Category Archives: short stories

Get me to the church…sometime!

King of the Road

King of the Road

‘Are we there yet?’ cried a voice for the umpteenth time, kicking off another out of laughter.

This was the fun memory of our journey from the hotel to the church in an old, London bus that, at times, seemed to be about to give up the ghost. It was a close run thing that made the swing through north Wicklow memorable, if not a little nervy.

‘All aboard,’ called the conductor when the last passenger climbed on and took a seat. The atmosphere was akin to that of going on a school outing and there was much joking about Back To The Future comments. Or was it Back To The Past?

All aboard!

All aboard!

We set off for St Patrick’s Church and after a short drive we arrived, only to find out that we were at the wrong St Patrick’s Church. This was one time when our patron saint’s fame wasn’t helping matters. Confusion reigned until our true destination was established and we headed off, again. And now that we were on ‘the right road’ the noise levels increased as we went down the motorway, where cars sounded their horns as they passed. Seeing a red London bus is a novelty at the best of times, but one with stuffed with weddinggoers on the road was a rare sight.

The old bus twisted and turned as it made its made along the winding road into Enniskerry where the fun was about to begin.

‘Are we there yet?’ shouted someone and a chorus of imitators followed.

We were already late and furious phone calls went back and forth relaying our position. Our expected time of arrival, however, wasn’t quite so certain.

The bus drove into Enniskerry drawing much attention from onlookers. The journey up to that point had been mostly on the flat and, as the bus began its climb up the hill that it had to take, a silence descended on the passengers. The hill is incredibly steep and as the bus moved forward we were all holding our breath. The sound of the gears grinding as the driver switched was painful, and outside I could see onlookers shaking their heads. It was a nervy few minutes but finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we crested the hill and a roar of relief filled the bus.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and if the Beatles had their Magical Mystery Tour then we certainly had ours. It had been an unforgettable experience and ‘Get me to the church…sometime,’ was about right!

Are we there yet? - Yes

Are we there yet? – Yes

 

 

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The Lady in Blue – a very brief encounter!

Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

A visit to my dentist does not always leave me with a happy memory, but thinking back to a cold and chilly January morning certainly brings a smile. Like all the best stories its beauty lay in its surprise and, unfortunately for me, its brevity. I was living in London at the time and was heading to my office having earlier been for my annual dental check-up. After a filling and polishing, and the inevitable admonishment from the dentist, I boarded the Tube and headed for central London.

As I had missed the main morning traffic I was able to get a seat and relaxed as we rolled towards town. I flicked my tongue across clean teeth, unfolded the newspaper and started the crossword. I quickly filled in a few clues and then paused and looked up. Across from me one passenger was reading the sports section of a tabloid paper while a girl sitting beside him was engrossed in a glossy magazine. The cover had an image of none other than the most photographed woman on the planet, Diana, Princess of Wales. She was on the cover of so many magazines and was the subject of countless articles about her style and love life, and to a lesser degree, her good works. She was beautiful, no doubt, and when the train jerked to a stop I returned to my crossword.

A cold, sharp breeze met me as I exited from Green Park station and turned onto Berkeley Street. I kept my head down, chin stuck firmly into my chest, and headed along the empty pavement to my office that was about a two-minute walk away. Papers and other bits and pieces flew aimlessly about the street as the chilly wind whistled around.

It was mid-morning and the pavement was almost completely empty. It was a slightly strange feeling and I looked about and saw only my reflection in shop windows as I walked. The wind continued to whip at my ears as I crossed the street and felt the numbness in my jaw slowly disappearing. Dentists, I thought, while down the street a large, black car slowed quietly before stopping at the kerb and a door opened.

Once more I buried my chin and cursed under my breath at the biting wind. It seemed as though it was going through me and I couldn’t wait to get into the warmth of my office, now only a few hundred yards away, and get a cup of coffee.

Looking up I saw the black car drive past me and its passenger was now standing on the pavement. She wore a coat that was the colour of the bluest of blue skies and it reached below her knees. It was very smart and I could not help smiling at the sheer exuberance of the woman’s style. She looked wonderful and her casual, elegant stride, as we approached, made her all the more interesting. I noticed her blonde hair was cut short but as she, too, had her face down against the wind I could not see her face. But as the distance between us closed I had the odd and pleasant feeling that I knew her, but couldn’t remember from where.

Lady Diana

Lady Diana

I was not able to take my eyes from her as I tried to remember who she might be. Was she an old girlfriend who I had not seen in years; or a former work colleague maybe? These thoughts ran around my head until we were about ten feet apart and her bag suddenly fell to the ground. Without hesitation I stopped, bent down and picked it up. The woman stopped, smiled and thanked me as I handed the bag to her. For the briefest moment the most photographed woman on the planet smiled at me, a smile so natural and warm that I was lost for words. The surprise of the situation was tingling and I heard myself utter, dry-throated, ‘Mam.’  Then, moments later, she gave me a friendly nod of thanks, turned and walked towards Piccadilly. And so, in the blink of a slightly watery eye the vision in blue, Diana, Princess of Wales, was lost in the breezy London morning.        

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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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