Monthly Archives: January 2020

Track My Order

Amazon owner Jeff Bezos reportedly had his phone hacked after receiving a WhatsApp message from Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (Irish Times 25/01/20)…

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At last he heard a van drive up the road.

Mohammed bin Salman had been watching at the window all morning, and his excitement grew as the Post Office van came slowly into view, then sank as it drove past without stopping, his Ring Video Doorbell (amazon.com, $129.00) remaining unrung.

His order still hadn’t arrived.

The Saudi Crown Prince was an enthusiastic Amazon shopper. The palace had Alexa. It had a Fire TV Stick. It had a Recliner Gaming Bean Bag, a Wood Grain Essential Oil Diffuser, and a Spigen Hand Warmer Powerbank, without which no desert home is complete. It had a Microwave S’mores Maker, a Starbucks Frappuccino Portable Phone Charger and a Breo iSee Electronic Eye Massager.

Picture from amazon.com

It had a Dinosaur Toilet Roll Holder.

To bin Salman Amazon was the greatest store on earth.

It even sold US flags, in case he needed to suddenly organise a street mob burning one.

But at the moment it was letting him down. His latest order was forty-eight hours overdue.

He was not used to waiting.

“Alexa,” he said, “how do I find out when my stuff is arriving?”

“Log on to Amazon,” began Alexa, “go to ‘Your Orders’ and -”

“Enough,” snapped the Crown Prince. When you’re the effective leader of one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, ‘Track My Order’ is another way of saying ‘ring the company’s boss’.

He WhatsApped Jeff Bezos.

“Hey, Jeff,” the message read, “I ordered a Mini Waffle Maker, a Baby Groot Plant Pot and ‘Downton Abbey The Movie’ a couple of days ago, and no sign. Perhaps you could look after this for me?”

Sorted, he thought.

Picture (again) from amazon.com

The following morning the Post Office van again drove up the road. And again drove past. The welcome mat, with its so-apposite message, remained untrodden.

He ignored me, thought Mohammed bin Salman in amazement, and rage.

He sat down at his Coavas Computer Desk, opened his Jumper EZbook laptop, made sure it was connected to his Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi System, and set to work.

Which is why Jeff Bezos’s phone now operates in Latvian, is stuck on Australian Central Standard Time and gives him the weather for Bhutan.

He’d buy a new one, but he can’t get on to Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soldiering On

From Irish mythology: Fionn McCool was a hunter/warrior and leader of the Fianna, a military order in the service of the High King. As a youth he burned his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge for his master, and upon sucking his thumb became all-knowing. He became leader of the Fianna after killing a fire-breathing giant, having held a red-hot spear to his forehead to keep himself awake in the face of the giant’s sleep-inducing spell….

From Irish courts this week: Two soldiers who said they suffered neck injuries after a vehicle rear-ended them while travelling at an estimated speed of 2kmh have had their €60,000 claims dismissed. The pair were in an Army SUV which was stopped at traffic lights when a car behind them accidentally rolled forward…

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The word was new to the High King of Tara.

“Com-pen-say-shun?” he said.

Fionn McCool nodded. “Yes. It’s a payment in the case of personal injury.”

The King frowned. “But you’re a soldier,” he said. “Personal injury is pretty much in the job description.”

“Oh, I know that,” said Fionn. “In the canteen we have goblets that have ‘old soldiers never die – no, sorry, they do” printed on them.”

“So why the claim?” asked the King. “This isn’t because you stuck a red-hot spear to your forehead, is it? Because that was your own idea, and to be honest we all thought it was a bit mental. You should have just tried coffee.”

“Coffee?” said Fionn.

“Oisín brought it back from Tir na Nóg,” said the King. “Smells great, but keeps you awake all night. I can’t see it catching on.”

“Whatever,” said Fionn. “Anyway, it’s not because of the red-hot spear thing.”

Fionn fighting Aillen, illustration by Beatrice Elvery in Violet Russell’s Heroes of the Dawn (1914)

“What, then?” asked the King.

“I burned my thumb,” said Fionn.

“I’m not surprised,” said the King. “The heat coming through your shield must have been savage.”

“No, not then,” said Fionn. “As you said, stuff like that comes with the job. No, I burned it on the Salmon.”

“What?” said the King. “But that was years ago.”

“There is no statute of limitations in cases of post traumatic stress disorder,” said Fionn.

The King stared at him for a few seconds.

“Ok,” he said eventually, “let’s pretend I understood that sentence and move on. Didn’t that incident actually end up pretty well for you?”

“Well, yes, I did get all the knowledge in the world,” admitted Fionn, “and one of the things I learned is that people are be entitled to compensation if they have been involved in an accident that wasn’t their fault.”

“Isn’t that what the word accident means?” asked the King.

Fionn faltered for a second, but recovered. “The fact is, I burned my thumb -”

“Little diddums,” said the King, before he could stop himself.

“- and it wasn’t my fault,” continued Fionn, glaring at him. “My master shouldn’t have left me unsupervised, so now I’m here before your court seeking redress.”

The King looked at him in sad bewilderment. “Fionn,” he said eventually. “You’re one of our heroes. You killed a giant, a fire-breathing one. You built the Giant’s Causeway. You created the Isle of Man by throwing a huge rock after a fleeing enemy. You’ll probably become a legend. Are you willing to risk looking like an idiot by crying about some paltry injury just to make money?”

Fionn smiled at him. “Trust me,” he said. “It’s the way of the future.”

 

Out Of Time, Out Of Place

Photo taken in our sitting room yesterday morning, January 11th…

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The last light went out in the last bedroom. The house was silent.

In the sitting-room the Crib Dwellers woke and stretched. The First Wise Man looked idly around the room, then his mouth opened in horror.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph!” he gasped.

“Yes?” said Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

“No, not you,” said the First Wise Man. “It’s just an expression of surprise.”

“Is it indeed?” said Mary icily.

“Never mind that,” said the Second Wise Man. “Look around.” They all did so.

The room was empty.

Well, not empty. It still had furniture, a TV, and clutter, but the massive tree that had dominated the room for almost a month was gone. So too had its lights and baubles, so too had the tinsel, so too had the plastic mistletoe pinned above the door, a tribute to the classiness of the house’s owners.

It was as if Christmas had never happened.

“Sweet Mother of God,” breathed Mary, then stopped in confusion.

“See?” said the First Wise Man. “It’s what comes from years living in an Irish household.”

“But this is terrible,” said Jesus. “We’ve missed the Attic Trip.”

The Attic Trip was an annual event. Every year the Christmas paraphernalia was gathered from around the house and stuffed into a huge plastic bag, then carried up a stepladder and put into the attic. Every year something got left behind, and spent the next eleven months sitting in incongruous isolation like a camel in the Antarctic.

This year it looked as if it would be the turn of the Crib Dwellers to be the house’s version of the unicorns missing the Ark.

“Are we sure?” asked Jesus. “Maybe they’ve just taken down the tree.”

“I’ll check the Snowmen,” said Joseph.

He ran to the other end of the room. The slow tread of his return spoke more eloquently than he could.

Safely packed away

“They’re gone,” he mumbled.

Jesus shook his head sadly.”It says a lot about the status of religion in this household,” he said, “when they remember to pack that collection of home-made weirdos while we’re treated like Kevin from Home Alone.”

“Maybe there’ll be a second Attic Trip,” said the Third Wise Man.

“There won’t,” said the Second Wise Man. “The Attic Trip is strictly a once-a-year event, like your birthday, or, um, er -”

“Christmas?” suggested Mary helpfully.

“Exactly,” said the Second Wise Man. “So we’re stuck here.”

“We could make it to the attic ourselves.” said the First Wise Man. “I saw a film once where some toys moved house after they got left behind.”

Mary sighed. “In the first place,” she said, “that film was not a documentary. In the second place, we would literally have to move house, bringing the whole stable with us. Sooner or later the dim-wits that live here are going to notice it’s still here, and even they will think it a bit odd if we’re not in it when they do.”

“But I want to go back to the attic,” said the Third Wise Man plaintively. “It’s our home.”

That was true. While they had to spend December downstairs, for the rest of the year the Crib Dwellers lived contentedly in the attic among the discard of the now-grown family. They had friends – the complete set of Harry Potter action figures, two Bratz dolls and a bobble-head David Beckham. Joseph was building a plant garden in an old Croc. Jesus played Snake on a Nokia phone. Mary was working her way, turning each huge page one at a time, through the Twilight books.

Now they stared gloomily around the sitting-room. There was very little there that was going to entertain them, unless they tried getting tunes out of blowing across the top of empty wine bottles.

Morning came, their time for sleep, so in their uneasy slumber they didn’t hear the phone ring. All they knew was that their house was suddenly lifted, like Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz. They were stuffed into a smaller than usual plastic bag.

“They’re throwing us out!” whispered Joseph.

They were carried, then heard the scrape of the step-ladder on the bathroom floor, then felt themselves lifted, swung and dropped. They scrambled to the mouth of the bag and looked out.

They were in the attic. Impossible as it seemed, like Halley’s Comet appearing back into view because it had forgotten something, there had been a second Attic Trip.

“What happened?” asked the Third Wise Man.

“I heard the woman yelling in panic at the man,” said Mary. “Apparently her cousin had rung from the UK and announced he was coming to stay for a few days.”

“What?” said the First Wise Man. “No-one ever comes to stay.”

“Looking at the empty wine bottles, that’s no surprise,” said the Second Wise Man.

“Well, he is,” said Mary.

Jesus smiled. “It’s a Christmas miracle,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

The Calm On The Surface

The wind suddenly picked up as she looked out from the porch. A
wall of dark clouds was pushing across the horizon and a light
chop had developed on the lake, gently rocking the tiny rowboat
tied to the dock. The changing seasons always brought
unpredictable weather. Just as she was about to turn toward the
door, movement in the water caught her attention. She squinted
and then her eyes opened wide. Rushing down the stairs, she
kicked off her shoes, and raced to untie the boat…

The quarterly 24-Hour Short Story Contest takes place today and into tomorrow, starting at 6pm my time when the 500 entrants will be given the prompt. The topic above appeared a couple of years ago, when I had stopped blogging, but below is the story that I entered…

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Mary stood on her porch, looked out across the lake, and sighed. She loved living here, she realised. She always would.

She had wondered what it would be like after her husband died, whether the loneliness and isolation would get to her, whether she would eventually have to move back into town, to noise, and civilisation, and people, but no, she was learning that over time she would grow ever fonder of the solitude and the peace.

The wind was picking up, carrying with it a sharp chill, as winter fought its last battles with the oncoming spring. A wall of dark clouds was pushing across the horizon. Waves rocked the tiny rowboat tied to the dock.

She pulled her cardigan more tightly around her and had just turned to go back inside, when out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw something. She stared hard out at the lake, squinted, and then her eyes opened wide.

There was something in the water.

She raced down the porch steps, kicked off her shoes, and ran to untie the boat. She rowed, hard, through the choppy water for about three hundred yards, until she reached the object she had spotted. She let go of the oars, her two hands covering her mouth in horror.

At she had suspected and feared when she’d seen it, even at that distance, it was a body. She fought the urge to throw up. The urge won.

It was the body of a man, his eyes staring unseeingly upwards. His face was not a pleasant one, with a cruel mouth that looked as if it had spent most of its time twisted in a sneer, and a mean expression which was mixed with surprise. His hands were large and gnarled, and his knuckles were grazed, suggesting a man to whom sudden bursts of violence came easily. It seemed that this time one had come to him in a way he had not expected.

Mary took a deep breath, then rolled him over in the water. She caught him under the armpits and began to haul him into the boat, pulling at his back, then at his bottom, then at his legs, as if he was a ladder and she was climbing him upside down. She saw the large wound on the back of his head, where he had obviously been struck. She noticed that the pockets of his jacket had ripped away, as if rocks had been placed in them and the weight of the rocks had, rather than keeping him at the bottom of the lake, simply re-styled the jacket.

Clearly he been expected to disappear forever. Clearly this had not happened.

She picked up the oars and rowed back towards the shore. The going was much tougher with the dead weight, literally, of her passenger, but Mary was a strong rower, and soon had him back at the dock.

She sat for a moment, trying to decide what to do. The lake was a corrie, a valley in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by four high, forest-covered sides. Cell-phone coverage was poor, the internet and email almost non-existent. The nearest town was an hour’s drive away. It had just two police officers, and one police car. It was because of the beautiful, haunting isolation of this cabin by the lake that she and her husband had moved here, all those years ago.

Such isolation, Mary now realised, had both advantages and disadvantages.

She looked down at the body, surprised at how little emotion or empathy she felt. It was just a shell, she realised, the soul of the person who had been inside was gone. She wondered where, or if indeed there was a where for it to have gone to.

The wind was sharper now, chilling her on those parts of her body that were wet from dragging him aboard. The corpse was still soaked, so hauling it around would chill her further. She climbed from the boat, climbed the steps into the cabin, went to her bedroom and fetched herself a coat. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she opened her husband’s side of the wardrobe and pulled out his old overcoat. She held it for a long moment, inhaling its scent, his scent, and was overwhelmed with memories. Her eyes filled with tears, and she took a long, shuddering breath. Then she went back to the boat, and put the dry coat on to the body.

The she went along the shore, picking up rocks, larger rocks than the ones she’d used the day before, this time zipping the pockets closed.

She sat into the boat, and looked down at her husband. “Ok, dear,” she said. “Take Two.”

She picked up the oars and began to row back to the centre of the lake. 

If The Sky Above You Should Turn Dark And Full Of Clouds

The First Fortnight Mental Health Art and Culture Festival  takes place this month in Ireland. In an article in the Irish Times about the events Composer Amanda Feery pointed out that among their Gods the Greeks had Oizys, the Goddess of Anxiety, Grief and Depression, meaning that they were discussing mental health all the way back then …

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Oizys (image from greekmythology.com)

Some deities have it tougher than others.

At the very highest level Gods and Goddesses are worshipped – this, indeed, being their primary role. Others, lower in rank but still revered, have spaceships named after them, or planets, or get played by Brad Pitt in films. At the very least most of them get petitioned for the gifts within their purview – people pray to Aphrodite if they want love, to Athena if they want wisdom, to Demeter if they want agriculture.

But then there are the others, the Gods and Goddesses of the stuff that nobody wants. No-one has ever prayed for anxiety, fear or depression, so being Goddess of these is a difficult and lonely gig, like it would be if you were Goddess of Rabies.

So over time Oizys became the avatar of the very emotions she was responsible for. Lack of worship from humans (other than Goths, and Emily Dickinson) caused her to become depressed. This engendered guilt, since she was after all still a goddess and so had things better than most, and this guilt worsened the depression and so on, in an ever deepening vortex of gloom. This gloom increased her fear and anxiety, and, as so often happens, she froze. Then hid.

So the emotions under her charge hid too. The Greeks’ open discussion of mental health gave way to the silence and denial of following generations. Humankind took to valuing the non-crying male, the un-“hysterical” female, the stiff upper lip. We coped by not coping. This didn’t work.

For her part, Oizys took to spending each night in the Wingèd Horse, the bar on Mount Olympus, staring into her drink and into deep, soul-aching blackness.

Then one evening a voice said “cheer up, it might never happen.”

Oizys turned. A beautiful young Goddess sat beside her, a cheery, cheeky smile on her lips. Oizys was going to ignore her, but something about her good humour opened a small gap in her tightly-wrapped blanket of woe.

“It already has,” she found herself replying.

“Well, things could always be worse,” said the Goddess. “What’s up?”

And Oizys found herself opening up, telling everything about her self-loathing, her loneliness, her sense of worthlessness. It came out in a torrent of words that led to a torrent of tears, tears that she had kept inside for aeons.

Her companion said nothing, just listened, then when the weeping ended in a final sniff and a most ungodlike burble of snot, she placed her hand upon Oizys’s and said “you’re too hard on yourself, love. Most people are.”

She stood up to leave. “I didn’t get your name,” said Oizys.

“I’m Lyssa,” said the girl, “Goddess of Rabies.”

After she left Oizys sat thinking for a long time.

The following evening she came to the bar again. This time, though, she didn’t sit defensively behind a thousand-yard stare. She started to talk to the others, and also to listen. Hera told her of her embarrassment at being Goddess of Marriage while married to Zeus, the Weinstein of the Heavens. Chronos spoke of his irrational fear that time-travel would one day put him out of a job. Eros said he was just exhausted. Oizys learned, or rather remembered, that everyone has hopes but also fears, good days but also bad days, self-belief but also insecurities. That no-one is alone in the way that they feel.

Emboldened, she has returned to the affairs of man. She encourages discussion and openness about depression. She has made people aware that mental well-being is as important as physical. She is promoting a culture of self-kindness.

She is creating an environment in which a group in Ireland is giving their time to run a festival to challenge mental health stigma through creative arts.

She has a huge amount of work still to do. But then, she is immortal.

 

 

Travel Music

A killer whale amazed conservationists by swimming from Iceland to Sicily last month (Irish Times 4/1/20) ….

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It was the final straw.

He had put up with the cold of the Icelandic winters, their icy gales shrieking down from the Arctic, stinging his hide as if he was being whipped with a frozen hedgehog. He had put up with the Northern Lights, a sight of wondrous beauty to us humans, but an irritating night-light for the aquatic community, like trying to sleep in a room with a computer screen on.

He had put up, too, with us humans. He had put up with the whalers, furtively burrowing through the choppy waves, low in the water as if weighed down by their secret guilt. He had enjoyed swimming directly underneath their boats, listening to their scrambling from one side to the other, and occasionally getting the chance to giggle (it sounds like a hiccupping waterfall) when one of the frustrated crew would accidently harpoon their own boat.

He had put up with the whale watchers, whole armadas following him with their diesel engines puttering out exhaust fumes. He would sometimes just hide for the day, but sometimes would get really close then leap from the water, hitting the surface with a huge splash that would have given the watchers the selfie of a lifetime, if only their smartphones had been waterproof.

He had put up with our name for him. While it was, admittedly, better than being a sperm whale (what sort of research came up with that, he wondered), why were his species singled out as being “killer”? Being swallowed by a humpback whale, landed on by a blue whale or slapped in the face by a minke whale would be just as fatal, so why apply the adjective just to his kin? It made as much sense as having three types of elephant – African, Indian and Big.

He ate fish, for God’s sake. Nobody refers to Flipper as “the Slayer”.

But he had put up with all of this, settling for living his whole life with his mother, as do all killer whales, making them the maritime equivalent of the Ewings.

Then Iceland discovered Björk.

Her music divided the whale population. Some felt that she was speaking directly to them, reaching into their very souls. Some believed that she had stolen their music and adulterated it, like Jumping Jack Flash done as reggae. Some claimed that if you played Army Of Me backwards it said “Moby Dick is dead” over and over.

To him it sounded like whale-song being played on bagpipes being passed through a wood-chipper.

You can blow that out your blow-hole, he thought.

So he fled. It was a long journey, but not if you’re trying to escape an aural nightmare and have no fingers to put into ears that you don’t have either. After all, the journey of four thousand miles begins with a single flap.

He hadn’t even needed a bicycle. Apparently they don’t.

He finally arrived last month, just off the coast of Sicily. The sea was warm, the air was scented with olives and an accordion was gently playing Volare.  He sighed contentedly, a sound like an angel gently humming.

He has not yet met the operatic aria. He is in for a shock.