Author Archives: Tinman

Go On

“I suppose you’ll be selling the place?”

They were the words that had started it, spoken in the town store the day after the funeral. In her raw, confused grief at the death of a father she had barely known she had taken the words as a sneer, a hint that a city girl like her couldn’t possibly survive in the lone cabin out in the woods.

“Actually,” Sarah had heard herself reply, “I’m thinking of moving up here.”

As she drove home she thought about her throwaway remark. She was nearing forty, bored with her job, newly single – again – and feeling empty. She was curious too, about why her father had come here, leaving her and her mother and moving away from the world. She barely remembered him – a silent man with none of the playful love of other dads. Then one day he’d been gone.

“Your father is a good man,” Mum would say. “He just needs to be alone.”

As she grew Sarah had raged at this absolution. She had had no contact with her father, even when Mum passed, and now never would. The town doctor had found her details among his few belongings, and had got in touch.

Now she found herself thinking of trying his path, to see what was so much better than life with a loving six-year-old daughter. She could move up here, enjoy the peace, grow her own produce. The idea took root.

It had been practically the only thing that had.

The only things that grew that first year had been lettuce, spinach, and dock-leaves, which she had thought were chard.

The townsfolk had been great. The women would arrive, saying that they were just passing – though there was nothing beyond her cabin but deep, dense woods – and bring pie, saying that they had baked one too many.

The men would bring rabbits. These she would bury as soon as they left, as she had neither the skill nor the stomach to skin one.

At the beginning she had marched proudly into the store with her seed orders. Later she had done the walk of shame, buying actual vegetables.

She had stopped driving in to the bar in the evenings. She couldn’t bear the silent scrutiny of her tired face, her thinning body.

But Sarah had come to enjoy the solitude. She felt that she had begun to understand her father’s choice of a life without people, alone with the silence of nature, by which is meant night-time sounds of scurrying, snuffling and occasional howls.

And one day she had caught a fish – she had no idea what kind – and the sizzle, the aroma, and the warmth in her stomach had steeled her resolve.

So here she was at the start of a second Spring, seeds beside her, tugging at the earth with her bare fingers. She pulled at a clump of earth, which wouldn’t move. She pulled harder and a fistful of wet clay came away in her hand, so that she punched herself in the face with it.

She sighed and looked wearily down at the clump. With the section of clay gone she could see the corner of a metal box.

Buried treasure, was her first thought. No, was her second, because you’re not Scooby Doo. She pulled the box from the hole and used her trowel to work the lid open.

There was a gun inside.

It was a service revolver, evidently brought home by her father from the war. People had been supposed to return them, many had not. There were other things in the box. There was a Purple Heart. She had never known that her father had been injured in the war. She remembered his slight limp, but child-Sarah had thought that was because he was old, in his thirties.

There was a photo of him with three other soldiers, all laughing at some time-lost joke, faces filled with the impossible beauty of the young. The other three had dates written beside them in faded biro. All of the dates were in the late sixties.

And there was a photo of her, looking into the camera with a huge smile and huge eyes. Those eyes filled with tears now as she pictured her father – her Dad – looking at this.

Sarah picked up the gun. There was one bullet in it.

She wondered how many nights Dad had sat staring at his lost life, with the gun on his lap. She felt proud of him as she imagined the day he had made his decision, when he had chosen to live, and had boxed up his demons and buried them, settling instead for this solitary existence, away from the loved ones whose hurt incomprehension he could not abide.

She looked up at the cabin, then around at the garden. She knew that she owed it to Dad to go on, so she would.

Sarah put the box back into the earth, and covered it. Then she stood and tossed her trowel far out into the woods.

She would go on by living a real life, with laughter, people, and hopefully love. By living the life that had been stolen from her Dad by a war no-one wanted and after-effects no-one understood.

She was going home.

Not Always to the Swift

An annual Man v Horse race in Wales has been won by a man for the first time in over a decade (Irish Times 18/06/22)…


A Welsh Cob (image from Wikipedia)

Chestnut was not taking it well.

Being chosen had come as a real shock to him.  He knew well, of course, that the annual Man v Horse race was never between a colt that might one day win the Derby and a pensioner with an artificial hip. He knew that each year they would pick the fittest young man in the village and would run him against the slowest horse.

He had just never realised that he was now that horse. It was a sign that he was past it. He was now a walking sack of future glue and dog-food. He had been put out to stud.

Though sadly not literally, he thought glumly.

Chestnut had once been regarded as the Greatest Horse in the Village, and while it was just a tiny Welsh village with more consonants than people, he had been proud of that. Where had the time gone?  Horse years do move quicker, of course, but in Chestnut’s mind he was still a magnificent young beast, effortlessly able to pull inept young riders over large fences; to gallop through the breaking surf on the village’s flat sandy beach; to perform Dressage, the horse equivalent of Riverdance.

He thought back to how he had watched pityingly, year after year, as some older horse had been led to the start line, lined up beside a lean young man full of fire and protein shakes, and sent off in a ridiculously loaded contest.

But the horse had always won, he remembered suddenly. In spite of the race being rigged against them, each year they had galloped – well, lolloped – to victory.

He would be no different. He would put this human in his place.

So he was full of grim determination as his young owner Katie brought him down to the main street on the afternoon of the race. He snorted as he looked at the young man doing stretches in front of him. The crowd cheered as the two lined up. He looked into their faces. He saw hope and anticipation in their eyes. He saw young children, chattering excitedly as their ice-cream trickled unnoticed onto their wrists. He saw a middle-aged couple, obviously his opponent’s parents, holding a sign that read ‘Come On Gareth’.

He looked at this Gareth and saw only fear, of coming humiliation.

This means so much to them all, he thought.

A starting-gun fired, startling him, so he was slower into his stride than the young man. The volume of cheering rose as Gareth led. Then Chestnut started to gain, to draw alongside, to move ahead. He could hear the cheers grow ragged and falter. He made a decision.

He was going to have a mare.

He slowed his pace. Then slowed it again. Dear Lord, he thought, I could beat this guy if I was towing a haystack. It wasn’t easy to hide the fact that he wasn’t trying, but his years had given him experience. He began to whinny, as if tiring. He lolled his head from side to side, as if struggling. His pace slowed to a trot, as if that was all he could manage.

Yet the finish line was approaching and Gareth wasn’t, as least not quickly enough. If I go any slower, Chestnut thought, I will actually be travelling backwards.

But Gareth was gradually gaining, and the shortening gap excited the crowd. The cheers became wild yells of encouragement and exhortation. These lifted the young man, and he rallied, increasing his pace. The yells became high-pitched screams, urging him on and enraging local dogs.

Gareth overtook Chestnut just a foot before the line.

A great, guttural, primeval roar of joy exploded from the crowd. Gareth was surrounded by well-wishers, their back-slapping hampering his attempts to regain his breath. His parents ran to hug him, both crying unashamedly. A bottle of champagne – which had been brought home unopened each year for over a decade – was noisily popped and poured onto his head.

Chestnut stood quietly in the middle of the street, with a long face. It was the only face available to him

Katie walked up and rested her face against the side of his, gently stroking his neck.

“i know what you did,” she whispered. “You’re still the Greatest.”



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.



One’s a Barbie Girl

A limited-edition Barbie doll of the Queen has been created for her Platinum Jubilee…


It was Happy Hour in the Pink Parka.

A group of younger Barbies were gathered on stools at the bar. Their Kens stood at far end of the room, a collection of Stepford boyfriends talking about golf handicaps.

The girls had arranged to meet – had got dolled-up to do so, in fact – to discuss the news story of the day.

“She has a tiara,” said Yoga Barbie, who had only one position, the Downward Dog, “and the Crown Jewels.”

“She has actual palaces,” said Bingewatch Barbie, who came with her own sofa, remote and giant bag of Quavers. “Nobody is going to want a Malibu Beach House if you can get Windsor Castle, complete with moat.”

“And she comes with pets,” said Instagram Barbie, taking a picture of the Quavers and uploading it. “She has corgis. They’re really cute.”

“They aren’t, they look like fudge-coloured Lego,” said Wheels, a Volkswagen Polo. This was Driverless Car Barbie – you didn’t get an actual doll, just a toy car.

They carried on with this light-hearted bitching, enjoying themselves, though every now and then they cast anxious glances at the one member of their of their group who hadn’t yet spoken.

Princess Barbie just sat, drinking morosely, staring into nothing.

“You ok, Babe?” asked Instagram Barbie.

A tear ran down Princess Barbie’s cheek, to the horror of the others.

“Don’t worry about her,” said Yoga Barbie, offering her a tissue. “People will still love you.”

Princess Barbie blew her nose, surprisingly loudly for someone with no discernible nostrils. Then she smiled weakly.

“You’re probably right,” she said, “and I know I shouldn’t mind. It’s just, I’ve always been the most popular-”

Bingewatch Barbie raised one non-existent eyebrow.

“Well, I have,” said Princess Barbie. “There’s no point in denying it. Young girls may say they prefer the career Barbies, and the sporty ones, but it’s me they really love, really want to be. I guess I just always thought of myself as the untitled queen. And now we have a real one.”

“Oh, stop moaning,” said a voice from behind the bar.

Princess Barbie started, spilling pink gin onto the counter. Behind that counter stood another Barbie. She wore a T-shirt with the name of the bar on it, and a tired expression. A wisp of hair had come loose from her bun and draped down one cheek. She had a tea-towel over her shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Princess Barbie, dabbing at the drink with her snot-soaked tissue. “I didn’t notice you there.”

“Well, I am here,” said Barmaid Barbie, snatching the tissue away and using the tea-towel instead. “And I have an opinion too, Princess, even if you have a better life than me.”

“I don’t have a better -”

“You own your own unicorn,” said Barmaid Barbie.

“True, but-”

“But nothing. Try walking a mile in my shoes, behind this counter. I can tell you it’s not easy, since I have the same ridiculous foot angle as you, and have to do it in high heels. You do think you are better than me, and most other Barbies. Why isn’t Cleaner Barbie one of your little gang, or Waitress Barbie? There are dozens of us that no-one cares about. Has anyone ever bought their daughter a Tesco Checkout Barbie, even after they were among the real heroes of the pandemic? I don’t think so. And now someone is more important than you. Well, welcome to my world.”

Throughout this speech Bingewatch Barbie had sat cross-legged on her sofa, staring entranced at the barmaid, spooning snacks into her mouth. Now she turned and grinned at Princess Barbie.

“Well, that’s put you back in your box,” she said.







Long Jump

A frog discovered in a bag of fresh mint in a fruit and veg shop in the north of England had survived a 6,000 km shipment from Ethiopia (Irish Times 09/04/22)…


The fly hovered, buzzing gently, on the warm air above the Rift Valley.

Then suddenly it was gone, winked from existence like a snuffed candle by the lash-like flick of a long tongue.

Tadele lapped the fly into his mouth in a manoeuvre that involved curling his tongue like a party horn, closed his eyes and sat back contentedly on his tree branch, enjoying the warmth of the sun, the sigh of the gentle breeze and the low buzz of the fly.

Hang on, he thought, the fly is gone.

His eyes snapped open. The buzz wasn’t a buzz, it was a hiss. An Ethiopian Mountain Snake was slithering along the branch toward him. Tadele looked into its yellow eyes. Circle of life, they seemed to say and, though it had no shoulders, the snake seemed to shrug.

No way, though Tadele. Today is not my day to croak. He crouched back onto his hind legs, then leapt.

He landed in the soft undergrowth. He could hear the snake sliding swiftly down the tree like a slinky on a bat-pole and looked around for cover. He saw a bed of mint beside him, hopped to it, then turned himself green. Well, more green.

He held his breath as the snake searched for him. Eventually he heard it slither away. Tadele let out his breath.

Then his world turned upside down.

The whole clump of mint was wrenched from the soil and tossed onto the back of a truck. Tadele hit his head against the side wall, and fell unconscious. This was fortunate, as he was spared the terrors of the bumpy journey to a large factory, the ear-shattering flight in the cargo-hold of a plane, the soul-destroying atmosphere of a huge distribution warehouse.

It was unfortunate too, of course, as it meant that he missed several opportunities to escape.

He woke in confusion, in darkness, and in a plastic bag. He gasped in horror, and in that gasp inhaled the air of a tiny world that now contained nothing but mint.

The sharp freshness filled his lungs, his belly, the backs of his eyeballs. He felt as if he had been waterboarded with mouthwash.

The low rumbling and the constant bouncing told him that he was in some sort of vehicle. Eventually this slowed to a stop. A rectangle of light appeared above him, and his bag and several others were brought into a small shop. They were placed on a shelf, and he found himself alone. Now, he thought, to get out of –

His home was picked up and tossed into a small wire basket, which contained a bunch of bananas, a cucumber, a stick of celery and what appeared to be a grenade, but was in fact an avocado. The basket was carried to a counter, where his plastic bag was passed across a scanner, a process like being put through a body-scanner at an airport. In spite of himself, Tadele flinched.

“Hang on,” said a booming female voice. “Something moved in that bag.”

“No way,” said a man. “I keep this shop spotless.”

The bag was lifted. Tadele could see two huge faces peering in. He burrowed as deeply as he could into the mint.

“There,” said the woman. “It’s a frog!. It’s buried up to its thighs in the mint.”

Knee-deep, actually, thought Tadele, before he could stop himself.

“Oh,” said the man. “Er, will I take it out for you?”

“I’m not buying that,” snapped the woman, “but I recommend you take it out anyway. You’re not going to sell mint-and-a-frog in a bag, unless you can market it as a hipster ready-meal.”

The bag was pressed against the man’s brown shop-coat, and huge fingers tugged at the seal along the top. The bag opened, a great waft of mint escaped, and fresh air poured in.

Well, the fresh air of a fruit and vegetable shop, anyway.

Tadele’s lungs, now truly in mint condition, were assailed by the damp-earth smell of potatoes, the cat-pee odour of garlic, the yellow zing of lemons.

And onions.

Tadele’s huge eyes filled with water, but they were not the stinging tears of onion inhalation, but the joyous tears of delight. Never before had he known such sensation.

He leapt from the bag, hopped – no, practically bounced – across the shop, and out into the street.

He gleefully took in great gulps of town-life. He, who had known only the sweet aromas of trees and grasses, was enthralled by the gritty smells of diesel, of tarmac, even of last night’s drunken vomit.

He passed a chip-shop and deeply inhaled the glorious smell of batter and vinegar.

Then he arrived outside a coffee shop, and was filled with awe by the scent of the world’s most bitter-tasting yet best-smelling beverage.

He paused beside a wall, out of danger from incautious human feet, and looked around him. He felt truly alive. A new world had been opened to him.

Then a fly buzzed past. Tadele’s tongue whipped out, the fly was whipped in. Tadele smiled, though this made little difference to his facial expression.

I’m going to like it here, he thought.




Between the Light and the Dark

image from

He isn’t coming, Erin thought.

She had been there for an hour now, sipping at her drink, hope rising with every jangle of the bell above the door, hope falling at each entrant, some townsperson or other rushing in to get coffee or pastries, their breath preceding them like a man with a red flag warning of the approach of the phrase “man, that’s a cold one”.

Some had nodded to her in recognition but others, she thought, avoided her gaze, as if her situation was some sort of medusa virus that could be passed on by eye contact.

Erin tapped at the side of her cup with her blunt fingernail, then hid her hand quickly inside her coat. She had started biting her nails again, and was embarrassed by them.

She’d finish her drink, she decided, and go. There was no point in–

The bell tolled again, and this time it tolled for she.

He stood huge in the doorway, snowflakes speckled among the curls of his hair. He looked around, saw her, and beamed. She felt a burst of love for him, then one of rage.

He sat down opposite her. “Hello, Honey,” he said.

“You’re late,” she said angrily.

He shrugged. “It’s snowing,” he smiled, “and I didn’t come on a one-horse open sleigh. I came in a nine-year-old car that handles in snow like a drunk supermarket trolley.”

She was determined not to be charmed. “I thought you weren’t coming,” she burst out.

His smiled faded. “I’m sorry you thought that,” he said quietly. He waved to Anna, the owner. “I’m going to get a coffee,” he said to Erin. “Will you have another – what is that?”

Erin blushed. “Peanut butter hot chocolate,” she muttered.

His eyes widened. “Really?”

“It’s warming, and delicious,” she said, annoyed at how defensive she sounded. “But it does smell a tiny bit like socks, so I’ll stick.”

Anna arrived at the table, notepad open, as though two people might order too many things to be expected to remember. “Why, Greg,” she said. “Haven’t seen you in here in a while.”

“No,” said Greg. “I’ve been … away.”

He ordered coffee. Anna looked at Erin, who shook her head. The notepad flipped closed, and Anna walked away, smiling faintly.

“So,” said Greg, “she knows about the break-up.”

“Everyone knows about the break-up,” snapped Erin.

“I see,” said Greg. He sat in silence until his coffee arrived. Erin found that she was tapping at her cup again. She put her hand on the table, and noticed Greg looking at her nails.

“Is it really hard?” he asked, putting his big hand over hers. She was shocked at his stupidity, and wondered how she could possibly have loved this man. She pulled her hand free.

“What do you think?” she snarled. “I thought we had a great life. I thought I had a great life, then it all fell apart. Now I cry a lot” – she was furious with herself, but couldn’t stop – “and just keep wanting things to be the way they were before.”

“Oh Erin,” said Greg. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

Erin snorted, then panicked that she might have produced a burble of snot. She wiped quickly at her face. “Well, you did,” she said. “And don’t say that I’ll feel better after a while, like you did when you left, because this is after a while, and I don’t.”

She felt a flash of malicious satisfaction as she watched his face work out this sentence. Then she looked at him, really looked at him for the first time since he had come in. She saw that he was pale, not just mid-winter pale, but tired, unhappy pale. He looked old, for the first time ever. She felt a wave of sympathy, and was awed at the spectrum of emotions, between love and fury, between the light and the dark, that one human could simultaneously feel for another.

“It’s not easy for you either, is it?” she said softly.

He looked bleakly at her, and for a second she was terrified that he was going to cry. Then he fought his emotion, as he always did, and she was filled with illogical love and pride when the big, strong man – her big, strong man – managed a weak smile.

He reached out and put his hand on hers again. This time she let him.

She noticed him looking at the front of her coat. “Did you get my card?” he asked, hesitantly.

She smiled now, amused as always by his kryptonite, which was that he had never had sisters and so had no idea at what age girls are into what things. He had no idea, for example, that someone her age would rather die than be seen by anybody she knew wearing a big round badge that said ‘I’m 12 today’.

And she would never tell him that. She held her coat open, so that he could see the badge garishly red against her grey sweatshirt.

He smiled and squeezed her hand. “Happy birthday, Honey,” he said.

“Thanks, Dad,” she replied.

Twinkle Toad

The New York Times reports that a resurgence in demand for the hallucinogenic secretions of a North American toad is threatening it with extinction. The substance in the secretions of the Sonoran Desert Toad is illegal in the United States, but people are nonetheless are charging large sums for retreats and “venom ceremonies”. A synthetic version is available, but many users will not switch, saying it lacks the intensity of the “toad medicine” experience…


They came at once. That’s what friends do.

Toad stood in welcome on the steps of Toad Hall as Rat, Mole and Badger walked up the drive. He led them in past his latest Rolls Royce and into the library. There the four sat in comfortable, high-backed armchairs, sipping at huge balloons of brandy. Eventually Badger spoke.

“So,” he said. “You sounded worried on the telephone.”

“I am worried,” said Toad. “I think toads are going to become extinct.”

“Why would you think that?” asked Badger.

“Well,” said Toad, “there’s something you don’t know about us. We produce an, er, secretion that causes hallucinations.”

“Why?” asked Mole.

“To keep predators away,” said Toad. “And for years it worked,”

“How?” asked Badger.

“Simple,” said Toad. “We got princesses to kiss us.”

“I thought that was frogs,” said Rat.

Toad snorted. “Only because humans can’t tell us apart,” he sneered. “I mean, the idea is ridiculous. Nobody would kiss a frog.”

The others sat in silence, feeling that there was no diplomatic response that they could give to this.

“Anyway, the princesses thought we were princes,” said Toad. “We were given kingdoms, wealth, loads of soldiers. Best protection you could ask for.”

“So what went wrong?” asked Rat.

“Democracy,” said Toad bitterly. “Leading to a serious princess shortage. So we turned to using the venom on the predators themselves. A coyote becomes very easy to manage if it thinks you’re a dragon. So does a raccoon once you’ve persuaded it that it’s a budgie.”

“Sounds great,” said Badger. “So what’s the problem?”

“New predator,” said Toad. “Humans.”

“Really?” said Mole. “I can’t imagine that toad hunting would be very exciting. The hounds would walk faster than you could hop.”

“They don’t want to hunt us,” said Toad. “They want to lick us.”

“Um, I obviously misheard that,” said Badger, “because it sounded like you said -”

“Yes, I did,” sighed Toad. “Some hippy moron discovered that licking a toad gave him a high, and instead of being embarrassed at what he’d done he told the world on Instagram. And instead of the world going  ‘yuck’ and mocking him they tried it too. Now they have retreats where they all do it. They’re killing us off and they don’t care.”

“Honestly,” said Mole, “humans are never happy. I mean, what’s wrong with alcohol? Why not just get, er -”

“Rat-arsed?” said Rat icily.

“Sorry,” muttered Mole.

“In fairness,” said Toad. “Alcohol just doesn’t compare.The hallucinations are amazing.”

“How amazing?” asked Badger.

Toad had been dreading this question. He blushed, going the red-green of a ripening apple. “Um, well,” he said, “has it ever occurred to you all how strange it is that I live in a great hall, driving human cars at great speed?”

The others stared at him. “It is odd, I suppose,” said Badger, “but that’s just the way it is.”

Toad sighed. “At this moment,” he said, “we’re sitting on a riverbank beside an old supermarket trolley, and -” he looked to one side, apparently at a lamp-stand – “being stared at by a duck.”

In the stunned silence that followed, Mole shifted experimentally in his chair. He could feel the leather upholstery against his back, could feel the carpet beneath his uncrossed foot. He took a sip of his brandy, and felt the fire in his throat, the warmth in his veins. “It’s astonishing,” he breathed.

“Never mind that,” said Badger furiously. He glared at Toad. “You’ve been tricking us all this time. I thought we were your friends.”

“I didn’t mean to do it,” said Toad. “Just being with me for so long has set it off in you. You’ve basically inhaled the fumes. All I could do was make the hallucination as pleasant as possible.”

Badger frowned. Then he too took a sip of brandy, and was instantly mellowed by its mellowness. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said grudgingly.

“Anyway,” said Toad despairingly. “The humans have a huge retreat this weekend. They’re going to need hundreds of toads.”

His friends gazed at him in helpless concern. Then Rat spoke. “I have an idea,” he said. He went to a desk in the corner of the library, and turned.

“If we’re living the dream, so to speak,” he said, “we might as well use it. I need access to Google.”

Toad nodded. Rat turned back to the desk, which now had a laptop on it. He typed for a few seconds, then looked at Toad.

“So you’re saying,” he asked, “that you can control the hallucinations that users get?”

“He could make a princess kiss him,” said Mole, “so I’m taking that as a yes.”

“So you could get into the minds of these gobshites before they start collecting the toads?”

“I suppose I could,” said Toad. “Once they come near enough it will start to affect their minds.”

“Well it says here,” said Rat, “that humans can also get high from all sorts of surprising things. Coke. Or hash.” He smiled at Toad.  “Or skunk.”

Toad’s eyes widened, something the others would not have thought possible. Then he grinned.

“Gotcha,” he said. “Let them lick skunks.”



It’s Not Even the Past

image from

A new article in the journal ‘Annals of Physics’ claims an “anti-universe” exists in parallel to our own in which time goes backwards (Irish Times 26/03/22)….


Imagine a life in which you get younger every day.

In the Other Earth, on the far side of the cosmic divide, this is what happens. People there truly are borne back ceaselessly into the past. They die, live their lives and are born. Those lives are therefore very different.

The clocks go back in Spring and forward in Autumn, and the people there are never sure which one is the good one either. Online gambling does not exist. Anti-wrinkle cream does, though, because although those wrinkles are fading morning by morning most people are not prepared to wait.

The Other Earthlings do not walk backwards, We’re trying to have a serious scientific discussion here.

Imagine that you are in the twilight of your life. You have been with a partner now for many years. Your relationship is comfortable, warm and safe, like a big woolly jumper. But imagine knowing that this relationship is going to get more exciting, growing each day toward a climax, a sunburst, of love and intensity a few years from now. That the time after that will involve throwing off any woolly jumpers, along with everything else. And beyond that time there will be the fun of cinema trips, of kissing in cars, of wondering if perhaps this is the one, right back to the excitement and anticipation of that very first date. Isn’t that a thrilling prospect?

Of course, you know that every relationship coming along afterwards will not work out, but in each one you can wait patiently, knowing that a day will come when you have never met the person.

Imagine becoming faster and fitter. Playing sport again. Hangover immunity.

On and on your life will go, into the difficult teen years. This is not something to look forward – if that’s the right word – to, but it is better than the creaks, the twinges and the brittle bones that are moving, ironically very quickly, towards us here.

Out of your working life and into retirement. But this is not a retirement of bingo, golf and afternoon TV adverts about funeral costs. This is day upon day of play, of climbing trees, of blowing dandelion clocks, of staying out until the last rays of sun sink below the skyline.

Youth is wasted upon the young, we are told. Imagine it coming toward the end of your life, when you can really savour every glorious carefree day.

But the end of your life will be coming, just as it does here. You will lose your teeth, you hair, your ability to walk. But how different an experience to our final days. You will find every new experience a source of wonder. Your every achievement will be heralded and cheered. Your loss of language won’t matter, because adults will speak to you in gibberish, but with a warmth of tone that will leave no doubt that you are loved. They will blow raspberry farts on your belly, and you will find this the funniest thing in either universe. Your final couple of years will be pure joy.

Finally you will be born. No, I’ve no idea either.