Tuesday, 30 October 2012


Inspector Squirrel considered the evidence; the missing porridge, the broken chair.

“Are you sure nothing else has been taken?” he asked, his notebook at the ready.

Father Bear scratched his head.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Mother Bear shook her head in agreement.

“No, just the porridge. I know it’s only oats, and they’re cheap, but it’s the emotional value.” She began to sob.

Father Bear took the Inspector aside.

“The lad’s upset about his chair too, but to be honest, Sergeant – sorry, Inspector – it’s from Ikea – it could have gone any time.”

Suddenly something caught Inspector Squirrel’s notice. He produced a magnifying glass from his pocket. He picked up a long strand of golden hair from the empty porridge bowl, and held it up to the light from the window.

“You are, are you not,” asked the Inspector, “a family of brown bears?”

“It is plain from our fur that we are,” said Mother Bear.

‘Then how do you explain this blonde hair?”

The inspector popped the hair into a plastic bag to take to the police lab.

“I’ll go back to the station, and write my notes up. If you can think of anyone who may have a grudge against you or if you remember anything …”

“I know. We’ll call you.”

Just as the Inspector had replaced his coat and finished his goodbyes, there was a creak on the stairs.  Looking up, the Inspector saw a girl with yellow hair down to her waist descending the staircase.

“Who is this?”

“This is Goldilocks, our nanny – she’s just going to take Baby Bear to nursery school.”

“How lovely – take his mind off things. Anyway, as I said, I’ll be in touch,” said the Inspector, and was gone.

Monday, 29 October 2012


I see you ironing - always ironing - ironing things that don't need to be ironed: vests, socks, pillow-cases, sheets. You've been doing this so many years, I can see you're on automatic pilot. Although your hands are flashing this way and that, expertly tossing the fabric to maximise the effectiveness of each stroke of the iron, your mind is far away. Somebody else would say 'penny for your thoughts' but I am not that kind of son; I am your son, and like you, I leave things unsaid, keep my thoughts to myself, restrict conversation to the mundane and superficial. Perhaps you are little girl in Ireland with black curls and blue eyes, lost in the woods overnight with your little brother. Perhaps you are a teenager brushing your mother's hair as she lies in the coffin. Perhaps you are a wide-eyed innocent on the boat from Rosslare to Fishguard wondering what England holds in store for you.
I want to touch your hand and tell you I'm sorry that your life hasn't been better, but I am not that kind of son.


In the supermarket I met my girl;
She was stacking shelves in the biscuit aisle.
Though I spoke to her of Viennese whirls,
It was her golden curls that made me smile.
She soon was ensconced behind a big till,
Scanning my threes for the price of twoses.
She encouraged me to reduce my bill,
By choosing ‘own brand’ bottles of boozes.
Promotion arrived, and with it a change;
They gave her a badge and a bunch of keys.
She now recommended the ‘finest’ range.
With ring in a box I begged on my knees.
My clubcard she took and broke it in two:
‘You’re off your trolley; I’d never wed you’.


The concrete and the sky conspire
To make this Monday chill and grey
Tired expressions show no fire
A longing for the bed betray

Slaves pulled by invisible chains
Into the earth as one descend
On escalators to the trains
Packed so tight, no limbs extend

Disgorged at the appointed stop
Re-devoured by towers of glass
One thought only: avoid the chop
Retain the building entry pass


In the windswept cemetery of an unremarkable village on the Atlantic coast of North Kerry, there is a gravestone with my name on it. 
This is Ballyheigue. It boasts half a castle and mile after mile of sandy-coloured sand.  The tide here goes out a long, long way.  Anyone planning on a swim to Nova Scotia could save valuable hours by setting off when the beach is at its fullest extent. Ballyheigue lies on the southern side of Kerry Head, a small headland, as its name suggests, that separates Tralee Bay from the estuary of the Shannon.  The Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, ‘broad’ and ‘majestic’ according to the dentally-challenged Shane McGowan, ‘dark’ and ‘mutinous’ according to James Joyce. My father, Jack, was the eldest of nine and was born and raised in a tiny house on the north side of Kerry Head looking across the mouth of the Shannon to County Clare.  According to legend, he walked three miles to school every day in bare feet to Tiershanahan School where children were savagely beaten for failing to remember their catechism or their Irish. If you follow the Shannon upstream, you’ll arrive at the port of Limerick, the miserable, rainy city that earned a Pulitzer Prize for Frank McCourt where similar abuses against schoolchildren were allegedly commonplace.  The accents of the older hill folk, those of my father’s generation, are largely impenetrable to visitors, and after a few pints of the black stuff, to each other. A stranger walking into one of Ballyheigue’s five pubs in the winter could be forgiven for thinking they were in Baku or Minsk or Donegal. The profusion of drinking dens is balanced by the presence of a grotto dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, up in the mountains, St Dahilan’s Well, whose water restores the spirit.
It is August 1993. Although I visited Ballyheigue as a child, I am now 29 and it is thirteen years since I last stood in this little cemetery and gazed upon the grave of my grandfather, after whom I was named.  He passed away in 1966, two years after I was born in London, but before we made each other’s acquaintance, an unhappy fact that is a constant source of pain to my father. Last time I came here I was the eldest son in a nuclear family of four; now I am the husband and father of my own family. I have a wife and two daughters; the girls are aged five and one. My grandmother, Hanna (nee O’Connor), died in 1985 and now occupies the other side of the twin plot. I remember her long plait of silver hair and her soda bread. How difficult it must have been to raise a family in such difficult conditions, such difficult times. Nearly all her children eventually crossed the Irish Sea to England to find work, most of them living near us in London at one time.  With the sole exception of my father, they all returned home to Ireland at various times during the Seventies.

It is 30th December 1993. I hadn’t planned to come back so soon. We land at Cork Airport at 9pm: my mother, my sister and her husband, my wife and I. In the hold of the plane is a coffin carrying the body of my father; he is coming home as had been his wish. In the terminal, we are greeted by a bewildering array of relations, many of whom I haven’t seen for years and many of whom I had seen in August for the first time in years. Some belong to the Cork branch of the family; my father’s sister moved here with her husband and raised eight children, seven of which are older than me. Others are making the return trip to Kerry tonight. Ballyheigue is normally a two-hour drive from Cork but there is snow in the Cork and Kerry mountains.  The cortege sets off with the hearse leading the way.  My cousin, Brendan, drives the second car carrying three passengers; the widow of the deceased – my mother, the eldest and only son of the deceased – that’s me – and the driver’s mother, my Aunt Valerie, a formidable English woman. Behind us, there are another two cars and a minibus in which the whiskey is being passed around.
A third of the way into the journey, the cortege pulls up at Macroom for refuelling at the Victoria Hotel. Bladders are emptied and bladders are refilled, mine on Guinness. My cousin Marie Brophy, a live-wire, runs around allocating readings and prayers for the next day’s funeral while my mother sips orange juice and worries about the poor priest waiting to greet the coffin in Ballyheigue. Eventually we set off again, and given the late hour, a signal is given to the undertaker and the convoy takes off over the snow-capped moments and soon we are swooping down into Killarney before swinging north towards Tralee, the understated county town of Kerry.  Throughout the journey, my dear Aunt regales us with tales of the recent EU-funded road improvements on this route. Once we’re out of Tralee, we slow down to a respectable pace again and are amazed as further cars join the cortege as we progress. 
Arriving at the Church in Ballyheigue at 1:30am, we see the car park is half-full and the priest is waiting to welcome the coffin into the church.  There are rumours that two of the pubs in the village have stayed open to accommodate the thirsty in our party, but my mother will not countenance any attempt to verify this.  The next day we bury my father. His coffin is borne the 400 yards from the church to its final resting place on the shoulders of brothers, cousins, nephews, friends and his son - me. It rains.

It is February 2000.  We were here in the summer with my mother; she looked better than she had for years, enjoying the sea air, walking here and there. I hadn’t planned to come back so soon. We land at Kerry Airport at 4pm; this airport is so small, it should be a request stop – ring the bell if you want to get off. My sister is carrying my mother’s remains in a small wooden casket. My mother hated fuss and had asked for a quiet cremation, which we had given her in London. She would have been embarrassed at being the centre of attention. I’m not sure, and neither is anyone else, as to whose idea it was to reunite her with her husband in death, but here we were again. Photo ID is now required to travel by air between Britain and Ireland.  My sister doesn’t have any.
            ‘But this is my mother’ she says, proffering the casket toward the official as if the ashes of a close relative is an approved form of identification. He allows her to pass; after all, this is Ireland and this is Kerry. Like the licensing laws, this rule is merely a guideline to help us.
Ballyheigue’s half a castle now has half a golf course in its grounds; nine holes, a monument to the prowling Celtic Tiger. The village now has a ‘museum’ containing the skeleton of a fin whale that washed ashore a few years ago; the bones are surrounded by a few photographs of the event. All the postcards in the shops have the slogan ‘Having a whale of a time in Ballyheigue’. The next day, after a brief service, we inter my mother’s remains in a corner of my father’s grave. It rains.

It is August 2010.  I stand once again in the windswept cemetery. Nobody places fresh flowers on the graves of their loved ones; they would be blown away immediately. The locals refer to the prevailing hurricane force winds as ‘a bit breezy’. Looking down the graveyard, there is the beach and beyond it to the south, the Dingle peninsula, the western outpost of European civilisation. Beyond that again, but out of sight, lies the Iveragh peninsula, better known as the Ring of Kerry, beloved by coach parties of elderly Americans wearing name badges saying ‘Chuck’ and ‘Lucille’.  There are now two graves bearing my name, as my father’s youngest brother has joined the long list of uncles, aunts and cousins that have died since I returned in 1993.  I wonder how the undertaker has time to run a chip shop, let out holiday homes and run an estate agency. Ballyheigue’s half a castle still has half a golf course, but the pubs in the multi-coloured street are half-empty and various housing developments have been abandoned half-finished.  The claws of the Celtic Tiger are blunt, and my dark hair has turned grey.
It is some time in the future. One of my children is standing with their own children in the windswept cemetery of an unremarkable village on the Atlantic coast of North Kerry.  My name is on three of the gravestones.  The light rain suddenly turns heavy and the children run towards the car.


After the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived - the most important thing any child in an English primary school learns is the rain cycle.  That’s because the main topic of adult conversation in England is the likelihood of rain, so for the upcoming generation to play a full part in society, he or she needs to be familiar with the mechanism that generates precipitation.
So, although from the age of eight or so, I could taste a raindrop and tell you its sea of origin, the other cycle that can generate storms not only outdoors, but indoors, remained a virtual mystery to me.  I’m referring, of course, to the menstrual cycle.
As a young boy, the menstrual cycle had little or no part to play in my life. A year after I was born, my mother had a hysterectomy following complications giving birth to my sister, so for several years my house was a no-go area for so-called feminine hygiene products.
In those days, of course, sanitary towels and tampons were only available on prescription – probably – and didn’t have pet names like sannies and tammies, flippant monikers belying the serious medical purpose of these innovations in women’s healthcare.  The male half of the population knew nothing of this modern world of applicators and absorbency, and no self-respecting man would be found in the pub discussing the relative merits of the Lil-lets or Bodyform of the day. I, and others of my generation, grew to manhood in blissful ignorance of the monthly goings-on of ladies’ nether regions and the increasing array of products to counter the problems associated with the possession of a fully functioning womb and ovaries.
Eventually, and in spite of my inherent unsuitability as boyfriend material, a young lady took a shine to me so I married her as soon as possible in case she changed her mind. No sooner had the final pieces of confetti been removed from my bouffant Eighties hair than the frightening truth become apparent to my hitherto innocent sensibilities. Not only were feminine hygiene products now available on supermarket shelves between toothpaste and disposable nappies, but I was expected to buy them. Don’t get me wrong, the monetary outlay was only a minor quibble; somewhere in the small print of the marriage vows, I’d agreed to surrender financial autonomy to my new wife. The problem was in the purchasing, the sheer humiliation in the physical act of the purchasing. How could I, a man of nearly two metres in height, maintain my dignity while purchasing these goods from a shelf where no male has any business?
In those dark days before the dawning of the internet, I spent hours in the library poring over medical literature until the obvious solution presented itself to me: For the sake of my own dignity and my own sense of masculinity, I must impregnate my young wife and keep her in a state of maternity until either her womb gave up the ghost, or her well of oestrogen ran dry and she was overtaken by hot flushes some thirty years in the future (an estimate).
This plan I put into action without a moment’s further though. Our first baby was conceived on honeymoon – in Italy – so the first months of marriage were spent in blissful happiness, for me at least, as I was able to visit the local supermarkets without the dirty looks from middle-aged spinsters that I’d feared. My wife, on the other hand, suffered terribly from morning sickness and it was in these days of having to eat two breakfasts, while my green-faced spouse looked on, that my sapling-like figure began to spread into a great oak. As it turned out, there was a fatal flaw in my plan, a flaw that looks so obvious in retrospect. Our first child born in 1988 was a girl, our second child born in 1991 was a girl, our fourth child born in 1996 was a girl, our fifth child born in 1997 was a girl; I was simply storing up problems for myself. Some time in the future (at eleven years old, or fifteen if I was lucky), all of these harmless looking babies were going to be sending me off to Tesco or Sainsbury’s to fill my basket with the products that haunted me, the products I had come to despise. Like the eternally youthful Dorian Gray, I had postponed facing my worst fears, but I couldn’t hold them at bay forever.
Charles Darwin was right; in a matter of years, although it seemed much shorter, these delightful baby girls had evolved into completely different creatures – teenagers with mobile phones, skin problems and periods. Somehow, as I had feared but expected, I was nominated as the person best place to stem this flow of blood, the primary reason being that I passed the supermarket on my way home from work. With the advent of barcodes, never would I hear the chilling call from one cashier to another four checkout lanes away of: ‘Doreen, how much is a sixteen-pack of Tampax Super?’ Believe me when I say I am grateful for that small mercy.
Experience breeds confidence, of course it does, but even as I approach middle age I will bite my lip and pay £2.79 rather than say: ‘But these are supposed to be on special offer at £1.99, I think you’ll find. Summon your supervisor at once while I stand here with an ever-growing queue snarling behind me.’
What my daughters don’t seem to appreciate is that I am not interested in the particular qualities or features of each product. If I was, I would subscribe to Which Tampon? as well as Private Eye and New Scientist.
‘I want the ones with …’ one of my daughters - let’s call her Ms G - will begin.
‘Let me stop you there!’ I will say. ‘I don’t care if it has wings like an albatross or can make a beaker of blue liquid disappear in an instant; all I want to know is the colour of the packet. I don’t care if enables you to dive off a springboard into crystal clear water without fear of leakage, just tell me the colour. I don’t care if it’s been endorsed by Claire Rayner …’
‘Claire who?’
‘The nation’s favourite deceased agony aunt.’ I’m wasting my time.
‘But dad, if they don’t have …’ Miss G will continue, but to no avail. She knows I will go nowhere near a shop until she’s given me a list of at least three colours in descending order of preference. Even then it may end in tears.
‘But I said the green packet.’
‘This packet is green.’
‘Yes, but it’s light green.’
‘You didn’t specify.’
‘But I always have dark green.’
‘No, you don’t.
‘Yes, I do. You’re so stupid.’
She’s right too. Ms G always has dark green. It’s Ms H who has light green, or sometimes lilacy-purple.

A recent innovation, which I had hoped would improve my life no end, is the self-service checkout. You just hide the offending article under a loaf of bread, throw it past the scanner into a plastic bag and voilà - but what happens every time?
‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’, that’s what.
Whenever I watch repeats of the BBC’s landmark 1996 presentation of Pride and Prejudice, which I do quite often with so many women in the house, it is not Colin Firth’s dripping jodhpurs or Jennifer Ehle’s nineteenth century Wonderbra that catches my attention, but the enduring patience of poor Mr Bennet, the eye at the centre of the hormonal storm. My two eldest daughters are now of marriageable age. How delightful it would be if a Mr Darcy or a Mr Bingley came to take them off my hands before they literally bleed me dry.


Tomorrow was the big day. Frank paced up and down the little room trying to learn his speech. He was known as a man of few words, a doer - not a talker, so he was determined to surprise everyone by addressing them directly, rather than reading from his notes, to look people in the eye as he mentioned them by name, to ambush them with his eloquence. He even planned to drop in a few phrases of his terribly rusty Spanish to please his ageing father.
            Frank went over and over his mental checklist. The priest would be there, of course. Frank’s father would be on his way already; he’d probably be checking into some cheap motel on the way to break the journey. Lori’s parents would be there too and her brother, Jeff. The meal was booked: crab claws – her favourite, followed by rump steak, potatoes and mushrooms, his favourite. To finish off, there was blueberry pie and cream, their favourite.
Manuel Hernandez crossed the Rio Grande in 1961 searching for work, hoping for a future. He ended up in a tiny apartment above a grocery store in Inglewood, California, a few miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. A few years later he wed Maria, the sister of a former schoolmate. Manuel was a practical man, an electrician by trade, and found a lucrative business reconnecting the supply of those unfortunate Angelenos who’d fallen foul of the Electric Company’s terms of payment and been cut off from the grid.  Meanwhile Maria sewed, cleaned, waited tables and tried to conceive.
Having almost given up on the idea of children as her fortieth approached, Maria fell pregnant in the summer of ‘69, and gave birth to twin boys eight months later on March 22nd , 1970, Palm Sunday or Domingo de Ramos. The older twin was named Francisco, the younger twin Jorge.
The two boys were inseparable until one day just after they’d turned ten, Francisco came home in the back of a police car. His Latino skin was white, his eyes raw. Jorge had fallen from the top of a parking lot where the boys had been playing Batman and Robin and died on impact. After that, Francisco changed. He started skipping school, smoking, calling himself Frank. He refused to speak Spanish. Manuel tried everything, and eventually, out of frustration, resorted to beating the boy, but Francisco just stared into the distance unmoved as the blows fell upon him. By the age of seventeen, Frank was bigger and stronger than his father, so the beatings had to stop for Manuel’s safety. Eventually, Manuel decided that the only way to get Frank back on track was to have him enlist in the army. Surprisingly, a gift of five hundred dollars towards an old beat-up Harley-Davidson was enough incentive for Frank to agree, so a few days after his 18th birthday, Frank joined up.

Frank put down his notes and thought back to when he’d first met her. Tomorrow was the big day, but he needed to see Father Mike tonight. There was one last thing he wanted to go over. He hoped Father Mike hadn’t been called away by some other pressing matter.

Barely out of school, Lori looked a good five years older with her heavy make-up and a blouse that always had one button too many undone. Her eyes were grey, almost silver, and black curls that defied taming fell over her face and shoulders. Her limbs and her neck were elegant and long and when she moved, she did so with the efficient gait and confidence of an apex predator. Frank was home on extended leave after picking up a piece of shrapnel during Desert Storm, and rode a Harley-Davidson. Lori’s previous boyfriend was quickly forgotten, and she became a permanent fixture on the back of Frank’s bike, her tanned arms entwined around his waist. Then tragedy struck again; Frank’s mother died from head injuries after tripping over a loose floorboard and falling down the stairs. Frank and Lori attended the funeral together; in black, Lori looked every inch a young Jackie Kennedy. There was a bit of life insurance, so Frank upgraded his bike and bought Lori a diamond.
Then came the letter – the Second Infantry Division (Mechanized) wanted Frank back the following month. Frank was not pleased; he spent the rest of the day shooting pool and drinking beer, roaming from bar to bar with a few guys from school. It was a hot, sticky evening and The Oasis was packed. A scuffle broke out between Frank and another guy at the pool table. Frank sustained a split lip and chipped a tooth; his opponent   staggered from the bar with blood gushing from a face wound. The following day the police caught up with Frank. The other guy, a Marlon Johnson of no fixed address, had lost an eye – he’d been glassed. Frank was pulled in for questioning, bailed and a court date was set.  When the date came, Johnson failed to appear. There were a couple of witnesses who claimed Frank had launched an unprovoked attack on Johnson, but others who swore that Johnson had pulled a knife on Frank first. In Johnson’s absence, the judge threw the case out and admonished the District Attorney for dragging a war hero, a patriot, in front of him for defending himself against a drifter with previous drug convictions. He didn’t mention that Johnson was black.
A few days after the hearing, Frank reported back to Fort Riley in Kansas, and two weeks later was posted to Germany. He wrote to Lori every couple of days, but she seemed to have gone cool on him after the fight, and after answering his first few letters, the replies ceased.

‘Mike,’ said Frank. ‘Tomorrow’s the big day. I’d like you to hear my confession before, you know …’
The young priest’s bible dropped to the floor. Frank had never expressed any wish for confession in all their previous meetings.
‘I just want everything to be just right when I see her tomorrow,’ Frank continued. ‘You only get one chance.’

When the army finished with Frank, he headed home to patch things up with Lori, but she’d left town. Finding her took some detective work, but Frank was not lacking in determination, and he tracked her down in Sacramento working for a firm of accountants, and managed to follow her back to her apartment unseen. The next day, after she’d gone to work, he managed to gain access to her place via a fire escape and laid in wait to surprise her with the hugest bunch of flowers he could find.

‘Thanks, Padre,’ said Frank, ‘I hope you don’t mind me calling you out like this. I’m going to have an early night. Tomorrow is the big day.’
Frank flopped down on his bed, and remembered that day in Sacramento when he had been reunited with Lori. She had looked at the Frank, looked at the flowers, and seen the body of her boyfriend, Tom, curled up motionless in the corner. Before she could cry out, one large hand had covered her mouth, another had gripped her slender neck. Frank had whispered that everything was going to be alright, and she had understood.

Father Mike stumbled down the corridor. It was worse, far worse, than he’d expected. Lori Porter, strangled – Frank had been convicted of that. Tom Edwards, beaten to death with a blunt instrument – that too. Marlon Johnson’s body had been reported missing, but his body had never been found. Frank had bought his silence with a bullet and buried him in a quarry. It was the other killings that shocked the priest most: Maria Hernandez, thrown downstairs for a few grand’s worth of insurance, a nameless Iraqi boy, shot for target practice, and young Jorge Hernandez thrown from the fifth floor because he was sick of always being Robin.

The guard pressed a button, and Father Mike fell out of San Quentin into the Californian night. Tomorrow was the big day. There was a chair, but no top table, waiting for Francisco Hernandez.


Two o'clock in the morning. Dressed in black from head to toe, he moves through the foliage like a leopard, unseen and unheard. His prey: the wealthy residents of Belgium Hill and Luxembourg Crescent, bankers and lawyers, doctors and politicians, the odd pop star or retired footballer. His conscience is clear; Standard Union and Allied Mercia will pick up the bill. These people have insurance coming out of their ears. Within weeks, everything will be replaced, in all probability with more up-to-date versions of what was stolen.
He slides open a small side window recessed into a side wall, and clambers inside the property known as 'The Beeches'.  The layout of the house is familiar as is the thick carpet underfoot; he moves around the property quickly and efficiently, picking up items of value and placing them carefully and noiselessly into his black leather briefcase. From one drawer, he removes a bracelet that looks to be of considerable worth, but noticing that it has an inscription, he returns it to whence it came; he is not interested in items of sentimental value, items that can easily be traced. Sometimes, it’s just too easy, particularly when the occupants are away; a long weekend in Paris in this case, if he remembers correctly, or is it Barcelona?
No more than four or five minutes later, he’s outside in the cool night air again, his luggage bulging with duty–free; a good night’s work even by his standards. A fine athlete in his youth, he vaults the surrounding wall with ease, and is back on the deserted pavement of a wide leafy boulevard.  In the distance, the barking of a dog cuts through the silence. He never pays a visit to a home with canine protection; too risky.
As he brushes down his clothes and hastily shoves his gloves into the pockets of his jacket, a narrow beam of pale yellow illuminates his surprised face.
‘Police’, says the young voice holding the torch. ’Please step out of the shadows. No sudden movement.’
He does as instructed, quickly evaluating his options. Fight or flight? Fight or flight? The silhouette facing the burglar appears to belong to a man both taller and broader than himself; neither option looks particularly promising.
‘Is that you … Father O'Rourke? The policeman knows the thief and now the thief knows the policeman, and has been offered a morsel of hope.
‘Tommy? Tommy Harrison?’
‘Yes, Father.’  The priest gives an audible sigh of relief; he knows he’s going to be able to talk his way out of trouble on this occasion.  This is too close for comfort, though; he curses his overconfidence.
‘I heard you’d graduated Hendon.  Your mother was telling me after Mass a few months back.’
'I didn’t expect to see you at this hour, Father,' apologises the young constable. ‘You see there’s been a string of burglaries on the area.’  A ‘spate’ surely, thinks the priest to himself; the young copper hasn’t learnt all the jargon yet.
'One of my parishioners had a stroke. His wife called me; distraught, the poor dear.' A white lie, but the only excuse he can think of on the spur of the moment.
‘I really am sorry to hear that, Father. I’m sorry if I startled you.’
‘Nonsense - you were just doing your job, Tommy! If it wasn’t for this,’ the priest goes on, pointing at his dog collar, ‘I could easily be your burglar, all dressed in black like Johnny Cash.’
‘Johnny who?’
A light rain is beginning to fall, and the priest is keen to get home with the night’s takings. He has phone calls to make, goods to move, but he supposes that can wait until tomorrow.
‘Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. ‘Ring of Fire’?’
The youngster shrugs his shoulders
‘‘Walk the Line’?’
Still no flicker of recognition crosses the constable’s fresh face. The priest gives up and changes the subject, anxious to keep the momentum of the conversation going, so the officer of the law doesn’t enquire further about the stroke victim or his stricken spouse.
‘How’s your mother’s arthritis, Tommy?’ The constable looks down to his shiny boots.
‘Actually, Father, I haven’t seen Mum for a few weeks - what with the late shifts and the overtime and …’
‘Tommy, you must make time for your family. Your mother made great sacrifices for your education, and now that she’s getting old and living on her own, she needs you more than ever,’ says the priest. He stops short of shaking his head in disappointment. Tommy continues to gaze at the ground for a few seconds.
‘Are you seeing someone, Tommy?’ asks the priest, guessing the real reason why Tommy and his mother haven’t seen each other for a while.
‘Yes, Father. Mum doesn’t really approve,’ Tommy sighed. ‘She thinks I should be concentrating on my career.’
‘Is it serious, Tommy?’
‘We’re engaged, Father.’ The priest can sense the policeman’s face reddening. ‘Her name’s Angela.’
‘How old are you now, Tommy?’
‘Twenty-two April just gone.’
‘And the girl … Angela?’
‘How old was your mother when she got married?’
‘Nineteen, I think, Father.’
‘I’ll have a word with your mother, Tommy.’
‘Would you do that, Father?’
‘On one condition.’
‘What’s that, Father? I’d do anything to improve the situation.’
‘Stop shining that torch in my face.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not used to this.’
‘No problem, Tommy. I’m not used to being arrested either.’
They both laugh.
‘I’ll walk you back to the parish house, Father,’ says Tommy. ‘It’s not safe to be out this late, especially with that briefcase.’
Ah yes, the briefcase. The priest clasps the handle tightly.
‘It’s no trouble, Father. I’m on my way back to the station anyway. My route takes me right past the church.’
Father O’Rourke sees it is hopeless to refuse. As they walk the silent streets, Father O’Rourke regales Tommy with tales of his time as a young missionary in Uganda, of the time he met Idi Amin, but Tommy hasn’t heard of him either.
Soon it is time to part, and the clergyman has his keys in the wooden door of the presbytery.
‘Good night, Father.’
‘See you on Sunday, Tommy?
Pc Harrison looks down at his shiny boots, and from somewhere in his throat finds a guilty cough.
‘Sure,’ he replies. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘And bring Angela.’
The young man nods.
‘Do you think he’ll pull through, Father?’
‘The man who had the stroke.’
‘It’s in God’s hands now, Tommy,’ replies the priest.
‘Good night, Father, and thanks for, you know …’
‘No problem, Tommy. Good night. Be careful out there.’
Inside the door, Father O’Rourke hears Tommy’s footsteps recede into the distance.  At last, he relinquishes his iron grip on the briefcase, and relaxes the muscles in his shoulders.
His lodgings are simple and austere. He flops down on the fold-up bed and flicks on the transistor radio.  As always, it’s tuned to BBC World Service; news from around the globe.
He hopes the orphans in Kampala will be pleased with the proceeds of his latest collection on their behalf, and his friends, the Collinses, Mike and Mary, not too upset about their material loss.  He knows that it will not be long before he is once again a dinner guest at ‘The Beeches’, and at many of the other mansions in Belgium Hill and Luxembourg Crescent, particularly those with children approaching secondary school age needing a priest’s reference to gain a place at the excellent All Saints Catholic College.  Of course, he never guarantees anything; it is the governing body’s admissions committee that makes the final decision according to the criteria set out in the application pack.
The priest drifts off into a disturbed sleep as two disjointed voices drone on about the reasons for a sixty point fall in the Nikkei Dow. In his dreams he is a young priest in East Africa once again, hungry, poor, and often sick, but fulfilled; doing God’s work here on Earth. He is ministering to the downtrodden, the refugees, the victims of civil war, those existing on the margins between life and death. He is confronting corrupt politicians, local war lords and on one memorable occasion, facing down a hyena with only a tree branch for protection. Then everything changes. Word comes from the top, some say from the Pope himself, that priests are getting carried away with this liberation theology fad, getting too involved in politics instead of tending to the spiritual needs of poor Catholics. For Father Peter O’Rourke, young and idealistic, fighting the causes of poverty is God’s work – what could be more important? There are several heated conversations with his superiors until he is offered the stark choice of being ejected from the priesthood or taking a parish back home.  In the end, he is transferred back to Europe ‘on health grounds’ but for him, the struggle for justice goes on.

Six o’clock in the morning. The priest wakes up to the news that ‘Singer, Johnny Cash, one of country music’s most enduring stars, has died after a short illness. He was 71.’ Father O’Rourke kneels against his bed and prays. He prays for the poor in spirit, that the Kingdom of Heaven will, indeed, be theirs. He prays for Pc Tommy Harrison and his mother, Margaret and his fiancée, Angela. He prays for the soul of Johnny Cash and the family, friends and fans he’s left behind.
His obligations fulfilled, it’s time to fence the hot goods, he thinks to himself.
He picks up the phone and taps in the number that’s become rather familiar of late.  As it rings at the other end, he sings quietly: “Love is a burning thing …” The phone is answered.
‘St Stephen’s Parish Church,’ the voice of a woman replies, her Irish accent as thick as a slice of soda bread.
‘Is the Monsignor around, Mrs Fitzgerald?’ shouted Father O’Rourke. The elderly housekeeper is hard of hearing, and has been kept on well beyond retirement age largely out of sympathy; she’d been widowed without children at barely forty and never remarried.
I’ll just fetch him for you, Father O’Rourke.
‘… and it makes a fiery ring …’
‘Monsignor Grady speaking.’
‘Hello, it’s Peter. Some generous parishioners of mine have made a substantial donation to our charity project.’
‘Great, I’ll be around later to pick it up. I’m just rushing off to do eight o’clock mass at the Convent. Shame about Johnny …’
‘Yes, terrible shame. Bye.’
On impulse, Peter O’Rourke goes across to an old cassette player he had once utilised to prepare sermons when he has first ordained, and rummages through a drawer of old tapes underneath; mixed in with ‘The Dubliners’, ‘Thin Lizzy’ and ‘Luciano Pavarotti’, he finds what he is looking for: ‘Johnny Cash Live in San Quentin’. He pops the cassette tape into the ancient contraption and presses ‘Play’. After nine or ten seconds of buzzing, the bare room is filled with the opening bars of ‘Big River’, and the whooping of the inmates of California’s most notorious prison. Prison: there but for the grace of God go I, he thinks, considering the events of the early hours.

Thirty minutes later, Father Peter O’Rourke closes the door of his humble dwelling and strides out purposefully, both a priest and a man; some would call him a saint, others a sinner. He cuts a dark figure against the grey city, a dark figure against the grey sky, the Man in Black.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


'You'll have to leave that behind the desk, sir,' said the security guard.

Reluctantly, I removed my sword and passed it across the counter.

'And that ..'

My shield, too? I sighed as it went the same way.

'Right, sir; night school, is it?  Sign in here.'

With a flourish, I withdrew a quill from my rucksack. The guard shook his head and, with his eyes, directed me to a pen attached by wire to the counter.

'What class are you doing, sir?' The impertinence of the man; I ignored him.

'Sir,' he went on. 'I can't direct you to your classroom unless I know what you're studying.'

He was beginning to stretch my patience.

'Chivalry, swordsmanship, jousting ... you know, the usual.' I replied.

'Are you on something, sir?'

'Of course; he's tethered outside. Can you water him?'

'I'm going to have to ask you to leave, sir.'

'Look, just direct me to knight school, you rude little man.'

'What subject?'

'Knight school. KNIGHT SCHOOL! What don't you understand?'

'Oh!' he said. 'Ker-night school. Why didn't you say so? Room 304 - third floor. That's the class for you.'

He pointed to his list. It read 'Spelling: Room 304'.


'Yes, sir.' Something clearly amused him.

'I want to be a knight, not a bloody wizard!' I retorted. 

He could see he'd pushed me too far, but it was too late. I pulled him across the counter by his tie and in one swift movement withdrew the dagger from my left boot. I pressed the point into his throat, just enough to break his leathery skin.

I became aware of a group of three or four rowdy men behind me, pushing and shoving each other.

'Problem, Eric?' one of them said.

I twisted the knife slightly. A drop of crimson fell onto Eric's collar.

'No, sir; I'm fine.'

The man who'd spoken consulted the room list with his index finger.

'Piracy: Room 216, lads.'

He placed a cutlass on the counter.

'Keep an eye on her for me, Eric.'

'Will do, sir.' 

Friday, 13 January 2012


The unpleasantness all started when I was about 13 - the periods, yes, but worse than that, the fat - fat accumulating everywhere: hips, chest, upper arms, chin, bum, secret places.

Mum and Aunt Jo said it was just 'puppy fat', but the puppy grew up into an even fatter dog.  Puberty coincided with the end of my sporting career; there's no way I was going to charge around a hockey pitch in a short skirt with those hideous thighs scraping on the floor. I suppose this is what they mean when they say something's a vicious circle or a Catch 22. Well, I was too obese to catch a 22 or any other bus, so I gave up the fight. When you're too embarrassed to go out in case people shout 'lard-arse' at you, what is there left to do but comfort eat?  I knew something was wrong when Mum stopped waking me up for Church on Sundays and stopped worrying about Gran turning in her grave about my Godlessness.

All I could see ahead for myself was a heart attack at 25 and a JCB being brought in to get me out of the house, so I decided to make the break, go to college as far away as possible (Plymouth as it happened), sort myself out and return as a normal young woman. I arrived here in Devon in September 2010 to do a BA in Psychology, and  I haven't been back home to Darlington since. I invented a summer job so I wouldn't have to go home last year, and an imaginary pile of essays for the other holidays.

Every calorie that's passed my lips since I became an undergraduate has been counted; I've cycled, run and rowed myself halfway around the world on my gym equipment, and yet looking in the mirror, nothing's changed. One of these days, a Japanese ship is going to harpoon me, and that will be it.

Jan 1st 2012. Resolution Day. It's time to make the call.

The phone is picked up on the second ring while I'm still rehearsing my speech.



'Karen - is that you?'

'Yes, mum.'

'We thought you were dead - you haven't called for three months, you don't return my calls. Anyone would think ...'


'What is it, dear?'

'I'm anorexic. Please help me.'