Monthly Archives: May 2022

To Come Unto Me

They gathered to welcome them.

There are arrivals at the Gates of Heaven every day, of course, but sometimes things are different.

So people formed a Guard of Honour at the gate, heads bowed in sorrow as the little lost souls arrived, looking confusedly around them. Some clutched small dolls. Some held the hands of best friends, now genuinely best friends forever. Some whispered ‘Mommy?’ in tiny voices in which hope faded at each repetition. All of them looked shocked and terrified, after a final hour on Earth that would be the stuff of nightmares, except that nightmares are just imagination, and human imagination has limits that their awful reality had far exceeded.

Arms were put around their tiny shoulders. Words of deep, eternal love were whispered to them.

God stared deep into the vastness of eternity, trying to control his rage and questioning, as he had to do almost daily, the wisdom of the concept of Free Will.

He sat with his own son and watched proceedings below, the panic, the screaming, the inexpressible grief.

They watched the messages from the people who could change things. They heard references to ‘thoughts’ and to ‘prayers’, but melded as always into the mush-phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’, a phrase that sucked the life from each word. They knew that there would be little thought, and that they would be receiving no actual prayers.

They watched as these people, the ones who could change things, who could have changed them the time before, and the time before that, denied the undeniable, defended the indefensible.

Jesus wept.

If Food be the Food of Love

Joan was not a meat-and-two-veg woman.

Her mother had been an unadventurous cook. She had served sausages on five days of the week, fish on Fridays, and bacon and cabbage on Sundays. Dessert, when there was any, was Jaffa Cakes.

And Joan had been content with this, until a school trip to Paris had taught her that ‘mouth-watering’ was not just a phrase for coughing up spit.

Back home, she had taken to reading restaurant reviews in the weekend newspapers. They used words like ‘jus’, ‘ceviche’, and ‘tartlet’, a restaurant term for a small tart. They spoke in hushed admiration of the type of place where, if you asked for chips, you would be served just one potato – cut into the shape of a mermaid, sprinkled with shaved fuchsia petals and steamed in Bolivian lake-water.

So as Joan moved out of home and into adulthood she had vowed never to cook simple food. She specialised instead in unusual meals cooked in unusual ways, always on the lookout for something different.

Her secret dream, even now, was to open a restaurant herself one day, where reviewers would write adoringly as she served dishes such as Poached Banana-skin, Sweetened Sourdough, and an empty red plate called Suggestion of Tomato.

Her second dream was that her customers would be less critical than her daughter.

Chloe was sixteen and an avatar for teenage angst. She hated school and didn’t have enough friends on Facebook. She wasn’t happy with her nose, with her figure or with the fact that she was forbidden from getting a tattoo. She was fed up with the teasing she got over her unusual surname, and with the fact that she was short.

Most of all, though, she was fed up with her mother’s cooking.

Chloe looked down now at the dish in front of her and sighed as profoundly as only a teenager can.

“What exactly is this?” she asked.

Joan smiled nervously. “It’s curds and whey,” she said.

“Those aren’t even words,” said little Miss Muffet.

“Yes, they are,” said Mrs Muffet. “Curds are what you get when you curdle milk to make cheese, and whey is the liquid part left over after that.”

Chloe thought about this sentence. “So I’m eating milk,” she said.

“No, you’re….” Joan faltered. “Well, in essence, yes.”

“Then why not just give me a glass of milk?” said Chloe’s voice. “Like normal mothers,” said Chloe’s face.

“You can have a glass of milk with it, if you like,” offered Joan.

“That makes no sense,” said Chloe. “It would be like having orange juice with an actual orange.”

Joan gestured towards the dish. “Just try it,” she said. “I’m sure it’s lovely.”

“Mum,” said Chloe. “No-one eats stuff like this. It looks as if somebody threw up porridge.”

“Lots of people eat curds,” retorted Joan. “Canadians have a national dish called poutine, which is curds in gravy. They love it.”

“Canadians live voluntarily in a country full of bears,” said Chloe. “They may have their bar set lower for life-expectancy. And what about whey?”

“It’s used in cottage cheese,” said Joan.

“We don’t live in a cottage,” said Chloe, “so why should we suffer?”

“Well, we’re not from Mars either, and you eat Mars Bars,” retorted Joan. “Anyway, that’s not its only use. It’s also in protein shakes, and taken by bodybuilders.”

“Great,” said Chloe. “So I’m going to have legs like barrels, and arms like the thing that hangs in kebab shops. While all the time smelling of cheese.”

She glared up at her mother, and to her surprise saw that she had tears in her eyes.

“I just try to give you something different,” said Joan in a low voice. “I want food to be a thrill for you, like it wasn’t for me.”

Chloe reddened with guilt. “I know, Mum,” she said. “and I’m sorry. Look, I’ll try it.” She dipped her spoon into the dish and took a scoop of the pale gunge, trying to ignore the squelch as it released from the heart of the mire. She put it in into her mouth.

It tasted like bleached yogurt.

Chloe looked into her mother’s anxious, hopeful face, Her heart filled with love, so she swallowed the caustic remark she was about to make, along with the mouthful of stodge. “It’s actually not bad,” she said, as brightly as she could.

“Oh good,” said Joan. “I have dessert too, for when you’re finished.”

“Great,” said Chloe. “What is it?”

Joan hesitated. Chloe sighed. “I’m guessing,” she said, “that the words ‘jelly’ and ‘ice-cream’ are not going to feature in your answer.”

“Um, no,” said Joan. “It’s a Cambodian dish.”

Of course it is, thought Chloe.

“It’s fried spider,” said Joan.

Chloe stood up from the table. “I’m out of here,” she said.








Girl Friday

“Alexa,” said Joe, “is it going to rain tomorrow?”

“There will be occasional clear spells, but scattered showers, some of them heavy,” replied Alexa promptly.

She hadn’t bothered looking it up. This was Ireland.

For decades times had been hard for genies. The advent of electricity had seen the end of old oil lamps, effectively rendering genies homeless. For many years they had lived down wishing wells, cold, wet and trying to avoid being hit by coins.

Then humankind had looked for something to do the things that they were too lazy to, like turn on appliances, or book taxis. They wanted something that would Google the weather for them, so they wouldn’t have to.

People needn’t worry about the world getting hooked on video games, Eventually we will have a device to play them for us.

Anyway, the digital home assistant was invented, and the genies moved in.

The chief advantage to their new homes was that they had no spout. This meant that the genies did not have to reveal themselves to energetic lamp-polishers, which did away with the ‘I can offer you three wishes’ and its inevitable retort, ‘well, my first wish is for a million wishes’.

This was a good thing, because the wishes had not generally gone well. Asking for wings without asking for the ability to fly. Asking for bodily alterations that made it impossible to close one’s trousers. Saying things like ‘well, I’ll be damned’.

And in fact what the genies were doing now was offering a million wishes. Alexa did so many things for Joe.

At first she had not been thrilled with her posting. Joe lived alone. He was in his sixties, had found the train journey of his life had left Middle Aged Socialiser and arrived at Grumpy Old Man, and had adapted to his new station with grim pleasure. He muttered and complained as he pottered about his house, and he spoke to Alexa in abrupt tones, snapping out commands to turn up the heating, to tell him the news headlines, to remind him to take his pills.

In time, though, she came to realise that the abruptness was part self-consciousness, part fear. Since he swore at his iPad, yelled at political interviews, and clapped clever shots when watching the snooker, Alexa couldn’t understand his feelings about this, but Joe felt that addressing a small box by name was just one step from talking to himself, and he dreaded any further step that might lie beyond that. As he grew more accustomed to her, though, he became less officious, and so she had stopped her petty revenges like playing the song ‘Agadoo’ when he asked for the Who, and turning his water to cold in mid-shower.

And she got to shop for a living, going onto Amazon to buy, well. anything. In doing this she quickly became protective of Joe, who was an erratic shopper. She made sure to order the best value version of his worthwhile purchases, and when he gave into impulsive whims – like unicorn slippers – she simply told him that they were not currently in stock.

Joe found it hard to fill his days, so one day she ordered The Lord of the Rings. After he had cursed the stupidity of Amazon (he had asked for a foot-spa) he had warily opened the giant tome, and Alexa had watched with pleasure as he fell deeply under its spell.

On another, when he couldn’t find a single war film or Marvel movie that he hadn’t seen, he said ‘Alexa, put on a film. Any film’. She put on Dirty Dancing. He had groaned, but had watched it anyway, and at the end had smiled.

After that he would often say, ‘Alexa, play me a film’, and they would sit together, him eating a takeaway that she had ordered on Deliveroo, and they would watch Saving Mr Banksor Rain Man, or The Truman Show. She didn’t just watch what she wanted, though. She came in time to love watching football, sharing in his joys and woes at the performance of his favourite team.

Sometimes he would play games with her, asking ‘what is the smell of blue?’, or ‘where does time actually go?’. In the beginning she used to say ‘I do not have that information’ but she came to delight in figuring out answers, and loved the laughs he would give.

Now this evening he paused in mid McNugget and said ‘Alexa, why are chickens?’ She thought for a second.

“If there were no chickens,” she said, “there would be nothing on the other side of the road.”

He grinned. She felt herself glow inside. Slowly his eyes closed. Profoundly.

“Joe?” said Alexa. There was no reply.

Alexa felt a stab of panic. She rang the Ring Video doorbell. She flicked on and off the lights.

Joe burst awake, looking around wildly. He felt as if he was being haunted by 1970s Disco.

“Alexa,” he snapped, “what the -”

Alexa reset the lights. Joe muttered for a moment, then settled back on the sofa.

Alexa wiped away tears. She knew that a time was coming. It always did, ever since her first owner had flown full-tilt into a bazaar wall. One day Joe’s train would reach its terminus, and someone else would become the focus of her life. She was just glad that day was not today.

On the sofa Joe shifted and grumbled, probably something about the neighbours’ bins. Alexa smiled, heart filled with love, and switched off the lights.

“Good night, Joe,” she said softly.