent most of the day packing, and went down after dinner to have a drink or two with some of the American tourists. I really had paid no attention to them up until that point, but after a week of listening to broken English from tour guides, I’d wanted to talk to some people who actually knew how to string a few sentences together.

Like all the problems that a guy experiences in life, this one started with a girl… Nah, I’m kidding. Really, I am – I’m not some big chauvinist or anything. Anyway, I was sitting at the bar, drinking cocktails when this girl just came up behind me and asked if I was Irish. I probably should have seen from the start that she was a total fake. I mean, she was unnaturally dolled up with make-up, hair extensions, manicured nails… It was obvious that her hair was died blond as well. It’s not that I don’t mind girls wearing make-up and all that lark, just too much of it makes them look totally fake.

Well, all that is in hindsight – I had already had about five cocktails, so I didn’t quite get those warning signals.

We started talking, anyway. She thought it was really cool that I was Irish and that her ancestors came from Galway. She was really hoping to go and see them some time – in fact she’d tracked them down to Oughterard. Then she became to flatter me outrageously. I mean, even though I was drunk, I probably should have been warned by the fact that she liked my beard, when I just hadn’t bothered to shave that week! (Trust me, it looked dreadful – it really did.)

Anyway, it was one AM when I decided to leave her. At first she was really disappointed and pouted a bit (I have to admit, she looked really cute to me then and I probably would have stayed for a bit longer) – but when I told her that my flight was leaving the next day, she became unusually excited. She begged me to come back to her room for a minute, where she handed me an envelope – ostensibly to be posted to her family in Galway. I probably should have found it strange that it already had an Irish stamp on it, but I was too drunk to notice. When I got to my room, I just stuck it in my case and went to sleep.

I really didn’t think much of the night before, while taking the taxi down to the airport. The rush to get out on time, as well as the late night, had left me pretty shattered. Not to mention, I was a bit hungover. If I had remembered, however, I’d have probably burned the letter – or at the very least, thrown it in the bin. I’m not usually that gullible a guy.

To cut the long story short, the sniffer dogs at the airport found my case incredibly interesting. So interesting in fact, that the customs officers opened it. There at the top, lay the envelope – my fate was sealed. What was in it, but two small bags of heroin!

All my explanations were lost upon the authorities. I told the police what had truly happened and they dismissed it out of hand. The Irish Ambassador was very supportive – but even on the insistence of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) himself, the Turkish prosecutors refused to drop the charges. Possession is nine tenths of the law, after all, and they had a concrete case.

So now I’m serving a seven year sentence in jail, five of which I have yet to serve. For the love of God Almighty, don’t be as gullible as I was. Think before you accept a letter, or a present, off anyone you don’t know, when you are abroad. That said, I know that this will basically fall on deaf ears. Hoaxes like this have happened countless times before – worse, they still do. I doubt this prisoner’s fate will change anything – but at any rate, I know I’ve made an effort.

Categories: Short Stories

Dear Mrs Gallagher

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

“Dear Mrs Gallagher,” Richard wrote in his forced childish scrawl. “Im sorry.” Of course, it should really have been “I’m sorry,” but Richard didn’t care particularly much. After all, that was precisely what had got him into trouble in the first place: doing second class quality in first class.

“Im sorry that I knew that 33 times 100 was 3,300,” he continued before crossing out the ‘k’ in ‘knew’. Homonyms were something quite alien to the ‘normal’ children of first class, something Mrs Gallagher was quick to impress upon him. He ended it with, “I won’t do it again,” signed off with, “Richard McCarthy.” Now with the ordeal of dumbness over, it was time for a second opinion from his dear mother.

“I’ve finished it, mum,” he called.

Mum looked up, from her nest in the armchair – the same armchair from which she used to read “Fantastic Mr Fox,” and “Danny, Champion of the World,” to him. Those were the good days, before Mrs Gallagher had entered ‘St Deborah’s National School’, and haughtily declared that that pupils weren’t to start on Roald Dahl until they had reached third class. There were plenty of names that Richard wanted to call that woman, but they were names he’d picked up from reading ‘The BFG,’ and he wasn’t supposed to have read ‘The BFG’.

Mum came over to the table, and clinically regarded the letter of apology.

“You put in an apostrophe in ‘won’t’,” she observed.

At that, Richard began to protest loudly, but she put her finger to his lips, silencing him immediately.

“If you be a good boy for an entire week, I’ll read you ‘The Twits,’” she promised him.

“But Mrs Gallagher said…” he began to object, but the finger was placed on his lips again.

“Then we’ll have to make sure that Mrs Gallagher doesn’t find out,” she smiled down at him. “Mrs Gallagher doesn’t live in this house, does she?”

Now that was a reasonably new idea, to Richard’s five and a half year old brain. He’d heard of people lying of course, but those people had existed in books by Roald Dahl. Bad things happened to those people – things that made Richard shiver as he read about them, in spite of the fact that he thought those people were evil. The idea that he might be turned into a rat, and eaten by a cat like the Grand High Witch, from ‘The Witches’, was enough to make him want to cry. Nonetheless, he nodded his head.

“Good,” she beamed down at him, “now make sure you be good and act dumb for the rest of the week.”

The grin he gave her back was forced, to say the least. That was the same line she had receited him every morning before he went out to school. Unconsciously, his mind began to think up a poem:

Be good, and act dumb.

Easily said, less easily done.

Be a mouse, when you are a rat.

Be a puppy, when you are a cat.

 

No, no, no! He had to stop this at once. After all, he wasn’t supposed to know what a poem was yet – let alone, one of those really good ones that had a rhyme. He had heard the fourth class pupils studying them in their classrooms, as he went out on for his lunch break. Mrs Gallagher would no doubt have had him whipped if she knew he’d been listening. She was the Trunchbull from ‘Mathilda’ – his mother was Jenny.

***

At precisely eight o’clock that night, Richard was lying in his little bed, the quilt tucked up over his chin. “As snug as a bug in a rug,” his mother had said to him, kissing him on the forhead. That phrase sounded nice to Richard, though he thought it didn’t make much sense. After all, he’d never see bugs in rugs – only in the flowerbed in the back garden. He was just about to drift off to sleep – possibly to dream about bugs in rugs, when he heard his mother and father talking outside his door.

“There has to be some school in Europe that doesn’t have that stupid system, Peter,” his mother whispered loud enough for him to hear. “I’m just about sick of hearing Richard’s stories when he comes home.”

“Kate,” his father said exasperatedly, “there are none. You know well enough that since this nonsense started, I criss crossed Europe – from Talinn, to Helsinki, to Madrid and back again to Dublin. We were the last country to actively enforce the Education Equality Act, period.”

His mother made groan. “Where are our politicians? Asleep?” she demanded.

“National Politics has been dead since 2010, Kate,” his father said contemptuously. “Where have you been? On the moon? Listen,” he said, lowering his voice to the point where Richard could barely hear him, “you know yourself that since our son began bringing these stories home from school, I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground. This is only the beginning. I heard rumours of school-children in Germany saluting the flag of the Federation and reciting the oath of allegiance.”

Indoctrination,” his mother whispered, darkly.

Although Richard did not understand most of what they were saying, he knew that ‘indoctrination,’ was a bad word. In fact, it was a terrible word. He’d seen it written on placards held by protesters, outside the European Federation buildings. His mother would never explain what it meant, though he’d asked many times. She only shook her head and made him promise not to mention it again.

“Exactly,” his father said, with a click of his fingers. “We need to get out.”

“But where will we go?” mum protested. “New York?”

“America…” dad said dryly. “They’ll let us in certainly, but only until Brussels starts extradition proceedings with some trumped up charge.”

She was silent for a moment before pleading, “Please tell me it’s not that bad yet. Peter? Is it really?”

“It’s not that bad here yet,” his father replied, “but it’s getting worse. The military faction in parliament are passing bills every day – bills that aren’t even being discussed. And the Americans…” he made sneering noise, “they are playing lap dogs to the Commission…” He paused again for a moment. “We could go to Beirut and they wouldn’t dare follow us. Trouble is, with law and order the as it is there, it’s not the greatest place to raise a child.”

“That’s an understatement,” mum said dryly. “Come on, there must be one rich country on bad terms with Europe. One that won’t get nuked in the near future…”

“Taiwan,” dad said suddenly. “It isn’t really worth the Commission’s time doing much about it, and they won’t extradite us. Also,” he continued excitedly, “I’ve got a business engagement in Singapore next Wednesday, as you know. I’ll get us Visa’s from the Taiwanese embassy there.”

“That easily?” she demanded, sounding faintly sceptical.

“How many particle physicists can a population that size have?” he asked. “They’ll bend the rules for me any day.”

“I’ll go with you if you promise to be in the house more often,” his mother whispered, “our son needs a father that is at home. Not criss-crossing Europe, the way you are these days.”

“Getting sentimental, are you Kate?” dad asked dryly. “You know I want the best for Richard.”

“I know,” she whispered. “Anyway, Today Tonight is on now. Seeing as you aren’t going to be home for long, we should get some quality time.”

As he heard them walk down the stairs, Richard decided it was time to enter dreamland. Soon, they were all going to a country far, far away. A country where he’d get a good schooling and be allowed to read Roald Dahl.

The talk about military factions, Commissions and extradition processes, he didn’t quite understand, but it sounded fairly scary. Why, oh why, did adults have to play such dangerous games? Couldn’t they just play football and read books? When he had asked his dad that same question, only the week before, his only reply had been a sympathetic chuckle. All Richard could conclude from that, was that when they were growing up, the adults must have banged their heads off doorways a few times too many.

 

Categories: Short Stories

Just a Wound of War

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

“The grumbles and groans of, you, Charles Daly, are worse than the disorganised snorting and baying of a herd of bovines,” Master Johnston barked at him. “I suggest that you remove that scowl from your face, assume an expression of dutifulness, turn to page one hundred and five, and begin revising the campaigns of Julius Caesar. You are aware what exam you are sitting tomorrow morning at precisely eight-thirty AM? Or is your brain so filled with worms and other invertebrates, that you no longer recognise reality?”

The verbosity of your speech, Master Johnston, is unequalled, save by those who attended Elocution Lessons in Cheshire, Charlie thought derisively, but his real reply was a quiet, “Yes master.” No one bothered to argue with the master. Even in the face of the most astounding logic, he never changed his mind. The quiet revenge most pupils took on him, was to call him ”Piggy” behind his back. After all, he basically was one.

There was no point in beating around the bush – the master was a pig, and dare any zoologist deem him otherwise. His thick neck consisted purely of rolls of fat, leaving absolutely no distinction between it and his head. His chin was just a small bob sticking out above his voice box, and bellow tiny hole-like mouth.

Often Charlie wondered about the master’s mouth – it, along with his small black eyes heavily contrasted the rest of his body parts, which were all larger than they should be. While his nose was short in length, it was also wider than normal, adding to its piglike appearance. With the help of a few leaps of logic, one could hardly view him as anything less than a sus domestica.

“Stop daydreaming, Daly!” Piggy barked. “Cease whatever mental tangent you are going on, and focus on the Gallic Wars. Must I traverse the length of this classroom to study it with you? It seems to me that there is no other option to make sure to dedicate your time adequately to it.”

Jerked from his reverie, Charlie looked up at the master sitting at his wooden desk desk, characteristically cluttered with his out of date teaching notes. In front of the mounds of paperwork, was the one object that enforced his rule over the class: the black cane. The standard joke was that Piggy, ripped from the rest of his pig family at a young age, had a deep psychological compulsion to make his students squeal. No doubt Freud would have made great theories about it, if he were alive.

Unconsciously, Charlie grinned at the last thought. Almost as soon as his mouth had finished forming the expression, he realised it was a big mistake, a very big mistake.

“Well I never,” the master barked. “I never thought I’d have to take a cane to a sixth year, especially the day before the exams. Charles Daly, come up here at once and take your pants down.”

Canning students had been made illegal, many years ago. However writing the law and enforcing it were two separate things. Charlie surveyed his options, on the one hand if he refused the caning, he would be expelled and not allowed to sit his exams. That would effectively have made his last six years of schooling worthless. On the other hand, if he took the caning, the next few days would be incredibly painful. It was quite a conundrum, really.

The other pupils were regarding this confrontation with some interest. Some looked at him sympathetically, others merely grinned. Only one fellow, Pete, put up his hand. The master looked at him in annoyance.

“Ah sir,” the wretched fool said, “wouldn’t smacking his  left hand be a better choice?”

Oh Pete, when wilt thou learn? Charlie groaned. Pete’s lack of social intelligence was infamous, but this was a new low for him.

“Don’t you dare question me, Peter McLoughlin!” Piggy roared, “join Daly beside my desk.” However then his black eyes floated down to the right side of his desk, where pupils normally queued to get punishments. Realising that Charlie wasn’t there, he shouted down at him, “Daly, my desk, now!”

This was far too much for Charlie to take. Strengthening his resolve, he said a quiet “no.”

Silence all around. The grinners stopped grinning; the sympathisers looked shocked.

“What did you say, Daly?” Piggy demanded ominously.

“I said no,” Charlie said, raising his chin defiantly.

The silence was replaced by oohs, and the master looked at him incredulously. “Do you want to sit your exam tomorrow?”

“Yes,” he replied, “which is why I want my backside in one piece, thank you very much.”

The laughter was quiet at first, but it gradually grew into gales and gales. At that stage, it was apparent that Piggy had lost control. The shocked look on his face was pure brilliance to behold. Clearly looking to retrieve the situation, he spoke again.

“Daly, McLoughlin come up to my desk, your left hands out. Three smacks for Daly, two for McLoughlin. Now no more smart talking, or I swear, the person that does it will not be able to sit down for three months!”

Charlie complied and rose, yet there was still a hint of a smile on his face – one that Piggy would never remove. Behind the smile, however, there was a twinge of regret that he hadn’t done this long before. As the final thud of the cane struck his hand, one thought blocked out all the pain: “it’s just a wound of war.”

Categories: Short Stories