Category Archives: short stories

Mum & Mozart – a short story

National Concert Hall (NCH)

National Concert Hall (NCH)

The line ‘If music be the food of love play on,’ always brings a smile, especially when I think about my mother. She was a music fan, a lover indeed, and the words from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night were something that she truly, deeply believed in.

Our house was never quiet when mum was around, as the sounds of opera singers and orchestras drifted merrily from big 331/3 rpm records that were treated like family heirlooms. They were her pride and joy, and she loved nothing more than tearing the cellophane from a new disc and placing it gently on the turntable. I remember the look of anticipation on her face as the needle dropped, scratched and hissed momentarily, before the strains of violin, piano, quartet or singer made her smile the broadest of smiles. It was transfixing, and one of my earliest, and happiest, memories.

Growing up with such a lover of music I was encouraged to get involved, and for many years I took piano lessons. Although I practised hard and often felt my mum’s hand gently squeeze my shoulder as she whispered ‘That’s nice, really nice,’ I knew that I was never going to be the next Mozart. It didn’t matter to her as long as I tried, but I grew to love the Austrian maestro and his wonderful works. Of all the great composers she introduced me to on my musical journey Mozart’s warm, inspiring and exuberant music is something that has stayed with me, and for that I will always be happily in her debt.

Mum’s parents were not themselves musically inclined, but she told me that they were always enthusiastic for her. They brought her to singing lessons, and concerts when they came to town. She remembered getting a record player that had to be started with a winding arm, and a box of new needles. The records were heavy, black vinyl plates that all too often became scratched and cracked. And so she spent hours in record shops and got to know the best places to go, and sometimes the owners gave her records for free because they knew she loved the music. She collected music by all the great composers and she was as knowledgeable of classical music as anybody I ever knew. I found a few of her old records recently in the attic, the sleeves dusty and torn, and I wondered how many times did she slide them out and put them on her record player. Countless, no doubt, I thought, and gently brushed them clean before putting them beside my CD collection. They may have looked awkward but their content was no different and just as enlightening.

As I grew up pop and rock music became a bigger part of my life. I listened to the radio and discovered The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and countless other bands that I now cannot remember. The music made an impression, be it good or bad, and it was discussed endlessly with friends late into the night – our musical rite of passage. Some of us were fans of one band or another and we took great delight in defending our own personal favourites. We were committed to the music and I came to understand why my mother had such a love of this mystical medium. It was something that I could not touch, taste or smell but I could most certainly feel it. It could inspire and lift the soul and express a sadness that words could never hope to do. The magic of music is wonderful and it always had the power to surprise and make me feel better.

Years later I often took my mother to concerts in the National Concert Hall (NCH) nights out that I remember fondly. One particular one stands out, and the more I think about it the more I understand her love of music. It was a Mozart Night and the foyer was abuzz with excitement long before the start. We sat and had a drink, and my mother was bubbling excitedly looking at the happy faces and listening to the friendly conversations around her. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she said, and I grinned a reply.

I led her to our seats and she immediately leaned forward and looked over the balcony at the milling crowd below and the stage beyond. Then she sat back, clasped her hands tightly and nodded her head slowly in response to some inner rhythm. When the seats were filled the lights were dimmed and the performers took the stage. A silence descended and you could almost hear the audience breath as one before the music began. It opened with a rousing version of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro that was loudly applauded. Then we had some beautifully played piano concertos and the delicious Clarinet Concerto which is my own personal favourite.

Every so often I would glance at my mother and see the concentration and happiness on her face. But it was not until the singers took the stage that I saw what I can only describe as a transformation. My mother was an old woman, in her eighties then, but the singing seemed to unlock something within her and I was privileged to see it. During the Sull’aria, from the Marriage of Figaro, I heard my mother singing very quietly, like the whisper over my shoulder a lifetime ago. I had never heard her sing like this before and I was immensely proud. And when I glanced at her again I didn’t see an old woman sitting beside me but a young girl lost in music, bright-eyed with her life to live. When it finished she smiled at me and it took all the strength I had not to cry. It was a magical moment, and I’m sure even Mozart would agree that he had struck the right chord and that music is indeed the food of love.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

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Festive Fun!

'Tis the season to be...

‘Tis the season to be…

Approaching Christmas, one of the things that we always looked forward to was the sale of work in the local girls’ school. It was a great opportunity to buy small presents, have a laugh and, of course, meet some girls. Such opportunities were important to a lad who was studying for his Leaving Cert and keen to meet members of the fairer sex. And hopefully get a few invitations to parties over the festive season.

On a cold and windy Saturday in early December Eddie, Paul and I made our way to the school where we queued under swaying lights, surrounded by lively chatter. The nervous tension was palpable, as we shuffled towards the door from where seasonal music and mirth drifted. The smell of fresh popcorn that floated past was teasing and inviting.

Hoopla

Hoopla

The sports hall was decorated in a rainbow of colourful hangings and flashing lights. It was alive with people of all ages pushing this way and that as White Christmas blasted from a dodgy stereo. There were stalls selling books, cakes, small paintings and knitted gloves and scarves. But nobody was winning on the Hoopla stall and Eddie had to give it a go.

‘Watch this,’ he said, and we gave him room.

‘You show him,’ I said, laughing.

‘Dead-eyed Ed,’ Paul urged.

A small crowd gathered and cheered each near-miss. Eddie’s last throw was close, but not close enough.

‘Bad luck,’ said the stallholder, giving a little shrug.

‘It’s rigged, it’s rigged I know it is,’ Eddie said convincing nobody, and we laughed harder the more he went on.

‘Here, have some of these,’ I said, offering him my bag of piping hot popcorn.

When we were finished I bought two books and the lads got some bits and pieces for Christmas presents. We hung around for a while and then we decided to leave.

As we were heading for the door Eddie’s sister, Marie, ran over with a look of panic on her face. She and two friends blurted out in unison that they needed our help – and that we could not refuse – dare not refuse. We found out that that Santa Claus had taken ill, and a replacement was needed.

Now!

It was too silly for words but the girls didn’t think so.

‘You’ve got to help,’ Marie said firmly, her words allowing for no argument.

We knew we had to help, as life would not be worth living otherwise. Gobsmacked, we looked at each other, before one of the girls said. ‘Well?’

I still don’t know where it came from but I heard myself say ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’

Eddie and Paul looked at me wide-eyed while the girls relaxed and took me by the arm, leading me like a condemned man through the noisy crowd. We went to a small room at the back of the stage where all sorts of junk seemed to have ended up. I hoped that this wasn’t the sign of my immediate future, quickly slipping off my jacket and scarf.

‘It’s really great that you’re doing this,’ Margaret said, breathing a huge sigh of relief. Marie and Adrienne smiled, joyously echoing her words.

‘No problem,’ I said, with no idea what I had got myself into and no chance of escape.

Rudolf and friends

Rudolf and friends

I was dressed hurriedly in a Santa Claus suit a few sizes too big and, after some tricky and ticklish attempts, managed to keep the long white beard on. The girls showed me to my throne where I was immediately involved in greeting a small girl who was not happy waiting for the old man dressed in an ill-fitting red suit. I explained that one of my reindeers, Rudolf, was not feeling well and we had to go slowly. I was sorry, and told her that her special wish would definitely be granted and my faithful assistant, Margaret, smiled and gave her a present. I did this for the next hour or so, and after a headful of wishes and promises to be good next year, I was finished, literally.

The lads laughed at my Santa routine, but not as loud as I did over the Festive Season when Margaret invited me to a party in her house, and a few others as well. It was the best Christmas present I could have wished for, and better than anything Santa Claus could have arranged. Ho, ho, ho!

The man with all the gifts!

The man with all the gifts!

 

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On Your Bike – a short story

As traffic gets heavier with each passing day more and more people of all ages have taken to riding a bicycle. ‘On your bike’ is no longer a phrase of dismissal but says that the cyclist is keen on improving his health and happy to be away from the stress of another traffic jam. Cycling offers a sense of freedom and fun that are associated with younger years, and for that alone I am thankful.

I had not owned a bicycle since I was a teenager and buying one many years later was like taking a step back in time. Getting the right one took a while as the shop owner wanted to know what I wanted it for – casual cycling or something sportier. I tested a few and finally chose my steel horse and happily, if somewhat awkwardly, took it home. After a few days in the saddle, and more sore muscles that I care to mention, I headed off into town. It was the first time that I had done that journey since my schooldays and it was fun, and brought back memories that had lain dormant for years.

Thoughts of summer days cycling with friends to swim in Blackrock Baths were bright and vivid. As were our races when we made believe that we were competing in the Tour de France or pushing for an Olympic gold medal. Bikes were our pride and joy, and a vehicle for adventure and freedom that remains.

Moving along at a steady pace I was surprised to find myself taking in places that, up until then, I would usually drive past. Shops, lanes and houses with plaques commemorating a famous writer or politician, were now places of interest that I stopped and visited.

Ernest Shackleton's home

Ernest Shackleton’s home

I discovered that the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who almost became the first man to reach the South Pole, had lived for a time in a house in Ranelagh. Did he cycle these roads with a growing sense of freedom, I wondered, and hoped he had? And that the Donnybrook Fare, a festival that gives its name to riotous and unbridled behaviour, dated back to the reign of King John, in the twelfth century.

Being able to stop and park easily means that I am now able to pop into the second-hand bookshops that I had not previously visited. This has been a real treat and getting to know the staff adds to the whole experience. As such, I have been lucky enough to find good books that I would otherwise never have known existed. Cycling is not only good for the body but the mind, too and that can’t be bad.

I have found that cyclists often recognise one another with a nod of the head or a friendly grin, and they are quick to share news of a road closure or a handy shortcut.  And on a very windy autumn day, with dead leaves fluttering about, a fellow cyclist stopped and gave me a hand when I was fixing a puncture. It was a kind and much appreciated gesture that I have since done for other cyclists. ‘Hey, it happens to everyone sometime,’ he said as I shook his hand. ‘No problem,’ he added, before setting off without any fuss, like heroic rescuers are meant to.

In recent years with the introduction of cycle lanes, a more environmentally aware mind-set and people’s desire to improve their health, cycling is enjoying a golden period. Doctors recommend it and the concept of ‘Pedal Power’ has more to do with taking control of your body than just getting somewhere quickly. Up-down-up-down-up-down is now a mantra that many are familiar with and happy to keep saying.

And as a friend said to me a while ago cycling is now one of the few places that are digitally-free. With keeping an eye on surrounding traffic, pedestrians, road and weather conditions it is impossible, and downright dangerous, to pay attention to anything else. Hence, cycling has become, as my friend said, a GDF.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Gadget Free Zone.’

We laughed at that before he threw his leg over the crossbar and put the pedal down. ‘Right, I’m off,’ he added, cycling away.

‘Yeah, on your bike,’ I said, fixing my helmet and grinning at his witty and perceptive observation.

On your bike!

On your bike!

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Going Conkers

chestnuts

One more time,’ Eddie shouted, as I leaned back and threw the long stick at the tall chestnut tree. A shower of spiky chestnuts fell to the ground and we watched, hawk-like, to see where the biggest were. ‘That’s mine,’ I screamed greedily, snatching up a big conker. Yes, conker season was great fun, and with my new prize I looked forward to a successful conker fight at school.

The next day I jealously guarded my conker, checking my pocket to make sure that nobody had pinched it, as such thefts were not uncommon.

At break-time we headed for the school yard where a number of games began.

Over the excited talk Dave Flynn shouted ‘Hold it steady, Ryan,’ taking aim. He eyed Ryan’s still conker, and in a flash made a swing. There was an explosion as Ryan’s conker disappeared into a hundred pieces that were immediately trampled underfoot.  Flynn’s supporters chanted ‘Champ-ion, champ-ion.’

‘What number is that?’ someone asked.

‘Number forty-two’, Flynn sang smugly, as I produced my conker, offering a challenge.

‘Stampies out,’ I said, as the crowd around us grew.

‘OK, let’s go,’ Flynn said, as he stepped back and took aim again.

There was silence, as Flynn swung and completely destroyed my budding champion. He jumped about, swinging his winning conker flamboyantly above his head. I was devastated and looked down at the scattered, broken remains of the contender.

Later, when I told my big brother about the contest he burst out laughing. ‘Those big shiny ones are useless,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Follow me; I’ll get you a winner.’

In the shed he rummaged about before finding what he wanted. ‘Ah, here they are,’ he said wickedly, emptying a small leather bag onto the floor where a dozen or so wizened conkers rolled about. ‘This is what you need’, he said firmly ‘and you’ll teach Flynner a real lesson.’

‘You cannot be serious,’ I cried, when he handed me an ancient conker that God might have used. ‘This is useless,’ I added, turning the small object over in my hand. It was hard, no doubt, but it could never beat Flynn’s brute.

‘It will,’ my brother added, as he drilled a hole in the contender. He threaded it with string and then tied a large knot.

The prune-like conker swung easily but I was far from convinced. ‘Now, tomorrow I expect you to bring the champ home. And remember to take a deep before swinging. Ok?’

Steady now...

Steady now…

‘Ok,’ I said, taking a few practise swings.

The next day there was the usual mayhem in the yard as games of conkers were in full flow. I showed my new conker to Ed who laughed out loud. I couldn’t really blame him as it looked so small and not much bigger than the knot it sat on.  If it was support I wanted then I wasn’t getting any from him. ‘It has no chance,’ he said, ‘and you should keep it well hidden. It might be embarrassing Danny,’ he added warily.

I watched a lively contest that was quick and furious before another Flynn’s voice rent the air.

‘Number forty-nine,’ he shouted, as his admiring fans slapped him on the back and chanted Champ-ion, champ-ion’.

After a few nervous moments, and with my brother’s words ringing in my ears, I pushed through the heaving crowd and slowly took my new conker from my pocket. ‘Right, Flynner, fancy another go?’ I said.

For a couple of seconds he said nothing before a big smile spread across his face. ‘You must be joking Danny, that’s not a conker – it’s a pea’.

The crowd howled, and moved back to give him room for another easy victory.

I held my conker steady and watched Flynner closely as he grinned and swung aggressively. His aim was not perfect and it only managed to hit my conker a glancing blow sending it spinning around my finger. Everyone tensed up, as I took a deep breath and remembered what my brother had said. I exhaled slowly and took my time before delivering a shattering blow that smashed Flynner’s conker into what seemed like a thousand pieces.

There was a stunned silence before Ed grabbed my arm and pushed it into the air chanting ‘Champ-ion, champ-ion’. His cry was quickly taken up by my new supporters who let it be known that fifty was now the magic number.

Champ-ion!

Champ-ion!

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Interesting Interview

I was recently invited by Irish Interest to do an interview for their website. It took place near Seapoint and, thankfully, the weather was on its best behaviour!

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Footsteps – a short story

It was while walking by the sea that the idea came to me. I have often found that having the water rippling beside me helps in the formation of ideas, or maybe it’s just coincidental. A friend said that it had to do with our make-up of over 97% water, and he might just have something there. Whatever, a stroll along the beach, with the bubbling water a constant companion, has always been a place for reflection, imagination and quiet.

And, of course, relaxation.

Sandymount Strand - on a clear day....

Sandymount Strand – on a clear day….

Some time ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I was walking on Sandymount Strand when an idea floated into my mind, just like a wave top coming ashore. It is one of my favourite places in Dublin to go and ‘be alone with my thoughts’, such is the openness and calm to be found there, especially in the early morning. As I walked slowly along the sandy beach towards Ringsend, I gazed over to Howth and the almost mirror-still water that stretched to the horizon. How often had other people looked out at this scene from where I was now standing, I thought, and breathed another lungful of clear, tangy air?

And then it came to me.

People had been coming here for years, since time immemorial, gazing out over the very scene that was mine to behold. For just in front of me was a line of footsteps in the sand, an image that had not changed since the first person left similar marks so very long ago. The French have a saying for this: ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ which translates as ‘the more it changes, the more they it stays the same.’ That seemed about right as I watched a wave rush in and cover the footsteps in its watery embrace, removing them so completely as to leave no sign of their brief existence.

James Joyce

James Joyce

As the water receded, smoothing the sand into a new canvas awaiting its next mark, I remembered that James Joyce had a fondness for this place and included it in his most famous book, Ulysses. In chapter three, the young hero, Stephen Dedalus, walks along the strand and wonders about imagination, thought and sensation. The feel of the words is meant, in Joyce’s hand, to be fluid, hence the setting by the sea, where all things move from birth to death and, finally, renewal. This transience can lead to something permanent, and it is this cycle of renewal that really got a hold of me as I stepped quietly into the cold waters. I immediately left a mark that was just as quickly erased. The thought that there are things that could not be changed had a strange, comforting feeling. Joyce understood this better than most and allowed Stephen ask the question ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?’ It was not something that I could answer, but I liked the idea that he, like all of us who walked on the strand, had ‘our moment.’ We all leave a mark, but as to whether it will last into eternity, well, that is for others to say. In the meantime, I keep walking on the strand, not so much in the hope of seeing Stephen Dedalus, but in anticipation of the soothing, dreamy rhythm of the gurgling water.

...on the seashore

…on the seashore

 

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The Eyes Have It – A short story

The Guitar Player

The Guitar Player

The gentle creaking of the old floorboards made me realise that I had crossed the threshold and entered the calm of the house. It was a bright morning in early May and tiny motes of dust floated in the shafts of sunlight that crossed the hall of Kenwood House in North London. The ticking of a tall grandfather clock was the only sound I heard as I looked around, taking in the paintings and beautiful quiet.

I went to the reception desk and enquired about the painting that I had come to see. The attendant directed me to a room at the back of the house, and I happily made my way along corridors filled with wonderful works of art. There were many paintings and pieces of sculpture, both big and small, and some fine furniture. No doubt all these pieces could tell a tale, but that would have to wait as I rounded a corner and stepped into the room that I had been directed to.

A few weeks earlier I had found out that a painting by one of my favourite artists, Johannes Vermeer, was on permanent display in the magnificent house on grounds that border Hampstead Heath. I had seen some of Vermeer’s work when I was in Amsterdam the previous winter, and was looking forward to seeing The Guitar Player.

And so I slowly looked about and found the beautiful painting only a few feet away, hanging near a tall window. The room was empty, save for me, the paintings and the gentle hum of a discreetly placed humidifier.

Although Vermeer produced less than forty attributed works, they are all prized and admired in equal measure for their clarity and brilliant capturing of a ‘moment in time’. It has been suggested, somewhat snootily, by some experts that he may have used a camera obscura to assist in the accurate rendering of his subjects and brilliant use of shadow. Whether this was true or not was far from my mind when I gazed upon the red-cheeked, young girl dressed in her gold and white dress, smiling as she plucked the strings of her guitar. It was a magical moment as I studied the colours, shadow and engaging smile that forced a grinning response. I was captivated and marvelled once again at Vermeer’s work. It was magnificent and I was delighted to have seen it.

I was aware of the silence in the room when I turned and looked at the other wonderful paintings. There was a delightful portrait by Franz Hals, and others by Gainsborough and Reynolds brought my eye to something that took my breath away. For there in front of me was a painting by another famous Dutch master that seemed to breathe and pulse, so intense and brilliant was the work. I was taken aback by the power of the sitter’s gaze, and it’s a moment that I have always treasured.

After the gentle, light work of Vermeer, I was completely unprepared for one of Rembrandt’s greatest works – Portrait of the Artist – that speaks with deep understanding over three hundred years after it was created. The artist is dressed for work and holds an easel and paintbrushes and has a bright, white hat to protect his long, silver hair. The painting is lit from the left and casts his left cheek and shoulder into shadow, a device that draws your attention to his face.

And his eyes – the windows to the soul.

They are the eyes of an old man, who was almost sixty years of age, and all too familiar with the ups and downs of life. For Rembrandt, who early on was successful, happy and rich, life dealt him some cruel blows. His wife, Saskia, who he loved madly, died young as did his son Titus. And, like other artists before and since, he made bad financial decisions and was eventually declared bankrupt. Such a fall from grace and the attendant pain are all captured in the painting that hung before me.

Then I realised something for the first time, and stepped closer. I could clearly see the brushstrokes and the dabs of paint that the master had applied all those years ago. And here I was in exactly the same position that Rembrandt must have stood, maybe on a morning in a far-off May, considering his next move. I felt that I was being let in on a secret and it was those deep, world-weary but captivating eyes that were my gateway to appreciating the master’s work. I have visited Kenwood House many times since, and always enjoyed Rembrandt’s gnarled, engaging face and the silent eyes that say so much.

Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

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