Monthly Archives: May 2020

Blind Faith

One night back in the ninth century, a young monk called Brother Barnard had a vision.

Frankly he’d have rather had simply vision. He was the only blind monk in the monastery, so found being the one singled out for celestial insight a bit insenstitive. And said so.

The Angel in the vision shrugged and said it was a test of his faith, religion’s standard reply to questions about why crap happens to good people. She then told him that he was to found his own monastery where, and the Angel had the grace to blush here, he was to cure the blind.

She then added, almost apologetically, that he was to build it in the Far North, just short of where polar bears live, in a dark place where rain, winds and Vikings would howl in from the North Sea.

Barnard sighed and went to pack his bags. He went up north, a long way north, but stopped not along the way, nor spoke to any living soul, because he had a mission and a horse that he had luckily fed to capacity just the day before. He found a tiny hamlet comprising a few small cottages, a shop selling keyrings, and an inn. It was here that he built his monastery.

He called it Barnard Castle and put up a sign outside saying “blindneƒse cured”.

The sign generated little interest, its very written nature precluding it from reaching its target market. Barnard thus lived for many months in solitude, in darkness and in a cassock that he had put on back to front.

Then one night came a loud hammering at the huge wooden door. Barnard found, with his toe, a man lying outside.

“I’m blind!” wailed the man.

Barnard helped him to his feet, noticing as he did so a strong smell of alcohol.

“Have you been quaffing mead?” he asked sternly.

“No,” mumbled his guest. “Just a few pints of the local brew.”

Barnard was shocked. “Not Newcaƒtle Broon Ale?” he gasped. The man nodded, then instantly regretted doing so.

Barnard was about to send him on his way, then stopped. He thought for a long moment, then put his arm around the man and led him inside. “Your eyesight will return,” he said quietly. “This I promise.”

And return it did, though not for three days. The man wept in gratitude and then, as Barnard had anticipated, went to celebrate in the inn. Where he told everyone of his miracle cure.

Soon Barnard built up a steady clientele of the blind-drunk. He prayed with them, fed them a breakfaƒt roll, and made them drink a tonic of hog’s pee, since he reckoned they deserved a good old faith-test too.

Word spread. Other monks came to join Barnard. He changed the sign to read “Was Blind But Now I See”. Pilgrims came from as far away as London.

And Barnard prayed with all of them. He knew that he could not offer actual miracles, but he could offer hope and belief, and sometimes, some rare, wonderful, magical times, that was enough.

Barnard Castle is still a place of pilgrimage today, by people seeking seeking. There are many optical ailments beyond its sphere – it can’t, for example, help you tell the difference between Earthen Cream and Vanilla Mist on a Dulux paint chart.

It cannot help with blind ambition, being the eye of the storm, or looking after number one. It does not offer the benefit of hindsight.

But if you are worried about your vision and have a morbid fear of opticians, then before continuing with your watch engraving, javelin throwing or heart transplanting, visit Barnard Castle. Sit for a while on the Bench of Enlightenment and stare across at the forest.

If you can see it, you are fine. Turn to your companion and embrace them in joy.

You will, of course, have a companion with you, because they will have driven you there.

For you to have driven yourself would be madness.





Pole Position

The magnetic North Pole is moving, at 34 miles a year, from Canada to Russia…


Santa rose in the dark, though since it was December at the North Pole that tells us very little about what time it was. It was early, though, as it was Christmas Eve and he had the busiest day of his year ahead of him. He got out of his Santa onesie, pulled on his Santa suit, and trudged yawning across the ice to his grotto. He opened the door, switched on the light, and started, startled.

Vladimir Putin was sitting silently in an armchair, one ankle crossed over one knee. Though his face was expressionless Santa had the impression that he was regretting not having brought a cat to stroke.

“Ah, there you are, Santa,” said Putin.

“And here you are,” said Santa. “It’s finally happened then, has it?”

“It has indeed,” said Putin. “As of this morning the magnetic North Pole has passed into Russian territory. Santa Claus has literally come to town.”

Santa smiled. “It makes no difference to me,” he said.

“Oh, but it does,” said Putin. “You are now a Russian citizen. I would like you to act as an – ambassador, shall we say, of our ways.”

“What would you like me to do?” snorted Santa. “Cossack dance on each rooftop?”

“Nothing so vulgar,” said Putin. “I’d simply like you to make a few changes to your repertoire of toys.”

He reached into a bag and took out an Action Man. It had the same amazing pecs and six-pack as always, but now had Putin’s head. Santa fought down the urge to laugh, though his belly shook, just briefly, like a bowlful of jelly.

“He comes with accessories,” said Putin. “There’s a horse he can ride bareback, a bear he can wrestle, a voting system he can hack.”

“I see,” said Santa levelly. “And for the girls?”

Putin produced some female dolls and spread them out on the floor.

“Ah, Barbies,” said Santa.

“Barbeniyas,” corrected Putin. “There are lots of outfits – Ushanka Hat Barbeniya, Military Service Barbeniya, Drug Testing Lab Barbeniya.”

“You don’t seem to have any of those last ones,” said Santa, looking at the dolls.

без разницы“, said Putin, the Russian for “whatever.”

“But that’s not all,” he went on. He reached into the bag again and took out a silver can about the size of a baked beans tin. “Give each child one of these.”

Santa took the can and shook it. There was a thick gloopy sound from inside.

“What is it?” he asked.

Putin looked embarrassed. “Crude oil,” he said. “We literally can’t give it away. But you can.”

Santa sighed, but Putin hadn’t finished. “And when you get to the States,” he said, “give every kid one of these.”

He handed Santa a Trump 2020 baseball hat.

Santa frowned. “I thought you could hack voting systems,” he said.

Putin shrugged. “This will have Santa’s endorsement,” he said. “That’s even better.”

Santa shook his head. “I can’t deliver all this junk,” he said.

Putin stood and smiled thinly. “Your home is still moving,” he said pointedly. “It’s only a matter of time before it reaches Siberia.”

The two eyed each other in silence.

Putin walked to the door and left. Santa stared after him for a long time. Then he went to his bench set to work.

He covered the whole world that night, as always. He delivered Tiger King Action Men and Influencer Barbies. He also delivered Elsas, Peppa Pigs, train sets, scooters, chocolate coins, satsumas, colouring books and those weird sweets shaped like walking-sticks.

He delivered Christmas.

He left Putin’s house until last. He gave him a Pussy Riot DVD, a Rasputin babushka doll and a Barbeniya dressed as one of the Russian Grannies from the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

The following night, although it was Christmas and he was off, he let himself again into his grotto. As he’d expected Putin was sitting waiting for him. The Russian leader angrily threw his gifts onto the floor.

“What is the meaning of this?” he said, icily.

Santa stood over him, and Putin suddenly realised how big he was, how all-embracing. How powerful.

“Oh come on,” said Santa. “Did you really think I’d deliver all your propaganda crap? When the North Pole was part of Canada did everyone get maple leaves and bears? Of course not, because I’m above all of that. I’ve been here since the beginning of time, and no matter where I am I belong to everyone.”

He glared at Putin. “I see you when you’re sleeping, and know when you’re awake,” he said. “So cop yourself on, or next year you’re getting coal.”











You Can Almost Smell The Jasmine

Mrs Tin and I are not in Portugal.

This ought not be newsworthy. We are also not in Antarctica, Burkina Faso, or the express elevator in the United Nations Building. We are not in Bratislava, Medicine Hat, or the currently empty stadium of Accrington Stanley Football Club. The world, in fact, is made up almost entirely of places where we aren’t.

The thing about Portugal, though, is that it is where we should be.

This morning we should have got up at a ridiculous hour, since a holiday is not legally a holiday if it doesn’t so start. We should have checked that we had our passports, made our way to the car, checked that we had our passports, driven to Long-Term Parking, and checked that we had our passports. We should then have caught the courtesy bus to the terminal, where someone would have checked that we had our passports.

We should have gone on to catch a flight, been met at the airport, and should now be sitting in sun-loungers at our resort, wondering if two o’clock is too early for a beer.

We should be wearing shorts that scream “I’m on holiday”, whilst whispering apologetically “and my wearer is colour blind”.

We should be spending the coming week eating pasteis de nata, cozida à portuguesa, and dobrada, though perhaps not so much of the last one since it seems to be a tripe-and-bean stew. We should be drinking our way through the resort’s cellar of Vinho Tinto. Instead we’ll be eating sausage and chips and drinking our way through our fourth box of lockdown tea-bags.

Yep, not small ones, 160 per box

While walking we should be staring in awe at lovely churches. Instead we’ll be glaring in ire at non-distancing joggers.

Because we will be out and walking around our home town, since I’m off anyway. Our company made those of us who had holidays booked take the days in any case, as otherwise all one thousand of us are going to try to be off during the same two weeks in September.

So here we are. No swimming pool. No local entertainers. No umbrella, neither shading us nor in our drink. Also no pub, no bookshop, no sport on telly.

And it’s just started to rain.



Whistle While You Work

While many restrictions have been imposed upon the re-opening of building-sites here in Ireland from today, it has been confirmed that wolf-whistling at passing girls is still permissible.

“We feel this sends a positive message,” said a construction industry spokesman. “The replacement of all that bloody bird-song with loud yells at women to show their boobs will be an encouraging sign that, in many ways, the new normal will be just like the old.”

He also confirmed that there are no plans to introduce butt-masks to hide bum cleavage.

Women were phlegmatic about the news. “It’s a bit tiresome, but not really a problem,” said one. “After all, the type of bloke who thinks we find this flattering is never going to get within two metres of a woman anyway.”



A Cut Above The Rest

“Black market in haircuts has ‘erupted’ during lockdown” (RTE News headline)… 


I walked up the dark lane, eyes darting in all directions, terrified not of muggers but of being seen.

I stopped at a partly-hidden doorway, pulled my sleeve over my thumb, and pressed the buzzer.

“Hello?” said a voice.

I shone my phone briefly onto a piece of paper. “‘The wheat grows tall in the upper field’,” I read aloud.

“Two doors down,” said the voice. “This is black market lattés.”

I mumbled an apology, moved two doors along and repeated the ritual. This time the buzzer buzzed. I pushed the door open and walked up a narrow stairway into a small, bare room.

“Hello,” said John, the town barber, quietly.

I looked warily at his own hair, which looked like Hermione Granger’s, not a good look on a fifty-year old man. Then I nodded in understanding.

“Ah,” I said. “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.”

He frowned. “We’ve already done the password bit,” he said.

“No,” I said, “I just meant that you haven’t done your own hair.”

“Well, of course not,” he said, “Have you any idea how hard it is to cut your own hair in a mirror?”

“It’s funny you should ask that,” I said, pulling off my beanie hat.

John stared silently. My fringe was uneven, but worse than that, it  had one deep rectangular cut-out in it. I looked like a flyer on a shop noticeboard from which just one person has taken the contact number.

“You have to help me,” I said fervently. “I have Zoom meetings.”

He nodded and gestured me toward an upright kitchen chair set in front of a small mirror. I sat down, he picked up a pair of scissors and stood behind me. I was suddenly aware, for the first time ever in a barbershop, of the breath on the back of my neck.

“Face mask?” I said hopefully.

He shrugged. “You can wear one if you want to, I suppose,” he said, “but I won’t be able to get at where the straps go round your ears. You’re going to end uplooking like Princess Leia.”

I opened my mouth, then decided to let it go. I was not the one in the conversation holding the scissors.

He started to clip. I watched as great brownish-grey tufts flew off, like an explosion in a Shredded Wheat factory. Then he spoke.

“Going anywhere nice on holiday?” he said.

His eyes met my stony expression in the mirror. “Sorry,” he said. “Force of habit.”

The rest of the haircut took place in silence.  Take away football, the awfulness of the traffic, and how many pints you drank in the pub the night before and men have very little to talk to each other about, a fact currently being discovered by flatmates all over the country.

Then he was done. I looked in delight at the result, now more Bradley than Alice Cooper.

“That’s great,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”

“Eighty euro,” said John.

“What?” I gasped. “It’s normally twelve.”

“Yeah, well, it’s normally legal too,” he said. “Just be glad you’re a bloke. Colette the hairdresser is charging women three hundred euro just for roots, and what she’s charging for a Jennifer Aniston even Jennifer Aniston couldn’t afford.”

I paid, feeling that I was being fleeced for being fleeced, and turned to go.

“Will I put you down for next month?” asked John.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m sure this will do me, you know, until -”

“Next time you’re in,” he said, “I could have a look at those eyebrows.”

He gave a tiny smile as he said it. He knew he had me hooked.

“Ok,” I said quietly.

That was a week ago. I now walk proudly around the town, passing men who look like badly tied-down haystacks and women wearing baseball hats of teams they’ve never heard of, and I smile, though a little guiltily.

And I do now have a cough, though I tell myself it’s simply because of the vast amounts of hair that I must have inhaled that night.

That’s not important though. What matters is that I have a haircut that’s To Die For.








A Woman Of Spirit

For many years, self-isolation was a way of life for Anna.

Actually, “life” might not be the correct word there, since for over ninety years Anna has haunted her own house.

Once she had got over the shock of being gone but not gone she had become quite content with her new existence. Her large house, the manor on the outskirts of the village, remained unoccupied. She enjoyed the peace and the solitude. Hers had been a hectic social life, and she found that she didn’t miss trying to negotiate it all while adhering to the ludicrous conventions then imposed upon a twenty-eight year-old woman. She didn’t miss the compulsory sport of Hunt The Husband. She didn’t miss the Village Fete, the Harvest Festival, the crossroads dancing. She didn’t miss the balls.

She didn’t miss people.

Then one day a man and a woman arrived, opening the great door and standing in the hallway. Looking through the window Anna could see a “Site For Sale” sign at the front gate, down at the end of the long driveway. As she listened to their conversation, Anna realised that the man was a developer, the woman an estate agent, and that they were planning to build apartments on her land.

And to demolish her house to make way for this.

Anna was horrified. She would be homeless. She would be adrift, like an untethered balloon. She would be a free spirit, and in the ghost world that is not a good thing, it’s a polite term for unemployed.

The pair turned to leave, the woman shuddering as she did so.

“This place gives me the creeps,” she said.

And that gave Anna the idea. She blew, very gently, onto the back of the woman’s neck. The woman gave a small shriek, went white (as a ghost, in fact) and ran.

Then told everyone in the village, as Anna had guessed she would.

So curious people began to arrive, pretending they were interested in buying the place, and Anna began to put on a show. She would drop things. She would switch on and off lights. She would sigh softly yet longingly.

But not every time. Six, seven, ten visits could pass with her keeping quiet. The almost certainty that nothing would happen drew even more people, just in case it did.

But not enough. Still the ominous sign remained. She would have to up her game.

So she removed small panes of glass from some of the windows, and people spoke of a “spectral atmosphere”. She took her love letters from hiding and left them where they could be found, and the tragic tale grew and spread of a girl who had died there, broken-hearted by unrequited love. This was despite the fact that the letters were in her house and therefore had been sent to her, not by her, and were in three different hand-writings, meaning that she had been beating suitors off with a parasol, but Anna, who had actually died by falling down the main staircase, encouraged the myth by occasionally weeping gently.

And she started to appear herself.

People have two stereotypical ideas of what a ghost should like. One is of a creature wearing a sheet, as if it had met its demise by galloping furiously on horseback into a line of washing. The other is of a beautiful woman in a low-cut night-dress.

Fortunately Anna looked like this:

Image is by wisconsinart, and from

because sometimes stereotypes are actually true. She took to appearing, very briefly, at the top of the staircase down which she had fallen, but always only to some members of any group, meaning that each side could go home pitying the other.

She became known as the Maiden of the Manor.

And her plan worked. The government declared her house a heritage site, an official Haunted House, and took over running it.

They did mess it up a bit, of course. They added a maze on the front lawn for people who might find walking between bushes more exciting than seeing a ghost. They added a gift shop, presumably selling some sort of gloop. They added a coffee shop, presumably selling some sort of gloop.

But they had a whole tourist board to promote the house, so visitor numbers soared. And Anna rose to the challenge. For this summer she had created a permanent lightning storm over the house, a process she called climate change. She had trained ravens to flit around the eaves (they were actually crows, but she know no-one would know the difference). She had un-oiled the hinges of the front door, so that it now creaked loudly. 

Then came March.

The house was closed. There would be no tours.

Anna was shocked at how disappointed she was. She realised that she had become used to the crowds, loved their hopeful gaze, their squeaks of fright, their general good humour.

She missed people.

Then, in April, some men arrived.

They wore gloves and protective clothing, and for a panicked moment Anna thought they were going to perform an exorcism. Instead they installed small cameras on each floor, pointing at the staircases and long hallways. Anna gathered that bored lockdownees across the country were demanding virtual tours, of galleries, museums, and other places that they’d shown no interest in before, and Anna’s house was among those that the government selected.

They regarded it, of course, as being as big a waste of money as the microphone at NASA that listens out for aliens, but they were wrong. Anna has gone viral as she flits from camera to camera, making split-second appearances before each. A clip of her descending her staircase while saying the word “windsock” has been viewed over two million times.

She’s still scaring and thrilling the public, still doing the job she loves.

She’s Working Remotely From Home.